A content note: this post will deal some with my own personal experiences of rape and abuse.
I’m two years old. I run round naked with my toddler bestie. We hide in my mother’s glass hutch. We dunk stuffed animals in the toilet and wring them out over each other’s heads and splash in the water that puddles on the floor. We play with Care Bears. We play with trucks. We grow a little older. We go outside and smash rocks. We both get into my dresses and romp around. We’re little, so we’re bathed together sometimes. Our bodies look different, but we love all the same things.
I’m four, and Ninja Turtles are possibly the coolest thing to ever exist on the planet. I want to be a sewer cleaner when I grow up, because if the Turtles live in the sewer, it’s gotta be a cool place. “TeenAGE MUtant NIN-JA TURTLES! TURTLES IN A HALF SHELL! TURTLE POWER!” and “COWABUNGA DUDE” become part of my lexicon. I’m allergic to dairy, but boy do I want some delicious cheesy pizza with those dudes. I also love The Little Mermaid and get into “Aaaaaahhhhhhhhh” singing contests with my friends at preschool. But I want to BE a Turtle.
On the playground, the other kids are getting ready to play Ninja Turtles. I want to be Michelangelo. Or maybe Donatello. I don’t really care that much because they’re all awesome. I say so. A little boy sneers at me. “You can’t be a Turtle, you’re a giiiiirl.”
They make me be April, and all I’m allowed to do is sit around until one of them rescues me.
Some days when that one little boy isn’t there, his friend lets me be a turtle. But it’s not often. I read those messages loud and clear: girls are good enough for backups maybe, if the real Turtles aren’t available. Maybe.
The other girls at the preschool tell me my favourite colours should be pink and purple. I don’t really like those colours or see what they have to do with anything. But it stings when they tell me my favourite colour blue is a boy’s colour. Not because there’s anything wrong with boys, but because they say it as if it’s somehow antithetical to who I am, and I don’t know why. I want to be included. I start telling people my favourite colour is pink. I remember this change. I remember it clearly. I remember wanting to be accepted, to fit in.
I’m five, and my best friend is the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. She has gold blonde hair and big, big blue eyes, and she looks like Cinderella. We hold hands sometimes and the backs of her hands are so much softer than mine. When we play dress-up, she always lets me have the prettiest red dress. I ask my mom if I can marry my best friend when I grow up. My mom tells me I can marry anyone I want. Legally, she’s wrong — it’s 1989 and will be 26 years still before the Supreme Court of the United States rules on marriage equality. But my mom is queer and she has girlfriends now instead of boyfriends, and I know lots of couples who are made of two women, so I don’t know the difference or particularly care.
I hold hands with a little boy at naptime at preschool. He’s so pretty too. He has brown hair in a rat tail, because this is the 80s and that is so cool. He’s the one who lets me be a Turtle on the playground. He is as pretty as my best friend is pretty, to me. He’s in kindergarten. My mom lets me call him, because I think she and his mom think our little puppy love is cute. I leave him messages on his answering machine, singing him Care Bear songs because they say what I want to say better than I can out loud. “You’re not alone when I’m around; I’ll be your best friend. Friendship is a special thing! Friendship never ends!”
I’m in kindergarten, and my little nap-buddy has cut off his rat tail. He’s in first grade now. There’s a group of boys at school that call themselves The Team, and all they do is chase girls and try to scare them. No one tries to stop them. The boys tell us they’re going to catch us all and throw us in Kachemak Bay. One night I have a horrible dream that my friend, my beloved friend who always let me be a Turtle when he could, has joined The Team. I’m horrified because he’s my friend and I wake up sweating.
The next day I find out it’s true. He won’t even talk to me anymore. At recess, he chases the girls too.
My mom takes me to get a haircut. My long, ashy blonde hair all goes, snip-snip-snip, onto the floor. I’m left with a pixie cut. I can see my whole face. I love it, I love it, I love it so much.
I go to school and the other kids break into gales of laughter. They say I’m trying to be a boy and they laugh and laugh and laugh.
I’m ten years old, and we live in Portland now, with my mom’s girlfriend and her family. At this school, no one has told me they weren’t allowed to go to my house because my mom’s a dyke. Not like the last school, which was already my third. I have some good friends at school number four, and we ride bikes and play Barbies and get covered in mud and talk about our favourite animals. I spend every spare penny on used books at Powell’s downtown, on scads of Baby-Sitters Club and Goosebumps and Fear Street and Night World books. I love scary books and funny books and romantic books. I like my friends. They come over to my house sometimes and I forget that some people think my family is any different.
One day I’m walking down the street with my friends, and one of them says to me, “It’s just sad.”
At first I don’t know what she means. Then she says she means my family.
“My uncle’s gay,” she says. “It’s just sad.”
Gay means happy, though. The gay people I know are happy. Or at least they are kind and welcoming, like the couple across the street who let me pet their hairless dog and their potbellied pig named Veronica. One of them has AIDS. They’re really really nice, and I try not to think about one of them dying. I know what AIDS is, because a few of my family friends have it. One of them died. I helped sew his square for the quilt. It’s the early 90s, and if you are in the queer family, you know what it’s like to be happy and sad.
But I know the kind of sad she means is not the kind of sad that has anything to do with seeing a kind man die in Hospice. She means something else.
I hear about a book called Heather Has Two Mommies. I hear about it because it’s a banned book. A banned book because it’s about a family that looks like mine.
Ellen DeGeneres comes out. She slowly loses her show. I gain a fierce, visible example of someone I will always look up to.
Right after my birthday, I stay the night at an old friend’s house, on a cot in her four-year-old’s bedroom. She rents the room across the hall to a man. I wake up in the middle of the night to see him lying on the floor next to me, a dark lump at first I mistake for their dog. But their dog is tiny, and this man is big.
He notices I’m awake and rolls over to look at me. He reaches out a hand and lays it on my belly, rubbing it in circles. “Let me just get a little closer,” he says.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I say. I remember what my moms told me, that I was allowed to lie if someone tried to touch me and it helped me get away. I get up and go to the bathroom and sit right down on the toilet without pulling down my PJs. I don’t really need to pee at all. I could scream. But something tells me not to. Instead, I flush the pee-less toilet. I go back to the threshold and don’t enter the room. “I can sleep alone,” I tell him firmly.
He gets up and leaves.
I lie back down on the cot, my heart making a noise I’ve never heard it make before. The four-year-old is awake. I can see her wide brown eyes in the glow of the nightlight. I ask her if she is okay. She won’t answer me.
In the morning when the man comes downstairs, I hide under the dining table. I remember his legs, and the way he laughs when I won’t come out.
When I get home, I tell my moms what happened. They call the mother of the four-year-old. She asks to talk to me. She chuckles and asks why I didn’t tell her. I can tell she doesn’t believe me. That’s why.
My moms believe me.
Some social workers come to my school and pull me out of class. They ask me what happened and if I’m okay. I tell them. I tell them I’m worried about the four-year-old because her room is only feet from his.
They nod in all the right places, and then they leave, and nothing happens to the man.
He continues to live in that house, ten feet from a four-year-old with wide brown eyes, for six more months.
I’m thirteen, and we’ve moved to Montana. We live in a barn. I lift fifty pound boxes of nails and dig holes in the rocky Montana soil. We piss and shit in a five gallon bucket because we don’t have a toilet. We’re trying to build a house and have been for two years, but the money’s gone. Food bank day is an exciting day because we get day old doughnuts and sometimes expired sodas along with the staples. I wash my hair in the sink. I romp in the woods with the neighbour girl. We pretend we’re witches. Her parents are awesome — her mom takes us to see Rocky Horror and her step-dad cooks amazing meals for us. With them, I can forget for a while that my family is Different. One of my other friends from school is from California. She doesn’t care that I have two moms either. Being around them is easier.
I tell two of my school friends, two girls I’m close to, about my moms. Because I want them to come over to my house so I can show them our chickens and goat and stuff I’ve helped build with my hands. They act like it’s fine. We go on Christmas Break.
When I come back to school in January, they won’t even speak to me.
A boy comes up to me in the cafeteria with a folded piece of paper. “I thought you’d rather have this than have it lying around,” he tells me. He looks at once sympathetic and scared, as if even being seen with me makes him nervous.
I read the paper. It’s a note from one of those friends I told to the other. It’s all about me and my dyke mom. That word. That word. That word. I confront one of them in the bathroom. She’s a neighbour, or near enough — she lives in the same subdivision a few miles away. We take the same bus every day. I don’t remember what she says exactly, but I know it has something to do with my moms.
Not long after, another girl from our bus plunks down beside me and leans in close to my face. “I heard your mom’s a dyke,” she says. That word.
I shut my mouth, and it stays shut for a long time. A few kids are nice to me. Most aren’t. I don’t invite anyone over to my house. I retreat into David Eddings’s books and LJ Smith’s where girl is not an epithet and the girls often save the day. I want to save something, anything.
I’m fourteen, and school is bad. I’ve got brackets on my teeth and spots all over my face, and some of the boys take it upon themselves to make me upset as much as they can. One of them comes up to me when I’m walking back from PE and whispers a sexual suggestion in my ear, eyes glinting. Two others tease me until I’m red with rage and frustration and humiliation, and then they tease me more because when I’m upset, my pale skin turns blotchy and speckled from cheeks to chest.
One day I lay the serrated edge of a bread knife against my left wrist, wondering if I’d ever have the strength to do it. I never try, but I don’t forget how the blade felt, ever.
My Californian friend is still a friend. At sixteen, she leaves school and takes her GED and goes to college. I get my brackets off and take Accutane for the spots. One of my moms falls off the roof of the barn and gets really hurt. I talk to her every day after school until she has to go back to Portland for treatment. She and my bio mom break up.
My mom starts dating a man.
People start being nicer to me.
I only trust the ones who were never mean. The timing is a little too strange for me. Again, the message is clear: things are easier when you fit in. I still don’t fit. Not really. But I really want to survive high school.
When my mom starts seeing her boyfriend, almost all our queer friends disown her. I forget I ever had a crush on my pretty blonde friend in preschool and pretend that attraction I feel toward other women is just admiration.
One of the girls who was my friend in seventh grade, one of the two who abruptly stopped being my friend, apologises to me when I give her a birthday gift in year eleven. She tells me she feels stupid because I’m still nice to her and she was awful to me. I still have the card.
I change schools halfway through that year. Everyone at my new school is nice. I don’t even know what to do with that.
One of the boys who used to humiliate me comes up to me right before graduation when I go back to the old school for the day to visit a friend. He tells me he’s sorry, and that the way he treated me was wrong. We’re friends on Facebook now. He seems to have a habit of rescuing stray injured dogs. He teaches. I don’t know if he knows how much that apology means to me.
I’m in Poland, and a short, lovely friend kisses me at a bar. She’s cute, but I don’t want to kiss her. I’m not attracted to her, just like I’m not attracted to every single man out there.
I wonder that night if I’d like kissing a different woman, one I was attracted to. I think I would. But I leave that feeling alone.
I’m twenty-three and just out of university. I meet a man online. He’s charming, like a rich ganache that sticks to your tongue. Smooth. He believes in honesty and we talk for hours and hours while he’s working his overnight police shifts. We talk on the phone for five hours straight after our first date.
Everything he says is reasonable. He’s a Southern gentleman, warm and chivalrous. He’s a Christian and asks me why I’m not anymore. One night we go to see a musician I adore, who happens to be gay. The show is at a queer-friendly venue. I can read my date’s discomfort in every line of his body. When he talks about it, though, he manages to make the discomfort sound reasonable. His words aren’t dripping with hatred; they’re softened with personal preference.
He mentions casually after three weeks of dating me that when we get married, he’d expect me not to have my queer friends around our kids. It catches me off guard. But he smooths it over with that charming smile and the reassurance that he thinks my friends are nice, and for some reason, it doesn’t stick.
One day he wants to try a new sex act. He won’t have the usual kind of heterosexual sex because it’s wrong before marriage. I spent five years in an evangelical bubble. I think that’s why it doesn’t blare an alarm like it should. I agree to try, and quickly change my mind. At first he doesn’t listen. I have to skitter away and tell him no multiple times before he agrees to stop.
Afterward he tells me it’s okay. I feel ashamed, because the way he says it is like I did something wrong. I hate when people are upset at me.
He takes me on a weekend vacation, and it’s wonderful. We have a great time, but we get back to town to bad news for him. He gets dismissed from his job as a police officer for multiple complaints. I don’t get much of the story, but he’s angry because the complaints are that he profiled Latinx people. He says it’s all lies, and he drops the subject, and I don’t know what to think. A couple weeks later, someone I briefly dated months earlier turns up out of the blue at my office as a courier. Surprised and amused, I relate it to the man I’m dating. I’m not prepared for his reaction.
He screams at me and calls me a liar and a whore. What I thought was a funny coincidence, he tells me is a symptom of my dishonesty because he didn’t know the guy had moved to our city. He asks how many men have “enjoyed the pleasure of my services.” I’m working when this phone call happens, driving around monitoring wireless signals. I’m in my ’92 Nissan Sentra on the side of the road with snot and tears rolling down my cheeks.
I see a couple Mormon missionaries walking through the cul-de-sac, and even though I’m not a Christian anymore, I stop them, redfaced and terrified, and ask them to pray with me. They’re a little shocked, but they’re kind, so kind, and they take my hands without caring that they’re damp with fear-sweats and snot, and they say a very nice prayer and then look me in the eyes and tell me it’s going to be okay.
There’s a word for the way the man I’m dating is treating me, and I know the word, but I don’t want it.
I think I owe him an in person break-up, because you don’t just break up with someone over email or text. So says the world. There’s never an “in case of threat level” caveat added to that. So I meet him.
I tell him it’s over.
He rapes me.
I tell him I hadn’t wanted him to touch me.
He tells me I should have stopped him. He’s over six feet tall and has a concealed carry permit. Logically, I know it’s not my fault. It doesn’t stop me from blaming myself anyway.
Less than two months later, it happens again with someone else. It takes me until April of 2016 to accept the word rape again, even though it is, by definition, what happens when you don’t want to have sex with someone and they put something in your body anyway.
I’m tired of that word.
A lot of the time, I’m just tired in general.
I want it to go away.
I don’t want it to be part of my experience. But then again, also by definition it is something done by force.
It’s 2016 and the headlines are filled with bathroom bills, anti-abortion laws. I’m still afraid to type the word “GamerGate” in a blog post, because terrorism is effective and that word has become the Voldemort of the geek world.
I finally came out as bisexual at age 30.
I’m 31 and this post is supposed to be about my gender. But I needed anything about my gender to have important context.
For the foreseeable future, the word “woman” will be inextricably tied to me because I have lived the experience of a society that only sees two genders and gives you one or the other at birth. You get handed a burden of history with every tiny pink or blue cap. They take a peek between a baby’s legs and write an M or an F (or panic and assign one if they’re not sure), and from that, they tell us, you can tell what toys to buy a kid, what they like, how strong they’ll be, what they’ll be good at, what their passions will be, what they’ll want to learn, what favourite colour they’ll have, what impact they may potentially have upon this world. I was “Baby Girl Powell” at birth, they decided. I drew the F card.
I’ve walked through the world like that, because as my body grew, I developed breasts and I started to bleed when I was 14 and I grew up in a world where sex and gender were used interchangeably when they are not, in actuality, interchangeable. When the world perceives you as something, however, it will treat you like it wants to treat that something. I could go on about catcalls and harassment and the way my first rapist stalked me for almost a year until I fled the state or catalogue another three thousand words (or three hundred thousand) of what they call microaggressions, those little pebbles that, when thrown enough (and they are), form bruises and make you flinch each time they hit you again. It started for me with the tone of a preschooler’s snidely uttered, “giiiiirl.” It hasn’t ended yet.
It is a world that is ruled by a structure called patriarchy, and it is a world that has misogyny coded into every molecule. I was never given a choice — the expectations and the experiences of the societally defined female gender were ascribed, not inborn.
My favourite colour is blue. I can throw a proper punch and shoot a traditional recurve. I have written ten novels and probably another ten worth of longwinded blog posts. I can speak several languages. I rescued two cats. I don’t want children at all. I apologise too much. I sit with my legs spread when I’m not on public transportation. I’m really good at RPGs and less good at shooters. I love X-Men and feel ambivalent about Batman. I’m a really good cook. I have long hair right now. I like makeup and glitter. I love to dance. I want to learn to fight. I don’t mind mud, and I’ve pooped in the woods. I can find potable water in case of apocalypse. I am smart and capable and vulnerable and brave and beautiful and kind and tired and sensitive and tough and autistic and anxious and good in a crisis and sexy and cute and angry and compassionate and tenacious and resilient, and if you think any of those words intrinsically belong more with one gender than another, I disagree most heartily with you.
My gender is this: I don’t have one. I want nothing to do with a binary that I see as doing very little but setting limitations and, to me, causing pain. If you feel otherwise for your own self, go you! My support of you is in no way undermined by my own feelings on my own gender or lack thereof.
I am a person, first and foremost. I am a human being. What’s between my legs or not should have absolutely no bearing on my rights, my equal protection under the law, my opportunities, and my accomplishments.
But that is unfortunately not the case, and we don’t live in that world yet.
Until we do, here’s me. I’m Emmie. I’m agender. You can use she or they to pronoun me, she because I’m too lazy to deal with correcting everyone and it doesn’t hurt my feelers, and they because it’s probably more accurate. You can call me dude, buddy, mate, friend — but other than dude and she, please don’t apply gendered words to me.
My partner calls me his Emmie. I like that because that’s what I am. An Emmie. *wriggles antennae*
Emmie out! (See what I did there?)
Gender and sexuality aren’t the same thing. I’ve got a book coming out in a couple months with a protagonist who shares my sexual orientation, if not my gender. Ayala is bisexual. I’m really happy that in spite of the world not being what I know it can be, at the very least it’s one where I can write Ayala as she’s meant to be. If you want to chat Ayala Storme with me and her fabulous audiobook narrator, Amber Benson, join me and Amber tonight on Twitter at 1800 EDT on the hashtag #ChatStorme. We’re celebrating the lead-up to the series finale by answering your questions and giving away some snazzy, snazzy audiobooks.
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