“You left school for a sex change, that’s why you were gone from school!” a girl said in the cafeteria, “Shawn thinks she’s a boy!” She turned to the other sixth graders at the table, laughing, “Right guys?” The other students laughed. I laughed along with them, pretending that I wasn’t hurt by the comment.
This is the first message I remember receiving about gender identity that significantly impacted me. I had just returned to school after a long stint of absence, during which I was getting surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from my spine. Although my classmates knew this, middle schoolers are always looking for ways to break each other down.
When there were two Shawns in my kindergarten class, my teacher differentiated between us as “Shawn girl” and “Shawn boy.” When my communion flag was placed on the “boys” side at church in 2nd grade. It became a joke among my family and friends alike: Oh, Shawn thinks she’s a boy.”
In eighth grade, I was beat up by the only person I knew whose gender expression was different from that of their assigned sex (I later found out this person was transgender). I internalized these and other messages, that made it difficult for me to come out until much later in life.
Between the lack of representation of trans identities, and the constant joking from peers and mentors about what it meant to be queer in any sense, it made my environments a difficult place to explore my own sexual orientation and gender identity.
This was not helped by the negative messages I received from people in my church community. I endured conversations and “interventions” from elders in my church about what it meant that I even supported LGBT people. Although I still openly supported my friends that did hold non-normative identities, it still made it difficult for my own self-reflection.
My partner was the first person I came out to, and the only person I was out to for a long time. People became manipulative in the way that they wanted me to perform my identities, and I began to lose myself in an effort to please them, and meet their needs over my own.
This person discouraged me to express myself authentically, discouraging me from using the word “dude,” threatening breaking up with me if I were to get my septum pierced, not allowing me to cut my hair, and so on. I followed what the person said in order to make myself more palatable. In this suppression of myself, I lost what it meant to live as me.
I remained in the relationship when I went to college, 900 miles away from home. My partner shamed me for choosing to go so far away, even when I had been granted a full tuition scholarship to a top twenty university. I stayed in the relationship for the first semester of school. During this time, I was introduced to the Office of LGBTQI life at my institution.
I met people whose gender identity lied outside the binary (the system of socialization that enforces rigid gender roles based on biological sex), whose lives were full of love and light, and whose authentic self was celebrated by many. It was the first time I had met anyone whose identity could resonate within me.
Although it would take me another year to come out, the people I was able to meet allowed me the space I needed to explore the many facets of my identity that I had been suppressing, and refine those that I had been living out as a performance.
It was in this environment of reflection that I was able to break up with my partner. Although it was still emotionally traumatizing even when we did breakup, I was able to feel comfortable enough in myself that I, for the first time, pushed back.
This forced me into difficult conversations about what being queer meant to me, and how gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same, but for me, intersect in important ways. Although it was and continues to be a difficult place to be in, it allows me to have deeper critical thought on what the identities mean for me and my work, and allows me to articulate it to the people I love.
The identities I hold have created rifts in most relationships, including my parents and close-minded former friends. However, they have also shown me the great love that many people in my life have for me no matter who I am, even when they don’t understand.
Each day, I am careful to be intentional about how I treat myself and others. The experiences I have had, have helped me to understand what it means to inflict violence inward, both physically and emotionally, and have helped me to understand what works best for me in treating myself with respect.
Although I was not able to come out to the people I love the way I wanted, and while I am not currently out in all the environments that are important to me, I am grateful for the chance to live genuinely and be a representation of myself to others and not this sixth grader at the lunch table hiding within. Because of all I have been through, I now value above all else love and authenticity, which have pushed me to help build spaces where youth, especially queer youth, can openly practice their authentic self.
Recently, a close friend asked me how liberating it was to cut my hair off. I immediately answered with excitement, reflecting on what it truly meant to cut my hair and appear more in line with my gender identity. I thought of the piercing and what it meant to reclaim my body, and to actualize my own self. However, it was when I was able to remove the septum ring (which I didn’t actually want anymore) that I felt truly liberated from the traumatic relationship.
It was not until I felt okay with having long hair and using “masculine vocabulary” that I felt free to be who I am fully. Although I work on my own self liberation every day, the removal of the piercing was a turning point for my own experience.
No matter what your trauma or pain is, I encourage you to reflect and actualize your true self.