How can you feel like you belong somewhere when you know you’ve never been?
In front of you, two doors await. One you know intimately whilst the other is a mystery you think you already know the answer to. Someone pushes it inwards and it swings back, inviting you to enter, showing you a glimpse of what lies within.
It’s only a toilet, but to you it is so much more than that.
Behind you, a tide of charged humanity ebbs and flows to the pounding music, strobe lighting alternates with neon jets of pink, green and blue; rhythmically attuned to the beat. The air is a stream of sweat, static and primal urges demanding to be met.
The last shot of tequila burns a warm trail down to your belly, the lemon leaving a sweet acrid taste in your mouth. You’ve always found something inherently sexual about tequila shots, the back of your hand is wet and sticky from where you licked the salt. Your right-hand rests on your hip as you bite your rose-tinted lower lip, your green eyes highlighted with shimmering eyeshadow flit from one door to the other.
You can’t stand here forever. Your bladder is pulsing almost as urgently as the thumping bass, but your gut is warring with it, holding you back from the familiarity of the crude male stickman painted in slashes of white paint on the left-hand door.
You know the barman wasn’t sure if you were a boy or a girl, you saw his eyes searching the shadows of your neck, weighing up the delicate features with the short, raven-black choppy haircut that reaches just past your unpierced ears.
You don’t care. Let him wonder.
Maybe his eyes are on you now, as you stand poised to announce your gender to the world. Although, that’s not really what you’re doing. This is an internal choice which is of no one else’s concern, no matter how much they might seem to think so.
You recall the incident by the school gates last week and automatically brush your fingertips along your cheek, the scuff marks are still there, a slight ribbing of the skin.
Waiting for your friend Sarah, you watched as a mixture of ecstatic and miserable teenagers passed by, their exams finished, freed for the summer and eager to devour it like a big, juicy peach.
Out of these bodies, Jacob Delaney emerged in all his swaggering glory, flanked by his usual henchmen. You tried to imagine him without those two thick-armed morons but couldn’t.
“So,” Jacob said, a sneer twisting his features, “What are you?”
His flunkies punctuated the question with a snigger.
“What do you mean?” You tilted your head, eyes wide and sincere.
“You know what I mean, you freak. Are you a girl now, or what?”
“Yeah,” the flunkies added in unison.
It baffled you why they seemed to care so much. You’re not entirely sure yourself, so why do they need to know?
“I’m Ash,” you said.
The flow of now ex-pupils had stemmed, leaving you alone with the delicate springtide blossoms and these boys’ dark menacing stares. You stared back; trying to understand what was behind those narrowed eyes. Was it disgust? Hatred? Fear?
“But, what ARE you?” Jacob said, a quick hand gesture brought his two goons to either side of you, their thick, meaty hands clamped down on your shoulders. You didn’t flinch. Your heart felt ready to burst out of your chest and sweat was pricking the knobbly bones of your spine, but you held yourself straight.
“What does it matter?” you asked.
Jacob stepped forwards, his hands clasped behind his back and made a show of eyeing your body from the shiny black shoes, up the drain-pipe grey trousers, over the tight pale-blue t-shirt and finally, to the pixie face, lightly dusted with make-up.
He lowered his voice and spat his words out, “What… ARE… YOU?!”
Your response was a defiant upwards tilt of your slender chin.
The gut-punch came so fast all you knew was that a second later your shoulders had been released and the pavement had smacked into your right cheekbone. One of them kicked you hard in the ribs, rolling you over in grey puddle water, winding you further. Dank rainwater from earlier in the day filled your nostrils and the boy’s cackles retreated along with their boots thumping on the wet pavement.
With a groan, you pushed yourself up and brushed your hands together, watching the flecks of dirt fall to the ground, cleansing yourself of the attack. A light touch to your stinging face came away with no blood, only dirt. That’s good, you thought, it could have been much worse.
You looked up to see Sarah rushing towards you, her little button nose scrunched up, her face reddened in outrage. “What happened?! Was that Jacob? The bastard! I’ll kill him!” She continued in her increasingly vulgar tirade, demonstrating an impressive knowledge of the male anatomy. Your cheek didn’t hurt anywhere near as much once she was finished.
Why do some people feel like they have the right to question you like you’re some kind of wartime criminal? You likened the experience to being tied to a chair with cable ties and waterboarded all the while being asked over and over again, “What are you? What are you?!”
You hope things will get better with time. Easier, like the school counsellor says.
Freak, they called you. You’ve heard them all before. A dizzying reel of past insults, compliments and everything in between play through your mind.
You’re so brave, cool, brilliant, unique, androgenous, strange, weird, disgusting, warped, unnatural…
You’ve scoured the online forums, chatrooms and official websites for information to help you understand who you are. The choice was staggering, burying you under a pyramid of words, labels and categories: genderfluid, non-binary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit… the list felt endless. You could be all of them, some or none at all.
You’re not certain it helped.
Why can’t you just be Ash?
Ash who works part-time at the town’s aquarium, day-dreaming of becoming a marine biologist while they sweep the floor with millions of tiny bloated eyes hovering through the thick glass. Ash who reads Kerrang! in front of their parents and Cosmopolitan under their bedsheets. Who, despite a tenacious love of rock music, knows all the lyrics to all the latest pop songs (and some of the dance moves).
Ash who resists the pulsating urge to hunt down Jacob Delaney and grind his face into the asphalt, making his sneer permanent. The same person who has a poster of Mahatma Gandhi on their bedroom wall with the quote “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent.” This poster is nestled between a hair-whipping scantily clad popstar and a magnificent blue whale.
Who are these people who can define themselves in such absolute terms?
Why do you have to choose? Why does anyone?
Perhaps, one day, it will all be a thing of the past. Gender identity: a remnant of history, of an ancient, primitive civilisation. People will study it at school, nudge each other and laugh, shaking their heads in disbelief at the absurdity.
Will you live to see that day?
The swell of revellers trickles in and out of the two doors which slap backwards and forwards, they seem to be in constant motion like oceanic currents. Currents which are as complex and unified as gender identity, you think. You feel as if your gender shifts like grains of sand on the seabed, forming mounds and dissipating others, eternally changing and undeniable in its beauty.
Sometimes, you wish you had some unspeakable trauma buried underneath your calm exterior. A strange number of people seem to think you must have at least one event, one tragedy, one incident that’s lacerated your psyche. But, you don’t.
No neglectful or abusive parents, no scornful friends, no family friend with loose hands or wandering morals. Nothing.
No event that you can point to and say, “There. That’s why I’m like this. That’s the reason.”
Why? Because there is no reason.
You are you.
A man shoulder-barges past you, his touch sends a ripple of nausea through your body. You have never felt less masculine. The memory of the urinal and the thick smell of maleness thrusts itself upon you and your feet make the decision before your mind catches up.
The right-hand door, marked by the stickman wearing an equilateral triangle, eases back under your gentle push.
Your breath becomes shallow as you take it all in. It is not dissimilar to the gents, in fact, the floor is exactly the same nightclub black inlaid with glitter. The sinks are marble (the same) stained with blobs of orange and smears of black (not the same). The mirror is sprinkled with specks of hairspray and puckered lipstick kisses. The air is laden with floral perfume and sweet feminine sweat.
There are masses of cubicles but they are all occupied and so you wait.
A girl in a neon blue, plastic dress shimmies out of a nearby cubicle and smiles at you, her long dark tresses swaying as she walks. There is no flicker of shock or uncertainty, only that smile. Did you worry for no reason?
Did you want to be rejected so you could declare your outrage and fight your corner?
You smile back; is immediate acceptance really that implausible?
You enter the cubicle and close the door. A small voice tells you that you should feel like an invading foreign body, but you don’t. You belong. This is where you ought to be. Right now.
Suddenly, the cubicle wall thumps on your right and a palm appears next to your feet.
“Hey! You got any toilet paper?”
The fingers waggle in hope and you quickly unravel a few squares and deliver them to the hand which promptly disappears. “Thanks!”
The word “Initiation” pops into your head and makes your smile widen.
The girl in the blue dress is still there, curling her eyelashes with a surgeon’s precision. You sidle up next to her and wash your hands before touching up your own make-up. You have some eye-shadow and lip-gloss in your jacket pocket which normally stays there until you’re concealed in one of the gents’ cubicles. Now, you brandish it with pride, puckering up, delighted to have a proper mirror to use for once.
The girl next to you rummages in her little silver bag before throwing her head back dramatically and sighing. She turns to you and asks a question you never, ever imagined you would be asked.
“Do you have a tampon?”
“Uh, no. Sorry.”
She sighs again, “Thanks anyway.” Her high-heels click-clack as she leaves, presumably in search of someone else with a tampon… you hope.
You breath in and out, straighten your jacket and give your reflection an unashamedly fierce pose before exiting the toilets with your head held high.
The door swings behind you. Back and forth. Ebb and flow.
You are not one single thing. You cannot be branded by society.
And that’s the way you like it.