Call Me By My Pronouns: On the Intersections of Whiteness and Genderqueer Identity
Just last week, someone approached me in the parking lot of an In-N-Out in Alameda. "Excuse me, ma'am," they said, "There's glass under your car." They proceeded to help me by sweeping away the glass from my tires and I wondered, as always, how I should navigate the benefits of being perceived as a woman while I'm actually genderqueer? This is not an uncommon experience for me. From little conveniences like the clerk at the corner store giving me free Top Ramen to the very real concern of my almost guaranteed safety around Oakland PD, I regularly benefit from our cultures protection of white womanhood.
My experience as a white AFAB (assigned-female-at-birth) has shown me that our society protects white women. White women are deemed as precious and fragile, often at the expense of the safety of people of color. Some readers may already be familiar with the most commonly cited historical example: the lynching of Emmett Till. At fourteen years old, Till was murdered by angry white people after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, accused him or whistling at her. The resulting attack against Till left his body so mangled that he was barely recognizable and his mother hosted an open casket funeral to showcase the brutality her son had faced. Years later, Bryant admitted to lying about the entire encounter. My white privilege is a social fact backed by American history and it can not be denied. So how do I relate to white womanhood as a white AFAB who doesn't identify as a woman? I regularly receive the protection of white womanhood, but at a price: there is a distinct psychological toll of being misgendered every day, of having the people I date refer to me as the "girl" they're with, of having my mother consistently refer to me as her "beautiful daughter." It feels confining, like I have to perform a role I'm not entirely comfortable with.
Part of this feels like my own fault. My fear of the social repercussions has meant that I’ve maintained my body hair and worn makeup occasionally. And because my gender is fluid and my femininity and masculinity are not mutually exclusive, I regularly wear skirts (especially when it's hot out.). So I wonder if I'm expecting too much to be referred to by the pronouns "they/them," to be someone's partner rather than their girlfriend, to be my mother's beloved child when I have no visible signifiers of my gender identity on certain days.
This is also not to suggest that my perceived womanhood protects me from the violence and microaggressions that women endure. Because society as a whole does not fully understand the concept of a genderqueer identity, I often find myself misgendered as a bisexual woman. Bisexual women, in particular, suffer the highest rates of sexual assault. I, myself, am the survivor of multiple nonconsensual claims over my body. Simultaneously, trans women, particularly trans women of color, suffer alarmingly disproportionate murder rates, and the figure keeps growing year after year. Violence is the simple reality of womanhood, whether that womanhood is, as in my case, perceived, or, in the instance of two recently murdered trans women Mesha Caldwell and TeeTee Dangerfield, actual.
So, I return to the question: how do I navigate my relationship to white womanhood as a white genderqueer AFAB? First and foremost, I recognize that my racial privilege and the erasure of my gender can coexist. I must, as a white person, actively work to dismantle the current system, in which only white cis women are deemed worthy of protection. I try to do this in little ways, from backing up my woman friends of color when they're harassed in bars to calling out racism in film. For example, why the fuck couldn't they cast a Latina actress in Drive if the part was originally written for a Latina? Or cast an Asian woman in Ghost in the Shell? Are Latina women not precious enough to deserve a protagonist's protection? Do Asian women not have the fortitude to battle the world’s most dangerous criminals? Why are white woman afforded such a vast spectrum of characterization yet women of color are not?
Money is also, unfortunately, an all-too-powerful force, so contributing financially when I can to various GoFundMe’s or a friend’s reparations campaign can also go a long way. I also try to facilitate relationships that reaffirm my gender identity. My mother, for example, is slowly catching herself when she calls me "baby girl." A dear friend of mine, who loves me but struggles with my pronouns, will call me "boi" as a term of endearment. My closest friends call me “they/them.”
Part of why I believe it’s so difficult for my loved ones to grasp my gender identity is because so often we are taught to see gender in binaries. Looking back on it, I sensed the queerness of my gender before I even had a word for it. While one Halloween, at the age of seven, I insisted my mom make me a “glamour girl” costume, the following year I spent a week going by “Al” at school and wearing only boys’ clothes. Similarly, once puberty hit, I felt an awkwardness I thought was common for all kids my age. My changing body restricted my ability to be androgynous and I attempted to hide my burgeoning hips with the baggiest, ugliest cargo pants I could find. Just a year later, I would squeeze into the tightest of mini skirts. My style seemed to oscillate between soft butch and high femme and I would notice a palpable unease whenever I felt like dressing one way but only had access to the other.
Now that I’m older and can anticipate the ebb and flow of masculinity and femininity within me, it’s a bit easier to manage. I’ve learned how often I feel “femme” and to plan my wardrobe accordingly. I’ve also put a lot of emotional energy into deconstructing these binaries, realizing a skirt and a wax doesn’t have to make me a girl just like pants and body hair doesn’t have to make me a boy. I can be a boy in a dress. However, most days, I feel I live in a genderless space where I’m capable of performing both masculinity or femininity but don’t choose to privilege one over the other. I’m a lot happier with myself now that I’ve deconstructed the gender binary, similarly to how I have much healthier relationships now that I’ve deconstructed my own whiteness.
Neither is easy. Both being accountable to my values and loving to myself are constant struggles, especially when practiced simultaneously. If anything, though, part of loving myself is being accountable to my values. There’s a distinct joy that comes from both being empowered and empowering others, as the tenderness we have for ourselves often reflects the empathy we have for those around us (and vice versa). Our happiness is intrinsically linked to the happiness of another. It’s because of this that I would rather struggle to dismantle systems of oppression than remain complicit in them, regardless of how I’m perceived by others.
By: Alison McPherson
Artwork by Casey Meyers