E for Everything I Don’t Know, and Perhaps Never Will
My mother majored in PR at University of Nebraska and my father majored in Criminal Justice, where they met. The story I was told was that my father was dating one of my mother friends and they broke up, and then met my mom and married her; of course not before impregnating her with D'Andre. Although he later ended up never becoming part of law and instead a part of education, a teacher at elementary and middle schools and a high school basketball coach.
Despite this unplanned, expensive event, my father impregnated her again and she gave birth to another boy, Justin, 11 months later. According to them, they always wanted (and planned for) a single kid: a daughter. They eventually got one when I was born, but it was after taking care of boys for six years. Maya Nichelle Bradley was born on September 23, 2001, extremely fat and with high expectations set. My dad was accustomed to raising young men and my mom had been waiting to spoil a daughter. She named me after Maya Angelou, a famous poet and activist; and the lady she was named after, Nichelle Nichols, the first black lady on Star Trek.
So when I actually arrived, I was expected to be everything she wanted, not what I would become.
My father loved my masculinity and showed me things my brothers weren’t interested in. Because of this, he taught me to tie ties, shave my face (although I never really needed it; he would just put soap on my face and give me a plastic razor), how to scout good players in sports, some football, even how to read stats. As the last of his children to play basketball, I excelled at the sport. I'm sure I was as much as a son as his actual sons. I loved it all and he loved the fact he had someone to do it with, and I secretly thought he always knew I was queer, even if not in the sexuality sense, but I believe he wanted his first born daughter to be exactly like he imagined before both my brothers were born.
Despite that, I would wear his hoodies and steal my brothers’ clothes to cover up the female parts. Since they were both older than me, it was a lot harder to find the ones that fit. D'Andre was tall and wide back then. I was coming into middle school short and with lots of baby fat, even after burning most of it off through years years of basketball. The second oldest son, Justin, wore the same size shirts and pants, however he was tall, rightfully so for being five years older than me, so I could fit his t-shirts and wear his neckties and shorts, but not his pants. (I would wear whatever I could fit and whatever I couldn’t, much to my mother’s disapproval, to cover up the effects of puberty. I started growing breasts in the second grade so when I was in sixth, I had already been wearing a C cup and menstruating.)
There were plenty of fights.
Every year since kindergarten, even after my parents divorced, we went on father-daughter dates. In elementary school, they’d host a father-daughter dance in the cafeteria and every year and I go with him in an uncomfortable, but pretty, dress my mother picked out, and we’d go out to dinner and dance and he would buy me a corsage. When I got out of elementary, my sister was still there finishing out the fourth and fifth grade so she got to attend two years without me.
My father still took me on dates, though. We had a shared love of movies so we’d go to Chili's and get a two for twenty, or, our personal favorite, IHOP, right after the $5 bargain movie deal at Carmike and talk about it for a good two hours. Date nights were important to both of us, and I’m sure he loved doing them, but they also served as a good reminder that, no matter what, I still was his daughter. Not his son. Not kid. But daughter.
That wasn't really a problem for me, it was just a problem for all the adults around me, including my father, who thought my interest in the opposite sex was an indicator for my sexuality, not that it could have possibly been I want to be them. I looked male, presented as such, even occasionally when they'd call for their sons, I'd show up with them, even on the days they'd make me wear a dress. I was just as much their daughter as I was their son.
I think my first run in with the idea of gender was after I came out as lesbian. My mother, who was just starting to come around with me liking women, prayed for me to not be "one of those boy lesbians". I wasn't sure what she meant by that, rather it'd be "butch" or "stud" or the newer aged term for lesbians who weren't on the extreme left of the gender expression spectrum (feminine) nor the extreme right (masculine,stud, butch): Stem. She never mentioned an androgynous way of dressing, just the two extremes. Even beyond the dichotomy, it bothered me more she was afraid I'd be a "boyish lesbian" because that would mean, by her definition, I would present manly, almost like pre-testosterone transgender men. But, if I dressed feminine, I was still "more female" and therefore considered more attractive somehow.
The fact that the way I dressed and presented myself would make me more or less of a woman troubled me to no end. I started to see the black or white in everything. Male things were considered black, not pure and rotten; hell even unknown. White is female, what my mother knew best, clean and innocent. Perfect.
There were either male clothes or female clothes, with no explanation on why they were put on either side except a tag. There was no such thing as unisex except in shoes. Everything was either black or white, a small, two sided binary with no "stem".
When I found out about the gender spectrum, and that there was a spectrum outside the spectrum, I was petrified. I loved all the options but it made me worry. How were there so many genders? How did I know what I was? Questions like those heightened my anxieties. If I was ignoring all gender roles, ignoring my female sex, disregarding it and putting on a male appearance without taking off my female parts, would I be a part of the transgender community? What made someone transgender?
I think the first time I was comfortable enough to express my identity was after my first suicide attempt, in a behavioral hospital.
I was put in a girl's dormitory with fourteen other girls. Most of them had been there for several nights. All, but the two who had been transported the same night I was. (In hindsight, I should of known the statistics on queer youth and suicide attempt rates, but in my afternoon of horror, I forgot to check in on the last census by GLADD.)
Half the dorm were gender and sexuality variants. Unfortunately, out of all the queer girls in the dorm (12 out of the fourteen), I was roomed with one of the cisgendered, straight ones who were known to have a violent history. Nevertheless, I found a silent comfort in being around her. She was a schizophrenic 17 year old with scars I used to count on the nights I was too afraid to sleep, or in group therapy when they'd try to get me to talk for the first time since I've arrived. One night, as I silently counted her scars, she rolled over and asked me something so basic, yet so new to the ears of my half dead being.
"Some of the girls and I wanted to know, what are your pronouns?"
I didn't know how to answer. Part of me wanted to say she, but my stomach churned at the thought. Another, said he, but I couldn't make it come out of my mouth. I did know, that if I had the choice, I would have came out of my mother’s womb as male. Since I didn't, I spent years resenting myself as I played the cards I was dealt with at birth. Because of that, I also knew that I was going to be—regardless of any adjustments— female. It has always been my personal belief that I’d always be somewhere in the middle of things. If I never got a penis, or went on testosterone, but I cut off one of my own secondary sex characteristics, would I still be a woman?
She stared at me for what seemed like forever. She warned me plenty of times that I didn't have to answer and that she's sorry if it was too invasive and that she hoped it didn't trigger me. In the careful whispers of her worries, I pulled out a paper that was meant to be used for my letter to myself in group therapy tomorrow, and wrote down a single word:
From there, she blew up my ears with questions about what I'd change my name to (everyone called me by my birth name at the time), and if I'd transition medically.
I never answered her.
I could not bring myself to sit down and decide on what to call my body beyond my own. I have never felt like a woman, but neither have a lot of masculine (assigned at birth) women who love women. I’ve felt the joy of being called a man. I have felt the pain of burning up in the Georgian sun because I didn’t want my family to see my breasts and tell me I was becoming a young lady. The twist of a face when I spoke and they heard the woman in me. Writing “female” on pieces of notebook paper in school, circling crossing out the things I wasn’t—the F, the male; only keeping the e, the e that stood for everything I have yet to figure out. I'm not sure if I'd ever medically transition. I'm not even sure what point I'd reach that perfect "stem" my younger self desperately desired.
For now, I suppose, I transcend the knowledge of my own being. I am out the binary, and I am unknowing where I stand with myself. Unknowing, but alive. I am finally, alive.
Elliott Bradley is a rising junior in high school and a non-binary POC. I'm Black and Native American, as well as a lesbian. I have been published in Teen Ink Magazine both online and print. I am also a Spoken word poet who has mentored under Michaiah Edwards, a spoken word poet who made it in the Top 10 Atlanta Word Works Finalist list.