True story: When I was young, my answer to this age-old question was…a princess.
I know. I know.
This was in Japan in the late 1970s—before the global onslaught of Disney princess marketing and paraphernalia. (How I would have loved those tulle dresses and pink everything if they had been around then.) I wasn’t able to say exactly why I wanted to be a princess, but I knew that there was a magical power in being a princess. And that’s what I wanted.
Me at three, dressed up for shichi-go-san, a Japanese festival celebrating the health and well being of children at ages three, five, and seven. Image description: I’m smiling, wearing a pink kimono and a big poofy bow on my head, and holding a little red bag that matches the kimono. A city street in the background.
There’s so much to unpack here around gender and class. So much to critique about the messages I absorbed at such a young age about who was worth looking up to and imitating, who had agency and whether agency was even something to be desired as a girl, and how society was “naturally” structured so that some people lived in luxury (if you were beautiful and good enough) while others scraped by in huts in the forest (because living simply and close to the land was clearly not something to strive for).
All of this and more is worth examining. I’m particularly interested in delving into the messages I internalized about class, probably in this newsletter. (In the meantime, I highly recommend this powerful post on queerness, class, and race by Susan Raffo).
But right now, I want to tell you this: I have become what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Here’s what I mean. Underneath all the layers of harmful ideas encoded in my wish to be a princess, the primal, heartbeat desire I believe I was articulating was this: I wanted to feel comfortable in my skin and powerful in my gender.
At 45, I feel exactly right and, most days, pretty powerful in my gender, which I’ve defined for myself as dirt-and-glitter femme: Dirt under my fingernails, glitter on my eyes.
But it took a minute to get here.
Moving from Japan to the U.S. when I was 11 meant that much of my pre- and early teenage years were about assimilating and integrating myself into white suburban culture—including imitating how the girls around me acted, dressed, and talked. Sometimes I felt like I got it right, but more often, I felt like I failed. For many years, I was uncomfortable to varying degrees in my body and all that it held: my race, sexuality, and gender.
Politicized in college and in my early 20s, I began to understand the complexity of race in the U.S., where I fit in, and my responsibility to work to dismantle white supremacy. I learned so much from second-wave feminism and embraced third-wave feminism. I came out and claimed my queerness. Which was really great. But at times, I felt guilty and ashamed for wanting to wear sparkly earrings, heels, and lipstick. What kind of radical queer did that?
That’s when I discovered Amber Hollibaugh and Jewelle Gomez’s work, to my great delight. I embraced my queer femme identity with gusto. I happily stepped into the power of beauty, the power of adornment, the power of femme.
And time marched on. Over the past few years, I’ve been working on coming to terms with my aging body. What does it mean for a femme to have wrinkles, sagging skin, and thinner hair? How do I claim the femme in growing old? I’m learning, as I always have, from femmes and women who are already walking this path.
I believe in femme wisdom and our superpowers. I honor the power of intuition and emotional intelligence. I respect my way of understanding the world: as a complex web of relationships. I am committed to exploring better ways to move through the world, based on how I believe relationships function more justly—collaborative rather than competitive, sharing rather than taking, collective empowerment vs. the race to the top.
But I don’t believe this way of knowing/being belongs only to cisgender women, nor do I think that all cisgender women need to feel connected to femme power. Over the past 20 years, I’ve come to understand how nonsensical the gender binary is. And I’ve experienced the delight of being part of communities that are based on the premise that rejecting rigid notions of how one should inhabit one’s body and gender brings us closer to a world of liberation for all.
I’m also clear that I’m deeply privileged because, according to society, the gender I identify with matches the gender I was assigned at birth. When I expressed my desire to be a princess at three years old, it was seen as charming instead of shameful. And I was able over time to define the nuances of my gender for myself. It is a privilege to grow into my gender and not have it be something that endangers my life, my ability to work, or my ability to find housing.
And I know that part of my femme work in this lifetime is to use my superpowers to help build a world where anyone who wants to step into their full femme power is supported and nurtured to do so—regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth. And to make sure that this world is also one where people who are assigned female at birth can step into their masculine or nonbinary power and be celebrated and loved for who they are by the whole of society.
It is part of my work to help build a world where gender is understood as fluid and much more complex than a simple binary. Where gender isn’t constricting nor policed. Where it isn’t used as a weapon, isn’t used to exclude people, nor used to reinforce hierarchies. A world where the power of gender self-expression is understood, respected, and used for good.
I think this is what I meant, deep down, when I said I wanted to be a princess when I grew up.
To use in journaling, writing, meditating, tarot pulling, etc.
Freewrite on your gender: What color is it? What is your gender superpower? What is an archetype that resonates most with how you understand your gender? If there is no archetype that you know of, create one. Now, write an ode to the fullest expression of your gender.
What else I’m reading/listening to/thinking about:
Community / announcements
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Support organizing for and by transgender and nonbinary people—check out and donate to these awesome organizations. Transgender Law Center, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, TGI Justice Project, Trans Queer Pueblo.
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