my gender is cowardice.

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remember kisschasey? that’s where it started.

it was the first year of school, so we would’ve all been five years old. The way the game works is that girls get a head-start then the boys take off to catch and kiss a girl each, after which the pursuit reverses, with the girl chasing the boy to kiss him back. No-one was sure whether I should be on the boys’ team, or the girls’ team. No-one, including me. Many of the girls were my friends, so I naturally wanted to be pack with them, and I certainly didn’t want to kiss them. There would never really be a decision about which side I was on, the game would usually just begin because the problem was too complicated for five-year-olds to resolve. Once everyone had taken off running and giggling and feigning disinterest in being kissed, I would at some point run into the boys’ bathroom and hide in a cubicle, imagining that someone was coming to kiss me. Looking back writing this, I realise the game has not changed much. Not for the negotiation of courtship and consent between men and women, and certainly not for me.

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Growing up in the 90s when being gay was still only discreetly cool in the upper echelons of celebrity-shadowing, being called “gay” or “faggot” wasn’t common but being called a “girl” as a form of denigration was frequent. The way I walked, that I wore my hair long, my mannerisms, the things I liked, and of course my choice of friends didn’t do much to deter that harassment.

When I was three, the childcare staff told my parents I’d been put in time out for losing my temper at a girl who had dared to wear a gold dress from the dress up box which was indisputably “mine”.

As young as twelve I fell into such a dislike of my body’s gender presentation I began binding myself in too-small underwear and by fourteen I had considered self-mutilation.

At home, wearing dresses continued right through to mid-adolescence, when I took a brief hiatus – that’s a lie, I continued to shop from the women’s side of the Cotton On for many years, but dresses were out for a while until I started wearing them again a couple of years ago and went public with a high-waisted skirt and a beard. I’ll to this day regularly say things like “I’m more of a Divinyls gal”, or “I don’t vote Liberal, I’m not that kind of girl”. I’ll never baulk at being referred to in the collective noun of “ladies” or thought of fondly as “one of the girls”.

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What’s it all about? Over the years I think the hard times might have given me cause to cling desperately to a vision of myself that didn’t lose their innocence so roughly, and that sincere sense of self I possess is easily encapsulated by that stereotype of sweetness, sixteen-ness, stillness of girlhood.

As recently as last year I’ve hit patches where thinking too deeply about my gender identity causes me too much confusion and sorrow to continue – and I confess that one of the biggest factors in backing out of this thinking is my conflicted feelings about how many social challenges I’ve been socialised to believe and have witnessed myself that trans and gender-diverse people face; in finding love, in succeeding in the workplace, in achieving whatever physical actualisation of their gender they desire, in receiving healthcare, in being able to travel. My gender identity is informed by my fear of losing something I didn’t think I had: male privilege. My gender identity is informed by my fear of what my loved ones would say, how they would adapt. So, I find myself thinking that my gender is terror, my gender is cowardice.

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My gender is constantly in a state of conviction, being bartered back and forth between fierce femininity and penile privilege. Sliding along the spectrum in one direction because I’m not masculine enough for manhood, then scaling along another slant because I respect womanhood and gender diversity as experiences I do not live and wouldn’t do the disservice or disregard of appropriating any further than colloquially. I am under no false illusions that this is a to-ing and fro-ing I’ll live on the trajectory of for a great deal of time, if not all my life.

Here’s where I’m at now. That in my thoughts about gender, I still feel room for choice and that is what sets several of the incredibly brave and beautiful humans I have been given the joyous gift of knowing apart in their experience from mine. For many of them there is not choice, there is simply the fact of who they are outside the double-edged sword of male and female; the inherent knowledge of difference and a resonance with alternatives and terms of identity I have yet to feel for anything other than “man”.

I grew up in a time where being transgender was a way to describe someone who was moving or had moved from one side of the binary of male and female to the other and once there that person was still known as either – being trans was not its own identity far as I knew then. Within a decade I find myself trying to comprehend what being tri-gender and enby means when I’m still stuck on what being a man means, and how I occupy that.

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Every time I step into darkness to battle with the binary, I have continually emerged male because I cannot get past believing that’s my fight; I feel it’s important for those like me to challenge and broaden what manhood is and wish to lead manhood forward out of toxic masculinity further from the patriarchal systems we are tightly bound to because its built from our gender presentation. For men to develop a compassion, and an empathy and a freedom to explore the roots of being men beyond clothing or interests or sexual exploits, that’s an image of men I want to perpetuate. I don’t want to leave my manhood behind, I want to make more of it, I want manhood – how it’s understood and talked about to adapt to include my kind of expression. To me, it matters to be a good man, and it matters that I identify as male as a means of demonstrating the room for diversity therein.

The fear I speak of is the same that paralyses me in moments where I’m in an environment where men become rowdy, or sexist, or any multitude of behaviours I know it’s important I stand up to. Somewhere inside me I yearn for their acceptance but I fear their predilection for communicating with violence or abuse. Men need intervention, not attention. I remember how positive a change I saw in men when ‘metrosexuality’ became popular, and how bitterly disappointed and ashamed I felt when the backlash came and not since have I witnessed any such valuing of self-care or sensitivity in men in Western cultures. But I’m not giving up on men yet, I’m not giving up on being a man.

Though I continue to grapple with what part prejudice plays in precluding me from being the person people ask or assume I am, what I’m sticking to is that though it may be cowardice that keeps me a man, it could be courage that drives me to change what that means.

images by Corie Shannon. insta @corieshannon.

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