Erin O'daniel is a writer, artist and gender expansive womxn living in Duluth, Minnesota

Turning ǝɥS Upside Down and Hxr Inside Out

My fiftieth SiMC entry (I don’t publish Everything)! Seems fitting to pen after a powerful morning meditation on “Reverence and Pleasure, Bodies and Autonomy”.

Also, the perfect time to write about gender (both a fixed and fluid set of ideas about how all binary to non binary folx identify and express ourselves) and sex (the biological assignments given to us at birth based on genitalia).  Gender is complicated and messy. I was assigned female at birth and believe I’ve been turning my “ǝɥS” upside down and “hxr” inside out since then- with and beyond performance. 

I believe my chosen pronouns challenge and address what dumbs down gender. Julia Serano brilliantly says, “Saying all gender is performance is a crass oversimplification, as ridiculous as saying all gender is genitals, all gender is chromosomes, or all gender is socialization. In reality, gender is all of these things and more. Don't you dare dismiss my gender as construct, drag, or performance. My gender is a work of non-fiction.”

I come from a family of hyperfeminine folx. Smells and sweat are scary. Assumptions all over the place about a commitment to being “pretty”. How does this feel for me? Restrictive. Flat. Fucked up. At the Trans Day of Remembrance last week I held a sign made by some of my young trans, queer and non binary heroes that read, “Non-Trans People, Get Your Shit Together”. I want to post these words as loving reminders in family rooms across the US. Recently I listened to Judith Butler talk about Why Bodies Matter. She weaves queer theory into body autonomy and identity precarity. All ideas and topics painfully relevant right now as the occupant of the White House tries to erase trans and gender non-conforming folx from existence. From existence!! I want my upside down ǝɥS and inside out hxr to generate opportunities for conversation that create more safe space for non-binary and trans folx.

Last year my sister gifted my mom professional family portraits from JcPenny’s for Christmas. The day of the shoot was loaded. We all had different ideas of how to perform not only our gender but family. My mom took the pics seriously while my sister and I thought of the experience as hilarious and artsy. The “costuming”, usually my jam, was reduced to conformative gendered propriety. We decided on three silk dresses of my mom’s- red white and blue. Just showered, about to climb into the pearly white ensemble, my mom came in and asked me to use her antiperspirant  because my natural deodorant wasn’t going to mask my sporty (my word not hers) smell and she didn’t want me to stink up (her words not mine) the dress.

Steaming mad, I stood protecting the parts of me who have always had to fight to define hxrself through hxr physicality. Mud, sweat, muscle. My mom was both supportive and threatened by all of it when I was young. Now too. My inner twelve year old non-conforming, tomboy acted out.   I threw the antiperspirant across the room, orange boxer briefs under borrowed silk the grounding dissidence in the moment.

While some of the wackiest photos from our JcPenney shoot make me smile, mostly the images take me back to old hurts I thought I’d moved beyond. The unawareness and assumptions around gender in my family stung when younger and still do. I’ve been wearing the ǝɥS upside down, and as a shield, well before I knew I was committed to upending the binary.

Sometimes my cis people ask, “What does it feel like to be told your body and very being aren’t important? Your gendered reality is not real or how you know it.?” I say it reminds me of painful days in my high school AP English classes (always my favorite subject). I’d receive a paper back from a teacher where I’d woven in creative non-fiction/interpretation/poetry instead of keeping my literary analysis plain, dry, scratchy, formulaic. I felt the work we read in class of those on the margins in my bones- Woolf, Chopin, Neale Hurston. I lived to queerly explore the worlds known, created, and re-claimed by these writers.

Educating others about gender identity and expression is important work. However, resisting the binary everyday while recognizing my own invisibility next to people I love  feels like the red pen rebuke on those papers. Being told how to do something the “right way”. That my “unconventional interpretation” of me, art, the world is wrong and/or too much.

While I’ve identified as gender variant and gender fluid for a decade now, recently it seems more important to claim and share this gender expansive part of me with a larger external reality. In ways, my parts and body line up with the sex I was assigned at birth. Turning ǝɥS upside down means I do gender my way not yours. Recognizing that gender and sexuality are both multiple and fluid, and refusing to deploy any identity as a foundation because that would sustain normative structures. I resist and disrupt normative representation and acknowledge that normativities are kept in place through associations between binary oppositions. All of this is embedded within current economic and social structurals.

My gender expression also shifts seasonally shaping my world, uncontained and contained, wilder at times than others. Come spring, I present left of female and channel masculine energy- I upside downing my ǝɥS, I reclaim the way I dress (bright solid colors, I decorate my body with at least three shade of the same hue each day) and how I engage with power, pleasure, my own white fragility, and privilege. Summer = freer, softer, fecund,  gender expressions everywhere.

I also constantly ask, “How does turning ǝɥS upside down feel in different geographies? How has it felt different in the south?” Bodies exposed in varied, easier ways in a different sexual climate that requires less silence around sex and pleasure. Bodies literally can relax outside most of the year, warmed by sun yet still bound to rules created by white supremacist institutions. I believe writing about resisting gender norms creates new ways to explore our individual and shared gendered maps.

We live and operate outside of the binary, as intersex activist and filmmaker Pigeon Pagonis recently said while speaking at the Trans Justice Teach-In at UMD, “when we insert our non-binary identities into shared spaces and radicalize the notions of which bodies are important.”

When I feel  and present masculine,  my mind quiets and sensory experiences are hyperilluminated. In life and observing life, I let go of the outcome, recognize no effort is required to just be. In my masculinity, I feel more at peace.  I cloth my femaleness everyday and walk out into the world. More drag than my identity, as a gender non-conforming womxn I love the ways my body- cunt, brain, muscles, heart, hands and feet-radicalizes.

Ultimately, I don’t want to be told who I am and what my body can do, or what I can do with my body. As gender expansive, I define all of me every single moment. And I believe my relationship with my body is one of the most fascinating things about life (alongside intersections of love, knowledge and pleasure, how I relate to others and their relationships with their bodies).

I’ve been learning another person’s body+ over the last five weeks. An unexpected connection in a small community. Similar commitment to the fluid nature of who we are as queer folx. Womxn. Without making any assumptions, there are a million more questions to ask them. This person who lives outside of the binary everyday. Everything and nothing telling them to be their body.

Currently falling in love and writing and researching, standing with ǝɥS upside down and hxr inside out, all are related, shaped by my identity and how I move through the world. With ǝɥS and hxr, I  challenge the voices that say I should act this way because of my body, I shouldn’t love this person because of my body, I should only interact with sex and pleasure in certain ways because of my body. My wearing ǝɥS and defining hxr is relevant to place and  constantly redefines and defies the deconstruction and constructions of gender.


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