It has been almost five months since I came out as genderqueer to the wider world, and two years since ideas began circulating in my mind. I stand by what I’ve named as the two most difficult things to navigate in transition: pronouns and bathrooms. As my best friend begins her transition, still in the stage where every pronoun and gendered thought feels wrongly situated in my mouth, she falls into the third complicated element: fashioning genitals into what is desired. But today, I’m not thinking so much of any of these issues. There’s a fourth thing, lighter perhaps, or darker depending on the angle, which I have found to be surprisingly prevalent. This is the subject of self-deprecation. What terms do I use to make fun of myself?
I remember in grade seven and again in grade eleven attending SafeTeen meetings, where the entire grade was split in two by gender, and ushered in smaller groups into classrooms where someone of our own respective gender would teach us how to interact with the others. Not, in this case, how to be friendly and kind, how to fall in love, how to interact on a plane of shared humanity and of equality (I understand that this isn’t quite so simple as it sounds, but I’m sure my opinions are already coming through). In the girls’ talk, we learned how to be confident, to stand up and assert our rights and our dominance, to be safe when men tried to hurt us, and to stop apologizing for who we were. The reason I bring this up now is because on of the first things we did, once everyone was seated on tops of desks and each other’s laps, and the supervisor had huddled down in a corner to allow the young woman with choppy hair and a Shailene Woodley voice to begin her lessons in girlhood, was make a list of all the derogatory terms it was possible to call a female. Don’t be afraid, she said, don’t censor yourselves. Say anything. And we did:
There were more. I hadn’t heard of most of what was said, and at that time, my innocence was so central to myself that I didn’t realize its existence. But I understood the theme, once the words were laid out and inclusively defined- girls got a bad rap, and most of what they were subject to was directly related to being female. If you went further, those female-salient terms had the implication that many female behaviours could be categorized as wrong, treated and brought to order by those who were not female. We moved on. What terms could you call a boy? It didn’t matter anyway, what words we said. The point of the discussion was that the worst thing you could call a boy was:
I was never subject to sisterhood of those things in a real influencing way. By that I mean, I’ve been called a bitch, but it only hurt so long as I knew what I was doing, and what I was doing was cruel enough to hurt my conscience. Sami, my best friend in middle school, was then, and likely still is a bitch. And she was proud of that, she knew that with most of what she was worth, and she made pretty certain never to be anything else. I mean that in the way that she could be tough, had built up armour from being bullied harder than anyone deserves, she was brutally honest, and she very very much wanted her own way. Bitch was something she’d gotten when she was thin and awkward with fried blond hair and Iron Maiden T-shirts, when she was called anorexic and unwanted and emo and cold. When I knew her, she had an acronym for it: babe in total control of herself. She wasn’t, far from it, but that was what she wanted to preach, to become- and yeah, that made her a bitch.
The first times I was called a bitch were when my whole life was situated right beside Sami. By her, even. It likely did hurt, I can’t recall, but I wasn’t alone in it, and it couldn’t, with this girl beside me, be purely negative.
Goddamn, sometimes I forget, by which I mean I actually never realize, how much I loved Sami, and how fiercely proud I could be of her. And how sometimes when we sat outside, she looked exactly as bright, warm, and strong as dandelions, as beautiful as daisies, and as freshly intoxicating as cut grass in summer. Nothing wrong with her, nothing wrong with me, and nothing wrong with us or the scene we played out.
Of course I’ve been called a girl. Sitting in the SafeTeen presentations alone was a whirlwind of “girl”. It didn’t hurt either. While I’m saying so many connecting things, I’ll say here: until I became genderqueer, I never really thought about gender. I can’t recall a time when I felt attached to femininity or being female, but neither did I ever consider that I wasn’t. Until I was genderqueer, I wasn’t at all.
I had a dress that I got when I was about six, a hand-me-down. It had a red tank top, and a skirt that kept getting dirty or ripped or too short, so I would paw through my mother’s drawers of fabric and extract bolts with jumping polka dots, or crowds of multi-ethnic human beings, or a field of giant yawning sunflowers, and she would measure me in my underwear and sew me a new skirt. And then I’d go dancing on the red tile floors, and twirl my new skirt until I was happy and dizzy and all too pleased.
I also envied my brother’s birthday parties, where there were so many boys, and they all wanted to do things like sword fight and shoot twig arrows from tree-branch bows, and all of them appeared to dress in a way that compelled dirt. There was a rule, for both my brother and I, that if we invited someone of the opposite sex, there had to be two of them, so they’d have someone to talk to. I sat and analyzed this rule, and it made good sense, but it saddened me each year that I didn’t have a good enough rapport with enough (2) boys to invite them to my birthday.
Eventually puberty and hormones and the institution of grade six grad, and I hadn’t been friends with a boy before then, so I didn’t know how to relate to one without those Freudian genital feelings getting in the way. So the person I was, was securely on the side of “girl”, and I didn’t think to say anything about it. I can’t even think that anything that went on was wrong, or there was any issue with me presenting as female, until two years ago when something better came along and I embraced it.
Though this is completely unlike the original point of this writing, I want to make it known that the second child of Paul and Lori, that is myself, has never been fake. Kell Hagerman has never been fake, and nor has Ellen Hagerman to the best of her knowledge. And they are each inside each other, a part of and playing off each other. Now Kell has come to the forefront, but inside, Ellen is still being worked out, and will always play a part. This is a new thought to me, that all I have done has in that moment matched who I am and my reality. That I truly loved Friesen, that I loved and was afraid of both her and Wes, that I thought Jeff part of the same grouping, that I was content without questioning being a girl. And these things that have been are not, in this time, gone, but are the past, and the past is necessary for moving forward.
But, to return to the beginning, we were taught in these presentations that boys were on top, superior in society, and therefore may try to exert their dominance. That within each female there are said to be three persons: the Warrior, whom (in coincidental irony) we referred to as the Bitch; the Child; and the Wise Woman. The Bitch is strong, dominant, but aggressive and angry, unthinking. In contrast, the Child is shy, submissive, and apologetic, unable to fight. Examples of situations were given – you’re being bullied, a stranger is coming onto you in a dark bus stop, someone isn’t taking no for an answer – where neither of these personas is helpful, either aggravating or giving in the situation. The Wise Woman brings out an assertive nature, the strongest and calmest self. I’m saying all this to say that these explanations, while labelled as female-oriented, do present for both genders. I’m told that the boys’ presentation failed to cover any protection tactics, but instead focused on how not to hurt or unjustly dominate women.
It seems to me that where there are pre-feminist doctrines and power differences between sexes, and where there are post-feminist advocacy and ideological differences between sexes, there are equal amounts of inequality. Something I’ve noticed from delving into various approaches of understanding the world is that in all of them, there are sex or gender differences. In Anthropology, gender is one of the three human identifiers. In Criminology it is seen that 97% of homicides are committed by males. Psychology and biology show us body and mind differences that have separated genders throughout time. It always comes back to the fact that in some ways we are different, and in some ways we are the same.
I began this because I have recently been at a loss for what to say about myself, in this case negitively, that is consistent with my chosen gender. (It’s also interesting that I find negative descriptors so relevant to everyday use- that this comes up while we deny and counter-deny and overexaggerate facts to keep outselves healthy, safe and sane). I wondered if “bitch” was negative, more for being used towards females than for being derogatory. If the gender is what made it so bad. But I don’t think that’s necessarily it, I think in some cases the words we use can show difference without showing inequality… and that, in general, equality can show itself without meaning everything has to be the same. There are words I didn’t mention, which cut as strongly as those I have, regardless of gender. I’ve known people hurt by “jerk” as much as “slut”, and there’s something to be said for using neither. For choosing our own terms and defining the meaning as applied to us; on one side, taking the terms we want on ourselves, and on the other, treating people like people instead of stupid names that, when we say them, do nothing more than divide along lines that we ourselves have created.