What I’m Thinking Now: Fundamental and Irrelevant

Last week I published the post, Reclaiming Androgyny, and shared it to Facebook. My friends there responded with such full-hearted warmth and acceptance that I was greatly touched, but also vaguely embarrassed, as if I’d been caught in a room I shouldn’t have entered. I’d written about exploring my gender expression through clothes and hairstyle, but I also touched on my essential gender identity, which you might describe as “female but not necessarily feminine”.* I felt like my friends were showing me a lovingness that made more sense for a bigger coming-out, say, as nonbinary, or trans; I was afraid they might have somehow misread what I was actually saying. Then I realized that in talking about my gender identity I had come out, even though I’d come out as something that’s widely accepted and pretty normative. Cisgender people don’t usually have to come out in their gender identity, which is part of our privilege.** It’s not as scary or as potentially dangerous to come out as the gender that I am, but it’s also not generally something that cis women do, and my friends were showing me that they supported my honesty in sharing this part of who I am — which is to say, far from misunderstanding what I was saying, they actually got it better than I did myself.*** 

I was also worried, when I drafted that post, that I might be making a bigger deal than is warranted about something so subtle as shaved hair and button-down shirts; though I mention androgyny in the title, I’m not sure I register that way to others. But when I published the post, I realized it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks; it feels like a big deal to me. And yet I don’t need anyone else to make a big deal of it. It’s important to me to be seen, but as with the other parts of my identity, my gender is both fundamental and irrelevant: significant, but not all-defining. 

This is true of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage as well. I think often of the opening lines of a Pat Parker poem:

The first thing you do is to forget that I’m black. 

    Second, you must never forget that I’m black.

Pat Parker, “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend”

Our identities are everything, but also, they’re not important, or shouldn’t be, when someone is deciding whether to smile at us on the street or buy our book or be our friend. For me as a Chinese American person, so many people have failed to see past that aspect of my identity, I downplay it with people I don’t know very well. It’s a self-defensive habit borne of the exhaustion of having to represent all the time, but it’s also accidental, in the sense that being myself doesn’t mean “being” Chinese American. On the other hand I’m also never not being Chinese American — which becomes evident the second a new acquaintance (even an old friend) says something ignorant or othering about Asians. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent months, since so many preschools are anxious to ensure that their students receive exposure to diverse cultures. There’s a disconcerting burden/opportunity we have as parents, to showcase our heritage for our children’s classmates, but what does that mean? We toured one school during the Lunar New Year, when they had chosen to celebrate Asian cultures as their theme of the month; this included setting out Chinese-takeout menus and those distinctively decorated Chinese-restaurant plastic plates in the play kitchen area. I was unimpressed and deeply frustrated at the thought of having to combat that pigeonholing somehow, with what, a single parent talk on a single day at school? 

Owl is going now to a school with a much more nuanced understanding of inclusion, but I notice there is still a week when we will be expected to come speak to her classmates about “what makes our family special”, and there are still not enough other Asian families at the school that I feel I can skip the culture topic. So, sometime between now and the spring, I have to figure out how to convey a kind of Culture 101 to a roomful of preschoolers — to touch on this part of who we are in a way that conveys both its centrality, and its irrelevance. 

*Such imprecise terms we have! 

**This is especially true for cis people who identify as straight. Author and LGBTQIA activist Jacob Tobia has spoken of wanting a future where everyone investigates their gender: “I think we’ve let cisgender-identified folks get away with the idea that their genders are simple. There’s no such thing as a simple gender. Gender by nature is not simple. Gender’s a very complicated, nuanced, culturally dependent, locally dependent, constantly morphing, always changing set of rules and regulations that is simple to navigate for nobody.”

***I hope I am not inappropriately co-opting language created through the struggles of the queer community, by talking about this as “coming out”.