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Lance Brister Headshot

Are You a Boy or a Girl?

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I was in kindergarten when I first became consciously aware that I might be different from other boys. During recess my classmates split into two groups. The boys were all football players, and the girls were all cheerleaders. I didn't feel like I belonged to either group, so I sat on the sidelines watching the other children play. My non-participation really bothered one of the girls, who came up to me and demanded, "Why aren't you playing football with the boys?" I thought for a second, then said, "Somebody has to be the audience." Thus began my lifelong role as observer of the strange customs of my classmates, for whom the rules never seemed confusing or absurd.

This self-exclusion continued through junior high. In seventh grade my coach/history "teacher" had us help prepare for a banquet going on that night. We were borrowing spare tables from a church down the street. He instructed all the boys to get into a truck to load up the tables and all the girls to stay in the cafeteria and line up chairs. I walked up to him, confused, and asked him where I should go. I remember how disgusted he looked when he told me to get in the truck with the rest of the boys. But I didn't feel like one of them. I remember feeling like I was too dainty and fragile to be lifting tables. I ended up just holding the door for the "real" guys. Anything typically associated with masculinity gave me anxiety. I couldn't even say words like "strong" or "muscles" or "spit," because they seemed so vulgar.

I wasn't the only one confused. From a young age, adults and children alike would approach me and ask the dreaded question, "Are you a boy or a girl?" This question became a constant refrain during my childhood, coming from strangers in supermarkets, at school, in line at the bank. My mother would be mortified, and, sensing her discomfort, I learned to be embarrassed by proxy. People always want to fit you into a certain category, and when you don't fit neatly, it makes them uncomfortable.

Often I was just mistaken for a girl. The androgynous haircut I maintained through most of my childhood didn't help matters, nor did my high-pitched voice that refused to change until I'd nearly graduated. Moreover, I was small, with delicate features. Pretty. I'd overhear men say "She's cute," only to be corrected by someone who knew me. When a waitress would ask my mom, "What will she have?" my mom would always say, "He'll have..." stressing the "he." But often the waitress wouldn't get the hint.

Anytime I stood with my hand on my hip or drank with my pinkie sticking out, my mom would correct me. I didn't understand what I was doing wrong, or why it bothered her so much. But from a young age it was reinforced that I couldn't be myself, that the natural me wasn't acceptable somehow. So I did my best to build a persona that was acceptable. I got perfect grades. I never misbehaved. I never drank or smoked or said bad words. I never experimented with drugs or did the things that kids usually do, just to prove that I was good, that I had value. I excelled at everything except in winning my parents' approval. No matter how hard I tried, I could never do things right. Even if they didn't say it, I could feel it. When I joined the drama club instead of the baseball team, when I played my Cyndi Lauper albums, when I'd do my best Tina Turner impersonation to "Private Dancer," it was clear that I wasn't the child they'd expected.

By the time I was in high school, the question, for the most part, had changed. It had now become, "Are you gay?" Horrified, I'd always answer, "No!" Being very sheltered as a child, I didn't know exactly what being gay meant, but I inferred that it wasn't something you should be. I was never confused about my sexuality. I knew from an early age that I was attracted to men and not women, but how I fit into the world around me was a constant source of perplexion.

Now I look like a man. My features have become more masculine. I have a well-defined jaw, usually covered in stubble; a receding hairline; a muscular, man's body; a hairy chest. When people see me, there is no longer any doubt how to categorize me. But even when sex is established, questions remain. Gay people are no different from straight people. There's still the need to classify, to pin one another down, to know where you stand: straight-acting or flamboyant, butch or femme, top or bottom. There's still an expectation that you should fit neatly into one category.

I never felt like a girl trapped in a man's body. I never dressed in drag, played with dolls, or had a desire to style hair. But I never watched a football game, either, or tried to change a tire, or went hunting. I still walk a line in between somewhere, identifying with both groups, and ultimately with neither. These days, I'm mostly comfortable in my own skin. I enjoy being a man. But the embarrassed little boy who could never be himself will always be part of me, will be reflected in the way I interact with others, and in the way the world is filtered through me. I try to carry him with tenderness, and tell him, always, that it's OK to be just who he is.