As a tomboy in the 90’s, I had no real concept of gender. I shadowed my four older brothers and numerous boy cousins that lived nearby, and I liked whatever they liked. We rode our bikes, climbed trees, and played football until the streetlights buzzed on. On Monday nights, we watched WWE Raw, and on the weekends, we rented movies like Bride of Chucky and American Pie from Blockbuster. I dressed in their baggy hand me downs, wore backward hats or beanies, and often got mistaken for a boy.
My mom and Mawmaw, the two prominent female figures in my life, only wear skirts or dresses for special occasions, but more often than not, they choose slacks and a blouse. They hardly wear makeup. Mawmaw has cropped silver hair, and my mom’s wavy blonde wisps have never breached her shoulders. The Southern pageantry stereotype — gaudy bows, rhinestones, big hair — doesn’t exist in my family.
I used to think I had to choose a side. If I wasn’t what a girl was supposed to be, I would be what a boy was supposed to be. But that’s bullshit. I can be masculine in pink and feminine in a suit. I can be both and neither.
I wasn’t aware of my femininity, or lack thereof, until middle school. I guess everyone assumed that I would grow out of being a tomboy as soon as I hit puberty. When I didn’t, many family members tried to nudge me in a new direction. My Christmas list included pocket knives and shotguns; instead I was gifted makeup kits and a purse (admittedly it was a camouflage purse).
After someone stole my blue Walmart bike from school, my parents replaced it with the same model...in pink. My brothers who shaved their legs for football and track and straightened their shags before school berated me if I had visible hair on my underarms. You’re a girl, they said. Act like it. My family attempted to enforce gender roles they themselves didn’t follow. I was confused.
Why was I expected to suddenly change everything about myself when it wasn’t an issue before?
Even more bewildering: all the girls around me did change. It seemed like they had been handed the Guide to Being a Teenage Girl, and my copy got lost in the mail. My cousin Kayla, a tomboy like me growing up, stopped playing football with us one day and started cheerleading on the sidelines. Girls at school underwent similar transformations. In 6th grade, my friends stuffed their bras, flat-ironed their hair, shaved their eyebrows (sometimes completely), and plastered their faces with gobs of makeup.
I tried to be like them. I let them make me over and dress me up. I toted around my camo purse stuffed with makeup I didn’t know how to use. Attempting to jab eyeliner on my lids felt like torture. What was I missing? Surely everyone else was lying or pretending.
But as more and more people pointed out my wrongness, I realized that I was the problem. Questioning my sexuality during the same time only exacerbated my self-hatred. This was a small town in the south, and being gay equaled eternal hellfire. People who openly hated me claimed they did so out of love. I was a sinner, a perversion. An ugly unlovable boy-girl butch dyke. And, I internalized all of my oddities.
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I could talk about the shame that bubbled inside of my bones, the looks of disgust that followed me around, the constant string of personal questions: Are you a lesbian? Are you a boy or a girl? I could talk about the emotional abuse people inflicted on me, the physical violence I inflicted on myself, on the body that had betrayed me.
But I’d rather talk about: a girl with big brown eyes who is the opposite of me. She wears floral dresses and fits society’s standard of “female beauty.” When she was 14, she looked at the town lesbian in an oversized polo and a My Chemical Romance beanie and made her feel beautiful. She kissed me in a tent in her backyard and married me five years later.
Being together in our town wasn’t easy, but we had each other and The L Word: a show that taught us how to be gay even though it got half of it wrong.
I want to talk about my Mawmaw who brought me back to school shopping one year. While we browsed the girl’s section, I shuffled and mumbled, "Actually, Mawmaw, I’d rather check out the boy’s clothes."
She didn’t react; she said "okay" and told me to lead the way. And my mom let me pick out a black pinstripe jacket for 11th grade winter formal instead of a dress.
I want to talk about transferring to a more accepting and liberal high school, running for prom king because I wanted to push boundaries…and actually winning; when I chopped off my hair, stopped wearing hats, and glimmered with confidence because haircuts change lives; the first time I fastened a bow tie and looked in the mirror; discovering other women who look and dress like me and feeling less alone; every time a stranger compliments my style on the street which is something I never thought would happen.
Embracing butchness is a struggle, but these small moments have helped me undo years of insecurity.
In terms of self-acceptance, I’m not where I want to be, but I’m getting closer and closer each day. I used to think I had to choose a side. If I wasn’t what a girl was supposed to be, I would be what a boy was supposed to be. But that’s bullshit. I can be masculine in pink and feminine in a suit. I can be both and neither. I can be me. And I can be butch. And butch can be beautiful.