Seeing Myself for the First Time

“I have chosen to struggle against unnatural boundaries.”

– Gloria E. Anzaldua

I have a distinct memory of being maybe 6 or 7 years old and really wanting to paint my nails.

I don’t remember whether or not I had been explicitly told by that point that nail polish was “not for boys”; I implicitly knew that I would be punished if I was found giving myself a manicure. So rather than taking a risk by putting on pink polish, I reached for my grandmother’s bottle of topcoat. “It’s clear,” I told myself, “So no one will see it.” It would be my little secret, and I would have the satisfaction of having painted my nails despite there being no color. Granted, my mom did find it odd that my nails were a little extra shiny that day, but I don’t remember being scolded or punished for it.

That’s how my gender has been for most of my life – skirting by, flying low, taking the tiniest bit of risk as not to be seen. I have always been drawn to softer, “feminine” things, they have always been innately appealing to me. I loved watching people put on makeup. When I would accompany my mom to the nail salon I would be mesmerized as I watched the nail technician create miniature works of art on people’s nails. I’ve always wanted to wear bright pastels and floral prints and dresses and all kinds of things considered to be “only for women”. And I have tried dipping my toes in the waters here and there but have managed to have those impulses socialized and shamed out of me by my family, my peers, and more recently in my life, hypermasculine gay men in my community.

I have up until now accepted my cisgender-ness as a fact, never questioning, never asking “Well, maybe…?” out of fear and a desire to, again, fly low and out of sight. I have never felt safe to really think about the question. When your body is a site of violence, your trauma and anxiety demands you avoid everything that would jeopardize your safety, even in the smallest way.

So I kept shelving the conversation. Kept making excuses. My mind would ask me, “Are you really a cis dude, though?” and I would always answer yes. When people would refer to me as a “man” I would bristle and feel sick, but I would tell myself, “Well, that’s because masculinity and ‘manhood’ is associated with so much toxicity, you just don’t want to be associated with that.” But the more I probed that thought, the more it really didn’t hold up. As I tried pushing away the thoughts, they grew louder. I thought, ‘Well maybe I am more genderfluid or nonbinary, but I don’t necessarily feel safe exploring that,’ as I lived at home with my parents. I became more depressed and frustrated.

A few weeks ago I was in Boston. I lived there for a year and I made a lot of really amazing, beautiful queer friends up there who always see me for me. Even though Boston wasn’t the best place for me – it is a city that is still struggling with classism, racism, and homophobia- it is a city that allowed me, free from the watchful eyes of family and peers, to step completely into myself in ways that Philadelphia has not. While I was up there, I made a spur of the moment decision to buy a lot of makeup – lip gloss, highlighter, some liquid eyeshadow, $5 press on nails that turned my hands into talons. I went over my friend Alice’s house for a birthday party that weekend and wanted to really glam it up. Because of the aforementioned press-on nails- which left me looking fierce but incapable of doing much of anything – my friend Lily did my makeup. I remember looking in the mirror when she was done. Looking at the highlighter, the lips, clothes that made me feel like me, and I said, “Look at yourself, honey. You look like you.”

I wanted that feeling to last forever.

So when I came back home I thought about what that experience meant for me and named it, for the first time: I decided I want to use they/them pronouns because they feel most aligned to who I am.  Nonbinary femme is the best description. Nonbinary because the gender binary cannot hold me. Femme because…

Femme is everything that I am.

Femme encompasses all the words and phrases that describe me: soft, a little fiery, sensual, loud when I want to be, strong, atrevida, extra, glam.

So this is me. Your favorite femme.

I still feel afraid though.

I think about the harassment and violence that queer & trans folks, especially trans women of color, face on a daily basis for being ourselves and living our truths.

I think about the physical, emotional, and spiritual violence I have endured over the course of my life for stepping even just a little bit out of the norm.

I thought about all this when I was in Boston, on the T, going on a Target run. I had painted my nails a bright, neon pink in a shade called “Girls Tell All”. I was a little nervous about showing my nails off and so I kept them either in my pockets or covered up with gloves, since it was cold out. My stop was coming up, and I got up to make my way to the door. I made a conscious decision not to cover up my nails as I reached for the pole to hold on as the train came to a stop. Sometimes even the tiniest actions are great risks that require courage. I was nervous, but in the same moment I felt a calm wash over me. I felt as though maybe a queer ancestor was speaking to me, inhabiting my body for a brief moment, because I began to tell myself:

“Nothing in life is without risk. Just stepping outside the house every day is a risk.”

Some sort of violence or danger could occur at any moment, regardless of how you go out into the world. We are never truly 100% safe, except perhaps in the spaces we construct ourselves and with the people who love us for us, and even then it is never truly guaranteed. But the point is, I don’t want to live my life in constant fear. I don’t want to fly low anymore.

I want to live boldly, as the person God made me and calls me to be.