Jade Sylvan’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
In high school, my parents said I went through “phases.” I would cut my hair short, lift weights, and dress super butch one year, then I would grow my hair out, get highlights, go on diets, and wear tight dresses and heels the next. Sometimes in my butcher phases I’d smash down my breasts and deepen my voice and actually try to “pass” as a boy. Sometimes in my femmier phases I’d go to a perfumed, penciled, plucked extreme and joke that I was a female drag queen. Everything felt like a costume, but it all also felt like it was expressing something essential in me.
Sometimes I dreamed of marriage to a man and a nuclear family. Sometimes I dreamed of falling in love with women. Sometimes I dreamed of pan-gender glitter orgies. I didn’t know what this meant. I didn’t think I was straight, but all the gays and lesbians on TV at the time said they’d “always been this way.” I never felt like I’d always been any way. I didn’t know what I was.
My first boyfriend did not believe that I liked girls. “Maybe you were bi-curious when you were younger,” he said, “but really, you’re just a boring old straight girl.”
In college I went through various gender presentations, from something like soft butch to nerd-femme. For five years I dated a feminine man who liked to dress in drag and didn’t mind me sleeping with women for the most part. We also had occasional threesomes. While I was with this person, I tried to tell my mother I was queer, and she didn’t (or wouldn’t) believe me because I was dating a man.
Eventually, he and I broke up. I was a slutty unicorn for a few months. I made out with boys, girls and couples all over the place. I wore polo dresses and eyeliner but also vests and ties.
When I was twenty-five, I still thought that I could never really share my fluidity with my family. A part of me was sad that I didn’t think I could have what my parents or my brother or so many of the people I went to high school seemed to have: one clear, simple relationship that had all of the rules laid out beforehand. And they had a family. I kind of wanted a family.
I met a dude and I femmed up. For over two years I was perceived as a monogamous straight woman.
During this time, I’d tell new friends that I was queer, and they didn’t believe me. They thought maybe I’d experimented in the past, but I must “really be” a straight girl since I fit into the role so well. It actually didn’t really bother me. I was playing a part out of sincere desire, and the fact that they labeled me “straight” meant I was playing the part well.
Immediately after this dude and I broke up I started wearing vests and ties again. I started dressing as a man for performances, and sometimes just to go out.
I slept with lots of different people. I slept once with a female friend who I’d met in my femme phase. As we lay naked in bed, she laughed and said “Oh, you really are bi.”
Friends told me I seemed like I was truly “being myself.” “Of course I didn’t believe you were bi when I met you,” said another close friend. “But now I know that’s because you weren’t really being yourself when I met you.”
I told them I was playing a part, just like I was when I was femme, and that it doesn’t make either time in my life less sincere. I’m not less me because I’m choosing myself.
I’ve only slept with women for the past three and a half years. This does not mean I’m not still attracted to men, I’ve just become way more interested in women lately. I’ve also tailored my gender presentation to communicate that that’s what I’m looking for.
These days I dress generally in a genderqueer dandy way:
But occasionally, I still dress like this:
And now that I’m consistently dating women, several close friends (even close friends who knew me when I was dating a men) refer to me as a lesbian. “Now you’re finally being yourself,” they say.
I was not a closeted lesbian when I was dating men. My relationships with men were not a lie any more than my relationships with women are a lie. One of the biggest fears when you’re sexually fluid or gender fluid is that people are not going to believe you. That people think that the fact that your desires and/or image of yourself is protean means that you, your passion, and even your love are insincere.
I adore that word, “protean.” It’s the only word I’ve found that means able to change easily that doesn’t have flaky or mistrustful connotations. Protean is not a very commonly-used word. We assume we can’t trust something that changes.
The sexually fluid and gender fluid don’t necessarily stand up with the rest of the TV-friendly, marriage-campaigning queers and say, “I’ve always been this way.” I understand that descriptors like that align with how many people have experienced their gender and sexuality, but I have always experienced these parts of me as mutable things that I had some degree of choice in expressing. I do not feel that my having a choice in these matters should mean my gender and sexual expressions are less “real.” And it definitely does not mean that my love is not real.
I do not invalidate a friend who tells me that even though she was born with a boy’s body she has always known she was a woman, so please do not invalidate me if I tell you I truly feel like I want to be a man one day and a woman the next. I take a friend who says she’s always only been attracted to women seriously, so please take me seriously if I love a cisman* one year, a transman the next, and two women the year after that.
I did not choose to experience my sexuality and gender as a choice. I did not choose to be able to change. I’ve always been this way.
Jade Sylvan is the author of Kissing Oscar Wilde, and also a poet and performing artist based in Cambridge, MA. Read more about Jade's work at http://jadesylvan.com.