Liminal Flares: Unlearning the Gender Binary | Haute Macabre

Liminal Flares: Unlearning the Gender Binary

“His body and mind went about their different business. The former freed from conscious instruction, breathed, rolled, sweated, and digested. The latter went dreaming. First, of Manhattan served on a plate, sculpted in perfect detail. Then of a waiter, speaking in a whisper, asking if sir wanted night; and of night coming in the form of a blueberry syrup, poured from high above the plate and falling in viscous folds upon the streets and towers. Then, Gentle walking in those streets, between those towers, hand in hand with a shadow, the company of which he was happy to keep, and which turned when they reached an intersection and laid its feather finger upon the middle of his brow, as though Ash Wednesday were dawning.”

—Clive Barker, Imajica

I was 16 the first time I read Imajica. This passage is where I found the handle I’ve been using on the internet since the late 90s: Liquidnight. And this book is the first place I caught a glimpse of my own genderqueer reality, in the form of a character named Pie’oh’pah. Pie is a shapeshifting assassin who can appear in whatever form his target most desires, all the better to get close to them. But his natural state is neither man nor woman, he’s something else entirely. 

Pie lit up my adolescent head and then some. I found him indescribably beautiful and he made so much sense to me, not being one or the other – because that’s not all there is to be and because that’s not how I felt. It’s not how I feel. I am neither. I am me. But at 16 years old I couldn’t make that connection. I hadn’t yet heard the words transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary. Still, Pie made sense in a way that nothing had before and I carried him with me for so long without realizing I wasn’t just fascinated by or attracted to him, but identifying with him. I look back now and see what a luminous liminal flare he was, sent up for my future self to find and connect with so many others.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Years ago, what feels like a lifetime ago, I wrote about feeling invisibly queer. Sharing that essay felt desperately urgent at the time. It felt as though my life depended on it, because it did. A number of people reached out to me in response to that digital owl pellet, people who felt seen and validated by what I’d written about myself. Their beautiful, profound, and intensely personal responses were ultimately more gratifying than shouting my own queerness into the aether. They are why I find myself, once again, writing about myself on the internet. 

Like before there is also a measure of wanting to publicly come out and be seen, to be sure. But this is much harder to talk about. It feels riskier, much more fraught. It is the most intimate thing – something I’ve always known, even when I didn’t know I knew it, if that makes sense. And it is a very difficult thing to try and explain to anyone who doesn’t already understand. Some things are so fundamental and personal, they’re difficult to translate into words.

However I am not writing this in effort to explain to people who don’t understand (though I do have a couple cute recommendations for that: #1 and #2). I’m writing for those who DO understand, but may have buried or convinced themselves it’s too late to listen to their own truths. Also for anyone who simply needs to hear another trans story of self-discovery. What feels desperately urgent right now, aside from making myself feel whole, is the possibility that my words might somehow help even one person who didn’t know they needed them. Or knew, but didn’t know where to look.

I got where I am today, in part, because of some indescribably wonderful people who listened to me puzzle over, dance around, and make connections about myself that I’d previously been too overwhelmed and afraid to countenance. I’ve always found it physically difficult to shape certain thoughts into spoken or even written words. Regarding personal issues, I tend to have conversations with myself in my head for ages before (if ever) I speak with someone else about them. The topic of my gender was a coiled conversation I’d been having with myself for a very long time that was never going to get anywhere if I didn’t finally share it with others.

It was terrifying at first, taking something that I’d carried inside myself all of my life and offering it up, little by little, here and there, to a few trusted souls. They acknowledged what I said – some of them no doubt recognized what I was building towards before I allowed myself to acknowledge it – and provided the safety I needed to give myself permission to claim and speak my truth. I hope this new digital owl pellet helps pay forward the invaluable gifts of safe space, acknowledgement, validation, and love that were so generously given to me.

I’ve written before about being a late bloomer. Now I look back and wonder if that delay was largely due to the fact that I wasn’t able to live and grow as my true self. It stands to reason that being wrongly pigeonholed from birth would impact everything else. 

It’s indescribably difficult to understand who you are when you have no language for it, to identify a dissonance in yourself when the world behaves as though there’s only one song. When there are no examples around you with whom to identify. When the options – which aren’t even options, because culturally they’re absolutes – are so rigid and reductive. From the moment of birth (before that if we include the preposterous phenomenon of gender reveal parties), the gender binary is so deeply ingrained and enforced in this society in countless ways. 

As a child I simply knew I was somehow other. I was uncomfortable in my own skin and felt like I didn’t fit or relate on a fundamental level. As a person born with female sex characterististics, I was told I was a girl. I had absolutely no idea how to wrap my head around, let alone verbalize my inchoate awareness that that was incorrect. Still, that dissonance remained.

I also couldn’t tell whether or not this was how everyone else felt. Maybe this internal disharmony was how life was for everybody. But, just as I learned from examples of homophobia and heteronormativity that my queerness was abnormal, so did I grow up learning that my otherness was invalid. And as I grew up, my sense of wrongness, my distress at simply existing in this body increased and manifested in different ways.  

Thus began the endless struggle to be a “good enough” girl, to be the “right’ size, shape, and, as I got older, attractive by the standards of cis men. Plenty of distractions from otherness there! This world overflows with ways that women are shown and told they aren’t good enough, encouraged and shamed into chasing impossible or otherwise unsustainable ideals. No matter what I did I could never reach those goals. I just felt increasingly incongruous as the years passed. I grew up nurturing myriad self-image and self-esteem issues, went through periods of disordered eating, periods of self-harm, all because I could never make myself look or feel right, not in the mirror or inside my own skin.

It was all a distraction, self-hating noise, performance in aid of hollow satisfaction and detrimental diversion. Without understanding what was what was actually wrong, it was very easy to assume I was simply a woman, like so many others, with shitty self-esteem existing in a culture that fosters exactly that. For example, why would I think that dressing to hide my silhouette (from myself as much as anyone else’s eyes) wasn’t because I wasn’t sufficiently svelte in the right places and curvy in others? After all, there’s a very disturbing normality there. But it was always a losing battle, both because that’s what it is for women by design of a misogynist, capitalist patriarchy and because I’m not a woman. I never was.

On occasions when I’ve tried too hard to present as feminine, my entire being always fought back. Eventually the ever-present undercurrent of dysphoria escalated to something I could no longer dismiss as self-image or self-esteem issues. Most recently, after years of wearing increasingly short, shaved hairstyles I decided to get long hair extensions. To be clear, I’m not trying to imply that one can’t have long hair and be whatever gender (or agender) they are. But for me, that long hair literally sewn onto my head gradually began to feel as wrong as the breasts on my body currently do – like something foreign, parasitic even, attached yet not belonging. Not mine. Eventually I was in a state of actual panic and could no longer ignore that this wasn’t simply me failing, yet again, to live up to unrealistic beauty standards. I wasn’t succumbing to internalized misogyny. I was failing to perform my assigned gender. 

Along with that inchoate awareness, languishing unnurtured, there have been numerous clues along the way that I didn’t have the eyes to recognize at the time. Like Imajica, other bright flares sent up to patiently burn until I could recognize the truth of them. To name a few: constant noticing and complete puzzlement over how the world is deeply divided between feminine and masculine, female and male, woman and man, girl and boy – so many facets of life and society are gendered, many restrictively so – which left me feeling anchorless and alienated. At the slightest hint of a cold I’d forcibly cough myself into laryngitis because having a deeper voice was so pleasing to me. It brought a relief that was worth the discomfort of achieving it and eventually losing my voice altogether. A lifelong fascination with androgynous characters, actors, and everyday humans that I now recognize as identification. Also a deep preoccupation with cyberpunk – particularly its depictions of an age where human bodies are vessels that can be limitlessly modified or swapped out entirely. It should not be a surprise to anyone that The Matrix is a trans allegory.

It’s incredibly hard to recognize and then step out of cultural conditioning. It takes effort on a seemingly molecular level to realize you can see beyond what has been presented to you from birth as an unspoken absolute. Yet once I began to shed that filter and consider myself as someone who isn’t a woman, isn’t a man, isn’t either – suddenly I didn’t feel wrong, or rather the wrongness shifted. My reflection in the mirror actually changed before my eyes. I felt lighter and calmer. I felt a peace of being that I had never known before.

Would that it were as simple as the arrival of that creeping epiphany. It’s one thing to learn that there are words to describe who you are and another thing entirely to apply those words to yourself. Enter the insidious twin issues of doubt and permission. Over the years I encountered terms, descriptions, and other people’s stories that clicked and resonated, but I couldn’t allow myself to apply them to myself. I met and sometimes became friends with people with whom I identified, but I couldn’t bring myself to share that with them. Even though it’s a wonderful thing for anyone else to identify and come out as trans, and even though I’d never ever doubt or question someone who came out to me, I spent the longest time both doubting myself and assuming that others would doubt and question me if I dared speak what by then I knew in my heart was true.

Granting myself permission to openly identify as non-binary – that’s what I needed outside support to accomplish, because I was petrified that I’d be told, even by fellow trans and non-binary people, that I was just confused, that I was wrong, or that I’d simply be misunderstood and rejected. 

It’s not really possible to bring someone else into your own lived gender experience, so what do you do if you come out and people just don’t get it and refuse to accept it? What then?

The truth that I’ve learned is that it’s not necessary for others to get it. Much as we may yearn to be understood, it’s not required in order for one’s existence to be validated and honored. Yes, some of us will understand each other, some remarkably well. The rest of us can simply acknowledge and respect each other for knowing who we are, and then protect our right to exist as we are. 

I want to take a moment to say that, should someone decide to come out to you – whether they’re doing so with 100% certainty or still working things out – please, please, please do not ignore, dismiss, or gloss over what they’re sharing with you. These are intensely vulnerable, formative moments. You don’t have to understand or relate to a person’s gender or sexuality in order to acknowledge them as valid. Your acknowledgment and support are priceless gifts that will help them on their journey. For as much as I have been lifted up by receptive and supportive friends, I have also been ignored and dismissed. 

The very first time I tried to verbalize my sense of my gender to another human being I was completely disregarded. It felt like taking a leap of faith off a cliff to say these things out loud to another person. Their reaction, or rather their lack of one, shut me down for over a decade. It fed my doubts, made me second-guess everything, convinced me that I was just being precious and silly about myself. They had no idea the harm they did. It wasn’t intentional, but still the harm was done.

It has since happened again, much more recently. But I’m no longer taking a leap of faith by coming out to someone. I’m still vulnerable in those moments, but I’m also striding confidently along liminal ground. So it’s not a devastation; it’s just sad and it sucks. I do recognize that we are living in a time when everyone is carrying more than their share of worry, grief, and stress, so perhaps that plays a role. And perhaps some people simply don’t know how to respond, and don’t recognise the magnitude of the moment. These conversations can feel all kinds of tricky, but they’re so important. Here are some tips and things to consider as an ally so you don’t make them harder. 

And I’ll tell you here – If someone comes out to you, say thank you. Acknowledge them. Ask them how you can best support them. They may not have an answer to that question, but that you asked will mean the world to them. Make an effort to use their correct pronouns and, if they’ve taken one, their new name. It may feel strange for a bit, but new things often do. If you slip up (and we all slip up) correct yourself and move on. No need to make a big deal out of it, but do correct yourself. And correct other people if you hear them using the wrong pronouns or name for your friend. That’s a beautiful way to both advocate for them and normalize all of this. 

I no longer struggle with who I am. My name is Maika. I am trans. I am non-binary. I am queer. My pronouns are they/them. I am in the process of shedding the performative aspects of my life, listening close and leaning into who I am. I trust and relish that the process is an ongoing, probably never-ending one. Now that I have the key to connecting so many loose, neglected threads of myself there is much to unlearn and heal, and to discover and become.

What I find particularly difficult now is dealing with regret about how long it took me to get to this point. I read about children coming out as trans, I see people transitioning in their teens and twenties. It’s all such a beautiful thing, and…I can’t help but wonder. It’s a daily struggle to be kind to myself about this, to not dwell on what-ifs. Some days are better than others. That I got here at all is a beautiful victory and feelings of regret are nothing compared to how lost and wrong I felt before. Still, it’s something that I carry with me. 

For as much as I now make sense to myself and have a much better awareness of how I fit into the world, I also feel more aware of how I don’t fit. My puzzlement over how the world is divided by the gender binary has become a bombardment by its presence. Every time I hear someone reduce the world down to being peopled by women and men, described as feminine or masculine; every time something is simply a matter of she or he; every time I fill out a form that only has options for female and male gender or titles – it all reinforces how I do not exist in either space. Make no mistake – I love this liminal space. It is profoundly beautiful to me. And it deserves to be acknowledged and openly occupy its own space in this world. 

I want to add that I’m in no way trying to equalize the transgender experience or what it means to be non-binary. The trans and non-binary spectrums are both marvelously broad. My story is my own and I am very aware that it is shaped by racial and economic privilege as well as personal experiences and disadvantages. Being trans comes with so many challenges, risks, and hazards, particularly for Black and Latinx people:

“Sadly, 2020 has already seen at least 40 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women. We say at least because too often these stories go unreported — or misreported. Since HRC began tracking this data in 2013, advocates have never seen such a high number at this point in the year.”

While some things are improving, our very existence, our right to exist, remains under active attack. People are dying, at the hands of others as well as their own. The rights and access to gender-confirming health care and other human rights are still being fought for in many places, and are being threatened and even stripped away in others. It is unacceptable.

For as much as I wrestle with how long it took me to get here, I am also very aware that getting here when I did brings with it access to gender affirming physical and mental health care, and gender-confirming treatments and procedures that would’ve been an entirely different and much more difficult matter twenty or even ten years ago. Recently I was able to go to the county courthouse and submit a petition for name and gender marker change without having to engage a lawyer or go before a judge. I simply filled out a form and paid a processing fee. I also live in a state where “non-binary” is a gender marker option in the first place. I am fortunate in so many ways. 

Still, I carried so much anxiety about coming out as trans. What should, despite the transphobic state of the world, be a transcendently joyful occasion has been plagued by anxiety. Because it took me so long to get here, because it was something I’d never spoken about openly at all before, because of that irrational yet insistent voice that told me people wouldn’t believe or accept me. I worried that I would have to somehow offer proof, both past and present. Forget about being down on myself for taking so long, I worried that the very fact that it took me so long would make people doubt me or try to convince me I was mistaken. 

For the most part, as of this writing, I have not been met with doubt or dismissal from others. There have been a few people close to me who said some…unsupportive things. But by and large I have been acknowledged, supported, and even welcomed. And I’ve been told, both by members of my community and mental health professionals, that those doubts and fears that plagued me relentlessly are very common. There’s a sad implication to that, but it was still a tremendous relief to learn that it wasn’t just some flaw in me. Were there not a global pandemic raging I would want to go out and actually celebrate this rebirth, this shedding of old skin, this beautiful liminal ground beneath my feet. 

While I’ve shared glimpses of my own experience and process in order to illustrate what this has been like for me, I want to make it clear to anyone processing their own gender stuff that you have nothing to prove to anyone. You know who you are in this moment and that is ALL that matters.

I’ve shared all of this because the more real stories that are out there, waiting to be read by those who need them, the less alone others will feel. And it’s so easy to feel wretchedly, perilously alone in the face of transphobia, the gender binary, heteronormativity, and even biases that exist within the queer community.

Much like we send up flares to our future selves throughout our lives, luminous clues that help us stitch ourselves together, so can we send up flares to help each other. If you need it, please consider this essay a liminal flare for you. You are not alone. You are valid. You are beautiful. And it is never too late.

P.S. It’s also not too late to anonymously deliver gifts to trans youth in need via @transanta