Growing up, I was never a tomboy. I liked glittery puffpaint and cheap-smelling lipgloss and would stare for hours into the mirror, coming my hair into the tightest, smoothest ponytail possible. I liked my expensive American Girl doll (Kirsten, of course, the blond one) and I liked all my thrift-store purses and I liked Barbie, most of all. I would wash Barbie’s hair and carefully paint Barbie’s lips with red marker and sew tiny clothes for Barbie out of old socks in the single shaft of light that fell onto my carpeted bedroom floor. I had Eskimo Barbie (she wore a rick-rack parka and fur-trimmed mukluks on her long, European legs) and All American Barbie (she wore a denim vest with hamburgers and hotdogs on it) and nameless beach Barbie you could get for cheap. I also had two Kens, one a regular Mattel Ken and the other an off-brand Ken, with a wider waist and worse hair. The only mildly queer story I ever acted out with my dolls involved these two Kens- one of them was given wadded-tissue and scotch-tape breasts and made to wear a custom sock-dress and go on a date with the other, unsuspecting Ken. There was always a horrible scene when Straight Ken found out that Cross-dresser Ken was in drag. I played with my barbies right up to highschool.
I was in sixth grade the first time I tried to shave my legs. I cut myself badly- long, stinging, shallow cuts, and was horrified at how much blood there was. I persevered and eventually mastered the tedious art of leg-shaving, stealing cans of harshly-scented shaving cream from the drugstore and wide, girly razors that smeared lotion on you as you clearcut. I loved the feeling of brand-new legs, all that childish fur gone. I read Seventeen magazine fanatically, at the public library, crouched in a booth in my cheap second-hand winter coat, carefully studying each page. Someday, I said to myself. Someday.
And I was a sissy. I was terrified of hurting myself, of getting dirt into the folds of my palms, of jumping into bodies of water, of swinging too high, of touching wood and getting splinters. I was petrified of any game involving a ball- basketball, volleyball, dodgeball. I was more of a wuss, even, than any of the other girls, and opted out of their scary, fast-paced playground games to sit by myself instead, under the wooden bridge between two jungle gyms, dancing two sticks together in my hands and having them act out dramas.
I was never a tomboy.
In high school, I did not have many friends, but I had boyfriends. One after another, in a long string. Potheads and the chronically shy and smelly, acne-prone boys who liked WWF and Rammstein. I didn’t have a bone for any of them, but we would cut class and wander to a scrub-choked irrigation ditch in the desert behind school, and they would finger-fuck me, awkwardly. They were always too stoned to get it up, and I played along for the company and validation. After school we would make out in the backseat of their fogged-up car and then go to their mom’s house, which was cluttered and smelled like litter box, to watch a Doors documentary in their darkened bedroom. They all smelled the same- like cheap laundry detergent and dirty socks. And they liked me a lot, each in their own way, even though I was all ingrown inside of myself, folded up like a moth in wintertime.
When I was seventeen I’d moved out of my Grandparent’s house and was spending my senior year of high school in an apartment with my newest boyfriend, who was older. He was twenty-two and very short, but at least he had clear skin and an endearing New Jersey accent. I sort of liked him, but a few months later I got my first vibrator and it was all over. I had my first orgasm with this little device, and when I turned eighteen I broke up with my New Jersey boyfriend, moving in with some cokeheads and vowing never to date someone who didn’t get me off.
There were approximately four punk kids in the desert town where I lived, and Chris was one of them. And he was Hot. He was tall and narrow like a snake, with flat hard muscles all over his body and watery blue eyes. He was a skateboarder and had all these vaguely rockabilly, vaguely racist, vaguely original tattoos: an iron cross and his initials wearing crowns, in flames, and the words S T A Y G O L D in gothic script across his stomach. He got another one, later, that I liked most of all- it was a cowboy, eyes blindfolded, holding a television and pointing a pistol right at you. On the television was another cowboy, pointing another gun in your direction. I was considered fairly hot, myself, at the time- I’d been starving myself off and on all through highschool and had finally perfected my technique- I counted the calories in everything I ate and made sure that most of the time, I was hungry. So I was tiny and tan and girly and mildly punk- but not in any way that gave me any confidence or sense of self-worth, or challenged existing gender roles. And I still, more than ever, needed my boyfriend to make me feel like it was ok for me to exist.
Chris and I were deeply in love. We really were. I was fresh out of highschool, working graveyard shifts at Denny’s, and he worked at Home Depot, stocking lumber. He would pick me up in his newish gold car with the stick-on racing stripes and we would go driving out in the desert- gas was cheap and it was what everybody did, just drive in the desert for hours. I had just come out of my six-month rave-going drug phase, and had recently chopped off my long blacklight-reflective yellow hair, although I still had an affinity for bracelets made of cheap plastic beads and fruit-punch flavored Gatorade. When we had sex it was intense, and good, and fun, and it made me fall even farther in love with him, because I didn’t know anything else but this, and this was as good as things had ever been. We saw something in each other, too, something half-hidden. He was funny, and weird, and there was a sparkle in his eyes that said that he was smarter than all of this, smarter than the desert and the cheap gas and the home depot, but that he didn’t know what was out there and he didn’t understand it and it scared him. He saw something in me too, something I didn’t even have a name for, and he’d look over at me, eyes bright, and say You’re going to leave me. You’re wild. You’re going to leave me someday. And he’d neigh like a pony and buck his torso, hands up in the air like hooves.
I did leave him. When I was nineteen I packed up my Honda prelude with all my fiber-optic lights and plastic bins of cosmetics and drove the eighteen hours to Portland with an older cousin, J, who was moving there. On the way we took some ADERAL, which I had never done (I avoided speed-like drugs in general, those were the territory of my brother and his gun-loving friends) and ended up talking, seamlessly and solidly, about the US government and its history of oppression, of which I knew nothing, for all of those eighteen hours. J was fairly radical and a sort of genius besides- he had read A People’s History of the United States, a fat, wordy book the size of a loaf of bread, in one day. By the time we got to Portland, I was a different person. It was November. Another cousin, J’s brother, welcomed us into his moldy, humid apartment in SE Portland, and put a can of Pabst in my hand.
A few years later I decided I wanted to be gay. Not just part-time, in-my-head, pretend-to-be-gay because it’s hot gay, sexy-girl on sexy-girl make-out-at-a-party gay, which, believe it or not, had been popular even when I was in high school, but real, don’t-date-any-boys and lose the chance of precious, highly-prized male-validation gay. I had been gay, here and there, for brief moments of time in my otherwise hetero-normative history- making out with my best friend in high school, both of us high on muscle relaxants, she’s doing it for the sake of the guys watching, I’m doing it because I’m in love with her, things like that. But mostly I had just dated boys- because it was easy to date them, they were everywhere, and they validated my existence. Other girls had just been there for competition, and show. Their attention was little compared to the real prize- the validation of those who had been socialized male. And we would fight for it, sever the already-thin threads of our friendships over it. I was shot through with internalized sexism like a cancer.
But I wanted to be Real Gay. I’d already stopped starving myself, learned how to cook, and traded my car for a bike. Going Gay seemed like the logical next step. But I’d been living in a city for a few years as a straight person, and I didn’t know how to go about letting people know I’d Turned Gay. I had a housemate who identified as queer, and she gave me some advice.
“Cut your hair off. You have to cut your hair off. If you don’t cut your hair off, no-one will think you’re gay.” I had long brown hair at the time, which I did nothing with. I was feminine, but in a lazy way. I wore party dresses from the goodwill when I went out dancing, and in the summer I wore ugly cargo shorts and chacos.
After I cut my hair off I looked boyish, and then I went to a new town for a while, where I could be gay to everyone I met and no-one would know that I had been straight. And it worked. In fact, being a girl who looked like a boy was like the Hot New Thing, and I had walked right into the middle of it. Everyone thought I was hot. All I had to do was put on a badly-fitting button-down and gay people wet themselves at the sight of me. It was like a magic spell or a fun new game, and it brought me sudden, instantaneous recognition. And the game, I found, was even more fun the harder you played it- I had a new butch girlfriend and she lent me her tool belt and taught me how to make a mustache with spirit gum and your own hair, and I pranced around, pretending to be a dude, much to the delight of everyone present. Playing with gender was fun! I had had no idea! We went to gay bars, we went to drag shows, and my mind was officially blown.
And there was something else, a an even more hidden benefit to this new boyishness. I felt safer. Traveling alone that fateful year, riding freight trains and scammed buses to the new town where I could be gay, my first long solo trip, I had felt much safer than I ever had. Guys no longer stared at me on the bus, no-one cat-called me from their porch. People who picked me up hitch-hiking thought I was a boy. I’d cut my hair and so I slipped under the radar- the radar that picks out potential victims, the radar that picks out weak girls. It was like I had gained a superpower.
And with a more masculine presentation, came the very different personal expectations. People assumed, now, all sorts of things about me that they hadn’t assumed before. They assumed that I was strong, that I was brave, that I was smart. When I told a joke people actually listened through to the end of it, because they already believed that I was funny. And people gave me more space, in general, to talk- to be the center of attention, to give my opinion on this thing or that thing, to tell stories. And I was smart and funny and brave, and I had been slowly bringing those things to light, in my own way- by riding freight trains alone, without the macho, condescending boys who had taught me to ride, by practicing my favorite jokes, by going to a new town and being gay. But with the inherent confidence in my abilities that came with presenting masculine, my self confidence began to shoot up like chickweed in a horse pasture, and it was a long time before it slowed down again.
And, I thought, what was wrong with that?
As time went on, I picked up more socialization from the queer community- sports bras were good but a flatter chest was better, even if wearing a binder compromised your digestion and hurt your back. A high voice was something to feel self-conscious of. Being naked no longer seemed right- when my clothes came off, my gender did too. It was like I’d finally managed to un-install all the beauty-standard software of my youth, only to have new software automatically installed, this one just as rigid. But the benefits felt good, and I stuck with it. And it allowed parts of me to come out that I’d never felt comfortable expressing before- this queerness was allowing me to be a different sort of girl- an ugly, faded, homely girl, who no boy would ever want. And that felt freeing, reckless, and brave.
I got rid of everything girly in my wardrobe. After years of aggressive over-grooming, I finally stopped plucking my eyebrows. I talked louder, I said less. I started to savor every interest I had that was remotely masculine- riding freight trains, sleeping in the woods, building badly-framed shacks with stolen windows and salvaged lumber, which I never finished. And people just thought I was so smart and cool. Which, I thought to myself, I surely deserved.
One spring I was in Portland and a friend light-heartedly accused me of being femme-phobic.
“Femme-phobic?” I said. “What the heck is that? And of course it’s not anything I am!” I felt embarrassed and upset. I had never even heard of the word! How could I be that if I didn’t even know what it was?
I’d been telling the friend about a woman I’d dated who’d been femme and had turned out, in the end, to be straight. I’d ended the story with the declaration that I wasn’t attracted to femmes anyway, and wouldn’t be making the mistake in the future.
“You’re femme-phobic!” Said my friend. I whined and argued, defensive, and conceded nothing. But later in private, I thought about what my friend had said. I thought and thought and thought about it. I went to sleep thinking about it. Femmephobic, I said in my sleep. Femme-phobic. Femme Pho Bic. And then it was like someone had taken a nutcracker to my skull and busted open my brain, filling it with illumination. Sexism hadn’t gone away! I suddenly realized. It had just gone away for me!
Sexism is the idea that women are less valuable than men. We are all sexist- it is the way we have been socialized. Growing up, I valued women, including myself, less than men. Once I became masculine, and looked and acted more like a man, other people valued me more, and I valued myself more. And I surrounded myself with masculine women the way I had previously surrounded myself with men- because their attention was worth more than that of more feminine women.
I couldn’t believe it. It was all the same. Nothing had changed- the more masculine queers were considered smarter, braver, and funnier, and they were allowed the lion’s share of the social pie. And they ran with it, too, I had been running with it- they bounced it off each other, off the more feminine queers, off the whole world. They played it like it was a kickball and we were all at recess. What fun! Hooray! Everything’s better! We’re free!
It was the oldest story in the book. And now that the glass had been cracked on my perfect, rose-colored dome, I couldn’t help but see it everywhere, in everything that I did. In the way that strangers reacted to me, in the looks I got when I went to queer dance nights. In the way I sucked up attention and funneled it back at other masculine queers, taking as much from those on the feminine end of the spectrum as possible. Even in the way I was attracted to people- I still idolized masculinity- the whole world, it seemed, did- and I may as well have stayed straight for all the feminist good I was doing. Masculine was good. Feminine was bad. That, I realized, was called Sexism. My awareness of it grew and grew, and with it came relief, as I realized that the illusion was gone. I could see it everywhere now, like the things that had changed along with my gender presentation had been tainted with a special dye, and they lit up when I looked at them. And as I unveiled that stubborn, insidious layer of masculine privilege, something broke open, and flew up out of my body like a ghost.
I stopped thinking femmes (aka myself, for the better part of my life) were repressed, dull, and unattractive, and learned to notice my own behavior and take a step back, sometimes, so that someone else could get some pie. I started to talk about it, and realized that everyone around me already was. My internalized sexism wasn’t all gone, of course, and never will be- socialization is like buckshot, and there will always be pieces of it under my skin. But at least I know it’s there, now. At least I can see it.