One Ally's Story in Celebration of Pride Month

An activist in Ukraine's first gay pride demonstration seen through the rainbow flag during the action in Kiev, Ukraine, Satu
An activist in Ukraine's first gay pride demonstration seen through the rainbow flag during the action in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, May 25, 2013. About a hundred gay and lesbian Ukrainians and those from other countries took part in the gay pride rally, protected by hundreds of riot police. Antipathy toward homosexuals remains strong in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Holden Caulfield was my best friend the summer that I stopped eating. It was 1982, I was 12, and I was at overnight camp. I wanted nothing to do with the girls in my bunk. They were all about boobs, make up and boy talk. It felt so foreign to me. I just wasn't interested, and they wanted nothing to do with me either. I sat on my bunk and read J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye over and over again. Along with reading, starving myself was something I could do to gain control of a lonely summer. It nearly killed me. I was hospitalized for three months with anorexia, a secret shadow that has followed me around for the past 30 years. It was also a sort of self-imposed puberty blocker, I think. No part of me wanted to become the young women I saw around me. (I haven't read anything about this as a strategy among transgender kids, even in the amazing recent resource book, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves. But, it resonates with me.)

When I was even younger -- seven or eight, I'd guess -- I wanted to be a boy. That's how I think of it: it was aspirational more than anything else. I remember standing on a baseball diamond at day camp, playing terribly as always. A girl on the opposing team ran past me as she rounded the bases and growled, "Are you a boy or a girl?" She was intending to bully me, but I was thrilled that I was confusing her. I wore boy's clothes, bought in the actual boys' section of clothing stores, whenever I could. After a long fight about my outfit for a family wedding, I persuaded my mom to let me forgo a dress and wear a suit, a hideous green '70s number with unfortunate flowers on it. I was convinced that my body was becoming a "boy's body." I wanted people to call me Leonard, the only boy's name I could think of that started with an L.

I don't remember when or how I stopped being or actively wanting to be Leonard. My memory is murky. For many years, I had no language or venue in which to talk about this. I know that I was always an extreme rule follower and people pleaser. I wasn't going to get to be Leonard. I was being socialized to be a girl. So, I became one. I know that's not something everyone can do. It's certainly not something young people should do: fall in line with the gender they are being socialized into.

As I grew up, I faced -- and continue to face -- the structural forms of inequality and the daily microaggressions that come with presenting as a woman every day. These experiences have made me who I have become, and I would not take them back. I became an ardent and proud feminist, sociologist, teacher and mom. I married the boy who was my chess and White Sox buddy and my first crush in elementary school. And when I found gender, queer and LGBTQ studies, they filled my head and heart and I felt like I was home.

Leonard is still part of me. He wasn't just some passing phase. I will never be fully comfortable having the physical traits that get me called a woman every day. There are so many things about "womanhood" that I feel I don't do naturally at all. When I talk with trans guys about their stories or read memoirs and testimonials by trans men or transmasculine writers, I think, with a little jealousy and a lot of admiration: I might have been these guys. I also know in my bones that gender is a spectrum and not a binary. The binary is too restrictive, for me and, I'd argue, for everyone. Everyone.

But I am in quite a conventional package. There is no denying that I benefit from cisgender privilege and straight privilege every minute of my life. These intersect with my race and class privilege. I know this, and I try to pay as much attention to it in as many ways as I can, in my work and in my life. No need to be sanctimonious about it, I'm making it up as I go along. There is so much I don't know, and everyday I try to put myself in situations where I'm learning. I have learned from many mentors -- and hopefully one of the things they have taught me is when to lead, teach and speak, and when to follow, listen and just shut up.

This lifelong privilege is what determines that the letter that most accurately defines me in the alphabet soup that is current queer identity and politics is A -- for ally -- rather than LGBT or Q (though I'd like to think I can be both an A and at least a little bit Q). My allyship for LGBTQ social justice comes from my political commitments. It comes from loving and caring about so many amazing LGBT and queer people and feeling that my wellbeing is inextricably tied to their wellbeing. It also comes from my own story: a story I'll continue to work to understand for the rest of my life.