Happy September, everyone, and welcome to your seasonal pumpkin spice-flavored Ask A Queer Chick. Since this is my birthday month, I’m giving myself the gift of devoting an entire column to yelling about something I hate. My chosen pet peeve is the ideological rigidity of "born this way"—that is, the insistence in a certain branch of the LGBTQ rights movement that queer and trans people must be unwavering in their identities from the time they’re in diapers for those identities to be legitimate. This is bullshit, but—as you’ll see below—it can cause a lot of doubt and consternation in queer people’s lives. Let’s chat!
Hi, I'm 13 years old. When I was little I always wanted to do girly things. I would play with Barbies and I wouldn't mind wearing dresses. Over time my style changed, and I became a little more boyish. When I started going through puberty, I hated it. I wanted to be a boy so badly, and at 11, I told my mom. She said, “You've always liked dolls and hung out with other girls. You’re a girl, this is just a phase.” When I turned 12 I got a binder and I went to my school LGBT club and it really helped me discover who I was: a boy. But now I'm beginning to question who I am again, because you hear all the stories in the media about kids knowing that they were transgender from like four years old, and I didn’t know until I was around 11. Is my mom right? Am I really a girl?
Oh yikes, 13? Will you do me a favor and not read this column again for like three years or so? It’s fine this time, but a lot of the questions I answer here pertain to things a middle school kid doesn’t need to think about or even know exist. At the very least, promise me you won’t Google any unfamiliar words you encounter in my writing until you’re old enough to get into an R-rated movie. Okay? Okay.
Before you go, I want to make it clear that there is no age by which you must know you’re trans. Your gender identity is real and important whether you’ve known it for twenty years or twenty minutes. The idea that the truth of who you are is primarily determined by the length of time you’ve been that person is totally absurd and harmful and it creates this stupid hierarchy of legitimacy, like someone who knew they were trans earlier than you did is somehow more trans than you are. Wrong! Untrue! Throw it out the window!
For what it’s worth, 11 years old is very young, even though it doesn’t feel that way right now, and figuring out your identity at that age actually makes you kind of a prodigy. But even if you didn’t know you were trans until this year, or 15 years from now, that wouldn’t make you any less the person you are. Some people realize they’re trans early in life, some people figure it out later, and some people are gender-fluid—their gender might change from year to year or even from day to day, and it’s still valid.
Having at one point liked to wear dresses doesn’t make you less trans, either. You can be a boy and like dresses. You can be a boy and like dolls. You can be a boy and have friends who are mostly girls. Your gender isn’t what you wear or what you play with or who your friends are. None of those superficial things matter, because people of all genders wear and look like all kinds of things. At the end of the day, you are who you feel you are inside. If you know in your heart that you’re a boy, it doesn’t matter what toys you play with or what your mom says.
It won’t always be easy to dismiss the opinions of other people who think they know who you are better than you do, but it will always be worth doing. I’m really glad that you have LGBTQ resources at your school. That will make a big difference, even if your family continues to be unsupportive. I wish I could tell you how to make your mom understand that your identity is not hers to determine; unfortunately, LGBTQ people the world over are still trying to figure out those magic words. Please continue to surround yourself with as many people as you can find who believe in you, whether that’s at school, through your local LGBTQ youth center if you have access to one, or online. Suggest that your mother and other loved ones read books and blogs by trans people and familiarize themselves with what you’re going through. And even if your life isn’t perfect now, do everything you can to hang in there, love yourself, and wait for the day when you’re independent and able to blaze your own path, because that day is going to rock.
I recently admitted to myself that I am queer—pansexual, to be specific. Around the same time, my friend came out as trans and nonbinary. We have a queer lounge at our university, and people get offended when hetero folks walk in. Do you think it’s okay for me to go in there now that I've admitted I’m pansexual, or will it cause too much drama?
This is another strike against the “born this way” spiel. Just because you took a while to come to a conclusion about your orientation or what to call yourself, it doesn’t mean your identity isn’t valid or that you shouldn’t have access to LGBTQ resources.
Although I see the benefit of having spaces that are only open to LGBTQ people, you can’t tell who’s in the club just by looking, so enforcing those standards requires a lot of identity and gender policing, which is always shitty. If you don’t allow anyone who publicly identifies as straight and cis, you exclude folks who are questioning their sexuality or genders and need to assure themselves of a supportive community before they come out. You’re also making life unnecessarily difficult for anyone who came out recently by requiring that they make a big “HELLO, GAY NOW” announcement before they can… what does one do in a queer lounge? Sit on the couch? Play the communal game of Taboo?
Once you start down the path of arbitrating who does and does not belong in queer spaces, things get sketchy really quickly. Bisexual and pansexual folks in different-gender relationships? Trans people who don’t “look” trans? Nonbinary people who don’t “look” nonbinary? I’ve seen people of all those descriptions get turned away or ostracized or challenged on their right to exist in queer spaces, and it sucks.
So, OK, you’re pansexual and your friend is non-binary and that should give you the right to use your school’s queer lounge even if until recently you presented yourselves to the world as cisgender and straight. Kick back on that couch to your heart’s content, after either offering a rundown of your identities as you’ve come to understand them or (if you’re stubborn and adversarial like me) belligerently refusing to explain yourselves because you shouldn’t have to.
But there’s another option, one that doesn’t involve elbowing your way into a space that makes you feel unwelcome or justifying your identity to a bunch of gatekeepers. If the community that exists for LGBTQ people at your school is too obsessed with lines and labels for you to ever get comfortable, you can always make your own. This is how queer spaces came into existence in the first place, after all—we had to pretend to be someone we’re not in order to fit into mainstream society, so we built communities that allowed us to be our full, authentic selves. You can do that too, either by talking to your school about starting an officially endorsed bi/pan/non-binary affirming queer club or just by putting together some unofficial activities for like-minded queer folks. Queer feminist book club? Non-binary knitting circle? The sky is the limit. I’d be willing to bet you and your bestie aren’t the only ones feeling alienated by the “You Must Be This Gay To Enter” vibe, so if you’re willing to put a little time into organizing, more folks who share your views and experiences will probably show up. You may find that you’re able to create and nourish exactly the kind of social circle you want and need.
Just don’t turn around and replicate the same harmful patterns you’re trying to escape. Don’t put yourself in charge of deciding whether any given person belongs; trust them to make that decision on their own. Good luck!
Got questions? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme tattooed fat chick who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, an adorable baby girl, and two very spoiled cats. Her first book, Ask A Queer Chick, was published by Plume in February 2016.