Author’s Note: Kelsey Gasseling (KG) is a 1L at BC Law and a member of LAMBDA, the LGBTQ affinity group at BC Law.
When I was 17 years old I went on a gender pronoun boycott. After coming out of the closet and realizing life could go on somewhat normally (no fire and brimstone, much to my Catholic school-kid surprise), I started to analyze what made me, “me.” I had the fortune of being a white teenager from the Pacific Northwest, with a supportive mother and access to a vibrant LGBTQ youth center. This gave me a relatively safe space to explore my identity outside of the conventional male/female binary. Today, I find myself confronting a new set of questions revolving around gender norms in the typically more conservative Boston legal market.
I was a tomboy from DAY 1. Much to my mother’s chagrin, this aspect of my being hasn’t changed one bit, abject loathing for dresses and all. Being a tomboy meant more to me than wearing baggy shirts, soccer sweats, and a ponytail every day of my clammy-handed adolescent life. It put me in an androgynous category – not quite girl or boy – that accurately captured the otherness I felt in comparison to most of my peers. Though I tried to enjoy the things little girls were supposed to (e.g. braiding hair, painting nails, prom dress shopping), expectations placed upon me due to my biological sex fit like an itchy Christmas sweater coated in Gramma’s cat’s hair – I could wear it, but I sure wasn’t going to smile for the camera. The same was true of typical “boy” activities, which my father tried earnestly to get me to love. Hunting, tinkering with cars and watching sports were equally unenjoyable. As gender roles evolved over time into a complicated obstacle course of emotional constraints (when it’s appropriate to cry, to whom you could say “I love you,” how you could avoid being too mannish, prissy, or ambitious), I felt that otherness more acutely. It wasn’t until I started reading literature on body-positivity, gender, and identity politics that I finally discovered the term “genderqueer.” It fit like a glove.
Gender expression and identity are wholly different beasts. Gender expression is visible and can change from year to year, day to day, hour to hour. Consider men or women who dress in drag for special events; women who typically wear dresses, but feel most confident going into interviews wearing a characteristically “masculine” suit and tie; bearded men who borrow their girlfriend’s jeans because that hipster lumberjack look is “in” right now (If you’re thirsting for pop-culture relevance, check out articles on Jaden Smith’s recent modeling of Louis Vuitton’s women’s wear). My gender expression has gone through so many phases, I lost count somewhere between Drew Barrymore (think “Never Been Kissed”) and Jonathan Taylor Thomas (“Home Improvement” era).
Conversely, gender identity is invisible. An easy, but unfortunately unreliable assumption we make is that one’s manner of dress, speaking, or gesticulation accurately reflects their gender identity. That may be true, but it very well may not. Regardless of how I dress or style my hair, my gender identity has been (and, for the foreseeable future, will remain) genderqueer. Some of my friends consider their gender a mixture of masculine and feminine, while others prefer a separate “third gender” that abides by no social constructs whatsoever. Some prefer using “they/them” pronouns to indicate this distinction, whereas I have no preference, but generally use female pronouns for simplicity’s sake (and when there’s no “other” option on forms).
Gender non-conformity and the law is an emerging area of intersectionality that we, as new legal professionals, will have the opportunity to study, expand, and strengthen. If you meet someone whose relationship with gender gives you pause, just asking how they identify can open up a constructive and elucidating conversation. This is a phenomenal starting-point for advancing awareness and acceptance of gender non-conformity, and your simple showing of considerate curiosity will foster respect in kind. Let the exploration continue.
Kelsey Gasseling (KG) was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, but has called Boston home since 2007 when she began her undergraduate studies in Linguistics at BC. From 2012-2014, she served in the Peace Corps in Guinea, West Africa, where she taught English and conducted trainings on entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment. This work in development and social advocacy inspired her to return to BC for law school. She is particularly interested in immigration and human rights, as well as community enterprise law. Outside of coursework, KG enjoys playing the trumpet, exploring the Boston jazz scene, cycling, and trying her hand at barbering (so far, no terrible haircuts).