I am a 58-year old cisgender woman. The designation on my birth certificate indicates that I am female, like numerous other newborns that came into the world on October 13, 1958. Likely, I was bundled in a pink blanket and settled in bed with my mother who nursed me. I was given the name Edie Dena Weinstein. In the Jewish religion, children are named in honor of family members who have passed. The first was in memory of my grandfather Edward and the middle name, for my cousin, also named Dena. The moniker is where some confusion ensued. From the first day of school, teachers would mispronounce my name as Eddie. It created some angst when in sixth grade, a boy on whom I had a crush, began teasing me by calling me ‘Eddie spaghetti.’ Years later, when we reconnected as adults, he apologized for his pre-teen weird kid humor. I told him that I let him off the hook decades earlier, but my 12-year-old self who wanted to be viewed as feminine and attractive to him still had felt the wound.
I was raised, along with my younger sister, by parents who wanted us to be ‘ladies’ and kids. The former meant wearing frilly, fancy clothes and black patent leather shoes and the latter meant that we could ride bikes, get muddy, hang out with boys as well as girls and see a future in which we were equally valued regardless of our ‘plumbing.’
As I grew up, I attracted into my life, friends who are on all ends of the sexual/affection preference and gender identity spectrum. Fascinated with the diversity of expression of humanity, I dove into books and trainings related to sexuality and intimacy. My degrees are in psychology and social work, and I have worked with clients for 38 years.
Even as a seasoned professional in the mental health field who has been the ‘go to person’ on issues revolving around sexuality wherever I have worked, I still question what it means to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’ When I work with clients, they know I have a sex positive perspective.
A few years back, I had written an article for The Good Men Project, called The Yin and Yang of Being Straight or Gay. It was prompted by an encounter with someone who referred to me as ‘butch,’ which had a pejorative sense to me. Even after she clarified her meaning, it still felt hard to accept. Without intending to disparage anyone’s presentation, body image, clothing, or style, that connotation seemed to fly in the face of my intention to appear to be the rainbow sheep of the family, hippie child I was in the 1970’s. Flowy, goddess-y clothing, short cropped faerie hair, sparkly glitter dazzled was how I was dressing at the time the woman mislabeled me. Nothing overtly masculine about that.
I am also a widowed woman who has been ostensibly single (with a few relationships in the interim) for more than 18 years. I have pondered whether my independence of necessity as the single parent of a then 11-year-old and now 29-year old son, scares more masculine men, since I am an assertive go-getter. I have worked hard to achieve my professional successes, my outspoken expression (when I was married, I was a far more people-pleasing, opinion-hiding, light-dimming, emotional contortionist who would bend over backward), and I ain’t going back. Friends have encouraged me to be more feminine in my interactions. That scares me since it implies vulnerability. I question whether I can embody a balance of the stereotypical masculine: assertive, determined, self-confident, and strong and the stereotypical feminine: tenderness, receptive, nurturing, and empathetic. To me, those are simply characteristics of a well-rounded human being.
Does wearing a dress, applying makeup and carrying a purse make me more feminine than donning shorts, t-shirt, and sneakers to sweat it out at the gym? Does having elfin shorn (sometimes dyed purple) spiky hair, rather than to-my-waist long flowing locks make me more masculine?
In my therapeutic practice, I have a few clients who identify as transgender. Some of them dress in gender-neutral fashion, while others are a blend of floral and earring bedecked beauty. Some are young people who are in the early stages of questioning who the person in the mirror is and one is in their mid-life. I asked this person today, who had begun hormone therapy and not had surgery and may never do so, what it means to be transgender. She (as is her gender pronoun of preference) was not able to definitively answer, but knows she felt a sense of elation when she came out over a year ago as if she had finally come home to herself. Still an emotional work in progress, she knows she is facing a culture that has her internalizing transphobia. That is some of the work we are doing together. A few other clients have parents who are dealing with their children claiming what they perceive is their true identity. One is adamantly insisting that her child is her daughter and will always be her daughter regardless of what he (the preferred pronoun for this client) says he wants. The other two openly embrace their children’s exploration of self. Gently, as if I am doing delicate surgery, I invite mom #1 to put herself in her child’s place and imagine a life in which she was inhibited from being true to who she felt herself to be. She is not ready to go there yet, but it is my intention to have her at least accept that her offspring has the right to engage in discovering who he really is.
I find myself wondering why this topic is so threatening to people. Is it because being able to label provides us with proscribed patterns of acceptable behavior? If I am feeling feminine, does that mean I can only relate to masculine others as receptive and vulnerable? If I step over the societally set line into the masculine, does that mean I take charge and rush forward from a place of action and not awareness?
One of my challenges has been to allow men to take care of me and do things for me. Opening a door, holding out my chair, paying for dates, at least initially, and walking me to my car were all things I was told by my parents that I could expect a man to do. Not sure why, but I still feel uncomfortable at times; not because I can’t do things myself, but more because I don’t want a man to think it is what I am expecting.
What if we just went out into the world every day and simply ‘were’? Not masculine or feminine, but merely gloriously human?