TOMBOY: Growing up gender ambiguous in the family court system of the 1990s
“Are you a boy or a girl?” That was the question that I was asked at every new school district, in every new classroom, on every new school bus, every place that wasn’t Home. “I don’t know,” I’d say quietly, sometimes with a wry smirk and other times with an unshed tear. The question frustrated me. At Home, no one asked. No one suggested that I had to choose between one or the other. I wanted to be seen as one of the boys, but I wanted people to be able to identify that I was a girl. I wanted both and neither. For all I knew, I was a boy-girl.
When I was five years old, just after starting kindergarten, my twin brother and I were called out onto the front porch individually. It was a perfect autumn day at Home — you could hear the leaves rustling in the dogwood near the porch as the last sigh of summer blew through it. I gingerly came out and stood in front of my parents, who were seated on a small couch to the side of the porch. They had a heaviness in their eyes despite the gentle smiles on their faces. Their words still ring in my mind: “René…you call us Mommy and Daddy. But… we aren’t your real Mommy and Daddy.”
Looking back, it’s clear that those words marked the end of my childhood. My first response was excitement (I have TWO Mommies and Daddies!), swiftly followed by thoughts of betrayal (you lied to me?) and incomprehension. What was the distinction that kept these people sitting in front of me from being my “real” parents? Why did it make them so sad? And what does it even mean, real? Aren’t you here? Can’t I touch you? Don’t you tuck me in at night, help me comb my hair, teach me right from wrong? And if I have a “real” Mommy and Daddy, then why aren’t they here taking care of me instead? What makes those parents real and what makes that more important than what I have here with you? At five years old I saw through the irrelevancy of such semantics. Unfortunately, the court system did not.
According to my friends, predominantly boys, pink was girly. ... And girls were weak, delicate little things that never wanted to play in the mud or fight or set their toys on fire. I didn't want to be that.
My brother and I would spend the next eight years as the subjects of a heated custody battle that tore our family apart, ripped us away from our home and loved ones, occasionally sent us into city shelters or houses of friends, and at times, separated us from one another. The court believed in the autonomy of the “real” relationship between a biological parent and her children. They refused to listen to our pleas or acknowledge the benefits of remaining with our guardian — who provided us with a steady home and reliable emotional stability — only to grant her full guardianship in the end and send us back to that same porch from which we’d been removed years ago.
* * *
I don’t remember at what point I lost interest in the color pink. It was my favorite color as a small child. I especially loved the brilliance of hot pink; how exotic it was. Such a strange, unique, shocking color in the otherwise green and brown landscape of Home, East Tennessee. But according to my friends, predominantly boys, pink was girly. Ballet was girly. Long hair was girly. And girls were weak, delicate little things that never wanted to play in the mud or fight or set their toys on fire. I didn’t want to be that.
I don’t remember at what point in my childhood I knew I wanted to be a boy, even though I was completely fine in my female body. It’s as if that feeling was always there, like a lens through which I saw and interacted with the world. Even before I had the bowl cut or the hand-me-downs from my twin brother. Even while wearing bows in my hair or sharing secret peck kisses with one of my handful of boyfriends in first grade, I liked the style of boyhood better, the cooler, less restrained clothes, and the carefree tough-love attitude. The privilege. Boys could urinate wherever they wanted. They were expected to play rough and get dirty, even applauded for it, and were included with the adults when it came to building things or being brave. Boys didn’t have to have their tangles brushed out, or their hair pulled back into a ponytail so tight that they looked surprised all day. Boys didn’t have to spend an hour trying on Sunday dresses, let alone sort through a laborious selection of accessories. Boys had it better.
In most arenas, I was accepted for my gender ambivalence. As my brother and I began to navigate reintegration with our yet-to-be-declared-mentally-unstable birth mother, however, I started getting into sticky situations. When I was eight, the six-year-old in the trailer next door announced that she wanted to be my girlfriend. I don’t know if that ever actually happened or if we were only friends, but I do remember a knock at our screen door one evening where she told me that we needed to talk. I had not so much as stepped off of our flimsy wooden steps when she assailed me with her tiny, sharp fingers, lifting up my shirt to see my eight-year-old undeveloped chest. When I asked what she was doing, she said, “I have to know the truth. I have to know if you’re a boy or a girl.” She concluded that I was a boy, and I concluded that she was out of her damn mind. We moved a couple of months later.
I began habitually walking on my tiptoes (a symptom of anxiety), kept a steady supply of food in a “runaway bag” on the knob of my bedroom door, and suffered constantly from a mysterious stomach ailment.
The more my twin brother and I moved back and forth between families, the more I cleaved to this identity — of being a boy, but not. It was something that — no matter how much loss I experienced, how few of my belongings I got to keep between moves, or how long the time stretched out before I could see Home again — no one could take away from me. When we moved from Tennessee to Washington, DC, I started going by my unisex middle name, Jamel (or Jamey), and disowning my first name, Nancy-René. I began to tell the children who asked that I was a boy-girl. I quit playing with dolls and fake plastic makeup, and even developed a phobia of the former. We moved out to a Virginia suburb called Manassas and I experienced bullying for the first time, being pushed and tripped on the bus and hearing the daily chant of a word I’d never encountered before: Faggot.
Our birth mother was a horror film buff. During visitations, when we were as young as five, she would leave us alone to watch some of her favorites, like Nightmare on Elm Street. The ambiance of horror movies playing nonstop in the Manassas house left me in a constant state of terror, such that I could never be alone or behind closed doors by myself — even when I had to use the bathroom. When I was nine I started wetting the bed and had to wear diapers at night. I began habitually walking on my tiptoes (a symptom of anxiety), kept a steady supply of food in a “runaway bag” on the knob of my bedroom door, and suffered constantly from a mysterious stomach ailment that often kept me out of school. Finally, when I was ten, I wrote my guardian a suicide note detailing plans to end my life, and put it in the mailbox. She never received it. My birth mother intercepted it and, for the first time, took the severity of my stress seriously.
At the beginning of fifth grade I was back Home, away from the bullies but also away from my twin brother. Possibly from her own fatigue with the family court system or out of misguided concern, my guardian changed the game plan. She said that I could no longer hang out with or have sleepovers with boys. I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair. I had to wear tighter shirts, from the girls’ department, and worst of all, I had to participate in female slumber parties. Since I had no female friends, she assigned me a few from the neighborhood, who in hindsight were at the far end of the “girly” spectrum, as genders were extremely polarized in this particular community. There was an unspoken reward for and pride in conforming to traditional feminine qualities like daintiness and squealing. This resulted in many predictably bland and monotonously dramatic evenings. This was my first introduction to the realm of girlhood, as I’d never spent time with girls outside of school, and for all I knew it was representative of what it meant to be a girl.
I didn’t understand the way that these girls communicated, their temperaments, their values. Why did they worship boy bands? Why couldn’t they speak plainly, and why did they think that you could know their thoughts when they didn’t speak at all? How come they just wanted to sit around and talk about people all of the time? Why didn’t they want to explore the woods, build forts, go fishing? My guardian no longer allowed me to speak on the phone with my male friends, who eventually quit asking me to come play football or video games, and slowly but surely stopped including me altogether, even at school. I was now considered just a girl, isolated to the surround sound of giggles over worn-out inside jokes and sitting on the swings talking instead of wrestling during recess. My hair grew longer, and so did the distance between my identity and my reality.
My guidance counselor at Home sought to resolve my identity over the years, as my non-binary status did not translate in the finite gender options available in the Bible Belt of the 90s. She would ask me how I supposed I might become a boy, and of course I didn’t have a plausible answer or even understand the question. Didn’t she see that I was a boy-girl? Couldn’t I just be myself and not try to be something else? But as I grew older and the landscapes changed, and the houses changed, and the families changed, I noticed that this question remained. Did I still want to be a boy? Did I still want to be a boy? Until finally, when I was 12 years old, I understood how the system worked — what they were really asking and why. I realized that those authority figures, like my guidance counselor, were looking for specific, concrete answers to what was for me a flexible state of being. If I did not conform to their illusion of normalcy (something that now seemed far away and forgotten after all that had happened), if I did not answer to their satisfaction, then they would determine that I wasn’t adjusting accordingly and I would have to move away from Home again. So I tried something new with my guidance counselor: I lied. As I was leaving what I believe was my final counseling session ever, she called after me from her door, “I almost forgot, do you still want to be a boy?” Instead of careening into our usual long discussion, I dismissively shook my head and continued down the hall, half with a wry smirk and half with an unshed tear. I never switched families again.
Didn't she see that I was a boy-girl? Couldn't I just be myself and not try to be something else?
* * *
A well-known rule among writers and editors is that you must kill your darlings. It means that in the creative process, you have to sometimes let go of something that is not essential or beneficial to the progress of the narrative, even when it holds profound personal meaning to you. For me, when I left my guidance counselor’s office that day, I killed my most precious of darlings. Only it wasn’t on paper — it was a part of myself. I delicately laid to rest the masculine elements of who I was and began to conceal myself behind a veil of femininity: posters of boys plastered on walls, cosmetics, tight-fitting clothing, and an arsenal of gossip. Even as I began developing and my hair grew long, peers and adults could still see beyond my efforts and called me out as a boy or as boy-identifying. I upped my game and learned how to girl, if you will, by observing the girls around me in junior high — how they swayed when they walked, how they played with their hair and made themselves meek, crossing their legs when seated and keeping their elbows near their bodies. I even had a friend coach me on how to eat at lunch. Even if I couldn’t get inside of their heads, I could still pull off a half decent impersonation. This is how I blended in. This is how I survived.
I was once a child who preferred short hair and loose-fitting clothing. A child that would go out on a bike ride until after the sun set, who played in sewers, climbed trees, and hit home runs. A child who fought and shrugged off bloody lips but would run home in tears if spat on. A child obsessed with drawing, reading, and imagining a day when I would never have to leave Home again. How do you define that child? Consider that that definition may say more about you than anything or anyone else.
I can’t reach that child anymore. I don’t think that I ever will. She is tucked safely away in a vault within me that even I don’t have access to. But there are parts of her that are still with me. I learned while studying human communication in college that my communication style is primarily masculine. I’ve only recently been growing my hair long after keeping it short (even bringing back that 90s bowl cut) for nearly all of my adult life. I’ve never stopped feeling ignited by fighting, only instead of throwing down when the slightest opportunity presents itself, I watch and study martial arts.
There are so many terms floating around today — agender, pangender, gender fluid, gender neutral. When I first came across them, I was euphoric. Finally there was something official that adequately described me in words and concepts that I could not find for myself! Something that I could point to and not have to provide lengthy explanations that still never quite fit. It was also liberating to know that I was not alone. But as the terms have multiplied, the confusion and misconceptions at large have persisted, and ultimately I’ve decided to sit out from these categorizations altogether. While they can act as a source of empowerment, they can just as equally become yet another confine in which an identity is restricted or contorted. It is my belief that when others control the definition of what is “real” to you, especially in such abstract matters as gender, orientation, family, love — they become the author of your right to self-discovery, the boundaries of your perception, and your unique expression of happiness. There are some things that belong to you and you alone — things that exist beyond semantics, beyond checked boxes or color hues. As for me, I’ll take anything but pink.