You Have A Gender Too
Three years ago, before he had changed pronouns or taken any medical steps or even announced the name “Adam,” my partner reminded me that I have a gender too.
On a friend’s recommendation, we read a paper by gender and sexuality scholar Jane Ward about “gender labor”, which she defines as “the work of bolstering someone’s gender authenticity, but it is also the work of co-producing someone’s gender irony, transgression, or exceptionality.” It was obvious how I was doing this for Adam. As his sense of gender shifted, I adjusted how I related to his body, mentally erasing his feminine features and changing the language I used to describe them. I was proud of the role I could play in willing his new gender into existence just by believing in it. But Adam also immediately thought of several ways in which he did the same for me.
I’ve always felt ambivalent about femininity. I loved skirts and dresses when I was a little girl, but as soon as adolescence arrived I hated everything expected of being a girl. My worst teenage fights with my mom were about not dressing up enough, not wearing makeup, not shaving my legs, or how much prettier I’d be if I only wore contacts instead of glasses. I never questioned my gender, but I didn’t especially want to be pretty.
In retrospect, a lot of it was rooted in a sense that feminine meant frivolous. I had internalized the idea that my mind would be taken seriously in inverse proportion to my looks. Fashion was a distraction. If I wanted to be respected – especially in physics, my masculine-dominated chosen field – I should tamp down girly impulses and nourish the parts of myself that liked to get my hands dirty. My uniform was jeans, clogs, and t-shirts, with the occasional hippie broomstick skirt. My hair was tied in a single braid down my back. I avoided makeup entirely.
When Adam and I first started dating, we bonded over feeling friction about femininity. He was also a former physicist, and also fought with his mom about wearing makeup. Even before he came out as trans, it was clear that this meant something different to him. It was most evident in how we felt about our bodies: I hated my breasts because they were inconvenient, but liked how they looked, and I felt most dressed up when they were at least a little bit on display. Adam hated his for existing. He felt most dressed up when they were flattened and hidden.
My previous relationships had been with people who took up some space in femininity themselves, giving me something to push against in my rejection of it. But Adam took up no space in femininity at all. Unexpectedly, I felt myself expand into the vacuum he left. Somehow being with him made it feel safer for me to experiment with femme.
“Femme” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me, it means claiming the parts of femininity I enjoy for my own sake – not to be attractive to other people, not to keep up with anyone else’s expectations, only to claim what brings me joy. Since Adam started transitioning, I have bought high heels and tight dresses, matching underwear sets and colored tights. I’ve learned to wash my hair so it dries curly, and put on winged eyeliner.
I feel beautiful and confident when I apply these new skills; they’re surprisingly fun. But femme also means rejecting the parts of expected femininity that I don’t like just as gleefully. I almost never actually wear makeup, or those heels. I still wear glasses. I still get my hands dirty. I feel beautiful and true to myself in zip-off hiking pants.
Adam encouraged all of this from day one, with words and actions, consciously and unconsciously. He willed my gender into existence too, and opened me up to parts of myself I didn’t know I valued.
That girl with the clogs and the braid is still me. And I don’t think I’m betraying her or losing touch with her by feeling more comfortable flying my femme flag now. That’s the other important thing Adam’s transition taught me: identity is not static. There’s not one pure, true self that we are always becoming “more” of, and your past self doesn’t need to match up neatly with your present.
When a partner is transitioning, it can seem like their gender expands to take up all the gender space in the relationship. There are very obvious and good reasons why their gender needs and deserves so much room.
But no one’s gender fits right out of the box. You need to wear it around for a while, maybe take up or let out the hem, or smack it against the banister until the leather softens. Adam’s shifts were more public and dramatic than mine. Yet he saw that my gender needed care and attention too, even while he was completely rearranging his. I will always be grateful for that.