I am in seventh grade English waiting for class to start, covertly watching a boy I’ve been crushing on for the first few months of school. We held hands on the school bus during a field trip and he put his head in my lap when we were hanging out in the park, but he’s cooled off recently. He doesn’t like me as much as I tell myself I like him. He’s talking to the guy next to him, the hot swimmer I just think of as an asshole. My crush turns to me and holds up a ballpoint Bic.
“Doesn’t this pen smell amazing?”
I hesitate a beat, then lean forward a little and sniff the pen. “Uh, sure, I guess.”
Under his bleached tips, the boy’s face twists into a grin.
“I just stuck it in my armpit.” He and the asshole swimmer crack up. English class begins.
The force with which I wanted to leave my body that day in seventh grade could’ve been a renewable energy source. Whenever a new wave of mortification overtakes me, I capture the current and use it to fuel gender dreams.
Gender dream: I wake up and discover that I have Murphy bed breasts. They can be folded up and away seamlessly whenever I want, and it’s like they were never there. Even better, this change occurs while I am still in high school. I laugh thinking of how this will stymie the boys who compete to get pieces of balled up paper down the front of my shirt, a competition they call breastketball. No one will dare call me Trixie anymore, my supposed “stripper name” bestowed upon me by these same boys. It’s even better than the painting I saw on an art history trip of Saint Agatha, holding her own breasts on a platter like strange cherry-topped desserts. Even better than the dream I had that didn’t come true, where I took off my breasts and left them in the sink looking like water balloons. The biggest gift of all this is I try every outfit I want. I experiment with button down shirts and ribbed tanks without shame. Hell, I can even buy dresses I wouldn’t have touched before, either because they revealed too much or the swaths of fabric turned my breasts into a shelf, a pregnancy silhouette, or a seeming iceberg of flesh. I can put them away for volleyball games and jogging – which means I actually have a chance to get into running. When I get to college and learn about binding, I’ll like my way more. Binding double-Ds is the sofa bed to my Murphy bed: even closed up, it still has the clunky look of a sofa bed, instead of the elegance of a desk nook or bookshelf or whatever you choose to put there when not in bed mode. Now, when I get cast in two different plays in my first college semester, I can play both a nine-year-old and a cross-dressed Shakespeare heroine with ease, no ace bandages required. Even though I’m a foot shorter than the guy playing Orlando, my boyish disguised Rosalind will tease and woo him with fantastic homoerotic overtones. In my child role I will be perfectly androgynous but brimming with the proto-queer energy that is the theme of the play.
Instead, the truth is that as soon as they develop, the boobs follow me everywhere. More accurately, they precede me everywhere. I’m upstaged by them, and the lack of control is agonizing. Like a vaudeville cartoon hook, they yank me towards compulsory femininity whether I want to be there or not – even though I already know I don’t care that much for makeup, or shaving, or shopping. I mostly participate in these things after being ridiculed by boys or roped in by my female friends. Femininity comes to me as a series of dominoes falling: breasts marked me as feminine, and feminine marked me as available for the world’s commentary (as well as their paper projectiles). That commentary constantly reminded me of a thousand other expectations: to pluck my eyebrows, to smile, to enjoy the unwanted attention of grown men in the street.
I had rocked out my fair share of times to my Shania Twain CD. I understood that to feel “like a woman” was supposed to be some kind of awesome. But from adolescence onward, womanhood felt more like the Bic pen shoved in my face: I was expected to say how great it smelled, only to be told it’s just been in someone’s armpit.
Gender dream: Livejournal has not died, it’s still the golden age of the pre-smartphone internet. One day I read a post in the _gender community that a new AI algorithm has launched that will determine your exact fit gender identifiers. It’s way better than the A.L.I.C.E. chatbot everyone tried back in the days of Geocities and AOL Instant Messenger. All you have to do is provide it with a list of your gender joys as well as any other things that feel congruent to your gender. With a guttural roar like Taz the Looney Toon I go plowing through all my physical and digital belongings to come up with my list:
- short hair with a pseudo-quiff in the front and the pleasure of the razor buzz on my neck
- being stronger than I look
- playing Rocky in a Rocky Horror live floorshow cast in college (I spray painted an old sports bra and boyshorts gold since I couldn’t afford a proper mylar bikini)
- every dragtastic Halloween costume from my twenties, like a Musketeer complete with plastic épée and eyeliner goatee, or a fifties greaser, or a Thin White Duke edition of David Bowie
- Oxford shoes
- crewneck sweaters
- the way I still well up to Indigo Girls songs I learned in high school
- Rachel Weisz’s extremely lesbian librarian energy in The Mummy, but also her skimpy gold fighting attire and extremely pointy swords in The Mummy Returns
- Gillian Anderson gleefully retweeting penises of the day
- Hugh Grant as Prime Minister dancing around the empty halls of 10 Downing Street to the Pointer Sisters in Love Actually
- the French word “féminin,” the masculine-gendered form of the word for feminine
- Janelle Monae’s retro masculinity in the “Tightrope” music video, as well as their gender presentation in general, full stop.
- every fantastical, absurd, amazing suit ever worn by Brandi Carlile
- the way Jodie Foster drinks beer, wears ugly khaki shorts, runs up a hill, and needs help buying a nice dress in Contact (and everything else about her quiet, private queerness)
For good measure, I also feed the algorithm my collection of saved Livejournal avatars, dutifully downloaded with the creator’s handle in the filename. I’ve never used most of them, and they are mostly of Alex Cabot and Olivia Benson (the unsung gay heroes of early Law and Order: SVU) or the gayest moments between Xena and Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess. Or they’re of Eddie Izzard, or Idina Menzel’s Elphaba when Wicked first hit Broadway. Look, artificial intelligence is only as smart as the data you give it. This is for science. I sit back and let the light of the family desktop computer blare into my eyes while the program does its work.
When my fifth-grade students talk about gender and sexuality, it’s with the excitement of walking into an ice cream parlor and finding a flavor list ten feet long. I adore fifth graders. They’re energetic and goofy, still young enough to care about school, but also old enough to think deeply and learn the real shit about the world. They are also terminally online. This means that by whatever point in the year we come together to talk about gender identity and sexuality, they have already seen it all on the wilds of YouTube and TikTok. They therefore have utterly schooled me, a millennial queer, when it comes to queer identities. I’m fine when it comes to the endless acronym I grew up with, but I have to launch myself into the deep end when it comes to the finer points of more recent and specific terms. Still, it thrills me to answer their questions, even if I have to do my own research between class periods to clarify my understanding of Neptunic and make sure I’ve gotten the finer points of pansexuality.
There are always a few kids who feel overwhelmed or uncertain. “There are so many!” is exhilarating for some and stressful for others. They want to know how they’ll know. I always tell them there’s no rush, that everyone figures it out at their own pace. And some words might fit or might not. But isn’t it great, I say, that there are all these ways for people to describe themselves?
How ironic, then, that as a thirtysomething I still haven’t figured out what my words are. My standard response used to be “your guess is as good as mine.” It’s not that I didn’t want to be more specific. I had gotten the sense that what I was looking for just wasn’t available. As a kid on family trips I’d always look for a souvenir keychain or bracelet with my name on it, but understood eventually that I’d never find CHIARA in an American gas station or tourist trap. Gender felt a lot more manageable when I treated it like a flea market: browse and keep an eye out for anything interesting, but don’t expect to find anything. That way lies disappointment.
Another dream: I re-popularize the term “invert” (a twentieth century term for people who feel same-gender attraction) with a new meaning, so people understand that I have an inverse bell curve relationship to femininity and the concept of “woman.” While most people follow the bell curve and hang out in a normative middle, wearing typical women’s clothes, acting in typical feminine ways, I feel most comfortable at either edge. I love a cocktail dress and makeup for a special party, and I’ll butch it up on days when that feels right, but I have never been a daily put-on-your-face kind of person.
The summer I graduated from college, I got an interview for a production internship at a professional theater. In a panic I ran to Banana Republic the day before the interview to spend an absurd amount on what I thought of as a “professional” outfit: a gray skirt suit set, blue collared shirt, and heels. I wanted the job so badly I was willing to go home with a pair of pumps a half size too small, then stagger through the interview as a result. I was also willing to shave my leg hair for the first time in months, even though at that point in my life I made a point of leaving it alone.
I still have the blazer from that suit set. I even wore the shirt when I did finally find a job in the Great Recession hellscape. But the gray pencil skirt quickly sank to the bottom of the closet. Once I admitted they were fully unwearable, I donated the heels too. Somehow, a few years later when I was pivoting to classroom teaching and found myself shopping for clothes, I still let a J. Crew salesperson talk me into getting another pencil skirt. My mental image of teacher was just as preconditioned as my idea of professional – and shocker, that orange-red pencil skirt also never got worn.
Instead, I found a niche of teacher clothes that were a huge gender blessing because I just didn’t have to think about it. I had a go-to outfit, and it was functional for everything from stair climbing to art projects, classroom dance parties and shooting basketball at recess. This is when I started wearing out a pair of Oxfords every year, resoling them until they truly lost their shape. This is when my blazer collection began to grow, along with more striped boatneck shirts than I care to count. It freed me from the clutches of the femme, pencil-skirted teacher template, but gave me a new one in its place. I could be my own version of professional.
Gender dream: one day I notice there is a futch scale the size of a thermostat installed in the wall by my closet door. At first I think it’s there to make fun of me for spending a week researching every version of the meme that existed on god’s green internet, including one of pasta shapes, another of Disney princesses, and one that was entirely Mulan in various guises from High Femme to Stone Butch. But I realize it’s not a joke when I see little images of myself in each numbered stripe. There’s even a slider switch under the scale for the Murphy bed breasts (on or off today?). Without stopping to think about it I press the first number I’m drawn to. Behind the closet door I hear clanks and pops like one of the inventions in a Wallace and Gromit movie, and the door opens to reveal the exact outfit I feel like wearing today, including crew socks patterned with owls that perfectly match the shirt. I think about never having another morning of cycling through clothes that don’t feel right, and the relief is enough to make me cry.
I stopped shaving my legs in college because it was starting to feel compulsory, like wearing makeup every day until you don’t feel right without it. Even if an event was fancy or the weather was warm, I kept my fuzz. I wish I could say I didn’t give a fuck. It always felt awkward, as if my body hair was something to apologize for. It felt incongruent, but I told myself that that was the point. I was defying people’s expectations, so it was bound to feel uncomfortable when someone stared at me on the subway or did a double take at a party.
It was around this time that my sister included me in a photography project she was doing about the constraints of feminine gender expression. She photographed her roommate trying to study with her wrists tied behind her back with stockings, to symbolize the mandate to get dressed up if one wanted to go to the college library. During my sister’s spring break, we did the shoot at our mother’s apartment. I wore a fifties style black and white dress, legs and pits unshaved, with red lipstick on. I lounged with one arm above my head on the living room chaise and felt like an old Hollywood movie star. But when I saw the pictures I was mortified. I looked so wrong, like a subway poster where someone doodles on a moustache and hair to make the woman look ridiculous. Even worse were the shots from the knees down: the ruffled dress hem and cute heels bookended a stretch of hairy calf. My brain didn’t believe it was my body I was looking at. I didn’t look like any sort of expansion of femininity. I looked like a dude in a dress. At the time, I got angry: was there really no way to uncouple the million little requirements of femininity? Would doing something outside the lines always just look stupid?
Gender dream: I suddenly find myself transformed into a lenticular hologram – the kind of trick image that was all over toys and collectibles in the 80s and 90s. The picture changes when you tilt it or move relative to it, turning a human into a zombie in a Halloween decoration, or changing a suburban teenager into a hawk on an Animorphs cover. Rather than feeling flattened, I am elated: my bothness is made visible. Tilt, and see me smirk in my motorcycle jacket, short hair, and black t-shirt. Tilt, and see me spin in an A-line dress with a rippling skirt and pink pumps. Just like my childhood toys, the tech isn’t perfect. There is usually a faint ghost of the other image visible, and even that part feels so right. I don’t change, but the surface does. I don’t have to be just one thing. And even done up in something as known and deeply gendered as red lipstick, I am still multiple.
For me, the point of gender dreaming is not precision – it’s clarity. To think about gender (in general and my own specifically) both more expansively and in more detail. When early astronomers tried to build better telescopes, it wasn’t to find a specific star in the heavenly haystack. It was about seeing more, and further, and better. It meant evolving from naked-eye observations to glass lenses, then polished mirrors. In every era, scientists pushed the limits of one way of seeing, until someone broke through to a new frontier: radio astronomy to observe things invisible to human eyes, or putting a telescope into space. It feels the way gender evolution feels: the first tools or words we use are rarely the perfect ones.
When I was a teenager first learning about astronomy (and swooning over Jodie Foster playing an astronomer) the Hubble Space Telescope was the latest revolution in its field. Like me, Hubble is a millennial, originally launched in 1990 into a stable orbit around Earth. It looks for all the world like a Pringles can with skinny gold wings. Hubble captured clearer and more distant images than any telescope before it, drinking in starlight from distant parts of the universe and beaming the images back to Earth. The most famous is probably the “Pillars of Creation” photo that shows the shimmering dust clouds of the Eagle Nebula. Hubble was the first instrument to observe the “deep field,” a seemingly empty patch of space, to see what might be there.
We make the leaps we have with the tools available. In tenth grade, I hand-lettered a white t-shirt for National Coming Out Day in October. “Closets are for clothes,” said the front. And on the back, in rainbow letters: “Really fabulous clothes.” When I think of queer representation in the early aughts, it can be summed up by Ellen DeGeneres, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and the wonderful underground world of gay fanfiction. The mainstream was still quite straight and quite narrow: when two of my female friends went to prom together in matching tuxes, this was cause for social commotion. I listened to a little too much Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco, and even my friends who read the same gay fanfic started throwing around the word “lesbian” as an insult.
The Hubble Deep Field observations ended up being revolutionary for astronomy. That empty space wasn’t empty; it was home to hundreds of previously unknown galaxies. When I think of today’s flourishing of gender words and identities, I see those little blobs of light on a square of black. They were out there all along. What changed was our ability to see. And now, like centuries of telescopes before it, Hubble has been replaced by the next great leap.
In July 2022, NASA released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, some picturing the same celestial bodies that Hubble observed in the nineties. In the inevitable side-by-side comparisons, Hubble’s images look as drab and dated as photos I took with my first flip-phone camera compared to today’s iPhone. But the part of me that hand-lettered my quippy t-shirt is delighted to learn why: JWST’s advantage is that it “sees” both the visible and the infrared spectrum of light, and integrates the two into clearer, more detailed, and more stunning images than we’ve ever seen. Generation after generation, queer folks walk so the next generation can run. Like Hubble, the obsolescence of my perspective is part of the point.
What's definitely out there, no telescope required: buttery soft cap-toe Oxfords. A blazer with embroidered lapels or made of patterned silk. A bikini that will show off my arm and shoulder muscles. Jumpsuits for every occasion. Still, I know that certainty isn’t necessarily the goal.
It's possible that my just-right words are out there, but I no longer feel lost without them. For me it may be more a question of looking at familiar things in a new way. The fishnet stockings I wore for 1920s dance performances in high school reappear from my dresser to be paired with Docs instead of t-strap heels. A ten-dollar sparkly dress purchased for a nibling’s themed birthday party makes a great outfit for the Rocky Horror live show on Halloween (as an audience member this time). A few years ago I splurged on a classic black wool coat with a standing collar, and one of my students said I looked like Newt Scamander as played by Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Repurposing, embracing bothness: these are gender dreams come true.