Are you a boy or a girl?

I was nine years old. Standing at the bus stop before school, I was feeling self-conscious after a haircut my parents had just given me. A kindergartner came up to me and asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” My face flashed hot and I mumbled an answer. I wanted to hide.

I don’t have many clear memories from my childhood, and this one isn’t particularly detailed in my mind. I can’t see it playing out like a movie. However, I vividly remember how I felt.

My peers teased me for being a tomboy. My lack of “femininity” was the source of consistent tension between me and my mother. I didn’t like girly toys or clothes or activities. The older I got, the more I felt like I was a failure as a girl.

Throughout most of my life, my gender expression and sexual identity have been criticized and attacked. I’ve been charged with being “incorrectly female,” a phrase I resonated with from Hannah Gadsby’s memoir.* By nine years old, when I heard the question–Are you a boy or a girl?–I internalized it as further proof that I was failing as a girl. I felt intense shame.

“Shame is the fear of disconnection–it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.

Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

Shame taught me to, as Brené Brown says, “hustle for my worthiness.” That hustle was fueled by the fear of never living up to the “good” or “right” standard, of failing. “Never good enough” is the message of my inner critic (enneagram 1 here).

From early childhood, I received the message that, in order to be accepted, I needed to be a “good” girl: I needed to look the way girls are supposed to look, and I needed to behave the way girls are supposed to behave. “Good enough” was the only way to ensure my belonging. My inner critic tries to defend me by pointing out every imperfection so that I can have the chance to fix my failures before they result in disconnection or rejection.

Throughout my life I felt like I was performing to prove my worth in order to earn relationship. If I can be who you need, who you like, who you look up to, etc., you won’t reject me.

Perfection is not possible. I could never live up to the expectations of “correctly female.” Not at nine or 14 or 21 or 33. Even though I never succeeded at “feminine,” I found other ways to attempt to be “good enough,” namely, being smart. “Best student” or “excels in academics” became my hustle of choice in the quest for worthiness to belong and be loved.

One of the main pieces of evidence used against me to prove the “incorrectly female” charge was my hair. I had long hair until recent years. I thought that at least would check enough of a “girly” box to avoid shaming, but people always found something to criticize. When I always had it down, it was: Why don’t you ever put your hair up? When I started wearing a ponytail, it was: Why don’t you ever wear your hair down? Or it was: You shouldn’t part your hair in the middle because you don’t have a symmetrical face. Or: Why don’t you ever curl your hair? The list goes on. With every comment, my inner critic was loud, “Never good enough! You’re ugly! Who is going to love you if you suck as a girl!?!”

I honestly think that one of the main reasons I donated my hair to organizations like Locks for Love for years is it provided an acceptable excuse for me to: have long, plain hair; avoid going to get my hair cut (where I got criticized for wanting a “boring” cut); avoid “doing” anything to my hair like coloring, using product, etc. I told everyone I wanted to keep my hair simple and healthy in order to donate frequently. Everyone seemed to respect that answer. At least no one was going to argue with such an altruistic decision. I was just trying to survive by avoiding shame.

At many times throughout my life, I wanted short hair. I found women who had short hair very attractive. I wished I had their confidence. When I was trying to be ex-gay, I felt guilty whenever I fantasized about cutting my hair short. I couldn’t do anything that would signal “gay,” because I needed to “resist temptation” and try to be more feminine as part of my attempt to become straight.

It wasn’t until my two-year journey of reevaluating my theology around sexuality that I decided to go short. At first it was about testing the waters, seeing how people would respond. Maybe I could try a short haircut and be accepted. I was also trying out identifying as same-sex attracted and celibate, hoping to find acceptance as I realized I could no longer claim to be ex-gay.

In 2013, at 33 years old, I accepted myself as a lesbian and as theologically affirming of same-sex marriage. I knew I’d face rejection, and I was right. I’ve lost so many relationships as I’ve embraced myself as queer and continue to grow theologically more affirming.** Because I’ve accepted myself, I’ve learned to love myself. Creating safety within myself for me to belong to myself first has freed me to risk being real with other people, which makes authentic relationship possible.

I’ve learned to listen to my inner critic with compassion, understanding that voice more like a scared child who is desperate to avoid disconnection and exclusion. Most of the time I can calm her down and help her feel safe by showing her that I’ve learned how to better navigate the criticism and attack of the world while being honest about who I am and cultivating love and belonging. That is hard work. I feel the difference.

In November 2020, my wife and I shaved our heads as an act of grief (we lost our pup, Nash, the world was falling apart, and the political climate of TN where we were living was threatening). I had been enjoying keeping my hair short for a few years by this time. Though I had played with the idea of shaving my head before, I was still afraid of what other people would think (I also had safety concerns with where we were living). Sheltering at home provided the space I needed to go for it. It was liberating. I didn’t like the way my head looked, but I loved the feeling of doing it. I loved the freedom to try something, to experiment, to be open and play.

My wife and I moved to California in the fall. I have been substitute teaching while I look for a job, and have primarily been at one school since January. Several weeks ago, when subbing for an eighth grade class, I saw two students talking in a hushed tone while I was having them line up outside the classroom before entering. They almost never lower their voices, so this caught my attention. I quickly realized, they were talking about me. They were trying to figure out if I am trans. Just before the bell rang and I invited them into the classroom, one of the girls looked at me and said, “Miss, what pronouns do you use?” I responded with a smile on my face, “She/her. Thanks for asking.” They smiled at each other and I welcomed the class into the room with a loud, “Good morning!”

That moment felt incredible. I love who I am, and I’m learning more and more about how to show up as fully myself. Over 30 years have passed since that day at the bus stop when one question triggered intense shame. I feel different now. And, those two students were a reminder that the world is slowly changing too. They were genuinely curious, felt comfortable asking, and demonstrated an awareness that I certainly didn’t have at that age.

So when I caught myself daydreaming about shaving my head recently, I spent a few days figuring out what I wanted and asked my wife to charge up the clippers. I looked at myself in the mirror afterward and smiled. I like it! I’m eager to emerge from my COVID quarantine (fingers crossed for a negative test any day now) and be out in the world as myself.

I wish I had a photo of that haircut. The one I’ve shared captures 7 year old tomboy me well.

Note: My experience is my experience and is not representative of how others navigate hair, gender expectations and expressions, sexuality, etc. I live with privilege others do not, which influences, among other things, my safety. Also, gender expression and gender identity are different. Please do not conflate my experience with the experiences of trans folks. Trans identities and lives are under attack, and these beautiful people deserve safety, belonging and love as their authentic selves.

* Check out Hannah Gadsby‘s comedy specials, Nanette and Douglas, on Netflix. Her book, Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation, is fantastic. I listened to the audiobook. Listening to people read their memoirs is my new favorite thing.

** “Affirming” seems to be a muddy word because people don’t always mean the same thing when they use it. My “affirming” theology started out meaning, “I think God can bless same-sex relationships,” and has developed into something more expansive and not centered on the question, “Does God permit same-sex marriage?” I’m sure I’ll write more about this in the future.

One thought on “Are you a boy or a girl?

  1. I dreaded that question, “Are you a boy or a girl?” When kids asked as an adult I would respond accordingly. However coming out as Trans was so liberating and that question doesn’t matter to me. I no longer have to defend my existence like I did before. Thank you for vulnerability.


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