Chronicles of Neurogender Existence
I am neurogender, because my experience of gender is inseparable from my experience with neurodivergence. I want to talk about how I experience this so that my friends and family can understand what this means for me. If you want to learn the basics about neurogenders and autigender, here are some links:
My neurodivergence includes autism, dissociation, ADHD, CPTSD, and OCD, summed up (dismissed) by doctors with a diagnosis of anxiety and depression like they often do to AFAB people. It’s also probably true that my experience with gender is inextricably tied with my experiences of trauma.
In writing about this, I was inspired by the piece “I Am A Trans Woman. I Am In The Closet. I Am Not Coming Out.” by Jennifer Coates on Medium. She wrote it going through each age of her life talking about her experiences. I thought maybe I could do that too.
TW/CW: self injury, suicidality, bullying, abuse, transphobia, ableism.
I am 4 years old.
In Nursery class there is a girl with long, silvery blond hair. I think about her hair day and night. My hair is frizzy and messy and I have trouble with brushing it. My best friend is supposedly a boy, with a beautiful artist’s name. My friend tells me that this name is ill suited, because it is a boy’s name. I don’t understand how something so alluring couldn’t also be for girls but I respect what my friend says. At playtime, my friend puts on dresses and jewelry. The bracelets don’t fit my wrists, but they look so nice on my friend. As an adult, she comes out as a trans woman and chooses a new name.
I am 5 years old.
My Kindergarten teacher discovers I need glasses. Suddenly, I am being teased about them. My mom has a chronic illness, and I am terrified of being away from her. The school calls her to come in around once a week because I have regular meltdowns. My teacher tries to hold me back a year, because I show no interest in socializing. Instead, I loved to sit by myself and play with number and letter magnets on a magnetic board at the back of class. My parents show my teacher the book of grade 3 math I’ve been doing at home, and they compromise and put me in a remedial grade 1 class.
I am 6 years old.
My grade 1 teacher realizes that I don’t belong in the remedial class, so she takes me aside and gives me my own work. I notice that my classmates start making fun of my trans friend, saying that the doctor cut off her penis, either by accident thinking it was the umbilical cord, or on purpose because her parents wanted a girl. My friend is wearing feminine clothing all the time now, and deflects all the teasing with a confidence I admire. She switches schools and we lose touch until adulthood.
I am 7 years old.
In school, at recess, I act as a popular girl’s bodyguard, keeping the boys away from her. I sprain my ankle trying to imitate a beautiful figure skater on TV. My body is bigger than it’s supposed to be. I’m taller than all of my teachers. Adults call me “well built” for a girl. I get a bad haircut and cry for a week that I look like a boy.
I am 8 years old.
I still can’t tie my shoes, but Velcro gets me teased. I can’t ride a bike but training wheels are now uncool. I can’t brush my hair, so I go to school with matted hair. Sometimes I get cornered in the shower and my hair gets brushed out forcefully and painfully while I’m naked and crying. This keeps happening until my grandmother cuts my hair short at the end of grade 6. She also shows me the ‘European’ way to tie my shoes and it finally clicks, and I still use that method. I never learn to ride a bike, even to this day.
I am 9 years old.
I watch an episode of some odd 90s show, one that I loved watching often. In this episode, they use an elevator to travel back in time to visit the first Queen Elizabeth. One of the characters is from the future, and mentions that his father is named Elizabeth and that in the future names have no gender. The other character, a teen girl, says she wants to change her name to Bob. I watched this show all the time, and the only thing I remember about it, is this one scene.
I am 10 years old.
The teasing at school is getting out of hand. I stop wearing my glasses. I get the sense that even my trusted friends are bullying me, but it’s subtle and I lack the social skills to understand or describe it. My classmate tells me that people would like me more if I wore jeans. My brothers team up on me, sometimes spitting at me. I fight back and get punished, but even moreso the guilt overwhelms me, and I make an anti-violence pact with myself. My mom falls, breaks her ribs, and never walks again.
I am 11 years old.
Somehow, somewhere, I hear about self injury. It sounds appealing, as a way to deal with all of the emotional pain I’m experiencing. I start by hitting myself with a belt, and scalding my feet in the shower. I get brave and pour boiling water over my hand.
School is a little better this year because I have a friend and a crush. My friend is a boy with epilepsy and aggression issues, who doesn’t get along with anyone else but gets along with me simply because I was nice to him. My crush is a boy who likes to pretend that he is Xena. I also notice attractions to my female classmates, but I don’t know what bisexuality is so I find the feelings disturbing and terrifying.
I am 12 years old.
I start grade 7, everything is new. I try to hang out with a group from my elementary school, but eventually one of them (whom I still consider a friend) asks me why I keep following them around. I start hanging out with another awkward girl. We eat lunches together in silence.
I am 13 years old.
My classmates make fun of me for my clothes, which are usually track suits and baggy sports shirts. This is not my choice, but I don’t know how to choose my own clothes. I stop participating in gym class. My friends from down the street invite me to try dancing with them, which I do, but I find out later from my brother that they made fun of me behind my back. I have two friends at school, but halfway through the year another girl convinces them that if they ditch me, they can all hang out with the popular girls. Suddenly they do things like invite me to the park for lunch and then go somewhere else. I try to tell my mom what’s happening but she accuses me of being paranoid. At the end of the year one of the friends fesses up and apologizes.
I am 14 years old.
A boy in class teases another boy about being gay then turns to me and says that I can date him now. My mom says she refuses to teach me how to shave because cultural values of femininity shouldn’t be imposed on me. I go to the beach with my aunt and cousin and notice their armpits are shaved, and I feel ashamed about my gigantic pit bushes. My aunt is constantly bugging me to brush my hair, and asking what conditioner I use. I work up the courage to buy razors on my own, but then I get triggered and use them to cut myself. It’s so easy and painless, it becomes my favourite method.
I am 15 years old.
I love band class, but I’m expected to wear nice shoes for performances. I go shopping at the mall but nothing fits. Every store I try is a fail. I cry to the band director about it and she manages to find me a pair of size 11 boots with chunky heels, they are still not wide enough but I can squeeze my feet into them so I treasure them until the soles fall off.
I am 16 years old.
When my neighbor friends come to visit me, I pretend to be asleep. I don’t dislike them and I do want to see them, but I never feel up for it anymore. My mom scolds me for not having friends. Someone at school comes out to me as bisexual, and a light clicks for me. That’s what I am, I tell this person, but she spreads a rumour that I was copying her to be cool. A week later as though she were psychic, my mom professes to me that gay and lesbian people are okay, but not bisexuals.
I become aware that I’m having episodes where I float out of my body, I look in the mirror and the reflection looks strange. I look at my hands and they don’t look like they are mine. In these episodes, my brain keeps asking ‘who are you?’ Then replays my past experiences of having fun while feeling intense shame for enjoying myself. The only thing that could stop this was to repeat to myself “stop thinking” over and over until it was over. I can’t even remember when the episodes started, but I suddenly ‘wake up’ to it not being a normal thing. I describe this to a self-injury support group on Yahoo! Email that I had joined, and they tell me that it sounds like dissociation. I go to the school library and take out every book I can find about suicide, self injury, and depression. The school librarian looks concerned when she sees my pile of books, then adjusts her expression to a smile and says “ohhh, you’re doing a class project right?” I am mortified, but I just say yes, take my books, and get out of there.
I am 17 years old.
I finally tell the school counselor I’ve been cutting myself and she sends me to a school social worker. The social worker sends me to a doctor and therapist. I take antidepressants for the first time but they make me feel suicidal. Therapy helps me stop self injuring though. I find out that my childhood doctor suggested that my parents send me to a specialist for depression when I was 13 but they refused. Things are looking up but everything feels so ‘quiet’. I start going to the mall by myself. I try to buy trendy clothes but low rise pants and babydoll tops are in, and nothing fits. I buy these huge flare leg pants from the men’s section at Bluenotes and proceed to live in them. They are a pretty blue colour and have neat lime green accents. I buy Maybelline Wet Shine lipstick and it feels like an illicit secret. I fail a math class on purpose because I don’t feel ready to graduate.
I am 18 years old.
I lack the executive function to keep up with therapy so sessions are erratic. I print a fact sheet about dissociation and show it to my mom, attempting to share something personal with her and be open about what I’m going through. She looks over it briefly, then says to me in a pained voice, “isn’t this just saying that it’s all my fault?” I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach and never try to talk to her about my mental health again. Instead, I talk about school. “I think I want to take English because writing is my forte!” I proclaim with the theatrical weight of 3 years of drama class. My mom purses her lips and doesn’t look me in the eye. I expected a response, so… I repeat myself. Still nothing. Eventually I enroll in school and take whatever my best friend is taking.
I am 19 years old.
My best friend and I have all our classes together and spend all our free time together. Half-way through the year, he has a psychotic episode which signals an onset of schizophrenia. I get into an abusive relationship with someone who mocks me mercilessly, who strangles me while trying to kiss me, who breaks my nose. I come home to constant yelling and fighting with my mom, who doesn’t approve of me staying over at boys’ houses. I still manage to fall in love with sociology and academia.
I am 20 years old.
I take a light load in school this year and do well. My best friend takes my weed money and buys drugs with it, bringing me a bag of grass from the ground that he’d collected, and tells me that the dealer ripped him off. In half an hour, however, he is high as balls.
I am 21 years old.
I go back to a full course load in school and feel optimistic. In October, my mom dies. Despite this, I continue with school and get all As.
I am 22 years old.
At the one year mark of my mom’s death, I sink into a deep depression and abandon school. I can’t unenroll online and I don’t want to leave my house so I don’t unenroll and get failing grades. In June, I get a letter saying that I’m not allowed to continue my education for 5 years, at which time I am required to forfeit all of my credits. I have my first normal relationship, and it lasts a nice 4 months.
I am 25 years old.
I decide that I want to try school again. Instead of forfeiting my credits, there is an option to appeal the decision. I have to show proof of academic achievement in the in between years, so I decide that I want to upgrade a high school course in adult ed. I see an academic advisor to talk about my plan and get advice. I explain my story meticulously. She convinces me that because I’ve been out for 3 years I don’t have to make an appeal and I can go back right now. This isn’t what I had read, but I trust her as an authority figure; no one knew that I had autism and no one had taught me how to question authority or how to advocate for myself. So I figure she has some mysterious academic advisor powers to make the decision that I’m good to go. I register and attend a week of classes, and then she calls me and tells me that *I* had made a mistake, and now I had to unenroll in all of my classes. I know that it was she who had made the mistake, but I have no resolve to fight her so I just say okay and unenroll.
I take adult education courses in math and science anyway, but halfway through, one of my best friends dies and I drop out.
I am 27 years old.
I live with my (also bi) boyfriend and I have a work friend whose ideals of gender and sexuality line up with mine. For a holiday themed day at work, he brings me a fancy red crinoline skirt to wear, because I love dressing up but have trouble putting things together. I wear it all day, and at the end of the day, an older woman that I’d never spoken to comes up to me, laughing in relief and tells me “oh goodness, before I put on my glasses I thought you were a man in a skirt!” She holds her hand over her heart as though she’d been saved from some horrifying situation. I am mortified, I am furious, I want to scream at her, but I feel the crushing weight of all of the normative femininity that’s constantly held over my head and I just say “I get that a lot” and get away from her. I tell my coworker who witnessed this that if I were more sensitive this would have really upset me, even caused me dysphoria. (I know now that I am sensitive, and it did cause me dysphoria. At the time I didn’t even know what to call my experience.) My coworker knows this woman and brushes it off as her being harmless. I think about it later, and I’m not sure in what situation it would ever be appropriate to say those words to someone.
I tell my boyfriend that I might be genderqueer. He warns me that he might not be attracted to me if I change my presentation. We break up soon after, with him telling me it’s because he wants to pursue dating men.
I am 33 years old.
I decide I want to learn to drive, and it goes slowly but okay. My aunt joins me for one session, and while I’m pulling out of a parking space, she says to me, “your mom would be so proud of you for driving because she was so disappointed in you when she was alive.”
I go camping with a social group and I notice a lot of ‘divine feminine’ theme in what they talk about. I find it sort of intriguing but also threatening in some way that I can’t articulate. One of them helps me set up my tent. She remarks that the bag says it is a “3 person tent” and wonders why we don’t have specific women and men tents. Men are so much bigger than women right, so women should have our own “3 women” tents. I ask her which tent I would get. She says “ohh…” and drops the subject.
Later in the summer I am invited to a women-only full moon ritual. The discomfort I feel at being invited to this is confusing to me. I join the group chat anyway and someone mentions that “everyone in this group shares a womb”. My womb is full of tumours (fibroids) and causes me constant agony. I think about the trans-exclusionary nature of the statement. It all makes me want to cry. I think about saying something to the group but instead I just leave.
I finally go back to university and remember why I love sociology.
I am 35 now
I take a sociology of sexuality class and the professor encourages us to disclose our pronouns. I realise that I have always avoided this, and I think to myself about why that is. This is how I realise that I am genderfluid, and one set of pronouns is not enough.
I already know that I am autistic but now I find community support that accepts self-diagnosis. I discover that I also probably have dyspraxia, which is why I had such a hard time with motor-skills related things like tying my shoes, brushing my hair, riding a bike, and driving a car. I still can’t do the last two, but I have a bit of driving practice now and big hopes for mastering them in the future. This realization has been bringing up lots of feelings of grief, knowing now that a lot of these things I’d been scolded and bullied and berated for were actually a disability. I’m not sure why it feels worse this way, but it does.
My gender fluidity was hard to conceptualize, and I am still not sure how much of it is what I feel inside and how much of it comes from the way that people treat me and the trauma this produces. I only know that it’s not exclusively one or the other, and is a mix of both. Autism and dissociation especially complicate this because I might want to be considered a woman but often I feel completely dissociated from that concept. So, am I a woman or not in those moments? I get dysphoria if someone describes me as a man, because that’s not me. But I get dysphoria when someone describes me as a woman too. But I also get dysphoria when someone implies I’m not a woman. So… it’s like I can’t win the gender euphoria game. I’m still searching for my truth.
It seems I occupy an awkward middle space. Generally speaking, cis women don’t question my womanhood if I don’t conform to their version of it like they often do to trans women. But I am marginalized and excluded by the assumptions they make about women’s bodies, by their ignorance about how someone who looks like me is treated in the context of womanhood. They assume I feel welcomed into womanhood by nature of how I was born, but they have no idea that this welcome is shaky when it is tasked to extend to someone tall and broad shouldered, who can’t find feminine shoes. They laugh about short men dating tall women, and don’t realise that I’m taller than most of the men I meet and all of the men I date. They try to accept me into spaces where they don’t even realise they are marginalizing me. And not having any way to describe these experiences has left me feeling isolated for years.
Why am I writing this now? Because despite doing very well in school, I’ve been overrun with trauma flashbacks lately and I feel like I need to get my experiences written down. There are a lot of things I didn’t include, a lot of trauma that I’m still processing. Writing this out helps it to make sense to me, to remind myself that my pain didn’t materialize from the ether, it was thrust upon me through terrifying situations and exclusionary social norms and flat out bullying. I am busting my ass to do well in school this time but I have this undercurrent of terror that it’s all going to fall apart before I graduate. Two more years. Two more years…