I have never cared too much about what you call me.
I’ve never been too hung up on labels, mostly because there are so few that stick properly to me, not to mention the fact that most adhesives give me a nasty rash. I can’t even tolerate a cheap band-aid.
Four decades of straddling the gender fence has taught me many things. I have learned to tolerate being called things that I really am not.
I have come to an uneasy truce with the fact that there are not really enough gender pronouns, boxes on government forms or safe bathroom stalls for people like myself.
I have the finely honed spidey senses and street smarts necessary for survival of all gender transgressors. I have cultivated my conflict resolution and drunk guy on public transit de-escalation skills to levels far beyond that of other mortals.
I have learned to recognize my brothers and sisters, even when they look nothing at all like me. I have stretched and bent my rage enough to come to a tentative peace with a world that actively works to make us disappear.
I have learned to smile friendly and answer politely, no matter what I am called.
But it has been only recently that I figured out what to call myself.
For years I have secretly yawned and answered the ubiquitous gender pronoun preference question with a noncommittal shrug, thanking the asker for asking and then answering that they could basically call it like they saw it, that I didn’t really have a preference. And for years this was mostly true. Mostly.
But lately I have been doing a lot more work in high schools, and it has changed me somehow. It is hard to describe and feels risky to talk about at all. So I will tell a story.
I arrive in a high school in a small town. I am there to tell stories, and to engage the kids in a dialogue about bullying, and to present them with a healthy, happy, successful queer artist role model. These are my aims, roughly in that order.
The well-meaning and thinly disguised radical teacher who invited me there despite the rightwing leanings of the school’s principal asks me how I would like to be introduced.
He or she then asks me if I prefer to be referred to as a he or a she.
I survey the 80 students filing into the room. It is not always easy to spot them. The kids I came for. Some of them don’t even know yet how much they will need their memories of this day later. Some of them know all too well already.
There is the one they call the tomboy, the one whose parents reassure themselves that she is just really into sports, that’s all.
There is the A student who tried last month to come out to her fundamentalist parents, and whose father stopped her halfway into her confession, only half-joking, and told her that if she was about to come out of the closet, then she should think twice because he didn’t want to have to kick her out of his house just yet.
There is the fey boy with skinny jeans and bangs hiding his eyes who has to get his brother to pick him up in the minivan every day after school because he’s afraid to take the bus anymore after what happened.
For years I told teachers to call me she, because it seemed simpler. It seemed like this would let the kids focus on the stuff I really wanted to talk to them about. I wanted to talk about how to make schools safer for everyone, not my gender identity. I convinced myself that who I was and how I identified was not all that important to the discussion.
Then just recently, I started to tell the teacher to call me she for a whole different bunch of reasons. Somewhere along the line I realized that who I am and what I call myself might matter a whole lot to them. Because I want to stand up in front of a whole bunch of bodies coursing with newly minted hormones and prove to them that female bodies can look like just about anything their owners want them to.
I want to stand up there and say, “That’s right, folks. Here I am. A big old freak with tattoos and muscles and boys’ pants and an AC/DC shirt. I look like a dude and you can call me Ivan. I am your principal’s worst nightmare come true. I am here to tell you that you can be whatever the fuck you can dream up. You can call me she, and I will call you whatever you want me to. I am a proud butch. If you want to know more about what that means, I will be happy to talk about it with you later, after we are finished sharing our song lyric–inspired poems with each other.”
Because for me, right now, in this body, on this planet, this feels like the most revolutionary thing I can do, and the most hardcore fuck-the-binary creature I can be. But that’s just me.
I have an old friend, he is kind of like my freak father figure, and he is the one I go to with son-like questions or queer advice I could never go to my biological father for.
We got to talking about this issue, and he smiled that smile and nodded with understanding, because he is also a big old butch, in his own bearded way, and he recited the following quote by TS Eliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
My name is Ivan. You can call me she. For the first time in my life, this really feels like the truth. And the truth fits, and I am going to wear it.