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“Oh, Jeanna! Don’t you want to be a girl?”
These are the first words out of my mother’s mouth as she sees my short haircut. No, I do not want to be a “girl.” I never fit the gendered expectations of the appropriately socialized female gender. It is one reason why I identify as a genderqueer. My gender identity and gender expression challenge a cisgender heteronormative culture. They also seem to challenge my mother, who has on more than one occasion called the natural growth of my leg hair, which I refuse to shave, “disgusting.” I wish my mom would show up differently. “Ideal Mom” would embrace my authenticity and honor my expression. Instead, my mother makes pointed comments about my androgynous gender expression that make great fodder for humorous social media posts.
I try to accept my mother for who she is and not who I want her to be, just as I ask her to accept me for who I am and not try to shame me into playing a stereotypical role within a binary gender. Acceptance, however, does not mean I must endure behavior that causes me harm, regardless of her intent. I cannot force change in my mother. I cannot control anyone’s emotions, beliefs, or behavior. I can only control my own thoughts, feelings, and actions. I can control where I set my boundaries and how I hold those boundaries.
These are the four steps I use:
1. Identify personal boundary
2. Clearly communicate boundary
3. Consistently hold that boundary
4. Set larger boundaries if smaller boundaries are not respected
First, I had to identify my boundary. I would like my mother to behave supportively of my gender expression. I want her to think I am making the decisions that are best for me. I attempted to explain to my mother how I felt sad when she made comments about my appearance because those words communicate to me that “I am not good enough.” My mother countered that she is expressing loving concern about the state of my soul. I have no interest in arguing with my mother’s reality, as I have failed at that endeavor too many times before. So, what is my boundary? My mom can hold any thought she wants; I just ask her not to express it.
Clearly identifying and communicating a boundary is essential. The belief that they should “just know,” often leaves us feeling resentful. It is difficult to hold someone to a boundary they did not know existed.
Setting a boundary is not easy, especially if someone has not set these types of boundaries before. We need to clearly communicate and consistently hold that boundary. Consistency is key. Other people will not hold our boundaries for us. My mother did not immediately change behavior. She learned over time that I will not interact with her when she makes comments about my gender. It took more than one interaction to set the boundary. It took some difficult conversations and clear communication that if this boundary was not kept then I would no longer spend time with her.
If someone cannot respect a boundary, the boundary may need to be increased. The most extreme boundary one can set is not allowing a person or situation in their life. Some LGBTQIA+ individuals must make difficult decisions to leave negative relationships with biological or socially defined family because of unhealthy boundaries. We all deserve healthy relationships and healthy relationships require healthy boundaries.
Setting boundaries in personal relationships can be difficult. Setting boundaries in social and professional relationships add to the complexity of navigating the social dynamics of diversity. Yes, I am a genderqueer female. I am also a white, middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied person. Those identities bring privileges I did not necessarily earn. It probably means I am unwittingly violating someone else’s boundaries for failing to understand their culture. This can make conversations about boundaries challenging.
I hate with the deepest passion of my soul being called girl. It feels like a microaggression to be called a girl when I am an adult woman, not a child. My cultural socialization as a feminist has been to identify and attempt to dismantle patriarchal oppression. Beyond this cultural value, I identify as genderqueer and that identity feels invalidated when I am called girl.
When someone calls me girl, I need to decide. Do I say something, or do I let it slide? The intent is rarely to harm, yet it still does. And if I am being harmed, I need to set a boundary.
Pretending a boundary does not exist or that a behavior will go away if ignored causes frustration or resentment. I’ve had the difficult conversation telling my older white cisgender female supervisor that her calling me “girl,” no matter the affection behind it, had really made me uncomfortable for months. She immediately changed behavior. I learned I needed to clearly communicate my boundary from the beginning.
Now with any colleague or new acquaintance, I set my boundary the first time the behavior occurs. I try to share this boundary upfront before it gets violated. If a workplace culture or social environment allows the continued disrespect of this boundary, I am going to set the firmest boundary I can and find an environment that holds a culture of value and respect for gender diversity.
Regardless of gender identity, whether cis-, trans-, or non-binary, we all have experienced the pressure to fit ideal gender norms as others police our bodies and expression of gender. Who has not felt or been told that they are not “masculine enough,” “feminine enough,” or just “enough” as they are? Everyone has the right to set boundaries when it relates to their body and expression of self. To hold a boundary, I need to hold my value and worth. Holding my worth means valuing myself enough to maintain boundaries that require all to treat me with dignity and worth.