How to Be Cisgender by Ben Appel

In the following essay, I use the pronouns they/them/their to identify Kori Doty. I also use these pronouns to identify Doty’s child, Sea.

Recently I read an article about a trans, non-binary parent named Kori Doty who has been disallowed from obtaining a birth certificate for their newborn baby, Sea. In British Columbia, where Doty lives, the law requires that every child be registered as exclusively female or male, and Doty refuses to comply. “I want my kid to have all of the space to be the most whole and complete person that they can be,” explains Doty, whose uplifting words also leave me heartbroken, because I know that the effort to maintain this space will be infinitely more difficult than creating it. Eventually Sea’s classmates or teachers or whoever it might be will come along evangelizing gender norms like scripture, and it will be up to Sea to resist conversion like I was never able to.

When I was four years old, I developed an obsession with My Little Ponies. It was almost erotic, my fixation with the rubbery plastic dolls, and I would spend hours every day combing their shiny, multicolored hair and braiding their matching tinsel-woven tails. I thought they were beautiful, coquettish, meek-looking creatures—the epitome of femininity in my young mind—and
the longer I played with the ponies, the more I self-identified with them. In hindsight, the fact that they had no identifying genitalia, but were understood to be female only because of the color of their hair and the length of their painted-on eyelashes, must have made me feel safe, and perhaps even beautiful myself.

There is a photo of me as a child, clutching a My Little Pony in church as my baby brother is baptized in the foreground. My older sisters say that this is their favorite photograph of me, along with another taken at home in which I’m wearing a yellow skirt speckled with daisies, and a red, paisley headscarf. I would spin around in that skirt for hours, holding my arms out to feel the hem tickle the undersides of my wrists, the fabric forming a perfect circle around my tiny waist. I can remember feeling elegant, flirtatious, and lovely.

As a young boy, I followed my sisters around like a shadow. I mimicked their mannerisms and memorized their slang, and I learned when to laugh at all of their favorite movies. I loved the supermodel Niki Taylor because they did, and her younger sister, Krissy, who we collectively mourned when she died tragically at seventeen from a rare cardiac disease. I joined in when they exercised to Cindy Crawford’s workout video, and I used Sun-In at the beach to replicate the honey-gold highlights that shone in their rich, brown hair. I told their jokes as well as their personal anecdotes that didn’t involve anyone I knew. I wished I could share their clothes, but either I was told that would be unacceptable, or I had come to that conclusion on my own.

My sisters played lacrosse for their all-girls Catholic high school, an historic and grand institution that sat atop a hill overlooking Baltimore. At all of their games, I would cheer along with the doting mothers and the wound up fathers from the sidelines, and join hands with the nuns to recite the Hail Mary when the team was down by one. My parents noticed I had a knack for lacrosse when I started picking up a stick and tossing around the ball during halftime, so they registered me for the local youth league when I was eleven.

Before my first season began, I practiced with my sisters in the field next to our childhood home, running and leaping like a gazelle, rarely stumbling or forfeiting the ball. I was destined to be a star on the team, yet there were multiple caveats: girls’ lacrosse sticks were wooden with shallow pockets, and boys’ were aluminum with pockets that were round and deep; girls wore thin gloves and a mouth guard, while boys wore shoulder pads, rib pads, elbow pads, mitts, and a helmet; the girls ‘checked’ their opponents’ sticks to knock the ball loose, and the boys whacked
and jabbed whichever body parts were left exposed to violence from beneath the multiple layers of foam armor.

During my first game, I scored four goals by the end of the first half. At the beginning of the second, I pretended to hurt my ankle so I didn’t have to play anymore. I’m not sure if I was frightened by the sudden power I wielded, or if, somewhere along the way, I had learned that it was okay to be good at something so long as I wasn't too good. What I do know is that it was unbearably hot under those foam pads, the metal helmet was obscuring my vision, and I hated playing with the boys.

When I was twelve, my family moved to a neighboring town and I was enrolled in a new school. My new classmates wasted little time in pointing out my differences: “Are you a boy or a girl?” I was asked frequently, and a multitude of synonyms for ‘homosexual’ were slung at me daily. There were hateful notes about my “dirty little secret” passed to me during homeroom, and I would find “Ben is a fag” scrawled in magic marker on the title pages of my textbooks. Somewhat ironically, it was in public school—not the private, Christian school I had previously attended—that I became abundantly aware of the laws of heteronormativity, and how for years I had been breaking every last one of them.

To cope with the trauma of the bullying, I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder. My particular brand of OCD was moral scrupulosity, which meant that I would repeat prayers of repentance over and over again in my head because I knew that I was being punished for my myriad sins: I hadn’t held the door for the lady at the grocery store; I thought my geometry teacher’s new haircut was ugly; I wanted to kiss the other boys.

To ward off the bullies themselves, I learned how to defeminize myself and conform to their definition of what a boy is supposed to be. I cut my hair, deepened my voice, and bought baggy clothes; I practiced walking differently, with more purpose and a clumsier foot; I got rid of my Mariah Carey CDs, lest someone find out that I knew every word to “Fantasy,” and cultivated a disingenuous obsession with Kurt Cobain, even though I hated his music because it made me feel despondent and borderline suicidal. Piece by piece I dismantled my identity, diminishing all of the inherent qualities that made me who I was, and my spirit was crushed.

At the time, I had no way of knowing how dependent my identity was upon my freedom of gender expression. My intellect, my athleticism, my creativity—all of it became compromised the moment I relinquished all of my power to my peers. I could no longer organize my thoughts because I couldn't tell which were mine and which belonged to Jeff and Jacque and all of the kids who threatened. Simply walking in front of others was terrifying, let alone sprinting down a lacrosse field cradling a ball in an aluminum stick. I was rendered incapable of being without self-scanning for remnants of femininity that I might have missed and that needed to be expunged immediately.

A decade would pass before I would feel safe enough to express the parts of me that had been suffocated by toxic masculinity, but only after multiple visits to the psychiatric ward and heaps of psychotropic medication. Unlearning the need to stifle what feels natural is a difficult process, and in the years since then I've expended a great deal of energy contemplating whether, in each present moment, I’m behaving authentically, or if I’m overcompensating because I don’t want to present as anything other than hyper-masculine. (I almost wrote “anything less than,” but I caught myself.)

At thirty-four, my gender expression is jumbled, kaleidoscopic, and often contradictory. Here are some examples, which, I am aware, are still categorized according to heteronormative standards of gender expression: I prefer wearing women’s perfume to men’s cologne; I get manicures and I like color polish, so long as it looks like I’m not wearing any color; I present as if
I’m an athlete and try to dress accordingly; when I’m doing anything athletic, I imagine myself as a player on the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team; I drink creatine shakes and lift weights four days a week because I want large muscles; a photograph of Britney Spears motivates me to work out; when I’m conversing with other women, I mimic their movements by pushing my hair behind my ear or jutting my hip; I participate in the “bro” handshake and talk like Jake Gyllenhaal; I want to look like Johnny Depp; I want to inhabit Charlize Theron’s body.

I often wonder if, had I never done everything I could to snuff out my femininity, my current configuration of gender expression would be the same. Would I want to look like Charlize Theron, too? What clothes would I like to wear? Would I still be using Sun-In? Or maybe it would be exactly the way it is—a comforting thought, like I might have effectively restored myself. I do know that I’ll always be a little heartbroken over what felt like a necessity to compromise my inherent gifts as a young person. I still mourn the loss of what I might have been able to create, write, and perform, even if I am aware that my experiences made me the person I am today, someone who I generally like.

A few days ago, my husband asked me if I think my gender expression as a child would have been different had my parents borne two sons before me rather than two daughters. I said I didn’t think so. After all, my father, who comprised just the right amount of paternal aloofness and overbearing masculinity, was hugely influential during my childhood, as was my ‘all-boy’ younger brother with whom I shared a bedroom for years.

As for Baby Sea, their most prominent influence will, at least for a time, be a parent who describes themselves as genderqueer, so I suppose any question about family influence dictating gender expression would be rendered moot in their case. In fact, even if Doty is successful in maintaining the gender-neutral space that they envision for Sea, there’s still the possibility that Sea will end up conforming to traditional gender roles on their own. One of my closest friends adorned her daughter in greens and yellows from day one, and absolutely forbade her mother from taking her to the American Girl store, but the moment little Phoebe was given an inch of autonomy, she dove into a pool of purple glitter and swam a mile.

I bought Phoebe her first My Little Pony—the purple Twilight Sparkle—when she turned five, and she was positively gleeful. “I totally get,” I told her. “I love her, too.” Of course I no longer carry around the ponies like I did when I was her age—my husband would take issue with that, understandably—but on a late-night excursion to Target, I’ll sometimes find myself alone in the toy aisle, sorting through the Pinkie Pies and Rainbow Dashes and all of the characters that stir the hiraeth within my heart. I think it's funny, really, that by holding these multicolored dolls in my hands, it feels as if I wield a power against my former oppressors, like Thor with his mighty hammer or Wonder Woman and her magic bracelets. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Rainbow Dash, who bears a bright ‘wonderbolt’ on her blue flank, maintains the weather in Ponyville, while the Norse god conjures thunder with a single strike, and Wonder Woman flashes lightning with a
quick flick of her bejeweled wrists.

Illustration by Charlie Blodnieks and Cameron Lee

Illustration by Charlie Blodnieks and Cameron Lee