Unpacking Psychological Shit

Tonight I finished this book called Middlesex. I don’t really want to take the time to summarize it, but very briefly the central plot point is that the main character is intersexed: genetically male, but with hormonal imbalances that made his genitalia appear female, and so he was raised as a girl until he was a teenager. It’s a great novel—not life-changing or anything, but a great novel. But in the midst of that, it’s cast me into self-doubt. It’s made me wonder what and who the fuck I am.

Obviously my genitalia are as normal as any girl’s, except for the fact that I’ve never taken a good look at them and don’t care to, nor have I ever been successful at masturbation. I’ve never inserted anything into my vagina, be it a tampon or fingers or the other things one puts in vaginas. I’ve never been able to have the least female and feminine success with what goes on down there. What’s more, it all disgusts me. I don’t want to touch my genitals because they’re gross. Revolting. Something I just want to hide away and not think about.

And so I get on in a state of prepubescent androgyny. I don’t hide my breasts or my hips. I don’t pursue hormones or surgery. I don’t try to live as a man. But I try to defeminize myself, and to desexualize myself. Somehow it’s safer to avoid any clothing that one finds in the girls’ section, and to wear the most conservative and least sexy of all women’s underwear, which is where I can’t hide. My underwear bespeaks old lady, or Christian homeschooled girl, because I don’t have to worry—and also hope—that no one will ever see me in it. The first thing I do in the morning is have a shower and dress. The last thing I do at night is put on pyjamas and get into bed, pulling the covers up over my head.

But I can’t explain why this is. I don’t understand what makes me hate so much my body and my life as a girl, as a woman. I can’t explain what makes me shrink away from the epithet of “woman,” the worry that now that I am so nearly 19 that I may call myself so, now that I am physiologically adult, I have to be a “woman.” I’m okay with being an “adult”—with doing my taxes, with working to pay for anything that isn’t tuition, room, and board, with making my own life choices. But being a “woman”? Being an individual who bleeds every month, who has to take pills in order to keep it in check, and to not become pregnant? Who has to worry about becoming pregnant? Who has to fight every day against the preconceptions and the barriers that a name and a birth certificate and the genitals behind them bestow upon her? Who is a “her,” undeniably, and who hates all that this entails.

I had this conversation with my mom last night, and she asked me why I was letting someone else define “woman” for me. Though she acknowledged that it was understandable why I felt this way, because you guys may deny it, but my mom and my dad and my sister and I have had many conversations about the culture of masculinity at my high school, and how damaging it is to those who try to beat it. Many of my female classmates tried to beat it by being attractive and appealing. And I tried to beat it by becoming androgynous and dirty-minded, by trying to beat them all, the smart and popular boys that is, at their own game. But it never worked, because I am a woman. I was never captain of my quizbowl team, which was all I dreamed for high school, and every match senior year I came home crying because my coach still liked the (male) captain better. Because I am a woman, I cried.

It’s this I hate, this gender essentialism that pervades my life. And I try to get past, and explain, and overcome, the deep abiding resentment that boils within me, the anger of high school and at high school, the tears rushing burning to my eyes right now as I think about how marginalized, how isolated, how other I felt. And I think that is part of it, how I turned away from dresses and dolls and imaginary games, to become, or attempt to become, collegiate androgyny of time immemorial. I channel a different time, when gender-bending was de rigeur, and I sit on my couch now in retro jeans, corduroy button-down, and this tweed blazer I love so much, gazing up at Allen Ginsberg on my opposite wall and thinking of the image I try to cultivate.

The friends I’ve made here remind me of this line-straddling, and make me consider what I might have been if it weren’t for my middle school, my high school, and what it all did to me as I tried not to be plowed under. The person I like the most here in college—I wouldn’t go so far as to say “best friend,” but certainly one of my favorite people—is a man who’s the kind of nerd I always was, before. Back when I wore long dresses or sometimes a Thomas Jefferson costume. He is the first person since my beloved seventh grade teacher to know about the Jacobite rebellions, to rekindle my love of the Royal Navy, to talk to me about fantasy books starring woodland creatures, to sit down with me and play Age of Empires on his MacBook. And he isn’t a man’s man; he’s gay in an Oscar Wilde way, all channeled into his intellectualism and his posturing, the way he drinks tea in his sweater vest, the way he sits with his leg folded under him and declaims, in his Oxford accent, about Victorian essayists. I don’t have to run to keep up with him in the masculinity race; I don’t have to be competitive except when playing Risk, and that’s a competition I take joy in. He’s brilliant, probably smarter than me, and yet he doesn’t beat me down. His friends don’t ignore me. Because here in the world of university, there are people to whom gender essentialism isn’t everything. I’ve found my belonging among the gay men and their allies, for some reason, and it ceases to matter constantly that I’m left behind for having breasts and a vagina. I could wear a tie or a dress; they don’t bat an eyelid. They’re used to things either way.

But if they’re not gender-essentialist, I am, or else I wouldn’t balk so at “woman.” Which is of course a bad thing to be, a very silly thing to be when you identify as feminist, when you identify as queer, and when you’re conversant in the language of theory that comes with that. I’m a tool of the patriarchy, then; I’m letting the patriarchal society define my gender and its roles. I’m letting it tell me that I’m not a good enough woman, that I therefore must be Other. Which isn’t a feminist thing to do. Which is a dangerous, wrong, and politically incorrect thing to do. To call myself not-woman makes me feel guilty, a traitor to my gonads.

But on the other hand, I think, a certain brand of feminism can no more tell me what to call myself than it can order me that my rape fantasies and my submission are anti-feminist, that I’m a tool of the patriarchy in that respect. We know that’s not true. We’ve been through that before. So need we worry about the woman, either?

I do, though, you see, because I worry how artificial it is, how much of it is a pure posture, a reaction to years of my life as a subject of sexism (and I know that sexism’s there. That’s one thing I’m sure about). And I also worry because I know that’s not the only reason. That there’s more, deeper, that I can’t divine, to the horror I feel, the bile that rises in my throat, when I try to touch myself, and the shame I feel of my body. I don’t know altogether what’s causing that, and for someone like me who is used to figuring things out, that’s a scary thought.

What started me panicking last night, and what led to a two-hour conversation with my mom, is that I worry what all this means is that I will be perpetually alone, perpetually Other, perpetually incapable of having a meaningful relationship. I remain jealous of my sister, now on her fifth (if I’m counting correctly) boyfriend, wondering what’s wrong with me, what’s so dead inside. And I worry this will just continue, that I will become not just 19 next week, but then I will become 29, 39, 49, 59… and it will continue, and I will die in an apartment all alone, all unloved, because I don’t know where the part of me is that can open up and can not be scared of and ashamed of myself. I feel as if there’s something so wrong and so empty and so missing inside of me, and I don’t know where to look for it.


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