When I was a teenager, there was just David Bowie. There was no such thing as non-binary or genderfluid or genderqueer.
Well, what’s not exactly right. Obviously, those identities existed, there just weren’t commonly spoken names for them. We really did overburden Ziggy Stardust. His inimitable brand of gender bending was expected to hold the entire scope of gender ambiguity for a whole generation. Even now, when people ask, I say, “David Bowie is my gender expression.”
For most of my life, I thought of my femininity as a performance, like a role that I had at some point agreed to and continued to play long past its expiration. I didn’t have words for that as a teenager, either. Reading queer gender theory in college reinforced my assertion that I am actually just a human who plays dress up as an easily readable cultural norm for the sake of not having to have hard conversations all the time.
Still, I mostly enjoyed this bit of role play, or at least thought I did, so I kept it going. And frankly, passing has always felt easier than trying to explain the nuances of gender theory to people who still think gay means happy.
Sometime last year, I started wondering whether “playing girl,” was something I did for myself or for other people. But then the pandemic happened. When I began my long solo quarantine, physically separated from my support system, I, like everyone else, had to work a lot harder to feel seen. It begged me to question who it is, exactly, that benefits from my gender performance? Is it me or the dominant culture? “She” was beginning to feel like drag to me, which is sometimes fun and sometimes exhausting. Honestly, sometimes I’m so over-the-top about it that I can’t believe anyone takes it seriously. Who wears shorts this short and hot pink lipstick? What am I, a cartoon? It’s obviously a pastiche.
“I guarantee you people are noticing your ass and lipstick, but most people’s minds wouldn’t automatically go to whether or not you’re playing with gender or de-emphasizing it in any particular way,” Dulcinea Pitagora, a New York City-based psychologist and sex researcher who also uses they/them pronouns. The idea that gender is a social performance is familiar to many, but, Pitagora notes, “the majority of people aren’t conscious that they’re performing gender all of the time.”
As an experiment, around Halloween I switched to using she/they pronouns — as in, I gave people the choice between the two — when I met new people, but kept the old she/her for people I already had relationships with. Most people went with “she” because I am mostly femme-presenting, but others made compassionate inquiries about who I am, actually, and how I want — and should — be referred to. About six months into my experiment, I realized that when people asked, I was consistently making the same choice.
I chose “they.”
Every time I made this choice, I felt very aware that I was choosing to let go of an old idea about myself. Would I miss her, I wondered, the more gender-stable version of myself? Apparently not. Claiming “they” felt like a liberation. But it also felt like I only got to try on that freedom part-time, and that it would be, perhaps, decadent to expect more. I chalk part of that lack of ownership up to age and part of it up to fear.
I’m older than the non-binary revolution. I’m an Xennial as opposed to a millennial or Gen Z, and I sort of felt like “they” was for the wave of folx younger than me. I also didn’t want to seem like I was jumping onto the supposed non-binary bandwagon for the sake of making a statement. And, to be honest, as culturally fraught as being female-identified is, I also think that some part of me didn’t want to let go of my cis-gendered privilge. These rationales were all strategies that protected me from stigma, but they also prevented me from feeling acknowledged.
Attending virtual events throughout my quarantine made it easier to introduce myself as they, a simple click in a Zoom box, and the small affirmations that this type of change engendered felt important. And then there was the extraordinary experience of not being looked at. Yes, I miss the gaze of other humans, but I do not miss the gaze that has so frequently objectified and diminished me. One of the perks of quarantine has been the immense liberation I've felt from the labor of gender performance. I can just walk around my house not giving a shit if the combination of leg hair and lipstick is too confusing for people on the street to read as a coherent gender presentation.
Like most people nowadays, I suffer from chronic Zoom exhaustion, but I also appreciate that it’s a place where I am not defined by my presumed genitals. I am just a person, like all the other people in their own respective rectangular boxes. If I choose to play dress up, it’s just with my friends, people I can trust not to squish me into limiting cultural notions. Not only does that feel liberating, it feels like real pleasure. “We are hungering for being seen, which can lead to a desire to emphasize what can be seen on a small glowing screen,” explains Pitagora.
“When we’re in person, there is much more non-verbal communication available because there is more body language to be seen, and we can see more of how the other person is relating to the environment,” they say. Yes. In some way, this limitation gives me more choice about what to show about myself and it means that I don’t have to perform my identity in relation to other people or things in the environment. I have control about what people see about me and the world they see me in is of my own making.
Quarantine has freed me to conjure my identity bit-by-bit as I go along instead of forcing me to perform something seemingly solid. Everyone knows that who you are on Zoom is two-dimensional, and in some way it seems to make people work harder to get a good picture of you instead of relying on ready-to-eat assumptions. “There is more room to take risks when we’re not physically in the same space, so we might be putting ourselves out there more,” says Pitagora. “We know that we can exit the space immediately if we need to keep our bodies safe.” This combination of freedom and safety feels affirming and important and I wish I didn’t have to say that we should all get to feel this way all the time.
The thing is, feeling safe to express myself now makes me hopeful and confident about how I may be able to go about it in the future. And given the current state of the world, I also feel more than a little bit, “fuck you, I’m out,” to all oppressive structures, including the gender binary. “Most of us are very conscious about the fact that so many people have died and are still dying in this pandemic,” Pitagora says. “There’s very much an attitude of not wanting to waste any more time worrying about what other people think.”
Mix together quarantine, fear of death, and intense civil unrest and what you get is the perfect cocktail for coming to terms with who you are on your own terms. “A lot of people are very tired of the larger institutions trying to control them and tell them what to do and how to be,” Pitagora says. “In the pressure cooker of quarantine, it makes sense that we would lean into controlling what there is we can control, and for some, this is gender expression. People may be more likely to take risks in this way, and to start being who they really want to be.”
Yep. I mean, to be honest, I still really do want to be David Bowie. Let’s just skip the, “he,” and add a, “they.”