We are pre-gender for so short a time, even shorter these days. The prenatal images of me likely looked like alien spine painted in grayscale vibrations. None survive; they didn’t print copies for the baby book back then. They declared my brother a sister because of a fast heartbeat and best guesses. But now: pink canons setting summerdry forests ablaze and plane crashes amongst dyedblue water. Even before birth, genitals announced, gender assumed, rules enforced, destroying nature while they’re at it.
Culture decides how to genderfy us. I can hear the gendercrats now, coming to correct me. It is not enough to control gender itself—who fits, who doesn’t, who is legitimate, who’s illegitimate, who’s right, who’s wrong. They must control the discourse, too. Drop a Judith Butler quote into a conversation and watch them swarm to well, actually sometime. Culture and gender have nothing to do with one another! they’ll say. Gender is natural! It’s organic, like the bananas I buy! You can’t decide anything about gender! That’s what you queer people try to argue, not us. Meanwhile: gender is a shifting beast, as much a part of culture as any myth or legend. Girls don’t all decide to love pink and lace on their own; boys don’t all decide to love blue and trucks on their own. They are told—through nursery designs, through playground rhymes and toys and dress-up—what they are allowed and are not allowed. If this is not the process of genderfication, then I don’t know what is. They will claim, too, that we are the ones who genderfy, forcing children to listen to storytimes in unsanctioned dresses and teaching girls how to win. Yet I can still feel the itching of childhood lace, the stiff fabric like a mid-90s floral couch skinned and starched. The girls wore bridalwear to First Communion, forced to pose in formal white gowns, white Mary-Janes, veils and a bouquet of flowers; boys only wore regular suits, the same one they’d wear to Easter or a fancy restaurant.
We all have a genderdox one way or another. Some—many? most?—inherited them like a vintage attic hatbox never gone through but held onto for sentimentality’s sake. Others take the box apart piece by piece—opening the top, taking a blade to its edges one by one to dismantle it. And then we realize that, even in pieces, this is of no use to us. We may keep a couple of the old photos found inside, maybe even a handwritten recipe or two. Upcycling only works when the materials aren’t rotten and molded, when it isn’t something that even the moths gave up on; it’s important to know trash when you see it. And in this metaphor, it’s the latter who believe in liberation, not taking generations of junk without question but knowing which pieces you care about and which pieces aren’t for you and cobbling together whatever might bring you euphoria, in whatever configuration of recycled and new we might need.
We all have genderphobia, too; it just inflects differently, like holding a crystal up to sunlight and watching the prism cast its spell on shadows. It comes down to what we believe is genderable. All things are genderable when all things are gendered—the way we eat, the way we spend a weekend, the way we say I love you, the way we dress and breathe and map a path toward home. But what do we have that isn’t gender? Everything is gender, and nothing is gender. Genderphobia: aversion to gender as something not ordained by god, but a fear, too, that gender can be choices, that we can question something so primordial, something so prenatal, something so basic and inherent and unassailable. Gender should, after all, just be a more family-friendly way to say s-e-x. And then there are those of us with genderphobia who fear suffocation as we try to fit the dictates, who are averse to boxes we didn’t even get to decide on in the first place. We are gendered, every fear of freedom imposed upon us from baby shower to grave.
Society wants to disengender any doubts about who we are supposed to be. Uncertainty leaves too much room for questions, for self-discovery, for autonomy when we should be automatons. Gears cannot hesitate, cannot change shape, because then productivity is disrupted and profit is at risk. And so the insistence is to regender and regender and regender until the spinning seems perfectly natural, and to question it is madness.
One of the tools of this policing: the power of misgendering. Intentional, unintentional, usually wielded against those of various supergenders. (This is the superhero origin story of every genderqueer, gender non-conforming, gender imperfect one of us.) Every time nature demands we sidestep an expectation, every time we make a choice unintended for us to know about, we achieve a kind of supergender. I no longer paint my nails; I let my earring holes close up; I wear clothes based on comfort instead of decree. Every time, every choice, a shift toward something queerer, something beyond normal, something more me.
And this is why genderphobia is so potent, this is why genderopsy leads to so many similar paths, divergent as they are in joyful expression: some of us anti-gender, recognizing genderitis and the harm it’s done us; some of us genderless, though not always completely, more of a spectrum, a sliding scale, less one more another and then patchwork in something entirely new; sometimes we arrive at something like genderish. We degender and ungender and reassign and reaffirm and learn who we are underneath the supposed necessity of it all—a kind of genderectomy, exorcising the parts of us that always felt like sand in our shell to let the pearls inside grow, shine, sparkle, until we each find our own autogender, each of us a variation of hues and shades and styles and bodies and songs that only we can sing.
And when we find the things that matter to us—always changing, always evolving, never the static myth they handed us—finally, finally gendertrophy is possible. It was never that we couldn’t grow plants. We bought tropical plants and asked them to thrive in winter winds; we tried to seed sterile soils; we tried to grow cornfields in a cup. It was not us; it was the conditions. Because when you bought eight orange marigolds for the butterflies to enjoy, you taught yourself how to fertilize them with tulip petals and how to deadhead with a thumbnail and a pointer finger, and when you found the plant, the conditions, the way to make it all grow—then, dozens in a planter, filling it like soft flames that hurt nobody. Genderiatric: to heal your relationship with gender, body, spirit—just add water.
Transgender: a boogeyman… boogeywoman? Boogeythems abound. Fear monster meant to stoke the fires of the culture wars, blasé at this point. We forget the magic of the word, the magic of the beyond, the magic of change and transformation. We rob it of its mystery, of its power, to try and keep the secrets of bliss under wraps—can’t have more people getting any ideas. This is how we end up with the extragender, and there are already so many people complaining about the basic binary—Only two genders! Only two genders! Something so true that it must be repeated again and again to ensure its enactment. God forbid there be any more gendercides.
I wonder if we’ll ever get to post-gender, at this rate, to a time and place where we only have genderarium. We connect and learn and take interest in one another as humans beyond genitals, beyond assigned colors and bathrooms, beyond mannered rules and bows and body hair. We can each be a world unto our own, revolving around one another, connected but whole ourselves.
Advocate; of the ruling class
Opinion; belief; idea
More than the norm
Beyond; a change
Place of connection
Audrey T. Carroll is the author of What Blooms in the Dark (ELJ Editions, 2024), Parts of Speech: A Disabled Dictionary (Alien Buddha Press, 2023), and In My Next Queer Life, I Want to Be (kith books, 2023). Her writing has appeared in Lost Balloon, CRAFT, JMWW, Bending Genres, and others. She is a bi/queer/genderqueer and disabled/chronically ill writer. She serves as a Fiction Editor for Chaotic Merge Magazine. She can be found at http://AudreyTCarrollWrites.weebly.com and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter/Instagram.