It is part of being a parent that we give a huge slice of ourselves away. It is part of being in a partnership that we bend and adapt. I have done both with great love. But now I am returning to an ownership of my own identity.
Over the years I have grown my hair into ringlets and shaved them off at least a dozen times. I just can’t decide. “Please quit telling me about your hair,” my partner says. “But, honey, this time it’s important,” I say.
After the election I developed white streaks almost overnight. The copper is now shocked with them, and I know it’s not going to be long until my hair is bleached out like an overexposed black and white photo. I’m thinking I might grow it again. The wiry curls are starting to take over. “I’m just going to turn out like an old movement woman,” I tell Jonah. “You know, long white curls, protest stories, spiritual, sensible shoes. A really wicked laugh.” He doesn’t look up. “I like those women,” he says.
The first time I cut all my hair off my mother said, “I don’t like the implications of that.” I wore baggy overalls and a wallet chain and Simple shoes. Security guards called me “young man,” checkers called me “sir.” I liked it. I liked the feeling of smoking cigarettes on the corner and talking shit and imagining I could kick a guy’s ass. There were pretty girls at my high school who liked me. I had an idea that maybe I could be someone’s boyfriend, let her wear my bomber jacket on a cold Friday night, open the car door, get laid. I imagined growing up to be something approximating a man.
There’s a picture of me on the University of California-Berkeley campus on the day of my transfer orientation. I’m wearing skater pants, a bodysuit, and I have a closely shaved head. I’m not sure how I came up with that combination. The effect is completely disconcerting. I don’t know what to do with this kid’s gender. That kid didn’t either. They had a butch girlfriend who sported polyester and flannel and was much tougher than them. They had an underwear drawer that was half boxer shorts and half lacy items. The girls from high school had all found “real” boyfriends and they didn’t care anyway. They felt like they always stuck out. And they did.
By the time I graduated Cal, I had gone femme. Knee-high boots, mesh dresses, and makeup. I felt even tougher than when I passed as a boy. When I walked down the street, men catcalled me and I didn’t give a shit. One time a man drove around the block to come back and give me his number. “Please call,” he said. I laughed.
Girl was a performance to me. My butch girlfriend had morphed into my transgender partner. He looked adorable in a beard. I tried being wifely in the kitchen but I am a terrible cook. My best dish was stuffed zucchini and I served it twice a week. My partner is still traumatized. I saw my partner’s gender as central: I was there to be supportive in his transition. If he got angry and started throwing things, it was understandable, because of the oppression he faced as a trans person. If he was silent and irritable, I thought he was deep. His story was the story, my character was the sidekick.
Once we had our children I turned every fiber of my being over to being a mother. I was a stay-at-home mom and I was with my kids from the second I got up until I put them to bed at night. The few friends I still saw were moms. We talked about mom things. I stopped paying attention to what I wore. It was just going to get peed on anyway. One day, when my youngest child was 7, I opened my closet and had to do a double-take. “Who got into my closet?” I actually asked. There were rayon items and ruffles, plain turquoise T-shirts and mom jeans. I was so upset. “I don’t like any of this,” I told my partner. “Did you do this?”
About a year later my child came out as transgender. I immediately took him to the boys section at Target and told him he could have anything he wanted. But having a transgender son is a lot different than having a transgender partner. I was even more terrified for my son than I had been for my partner. I spent hours advocating for him at school, finding a supportive summer camp, connecting with play groups and conferences and other families. We found a transgender youth clinic. My son struggled and we struggled, as queer parents who hadn’t anticipated what it would be like to see their own experiences played out across another generation. I became the expert on transgender issues. Everything people felt they shouldn’t ask a trans person because it might be rude, they asked me. I was the mother of a transgender boy and the partner of a transgender person. Wasn’t this my role?
I had started working again, and at work it was customary to introduce yourself with your pronoun. Nobody had asked me my pronoun in a long time, and I realized I wasn’t exactly sure. I hadn’t considered how I identified, independently, in so many years. Long ago I would have identified as genderqueer, sometimes butch, sometimes femme. Now I found myself going back to the websites I visited to get information for my son to learn some things for myself. There were more gendered terms than there had been a decade ago. “That’s so great!” I kept saying. My daughter started educating me, too. “That’s gender fluid mom,” she’d say, rolling her eyes because I was so ignorant. I felt old. And I felt like I didn’t have the right to the questions or the conversation.
It is part of being a parent that we give a huge slice of ourselves away. It is part of being in a partnership that we bend and adapt. I have done both with great love. But now I am returning to an ownership of my own identity. As someone who is usually presumed to be a woman, a wife, and a mother, I find myself caught in a very challenging place. I can accept those roles, and feel uncomfortable, or I can fight those roles, and make everyone else uncomfortable. I find myself casually telling stories that I know will inspire questions later. I let the puzzled looks be enough. But gradually I am taking up more space, letting my voice be the one to fill the room. I even bought a suit. I bought several, actually. I wore one to a fancy party and an acquaintance said “You look great! That’s a great outfit!” and I said “Thank you,” and smiled, and didn’t feel shy.
Dani Gabriel is a poet, writer, and teacher, the author of “Sam not Samuel” (Forthcoming, Penny Candy Books), “The Woman You Write Poems About” (Civil Defense Press) and coauthor of “Molotov Mouths” (Manic D Press). She holds a BA from UC Berkeley in Peace and Conflict Studies and an MFA from Mills College in Creative Writing. Her work centers around an obsession with possibility: the possibility that we can heal the world, the possibility that we can heal ourselves. She looks at themes of queerness, faith, trauma, justice, and family with curiosity and depth. For 20 years she has been organizing and creating projects around justice issues. She is a postulant for the Diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of California, aspiring to ordination and service in the church and community. She works as a writing teacher throughout the Bay Area. Learn more about her work at www.allthepossible.com.