My father was a good man, so he wanted the best for his daughter. When my parents banned Barbie, it was Dad who was behind it.
The rules of Barbie were complicated. When my aunt and uncle gave me a Barbie doll for my birthday, my parents solemnly placed her in a box, put that box on the highest shelf in my closet, and told me I could have her when I was 16 years old. On the other hand, Skipper, Barbie’s younger, flat-chested sister, was allowed in our home, even though she came with a floral-print bikini that did little for my self-confidence. The by-laws of Barbie aside, the message was clear: my father cared about me. He didn’t want me to grow up thinking that I needed to look like a pink plastic version of womanhood. He wanted to prepare me for the challenges I would face in a sexist world.
There was only one problem with my father’s plan: I am not a woman. As a kid, I thought of myself as a tomboy, even as I secretly drove Barbie around in her pink convertible at my best friend’s house. That feeling of being different has never left me. When I was in high school, I considered binding my chest flat like Skipper’s. I thought about taking hormones to change the contours of my body to make it easy for other people to understand me as male. But I rapidly realized that I didn’t want to be a man. My difficult truth is this: gender makes no sense to me. I am a gender conscientious objector, a draft dodger, a protestor. So I dress my breasts and hips in button-down shirts wear vests and ties and try not to mind what other people say. I understand myself as genderqueer – as having a gender that lies outside of the binary of men and women. It is a feeling that seems to require explanation, but it is mine. I have felt this way my entire life, but I have never told my father.
My father is a high school chemistry teacher. He is quiet and gentle and adept at the art of enthusiasm. He finds the world wondrous and he does what he can to share that feeling with other people. When I was still in elementary school, he brought home half a pound of dry ice and let my little brother and me play with it on the kitchen table. We watched entranced while Dad flicked the dry ice and made it seem to float. We squealed when he showed us that if we pushed a spoon into the dry ice, it would make a screeching sound. “See,” said Dad, “when the spoon pushes into the dry ice, it starts to become vapor more quickly. That releases carbon dioxide. The oscillations in pressure occur very rapidly, which produces sound waves that you hear as a screeching sound. Isn’t that cool?”
My father made the world magical. We fell into each other’s orbits like two stars in a binary system.
I joined after-school science clubs and excelled in competitions. For fun, I kept lab notebooks in the old-fashioned style that my father required his students to use. Dad insisted on spiral notebooks of graph paper because they could be used equally well for notes, data tables, or graphs. He instructed his students to write in pen and cross out their mistakes with a single line, so that all of their work could still be seen and no data would be lost. Even though my handwriting was messy and my spelling unintelligible, I still carefully crossed out each mistake with a single, perfect line.
I wanted so badly to meet my father’s standards, to be gentle and kind, to have neat handwriting, and be able to do simple arithmetic in my head. I was so busy trying to avoid disappointing him that I never thought that my dad might fail to meet my standards.
Dad wanted to support my interest in science, so he enrolled me in a program called Advocates for Women in Science, Engineering, and Math. As it was the 90s, the acronym was pronounced “awesome.” For me, it was awkward. I didn’t feel connected to the girls or women in the program. Usually, science clubs offered me a rare opportunity to blend in, but surrounded by women in business-casual khakis and teenage girls with high ponytails, I stood out. I knew I didn’t quite belong with these exemplars of women’s empowerment. I looked up to them, but I knew I wasn’t going to be one of them. Besides, a club to support my participation in science seemed silly. I was participating just fine, I thought.
In my other after-school science clubs, I could hang out with the nerdy boys as well as the nerdy girls. Gender seemed to matter less than in the rest of school. We were defined by how many elements we could name and how many constellations we could identify. Yes, there were more boys than girls and I found their adolescent swagger and sexist remarks incredibly frustrating. But science gives me objective way to kick their ass. I could prove I was just as good as they were. I could excel at something that had nothing to do with my gender. Science created liminal space. It was like I could feel what it is to be a ball at the top of an incline. I buzzed with potential energy.
I am older now and my meager scientific achievements are all in the past. In 8th grade, I discovered social science and realized I could be nerdy about people and systems. These subjects suited me even better than chemistry and geology. I have left my beakers, test tubes, and periodic table t-shirt behind, but now I understand what my father and my women mentors were trying to give me. I have experienced sexism in the workplace and I know exactly what it is like to be the only person of your gender in your field of study. I think programs like AWSEM are really awesome and I think struggling against sexism and racism is one of the most important things that a person can do. But I am not a woman. I have told my mom and dad that I am queer specifically that I am attracted to people regardless of gender. But I can’t seem to tell them that I am not their daughter. The words always catch in my throat.
Shortly after I disclosed my sexuality to my father, he said the only hateful words I have ever heard come out of his mouth. We were in the car, he in the passenger seat me behind the wheel. I’ve always been a reluctant driver, so I was 19 years old and practicing for my driver’s test. We were stopped at the stop sign at the top of the hill by my childhood home, waiting for traffic to clear so I could make a right-hand turn. We were talking about something, I don’t remember what, when suddenly, nonchalantly, my father said, “Just as long as you aren’t one of those people with two genders or something.” I said nothing. We finished my driving lesson like nothing had happened, but I have never driven a car again. I can’t do it without hearing my father’s words in my head.
I remember feeling, when my father said those words, like everything was different. It was like we alone had broken Newton’s law of universal gravitation. No longer did our masses attract each other. During that car trip, I became an astronaut, adrift on a spacewalk gone wrong.
In families, we like to believe we know each other, but we are completely unscientific in our methods. Instead of gathering data, we tell each other stories about who we think we are and who we want each other to be – about the beautiful little girl who will grow up to be an empowered woman and the good father who was always right about everything that mattered. I’ve decided to tell myself this story about my dad: I still love him wholly and without reservation. Since making that remark, he has changed. This Father’s Day, he insisted that I call him while he marched with his church in the pride parade. But my father trained me as a scientist. That means that I gather data and I make observations. I know that my dad’s words are statistical outliers. I have crossed out what he said with a single, perfect line, but I can still see it in my lab notebook. My results are inconclusive.
Joy Ellison is a writer, activist, and scholar living in Chicago. Their work has been published in Just Out, In Our Words, Racialicious, and Electronic Intifada. Joy is currently working on their first graphic novel, a timely, nonfiction account of the power of community set in a small Palestinian village called At-Tuwani. When not writing, Joy teaches college students to be rabble-rousers at DePaul University. Their work can be found at http://jmellison.net