Searching for Identity: Finding Words

First published in the Winter issue of Resource Center for
Women and Ministry in the South‘s South of the Garden.
December 2021

The right wing blames leftist indoctrination for an apparent exponential increase in the number of people who identify as transgender in recent years. The left prefers to attribute acceptance and reduced stigma.

Flag from the Winter 2021 issue of South of the GardenWhile the latter offers some truth, additional factors influence how people identify along the gender spectrum, including words.

Words have always been my stock in trade. But, I never found any for my own identity until very recently. I doubt if I’m unique in that for those my age (and even younger).

I was never interested exclusively in girl things or boy things. I didn’t enjoy watching team sports or excel in any solo athletic endeavors that appealed to me. So, I read a lot, wrote fiction and poetry, and put in many, many hours in the high school theater program. Those activities offer the opportunity to live inside other worlds/times and the heads of different people.

The summer before my freshman year of high school I’d moved with my family from Virginia to Texas, the sixth and final move I’d make with my parents. Although moving every few years I became somewhat of a chameleon, I never really fit in anywhere, especially in the Deep South. I attended high school in what was then a small Texas town where principals patrolled the hallways with rulers to enforce gender conformity by measuring the length of girls’ skirts and boys’ hair.

By the time I made it to college, I was so sick of what passed for education in the United States I only wanted out of the system. I took a ridiculous course load that allowed no time for extra-curricular activities and escaped with a sheepskin after less than three years. If there were resources then on the University of Washington campus for people who were not cis and/or didn’t fit within the gender binary, I never knew about them.

I started my writing career as a reporter in eastern Washington and I used initials in my byline to avoid gender bias. When I moved to a newspaper in West Virginia, a woman calling about a piece I’d written, exclaimed that I wrote like a man, intending that as a compliment. At my last newspaper reporting/editing gig in Indiana, I got calls for Mr. Goldhaber and mail addressed to Frank or Fred. Since I wouldn’t tell anyone what the F. stood for (I’d used my middle name since college) folks in the newsroom just started calling me F.I.

In Illinois, where I first went into business for myself, the initials became a good way of separating personal from professional identities. They also proved a useful tool for dodging sales calls. The staff knew that anyone asking for Mr. Goldhaber didn’t get put through. I once got a taste of what the team put up with when I was the only person in the office during a lunch hour. The caller for “Mr. Goldhaber” insisted he knew me personally and would get me fired for not putting him through. I had to mute my end so he didn’t hear me laughing.

When I moved to Oregon a quarter century ago, I discovered I’d landed in the first state that would allow me to put just my initials on my driver’s license. That and my Social Security card allowed me to get a passport with those initials. (At the time, the U.S. government did not issue passports with any initials at all–full names or nothing.) I stopped telling people what the letters stood for.

My first exposure to the concept of transgender identity was discovering Christine Jorgensen‘s biography in one of my parents’ large, crowded bookshelves. But, her story never resonated. I wasn’t AMAB and I’d no desire to embrace femininity. I never felt a need to transition. I just had no definition for myself.

Once I stopped working for other people at the beginning of this century, I ceased wearing skirts and dresses most of the time. I donated the bulk of my working wardrobe to Dress for Success in the early aughts and only donned skirted apparel for weddings, funerals, and author reading/appearances.

With clothing manufacturers moving production offshore, I avoided giving them money by buying exclusively at thrift stores. I shopped for convenience (pockets!), comfort, and durability. Clothing made for male bodies ranked better in all three. Soon the only clothing I owned that was specifically female were items needed to support my tits. In 2019, for the very first time, I attended a formal wedding wearing slacks which I topped with a silky shirt and a brocade vest, all purchased in the men’s section of the thrift store. It was liberating.

But, my body shape and voice–which fluctuates with weather, pollen count, and mood–register as female. So, most people read me as female. I did not believe I “qualified” as transgender.

I have friends who have medically transitioned from FtM and MtF. While I understand, applaud, and support their decisions, I’ve no desire to modify my body or even to take hormones.

But, having adopted they/them pronouns, as awareness has grown and corporations recognize the need, when people assume I’m female I use that as an opportunity to educate them on why they shouldn’t do so. As I explained to one customer phone service representative, you could have just ruined somebody’s day by misgendering them the way you misgendered me.

Recently, several external influences helped me finally, in my early sixties, choose words to describe my identity.

In 2017, the state of Oregon became the first in the U.S. to offer a third-gender option on identity documents. I changed my drivers’ license gender to X the next time it came up for renewal, two years later.

Meanwhile over the past two years, the number of trans and non-binary individuals in my social media feeds grew because of their strong presence in racial justice protests. Many of them are very young and secure in their identities and for the first time I saw various memes that say “Non-binary people do not owe you androgyny”. I wouldn’t call that life changing, but it did give me words to embrace who I am, how my brain works, and how I maneuver through society, separately from how my body looks and my voice sounds.

So finally now, after more than six decades on the planet, I have words for my identity: gender non-conforming and xgender. There is a peace in finding that piece of myself I didn’t really know was missing.

Of course, children born in this century arrived in the world with terms such as genderqueer, gender fluid, non-binary, etc. already available to them. As they establish their individuality, and discover their own identity/personhood, they have words to describe how they fit along the gender spectrum. So too do young adults who grew up in repressive environments and who, even if they are not allowed to express their identity at home, have those words available for them to use once they move out on their own.

Those words convince the right wing that they’ve been indoctrinated. But, in reality, they are words that allow them to embrace their own identities with pride.

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