“Would you like a picture of the gender?”
This is the question the woman performing my ultrasound asked me. Of the many questions I had to answer throughout my prenatal appointment at the OBGYN that day, I was completely unprepared for this one. I have spent my entire life struggling with anxiety, to the point my friends and family are used to something I call, “panic ordering,” which is a thing I do when eating out and a server asks what I’d like before I’ve decided. I panic, assuming that causing the server to wait while I make my decision causes some sort of unbearable awkward silence in which I’m making everyone uncomfortable, so instead I just order the first thing I see on the menu, which I usually don’t end up eating because it’s not what I wanted, but the whole thing makes me too embarrassed to send it back. It’s frustrating for everyone involved.
So, I hear this confusing question and not surprisingly, I panic. I say yes to the ultrasound technician, having no idea what her question means. She prints an additional picture from the ultrasound machine, beyond the handful of blurry ones she had already printed of my 3 month old fetus. She hands it to me and I stare intently at it, trying to make out what the blurry shapes and shadows are. She seems to recognize the confusion on my face and points to two grey lines in the center of the photo. “There,” she smiles, “that’s her vagina.” It finally hits me what she meant by the question.
I’m not sure what I expected. After all, this was a medical professional. One of many who made statements and asked questions at every one of my prenatal visits that caused me to cringe. Stumbling over my pronouns, hiding what I assumed to be contempt when I corrected them. It had become like clockwork with everyone in every medical office I interacted with, from the person working at the reception desk, to the nurse that called me in the back to take my blood pressure and ask anecdotal questions about food cravings, to the doctor that discussed the health of the baby and feigned required excitement about the upcoming birth and the ‘miracle’ of my eventual experience with ‘motherhood.’ It was what I had become accustomed to since coming out. The comfort and safety of close friends and immediate family who respected my true identity didn’t exist in every moment of my every day. I understood this and understood that strangers I encountered throughout the my daily routine didn’t know who I was and based their assumptions on what they had been taught to read from my appearance.
I had conversations with the OB office in Seattle prior to my first appointment about calling me by my chosen name and using my correct pronouns of “they” and “them.” After my awkward initial visit, they figured it out. But I wasn’t in Seattle anymore. I had moved back home a month ago to the much smaller town of Olympia, Washington. The poorly thought out plan was to be closer to my family in the hope of having a stronger support system for the later half of my pregnancy as well as live in a place I could afford with my extremely meager stand-up comedian salary. At my hometown OBGYN office, despite the visible post-it note stuck to my chart with the words “transgender neutral they/them” written on it, every visit followed the same routine. A slip of “she” and “her” followed by uneasy, forced laughter and a strained apology. I always responded with an anxious reflex of, “that’s fine” and they always followed with a customer service smile and the phrase, “we’re doing our best.”
WE’RE DOING OUR BEST.
That sentence and its variations had become something I had heard over and over since announcing in 2016 (via an appropriately dramatic post on Facebook) that I was transgender non-binary, to please refer to me as El and to please use the gender pronouns they/them from now on. Even in my falsely idealized “liberal” haven of Seattle, everyone was doing their best. From casual friends, family, employers, co-workers, strangers on the internet, people I had sex with, medical staff, grocery store clerks, grocery store clerks I had sex with, the list goes on and those are just the people I bothered to correct. It was almost always followed by a similar look, a look that seemed to say, “don’t make me feel bad about this, after all, you are expecting something extraordinary from me and the fact I’m even willing to entertain it at all should probably be something you admire.”
Then, there are the times I don’t correct people. Sometimes, my anxiety kicks in and the last thing I feel emotionally prepared for is explaining to someone why I go by they/them, why that isn’t bizarre, why I made that decision, why I should be allowed to make that decision, why that should be respected and blah blah blah. Explaining my existence isn’t entirely new to me as a mixed race, ethnically ambiguous pansexual person, who appears to some people to just be an annoying snowflake that refuses to settle on a decision, but usually people are too concerned about seeming intolerant to ask too many questions about my race or sexuality. Yet, people feel pretty justified in questioning my gender. The question I get most often is how. How is it even possible that I’m not a man or a woman? While cis folks often don’t understand what it means to be transgender, even the well-meaning ones, many can at least wrap their heads around being a binary trans person since ‘male’ and ‘female’ are identities they can still relate to. But to be born NEITHER. That doesn’t even seem POSSIBLE to some people and as many people do, when you don’t understand something, you’d rather blame the thing you don’t understand than feel stupid for not understanding it, so they convince themselves it’s just something I made up to be different and more importantly, to be difficult.
The thing is, I don’t really have an answer. At least, not yet. All my life I’ve felt like something was “off.” I knew I liked girls growing up, some of my early crushes being She-Ra: Princess of Power and and the women of the TV show American Gladiators, but it felt like there was something else I couldn’t communicate. Not that being gay felt “off.” My immediate family was pretty progressive. Our closest family friend was my Uncle Roger, a cis gay man that had been my mother’s childhood best friend she had married before he came out and had divorced before she met my dad. So, for the most part, I knew my parents were accepting of what they had always assumed would be my eventual coming out. Of course, the small farming town I grew up in was a pretty intolerant environment, making any hint of queerness feel aggressively uncomfortable regardless of the understanding at home.
As an AFAB kid growing up, I never felt comfortable being seen as a woman or being called “she,” “girl,” or “lady.” At the time I thought, maybe I just feel that way because I’m gay and if I was more butch, like I thought I was supposed to be, like the lesbians I saw on television and in music videos were, I would feel more comfortable being me. The problem was, like I previously mentioned, my tiny farming town in the middle of nowhere had already caught on to my ‘tomboy’ look and attitude, which was already garnering homophobic reactions on the playground. With the daily taunts of “dyke” and “lesbo” being added by second grade to the continuous familiar insults of “spic,” “beaner,” “wetback” and “fat-ass” I’d been hearing since pre-school, butching it up more than I was seemed too dangerous. By fourth or fifth grade I knew I liked girls AND boys. By sixth grade, when my breasts started growing to an extremely noticeable and large for my age cup size, I began my first foray into my crude version of binding, which involved wearing a sports bra on top of an underwire bra, then wrapping my whole chest in duct tape. Sometimes I wondered if maybe I was a boy, or at least, what I understood at the time to be a boy. After all, I still preferred men’s clothes to women's and I often had dreams where I didn’t have breasts. Does this make someone a boy? I didn’t know. I just knew something felt wrong, but really had no clue what that “wrong” thing was.
In college I had finally made my first ‘out’ queer friend. We’ll call her Evan. I say first ‘out,’ because of course, Evan wasn’t technically my first queer friend. I had plenty of friends growing up that I’m pretty sure were queer like me, but we were always too scared to talk about it in any direct way. It was mostly communicated through the covens we started together, the books we stole on witchcraft from the library and the kissing we “practiced” on each other to “prepare for the boys.” So Evan definitely wasn’t the only queer I knew, but she was by far the most radical queer friend I had ever met at that point. Not only was she out and proud, but she taught me about butch and femme presentation, feminist zine making and all about fisting. She was fun. She also introduced me to the first genderqueer folx I had ever met. She had two friends that went by really intimidating, extremely cool-seeming chosen first names that were also the names of American states. Their gender pronouns were ‘they/them’ and ‘ze/here,’ which is the first time I had EVER heard you could go by anything but he or she. They were both AFAB, vegan, on HRT, had undergone top surgery and referred to themselves as ‘genderfuckers.’ I was OBSESSED. Everything about their lives intrigued me, though I wasn’t sure exactly why at the time.
It wasn’t until my mid thirties, post my second divorce, having finally become more comfortable with my sexuality and having had the experience of dating and being close to both femme and masc presenting folx that were trans non-binary that it finally clicked why I had always felt so uncomfortable with myself. I always knew I wasn’t a man, but I finally realized, I’m also not a woman. Being neither is a real thing, and recognizing it was one of the most freeing experiences of my life. It felt like having a long suffering illness for which everyone thought I was imagining the symptoms, that had finally been cured after going ignored and undiagnosed for so long. My life was finally starting to make sense. I truly understood the meaning of the phrase ‘living as your authentic self.’ The possibilities seemed endless. Then, three months after coming out and starting my life anew, I found out I was pregnant.
Not that it was a huge shock. I had been dating/sleeping with a cis man and fellow queer comedian for the past few months and we had another recent drunken, reckless weekend that resulted in me having to buy a morning after pill. Not to brag, but this wasn’t my first morning after pill or my first pregnancy. I had been pregnant twice before, once a year prior and another six years before. Both I chose to terminate. I had no regrets. I knew I probably wasn’t financially stable or emotionally ready to become a parent then or now, but my recent pregnancy felt different. I loved my partner and I was getting older. My dad was already in his mid 70’s and my mom was nearly 70 herself. I had always thought I might have children in the future, but at this point, if I waited much longer, there was a giant possibility those future children would never know the combination of joy and vexation that was the love of parents. With this all on mind, I decided to see this through to the end.
I didn’t know anything about babies. I had never babysat someone younger than 10 and I refused to change my niece’s diapers after she was born, because, gross. In fact, I didn’t much care for children at all which I guess I assumed was something I’d grow out of, maybe? I wasn’t sure what kind of parent I wanted to be or what kind of life I could actually provide for this unborn kid, but there was one thing I knew for sure. I wanted to let my child make their own choice about their gender identity.
We all know how the process goes. Just like me, most people are assigned their gender at birth based on their genitalia, even though many psychologists, anthropologists and biologists have come to agree that genitalia does not determine gender at all. Myself and all other trans folx are proof of that. While genitalia may be a biological, flesh and blood thing, gender is not. Gender is a social construct human beings created to categorize one another. Basically it’s as biological as our astrological signs. Having had my own gender identity pressed upon me in a way that had made my life a confusing and frustrating mess, I wanted to be sure I didn’t do the same to my own kid. This would mean I would raise our child as gender neutral as possible until they were able to communicate to us what their gender identity was. Perhaps it would stay the same like me, or perhaps they would be a man or a woman. Or something else entirely. Either way, it shouldn’t be for me or their father to decide.
Some things came easy, informing friends and family to please only purchase gender neutral items as gifts, which for us just meant the wording would remain neutral. Since presentation and identity are different, and we’re all pretty much stuck dressing in our own parents’ taste as babies, pink dresses or onesies with trucks and dinosaurs were all fine to us. Although duh, I favor button ups and overalls. The hard part was my partner and I explaining to our families our decision. While understanding my gender identity had just begun to make sense to my parents and his, both sets of parents had a difficult time understanding why we would choose to ignore what seemed to them to be medical fact regarding the gender of our child. Whatever gender the doctor told us the baby was, was their gender, our parents assumed. After all, they could change it later if they wanted! No, I couldn’t do that to them. There was also a feeling of perhaps I was pushing a ‘political agenda’ upon my unsuspecting child. No. I mean, just because gender is an illusion to me, doesn’t mean it is for everyone. My parents may have had the excuse of ignorance when I was born, but I do not. I am fully aware that just deciding our baby was whatever gender assignment was given based on their gens, was not an accurate science, nor a science at all. It wasn’t up to me to decide. I wouldn’t presume to tell them what their sexuality is. Their body is their own, their mind is their own and their gender is just the same.
On top of that important decision, I also had to deal with my own gender dysphoria of being a trans non-binary person in an extremely pregnant body. Just prior to my pregnancy, I had begun researching the exciting possibilities of top surgery and maybe even future hormone therapy. As my already problematically large breasts grew larger, I realized top surgery was fading into a far off fantasy. I would most likely have to breastfeed for at least the first year, I assumed. I really had no idea. Like I said, I knew NOTHING of child rearing or baby having beyond the exaggerated cinematic presentations of 80’s/90’s rom coms. As the months went on, flattening my breasts with just my Tomboy brand sports bra became increasingly difficult. Each month my chest weighed more heavily on mind, both literally and figuratively. As my areolas grew darker in color and my breasts felt more and more soft to the touch (this is not as sensual as it sounds), I started fearing the eventual sight and of milk, which I only assumed would be gushing out of my nipples, would make me constantly ill.
Then there was the issue with my clothes. I would see pregnant women at Babies ‘R’ Us in flowy floral dresses or cute figure hugging tops. Not me. I wanted to keep my uniform of button ups and overalls, which are looks that are luckily pretty compatible to pregnant bodies. The first few months went fairly smoothly wardrobe-wise since many of my clothes were already big and loose fitting. Unfortunately though, at some point I became too big to fit even my biggest loose-fitting tops, so I had to start shopping for maternity clothes. This became the cause of most of my increased gender dysphoria at the time. Queer friends kept pointing to gender neutral maternity online retailers for me to look at, but again, with my comedian income, that wasn’t feasible. Luckily I found out Target has a pretty dope mens section. The gender dysphoria of trying to find a solid denim button up in the maternity section of a big box retail store while also buying cotton pads to soak up liquid seeping from the breasts I was kind of pretending I didn’t have aside, it’s true what they say. Swollen ankles, morning sickness, carpal tunnel, sleepless nights and sloppy crying over YouTube videos about the alleged existence of real life Pegasus are all worth it when that dumb baby is presented to you post birth. Because of the rush of true, tangible real love for another living thing and all that, yeah, but mostly because it’s FINALLY out of you.
No, seriously, besides the whole genitalia = gender BS, the glow is also a myth. Pregnancy really sucks. After having Lobo, a name a picked for purposes of its Spanish roots and gender neutrality since they could choose to go by the more feminine ‘Lo’ or the more masculine ‘Bo,’ (also, yes, Lobo is the Spanish word for wolf, and NO I did not name them after the DC comic book villain, although he is pretty cool, so kind of) I realized some things weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be. I was able to bottle feed from the beginning and was not judged for opting out of breast feeding by anyone I care about including my OBGYN. I had an elective C section, rather than give birth vaginally, which I didn’t know you could just choose to do, so PHEW.
My baby has definitely put my life into perspective as well as added a whole new slew of baby and parenthood material to my comedy sets which were otherwise full of fisting and white people jokes. They are teaching me already so much about gender identity, the possibilities of who we can be and what it means to fight for people you love, even if that fight is with a complete stranger in a Baskin Robbins. Having to correct people on their pronouns and explaining their gender has emboldened me to stand up for my own much more often. The reactions to us is surprisingly becoming more and more positive, although, I still get the occasional weird looks when I call them they and the person usually asks, “oh, are they a boy or a girl?” and I always say, “I don’t know, they haven’t told me yet.”
About the Author:
A queer/trans/non-binary Seattle-based comedian and writer, El Sanchez has been performing all over the US (and once in Canada) since 2010. They have appeared on NPR’s Latino USA, featured in Teen Vogue, starred in LGBTQ documentary short, "Oh, I Get It" and have performed at Bumbershoot, the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, Emerald City Comicon and Autostraddle.com's annual LGBTQ event A-Camp. They have opened for comedians Michael Che (Weekend Update), Bridget Everett (Inside Amy Schumer) and W. Kamau Bell (United Shades of America). El has been called "fearless" by City Arts Magazine, "a grumpy nugget of delight," by writer/activist Lindy West, "a local favorite," by Seattle alt weekly The Stranger and "a brilliant new voice everyone should know," by comedian Hari Kondabolu (The Problem with Apu). Grammy Award winning singer/song-writer Kimya Dawson has cited El as her 'favorite underground Northwest comedian' while Emmy Award winning comedian and host of CNN's United Shades of America, W. Kamau Bell, once said, "El Sanchez is the truth." Their debut comedy album "Hard Femme/Soft Butch/Werewolf" will be released in the summer of 2018.
Illustration by Shanelle Lewis
Photo by Caitlein Ryan
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