Even though I have a man’s body, I have never felt male. My parents taught me that a guy has to be strong, have many girlfriends, and be the one who supports the family. This is how men are described in my Dominican family. But I have never been able to relate to those aspects of masculinity.
I also did not identify as a female. I felt in limbo. I struggled a lot with my identity. In classes where genders were separated for sports or other competitions, I often stayed in the middle of the classroom. But the teachers usually sent me to the boys’ side anyway.
One time, I spoke up. I was in 4th grade, in elementary school in the Dominican Republic. They had just separated us into teams based on genders; I stayed in the middle since I did not know what I was. “What are you doing?” the teacher said.
“I don’t know what I am,” I said innocently.
“Look in your pants, do you have a penis?” he said.
“I know I have a willy,” I said, “But I don’t feel that I’m a boy.”
The teacher gave me a slap and said, “Don’t mess with me, boy. Now go to your group. I’m too old for this stuff.” I started crying out of anger. Not only had the teacher slapped me really hard, he had forced me into going with a group where I didn’t feel like I belonged.
In the Dominican Republic, hitting students is not uncommon. This was one of many incidents that happened with my teachers due to my questioning behavior, but fortunately it was the only time I was hit. Usually they would just laugh at me and send me to the boys’ section.
Once I got to middle school I’d grown tired of dealing with this situation over and over, so I didn’t argue anymore and went to the boys’ section.
My parents told me that being attracted to your same gender was something unspeakable, something out of the devil himself. I used to feel the same way, until I started questioning everything about myself when I was in 8th grade.
One of the things I questioned was the existence of God. Should I believe in someone whom I’ve never seen, felt, or heard before? Should I believe that he could make my life better if I begged and prayed to him, and that he’d disown me for not following him?
Halfway through 8th grade, I began to figure out my sexual orientation, which was at the time bisexual, meaning that I could love anyone, man or woman. But since I am from a religious Catholic family, where bisexuality is considered a sin, I had to keep it a secret. I was afraid they’d hit me or force me to go to church to “gain faith” and convert to the “good side.” I’d already had my dose of “faith-giving sessions” since I went to Catholic schools and I did not want any more.
Two years ago, I moved to New York with my family. I’m a junior now and in the beginning of the school year I got the chance to learn more about my feelings. I joined the Leaders Club at the YMCA, where a group of teens led by two advisors get together and talk about issues such as racial and gender discrimination and deportation, and ways these problems could be solved. Leaders Club also has an event called Rally that includes a weekend getaway at a camp. The Rally that I went to was at Camp Greenkill in Huguenot, New York. The theme for this Rally was becoming the very best that you can be.
While we were there, we did activities that focused on identity. One was called “Privilege Walk.” It took place on a road between two forests. There were 11 of us. It was a cold clear day; it felt peaceful being around a lot of trees. It was the perfect mood for this activity, which turned out to be life-changing.
We had to either take steps forward or backward, if the statement applied to us. “One step forward if you identify as male,” said the adviser running the activity. I hesitated but ended up stepping forward since I obviously was not female. The adviser continued: “One step forward if you identify as female. Take one forward step for every car and computer you own. Take three steps forward if you eat breakfast every day.” These sorts of statements continued.
After five minutes, the adviser said: “Take five steps back if you are LGBTQ+.” I knew what LGBTQ+ was and took five steps back since I’m bisexual. But then they said, “Take three steps back if you are a gender-nonconformer.”
“What is a gender nonconformer?” I asked.
The adviser told me a gender-nonconformer is someone who either identifies as both male and female, or does not identify as either.
I was enlightened. I finally had something to call myself.
I do not see myself as male because I do things that boys don’t typically do. I used to play with Barbie dolls and role-play with my cousins. I mostly played the roles of aunt, the daughters, or the grandma. I liked riding my sister’s bicycle more than mine even though it was clearly for females due to the pink Strawberry Shortcake branding. I call other men pretty, and I’m sensitive when it comes to romantic relationships instead of acting all tough and like I don’t care.
But I had one more question: “What if you are a person who can love somebody regardless of their gender identification?” The adviser looked at me and simply said, “You would be a pansexual.”
After that, I no longer called myself a bisexual male but a gender non-conforming pansexual. I received a lot of support from my friends and my advisers. They have embraced my complex nature as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. I feel like I really belong there with my new identity.
Although I feel supported, I get pressured a lot by my family and my friends from the Dominican Republic. They are adamant that males are supposed to be the strongest in every way possible. But I do not want to be the strongest in every way possible. I just want to be myself without conforming to common stereotypes.
For example, the Dominicans I know expect guys to have been in lots of relationships with girls before reaching their 30s. Although my family does not know that I am gender non-conforming, I stand up to them and say, “I can do whatever I want.”
At a recent family reunion, my aunt asked me out of the blue, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
I chuckled and said no, but she continued.
“Why not? You’re a handsome man, you should have at least five girlfriends right now.” I cringed at her comment, since I do not consider myself handsome or a man. I also took offense to the suggestion that I should have five girlfriends at the same time.
But instead of telling her that, I smirked and walked away. I was really frustrated, because they were pressuring me to become someone I do not want to be.
I want to make a mark on the world without being told, “You’re a male, so you can’t do this or that.” Discovering what a gender nonconformer is was one of the most impactful things in my life. Now I know what I am.
How to Talk About Gender
Gender Identity: How a person, in their head, thinks about themselves. This is based on a society’s expectation about how people should look, think, and act as someone of a specific gender. Examples are Woman, Genderqueer, Transgender, and Man.