BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Editor's Note: This essay was originally published at The Berry.
For most of my life, I identified strongly as a woman — partly because I undeniably “look” like a woman, but also because of the violent experiences that have thrusted me into “feeling” like a woman. When I was in college, I was raped. I’ve written extensively about it, trying to piece together what happened to me in various personal essays and poetry.
Like in a bad Lifetime movie, I also became pregnant as a result of the assault — and ultimately decided to abort my unborn child. It took me years to grieve this, this strange absence of motherhood — being an almost mother. This “almost motherhood” also made me feel like I had no right to actually mourn — it was my choice, after all. I was barely 21 by the time all of these experiences were over.
I spent most of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood trying to conform to the idea of quiet, submissive femininity, of girlhood. I was supposed to be innocent, easily controlled.
These experiences violated me in every way possible — wrecked havoc on my sexuality and gender struggles. My body was not my own. It was othered — I became “that kind” of woman. And looking back, when was it ever really my own? Like many people, my gender identity was thrust upon me without much thought — having grown up in a conservative religious household, I spent most of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood trying to conform to the idea of quiet, submissive femininity, of girlhood. I was supposed to be innocent, easily controlled.
In some ways, it was easy to fall prey to the pressure of this stereotype. I have always been petite (aka: easily dominated) — and always identified as a queer femme. Even before I labeled myself as bisexual in high school (before I realized I was actually queer, not bisexual), I knew I was attracted to women. I always loved dresses and wearing makeup — because I enjoyed it. Even when I had short hair and presented as more stereotypically queer, I was always “femme.”
Was I just gay and pretending to be “half straight” to appease my parents, or was I just trying to appear cool, to fit into the queer community?
I was able to “pass” in either direction, but I never truly felt like I belonged in either space — as a woman or a man or a queer person. I always felt like I was something else, but never knew how to label myself.
I always felt alone. Isolated from every group, because I was never masculine enough just to be “one of the boys,” but never completely “girly enough” to be one of the girls.
Even as a child, I usually sported short hair. In third grade, a classmate made fun of me for looking like a boy, and I was devastated. This was not the first comment, or the last, of its kind either. And really, it’s not about the comments themselves, but what they represented for how I was already forming my identity — versus what I felt.
The comments didn’t bother me for reasons you’d expect, either. Not because I didn’t want to be a boy, but more because it meant I didn’t “fit in.” I didn’t even necessarily care that I didn’t look stereotypically pretty — because I was already reminded often enough as a young kid that I looked very “exotic” as strangers or classmates or adults often commented, like the grocer at our local supermarket. I just wanted to be part of someone’s group.
Having always strongly identified as a feminist, and having had violating experiences, it made sense that I would identify as a woman. My entire identity, in some way, was begging to be shaped by the lack of control I had over my own body. But something always felt off to me when I used pronouns or subsumed the role I was supposed to enjoy.
I attended Catholic school for 13 years, how to prevent sexual assault, why promiscuous sex is bad, that masturbation isn’t for “nice” women, that women are not aggressive.
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I performed being a woman well. My entire life, my family and teachers would instruct me on how to stay a virgin (or else you are tainted) as I attended Catholic school for 13 years, how to prevent sexual assault, why promiscuous sex is bad, that masturbation isn’t for “nice” women, that women are not aggressive. At the same time, I was often berated for being “overly sensitive” and often was told I had “too many male friends” by family and friends. As if it was weird that I enjoyed the company of men, that I felt equally at home with them as with my female friends. Or that I should be more “masculine” and not take things so personally.
For me as a queer person especially, I never understood the whole “opposite sex” idea — or the idea that there was a gender you were naturally more comfortable with, because you weren’t attracted to them. Or that I was supposed to feel a difference. Sure, many of my male-identifying friends didn’t wear makeup or dresses, but it is only a matter of presentation.
In those terrifying moments of finding myself giving a boy a blow job because I was supposed to that I bent to the role I thought I was supposed to play.
Having gone through puberty at an early age, as I was 11 when I got my period for the first time, I also experienced being objectified sexually at a young age — long before I understood how to deal with it. Or how to say no, how to say I felt uncomfortable in that gaze — it was in those terrifying moments of finding myself giving a boy a blow job because I was supposed to that I bent to the role I thought I was supposed to play — and crying while doing so, because I didn’t know how to say no.
It’s how I became complacent in my identification, despite the fact that I never really felt like simply a woman, but something else — something more neutral. I justified men sexualizing me, and in many ways, taking advantage of me — because that was part of being a woman, right?
Having often struggled with my desire to conform my gender and sexuality, I denied myself happiness for a long time. I felt disconnected from my body for years — unable to enjoy sex or even enjoy the idea of masturbation because I hated my body — but I also felt uncomfortable admitting that.
Existing in a world of trauma means that you don’t identify with your body. It means you don’t get to align with neutrality if society doesn’t let you, but it also means you need to forge an identity — or else you will always be a ghost. It means you need to expand beyond the body — or your body will control you.
We are more than our labels, regardless of what we identify as, or choose to identify as because language dictates it.
When it comes to navigating the world as non-binary in a world full of labels and language inequalities and imprecisions, where does that leave a non-binary queer femme like me? As a whole, I try to steer clear of pronoun usage and general labeling for myself over the past year, with myself and others. Because we are more than our labels, regardless of what we identify as, or choose to identify as because language dictates it.
In a world where we constantly perform our gender and sexuality — where I was taught to pretend to enjoy sex even when I didn’t or to align with womanhood in a way that felt uncomfortable — what does it mean to have neutral pronouns (they/them rather than he/she)?
In a world where we constantly perform our gender and sexuality — where I was taught to pretend to enjoy sex even when I didn’t or to align with womanhood in a way that felt uncomfortable — what does it mean to have neutral pronouns? I haven’t asked anyone to use they/them as pronouns for me, mostly out of the political affiliation with what womanhood has represented in my writing. What does it mean, for instance, for a person who writes about being female-bodies and co-runs a feminist magazine, to identity neutrally, as non-binary?
Of course, I am not against using they/them along with she/her (if anything, I welcome it), but I wonder what it means to be neutral in the face of violence against women, in the face of personal violence still remembered in my own body? As someone who typically (but not always) presents as high femme, I sometimes yearn to transcend the fixed language we have to something more precise.
For me, gender isn’t just a one size fits all, or an easy definition in any sense of the word or costume or mask we wear and use.
I’m still not sure where I exactly fit into all of it yet, in terms of the semantics, other than saying non-binary. I use they/them specifically, but I don’t know if I’ll ever stop using she/her, especially in situations where I feel it's safer to pass. When it comes to pronouns, it’s not that I’m OK with being called whatever someone wants to, it’s more that I want something else — or perhaps, I just want nothing at all. Because for me, gender isn’t just a one size fits all, or an easy definition in any sense of the word or costume or mask we wear and use.
When it comes to my body, I know it has had a long, arduous journey — it’s walked many haphazard streets and slept under endless stars long since dead — it has survived abuse, over and over again. It has been forgotten, it has wanted to give up. Somehow, it’s still come out strikingly alive, courageous, and sometimes even beautiful.
Yet, I struggle even now with the possibility that it may not be entirely possible for me to be neutral in every situation — and maybe that’s OK. If I’ve learned anything, I know my body is fluid and expansive, and there’s really no reason to stop that now.
Joanna C. Valente is a ghost who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and Sexting Ghosts (Unknown Press, 2018). They are the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017), and received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, Them, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere.