Hello! Alex Iantaffi here, one of the authors of How to Understand Your Gender: A practical guide for exploring who you are published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Our publisher asked Meg-John Barker and I to write a blog post each about our own gender journeys, so here I am.
Are you a boy or a girl? Yes!
When I started to come out as trans masculine (that is someone assigned female at birth and presenting and identifying somewhere in the masculine region of the gender landscape), some people felt this made complete sense to them and some were befuddled. I empathized with the befuddled, even as I was being hurt by it. After all, it had taken me over three decades to even figure out that there were options beyond what I had been assigned to be at birth! But let’s back up a little.
You will read snippets of my gender journey (and Meg-John’s) in the book as well, since one of the points we make is that we all have a relationship of some sort to this idea of gender. So, this blog post will just be a summary of salient points in my own gender journey, at least up to now. I am sure that as I keep living (hopefully) and learning and being in relationship to the world and people around me, my gender journey will continue beyond this point in time.
The reasons why it took me over three decades to figure out I was trans (that means that my gender identity is not aligned with my sex assigned at birth) was that my story did not follow the dominant narrative in many ways. I have photos of me as a young child looking like a little boy and smiling. I used to love going to the barber with my dad, as a teenager, and getting my hair cut there. This made sense as a working-class family, since barbers were cheaper than hairdressers and I wanted my hair real short! As a teen, I also loved when people thought I was a boy. This usually only happened if I had my back to them. They would correct themselves as soon as I turned and they could see my round face and adolescent body that they read as clearly female. At the same time, though, I loved theatre, and music, making dresses for my Barbie (and yes, I played with my Barbie secretly even as a teenager). All of this was happening in Italy in the 1970s and 80s. I was being brought up Catholic, by a communist union organizing father and an aunt who introduced me to feminism.
Fast forward to my 20s when I moved to the UK and tried to figure out who I was in many ways. This was a time when I was really trying to perform femininity since I thought that feeling more masculine might have something to do with internalized oppression (this was, of course, not true!). However, much as I tried, I felt like I was doing drag whenever I tried to dress or act as a woman, even as a feminist woman! Yet, when I tried to explain my feelings to others, they were usually met as a joke since… I was a woman, right?! Well, that turned out to not be quite true, and eventually my feelings made so much more sense! I will spare you readers more details of my journey but let’s say that, by the time I was in my early 30s, I had figured out that I really was non-binary, strictly speaking! Initially I thought of myself as genderqueer, then as trans masculine, and now I think of myself as trans masculine and non-binary. So, when children ask me: ‘are you a boy or a girl’, my answer is yes!
As I continued to explore gender throughout my life, I’ve listened to many people’s stories about their relationships with gender. I could not have gotten to this point in my journey without the support of many trans and non-binary people I met along the road, both in the pages of books and in person. However, the more I talked about gender, the more I realized that everyone has a gender story, or in fact, many! Regardless of people’s identities, gender stories were shared when I ran trainings, when I talked with clients (I am a therapist), when I conducted research, and simply when I talked with my family and friends. The more I listened to all these gender stories, the more I realized that maybe many of us had been hurt by this idea of the gender binary, and that there was a much larger landscape of possibilities for all of us.
I am very grateful to my beloved Donald Engstrom-Reese for encouraging me to connect with ancestors across time and space. This allowed me to realize that there have always been many gender identities and expressions, and that the gender binary itself is a byproduct of settler colonialism. My understanding is that Indigenous people all over the globe usually have a broader range of genders than two. When I talk about this, sometimes people think I am talking about not having any binary expressions at all, such as masculinity or femininity, but, while androgyny is awesome, what I’m talking about is gender liberation (You can listen to my 5 minutes Ignite talk on gender liberation here: https://youtu.be/wWa77NCsksw). This includes masculine and feminine expressions and identities. It’s about expanding gender, and not destroying it! It is also important to remember that the people who have been leading the gender liberation movement have been and continue to be women of color, including trans feminine people.
Connecting to something larger than myself, and my own individual story, was essential for me to feel whole. I think it’s sometimes too easy for trans and non-binary people to feel pathologized, that is, to be thought of as ‘sick’ or ‘deviant’, or as an exception from the norm. I know that’s been the case for me. Connecting with the idea that gender has always been expansive has been healing. There is nothing wrong with me. I am a boy and a girl. If I had been a Glee character, I would be Kurt and not Finn. I am not the first, and I won’t be the last. We talk about this in the book too. In fact, our last section focuses on community, our need as humans to connect, to be part of something larger, to be inspired, to not feel alone. I guess if I had one wish for this book it is that it might help people to feel less alone and more connected to a larger gender landscape.
For more information on Alex and Meg-John’s new book, check out How to Understand Your Gender here.