I first started questioning my gender in primary school. I always liked hanging out with boys more and playing the way they played. Climbing trees, building forts, and engaging in all sorts of mischief… You may say, “come on, girls do that too,” which is undoubtedly true, but in Poland in the mid-90s and early 2000s, these behaviors were “traditionally” reserved for boys. Girls were not to look like boys or misbehave in any way, or else nobody would like them or find them attractive enough to take as a wife. A threat that — as a girl — you would hear no matter the age you were. From the youngest age, your destiny predetermined by your family, and the patriarchal society = marriage. The ultimate goal of your existence = to please a man. Not a specific man, but the general category of a man. The gender of man.
There were countless moments growing up when then I felt the mismatch between how I felt and the gender role that was ascribed to me through the bodily vessel I came in. Probably the clearest memory I would have of not fitting in what was expected of me was my first day of school at the age of six. After the official ceremony marking the beginning of the school year, we went into the classroom and sat down at short, worn-down desks. The first words my homeroom teacher had ever said to me were “What’s your name, boy?” inevitably receiving a storm of laughter once my response came in — a timid “Marta…” I couldn’t blame the teacher though. I wore a very short haircut which I had received the day before when a hairdresser took me for a boy. So I really did look like a boy. And I kinda felt like one.
At first, I didn’t mind it too much. I felt comfortable. Much more than when my paternal grandma would try to braid my hair with pink ribbons. Little did I know how much of a problem my boyish look was to those around me. My classmates would wear long, shiny blond hair. I did not. They had their ears pierced and embellished with golden studs mere weeks after they were born. I had not. They knew how to dance. They collected the same dolls and teddy bears. They had so many things in common. I did not. You know what this means, right? I was the perfect bullying material for students and teachers alike. After all, who was this kid in baggy shorts and scraped knees? How dare they not conform to what society’s image of a little girl is? And hey, she IS a girl, isn’t she? Her name ends with an “a”, so she MUST be a girl. That’s the most personal indicator of your gender you can get where I come from.
I embraced my boyhood-ness for a few years. I chose to defy what was told to me as the appropriate way to dress, the appropriate way to sit, and the appropriate way to be. A tomboy became my new identity, and I almost managed to make myself believe I was cool this way, regardless of what society said. But once I reached teenagehood, I eventually succumbed. The need to feel accepted, respected, and wanted in my peer group began to significantly grow, as my peers themselves became more and more picky and judgmental towards those they hang out with. And the very fundamental indicator of your popularity in grades 6–10 was how much interest you were given as “a girl” by “the boys” and vice versa. So I started playing with make-up, started dying my hair, and did whatever I could to actually feel like I was pretty enough, or at least comparably pretty to the other girls, and perhaps become noticed.
Over the years, I actually learned to enjoy it. Putting make-up on, and dressing up like a scene girl became my own type of drag. I used it to display myself as someone who I wanted to be seen as. I used it to put out the version of myself I wanted the world to meet. Not the person they saw when I came to them bare-faced because that’d usually be a weird-looking 11-year-old Slavic boy. So eventually, I embraced my femininity, I leaned into it, and I also started to see the benefits of it and ways of using it to achieve my goals. At the same time, the feeling of having conformed to arbitrary rules that I had been unwillingly subscribed to at birth, had always carried a bitter aftertaste. Not being confused for a boy meant being mistaken for a girl, neither of which I really was. And once you’re taken for a girl in a patriarchal society, you will be continuously and constantly undermined, underestimated, and told what to do. But since external validation and appreciation from “the opposite sex” was something I desperately yearned for at that time of my life, this was the kind of trade-off I was willing to make.
Admittedly, it took me years of unsatisfying relationships, plus a few extra years of therapy, to finally realize how futile and destructive striving for a man’s approval actually was. I ultimately began properly taking care of myself and appreciating myself for who I really was. Living how I wanted to live, acting how I wanted to act, not what your generic “man” — and by extension — my family or the broader society expected from me. On a side note, I probably would have ended up that way, i.e. trying to submit and conform to unrealistic, contradictory, and simply unfair gender roles society likes to ascribe to uterus-owning people, if not for the privilege of moving away from Poland to places like Finland or Washington, DC. Don’t get me wrong, adapting to the lifestyle and culture of either of these places was a process in itself, but what I definitely valued living away from my home country was how little attention was paid to my gender. Finnish is a non-gendered language, so when speaking about anybody, their gender is pretty much irrelevant. It only gets brought up through the context when it really does matter. English, on the other hand, has the non-gendered “they/them” pronouns that I could eventually switch to when using “she/her” and the assumptions that feminine pronouns carried no longer felt comfortable.
At the time of writing this, my closest circle of friends and coworkers call me Maz. My email signature or LinkedIn still display my full legal name, which I decided to keep using more as a brand, but the pronouns next to it appear as “they/them”. Yet, it is only a small group of people I was able to disclose my gender to and have it fully respected. And it still took a lot of time and energy, making sure I was absolutely safe once I took the decision to come out. I still haven’t had that conversation with dozens of my friends, or not even with my parents. I don’t even think I’d be able to explain to them who I am in simple terms, with Polish being an exceptionally gendered language, and Poland an incredibly sexist society. So until now, I just let it slide, letting them address me with the name they had given me at birth and use the pronouns they assigned to me once my genitalia type was known to them.
Welp, It’s fine. I don’t feel like pushing myself in any way would help, as the process of figuring out your gender in your late 20s and unlearning so many toxic patterns and mechanisms, is already difficult enough. But as I go through with it, despite my frequent feminine appearance, I keep noticing more and more how the way I am approached and treated is based on what genitalia people assume I have. And therefore, what role in the society I am “destined” to play. Being catcalled, being disturbed on the street, being told what to wear, how much to weigh, and what to eat, have at some point become an inseparable part of my everyday routine. Men and women alike, deciding who I am and how I am, or who and how I ought to be based solely on my appearance is something that doesn’t go away as long as the feminine gender expression is perceived the way it is through the lens of patriarchy. And probably that won’t change for many years to come.
At this point, let me say, I don’t have strong intentions of transitioning. I don’t experience, or maybe — very rarely experience — what they call gender dysphoria. I think I have learnt to appreciate my body, its shape and the private parts it comes with. (Not to say I wouldn’t be keen to try how it feels to have and use the other most common set). So here, some may ask “But if you do appreciate and enjoy your body, the female kind, you are a woman then, aren’t you? Because non-binary people fall somewhere in between, in the middle between what’s feminine and masculine, don’t they?” Well, no. Not necessarily. Being androgynous, i.e. demonstrating characteristics of both or neither of the genders, is not something that you owe to society. You do not need to look this or that way to be considered valid and identify as a woman or as non-binary, regardless of how feminine you are. What is enough, is your word and mere wish to be addressed and treated a certain way. And that would be it, if only society respected every individual’s right to self-determination rather than imposing its toxic constructs onto them.
For a cisgender person, i.e. someone who lives in accordance with the gender assigned to them at birth, this may seem like not too much of an issue. Especially men, who in a patriarchal society find themselves at the top of the social ladder. Not to say that it doesn’t hurt them either; after all, patriarchy is a toxic system that affects all, but it definitely oppresses men less than non-men. As a feminine-presenting non-binary person who had spent nearly an entirety of their life thus far performing socially as a girl or a woman, I have had sexist stereotypes assigned to me more times than I could count. I have been seen, addressed, and treated as a woman for the vast majority of my life, thus I am familiar with the various forms of unfair treatment, prejudice, and discrimination women face. Hell, this is one of the reasons why for the longest time I wasn’t sure whether my gender identity journey was actually that, or just feminism and hatred towards the ever-present misogyny.
At the time of writing this piece, I am becoming more and more confident and clear about who I am, and I am finding words to describe my identity more accurately than ever before — non-binary and queer being the most accurate terms I have found so far. Whenever I can, I choose to surround myself with people who accept, respect, and value me for my true, authentic version of me, and not the one they may have previously imagined given the gender role that is traditionally assigned to my particular body type. But you can’t escape from people assuming. On one hand, I find it difficult to blame them. After all, it is how the vast majority of people have been and are being conditioned to see the world. On the other hand, I feel this sense of annoyance in me that says “Well, I took my time to educate myself and de-gender my perception of reality, why can’t you?” But then, I remember again how unusual it is for someone who is not directly affected by any issue to educate themselves on it. Take white folks, or white Americans in particular, and systemic racism — it is but a mirrored mechanism of cishet men vs. systemic sexism, misogyny & transphobia.
So, what do I do? Well, with those who are curious and humble enough to learn something new, rather than uphold the existing notions of how the world works to be the ultimate truth, I’m always happy to have a conversation. Those who are not there yet, I simply let live their lives, silently judging them (c’mon now, we all do it), but not interfering with their lives whatsoever. After all, it is not my role to preach or educate those who are not keen to learn, and just as I don’t want anyone to tell me how to live my life, I don’t feel the prerogative to tell others how to live theirs. In the meantime, waiting for generational changes to take place, I observe and take note of whatever discriminatory or simply uninformed treatment I face myself, and I call it out online, in my own time, in essays and blog posts, just like this one.
Truth be told, all of which you have read thus far was supposed to be a mere introduction to the topic. The rest was intended to be me commenting (and lamenting) on the infinite examples of how gender is unnecessarily brought up in virtually anything we do. But as it seems, dear reader, I must have had a strong need to come out and present my authentic self to you as I started writing this piece. Part of me thinks that’s because I know what happens to women who speak up, put their foot down, and address whatever may be bothering them. More often than I could count, I have seen them ridiculed, mocked, or simply dismissed. Their assertiveness being called madness, their boundaries and requests for respect deemed demanding and unreasonable. And I suppose I wouldn’t want to hear any similar nonsense myself, although I guess that part of me has already been expecting it.
Having lived the entirety of my adulthood with a feminine gender expression, I get pretty much the same treatment as any woman would. Whether it’s among complete strangers or family members, I hear things about myself that couldn’t be further from the truth yet are assumed about me based on the type of genitalia I have. If you really do think about it and pay attention to it — especially if you come from a “traditionally” sexist society; extra points if they use a heavily gendered language like any of the Slavic ones — it is absolutely bizarre how much of what comes out from people’s mouths in one way another is based on what sex you were born with, and therefore, what gender you are assumed to socially perform. How you are supposed to behave and what is expected of you. And what’s probably most important — what others can say or do to you based on the structural inequality so many of our societies have adopted and continue to uphold.
One of my family’s friends is a perfect example of this. Overall, quite a decent person, yet every other sentence coming out of their mouth seems to be inherently aimed at differentiating between „the women” and „the men” — two completely defined, delimited groups, where there is no in-betweens and where what’s between your legs determines who you are as a person. Almost as if this simplistic way of dividing the entire world’s population into two homogeneous groups was the one and ultimate truth necessary to navigate said world, otherwise dooming humanity to be lost.
Anecdote time: I once helped the guy sort something out on his smartphone. As a thank you, it was not my tech savvyness or intelligence that got praised, no-no. He said it must have been my — wait for it — “female touch” that made it work. UGH. How– Ummm– No. Just stop. Not only was it plain disgusting (the guy’s my dad’s age), it was insulting at the most elemental levels. Not my brain, not my skills, not my intellect received the dubious compliment. Yet, shockingly enough, I did not fix that phone with my genitals. (I kinda wish I was able to do that, maybe they’d get more respect than they currently do.)
I am ready to bet that virtually everyone on this planet has heard examples of people naively putting others in boxes like that. Often just to simplify the world around us, not meaning any intentional harm, sure, yet inevitably maintaining inaccurate perceptions of unreasonably large groups of people all at once. “Men are aggressive” — not “People who grow up not learning how to manage or express emotions in a healthy way are aggressive, which does apply to many men, but certainly not all of them”. Or “women are meant to produce offspring” — not “After reaching a certain age, many women are able to and may choose to have a child, but not being able or wanting to doesn’t make them less of a woman”. Or “beer is for men” — not “Beer is for those who enjoy and appreciate beer, regardless of their genitalia because it is not the organ they consume it with”. “Women are prettier than men”, “Pink is for girls”, “Boys don’t cry”, “You punch like a girl”, and “It’s a man’s job”. The world still seems to be overflowing with nonsense like that.
Nothing new — I know, I know. But once you educate yourself and do the work to unlearn the gendered and binary perception of the world and its people, you start noticing these things so much more. And you’re just mad and upset about it much more, because it’s all so obsolete and pointless.
Anecdote time, again: Last autumn, I travelled to a small touristic town in Cyprus, though this could be anywhere in the world where you may go to enjoy some sun. Not a day would go by without a stranger coming up to me to say “Hi,” “Hello,” “How are you doing,” “I like your tattoos,” “Hey,” “Hi,” “What’s your name?” — one after another, all unprompted. Only to get offended or even mad, whenever I would refuse to engage in a conversation, let alone share my personal details with a complete stranger whose acquaintance I had no interest of making. “Why not?!” — they would exclaim. “Tell me your name! I want to get to know you,” as if what they wanted in the context of our potential getting to know each other had the only importance that mattered. Their advances, of course, would go on for way longer than needed, uninterrupted by my refusal to engage. Unless another man, a complete stranger passing by would tell them to go away. Because another man’s “no” can be taken seriously. A “no” from a person with wide hips, a bikini top, and make up, for some reason, cannot.
I am, of course, a drop in the ocean of those, whose “no” is not taken for an answer. Devastating numbers of people get bothered, harassed, and assaulted every day. Their opposition, whether shy and demure or loud and determined, meaning nothing at all compared to what the other side wants. A drastic example, I know, but of the exact same mechanism, the blueprint of the world we live in. Where your word, opinion, or even expertise, only matters if you were lucky enough to be born into the privileged parts of society. Exaggerated? Maybe. But if you can go about your life and interactions with people not wondering which one is it going to be today:
a) you being you and being seen as you, or b) you being you but being seen through the narrow, harmful, simplistic version some may assume of you; you can consider yourself lucky. Privilege, after all, is not about special services you may receive as a result of your identity, but about the lack of hardships you don’t even realize others go through as a result of theirs.
A young, white, cishet American man in a suit asked me recently what was my ultimate agenda. The end goal of my political ideology or activist action. The utopia I would want to live in. “A classless and genderless society,” I replied to his dismay. “Classless? Genderless? But in the society, there are always people who are on top and those who are below them.” *Sigh* Does it have to be this way, though? Are we inherently forced to organize people’s value based on their income, sex, or gender? Or anything else for that matter — skin color, ethnicity, religion, language, physical or mental ability? Because this is what it all boils down to. The importance we ascribe to any of these things. All of it is made up. Any notion of supremacy based on a characteristic that may differentiate one group from another. Why not eye color? Why not the length of a pinky finger? Why not the gene that makes you like or despise cilantro? Any of these could have become what gender is if only our ancestors ascribed significant value to them. But it doesn’t mean we have to.
We can consciously, purposefully, and actively give it all up. We can collectively decide what you have between your legs doesn’t matter. It doesn’t define who you are, nor does it determine the role you’re going to play in the society. You may or may not go with the “traditional” or rather “most common” way to go about it. But there is no way to tell unless you make it clear. Because it is YOU who decides who you are. Not the society, not the patriarchate, not even God. So let’s just give it up already, shall we?