In My Shoes: Navigating the Western Gender Binary

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Words || Rey Vargas

In the journey of self-discovery, ending up where you began can be a good thing. I drifted from my childhood tendencies only to come back to them, but with more wisdom and insight. Things that I thought were my weaknesses became my strengths. Some of them included my affectionate nature, my humanism, and my body. Those things were used against me, but I’ve reclaimed them and grew from that experience.

From infancy to childhood, I was affectionate. My parents told me stories of how I would ask for hugs from relatives I just met. Before I could form sentences, I was already making up words that meant “give me hugs”. That quirk of mine didn’t pose a huge issue in my home country, the Philippines, since physical affection is commonplace in the culture. 

It did pose an issue, however, when I moved to Sydney and started high school. Suddenly, it was taboo for me to hug my male friends. Even touching a classmate’s arm for too long was seen as a romantic gesture. The prevalent Western culture enforced its restrictions on me and I caved in like a house of cards. I couldn’t give my love the way I was used to giving it so I tried to stop feeling it. That way, there was nothing to give to begin with.

But not feeling anything at all was near impossible. I couldn’t invest my love in real people, so I turned to fiction or people outside my social radar like celebrities. I put so much of myself into the words and music I put together. Countless days were spent curating playlists for people and moments I would never get to experience. I would write fanfic after fanfic of my favourite characters in scenarios I wish I could make happen. If you pick a playlist I made and listened, you’d find reverence and passion. If you read one of my fanfics, you’d be immersed in a world of colour and light. I surrounded myself with art and music of distant realms, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the bleakness of my own. 

Another restriction of Western culture I see is the strict enforcement of the gender binary. In the Philippines, we have what some would consider a third gender: the “bakla”. I grew up knowing the bakla to be someone who is assigned male at birth but displays feminine mannerisms and present as women. They can be attracted to men but they are not necessarily gay. Some self-identify as women, some don’t. However they present or identify, baklas are integrated and even accepted in mainstream Filipino society. I grew up in an environment that has flexible and forgiving ideas about gender identity and expression, so I carried over those ideas when I moved to Sydney. 

When I cut my hair short in Year 7, two boys asked me if I was a boy or a girl. At the time, I was wearing the girls uniform and – identifying as a girl back then – I tugged at my skirt as a response to their question. The shocked reaction I got from them was perplexing. I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to them. It was just hair… or was it? 

I told my former partner, a trans girl, that she was free to call me her boyfriend if that was the safer term to use. I’m nonbinary and I’m indifferent towards gendered terms, but it triggered some dysphoria when she started treating me more like a boy. She forced that I take on traditionally masculine roles in the relationship, both in and out of the bedroom, despite my protests. She would guilt trip me about not wearing a binder at all times by lamenting about how she wished she and I could swap breast tissue. She often justified that behaviour by pointing out that she was taking estrogen for HRT and I was taking testosterone, therefore we had to “follow our urges”. As a side note, I no longer take HRT but I still have the same “urges”.

While my physical dysphoria is close to none post-HRT, I still experience social dysphoria time and time again. Getting haircuts can be a nightmare because a lot of places have different rates for mens and womens haircuts. The gender section in forms often get an eye roll from me because I only have two choices. Deciding outfits is like a game of Russian roulette because I never know how I’m going to be addressed when I’m out in public in a prospective outfit. The world tried to give me a gender, but I put it down gently – saying “no, thank you“ – and now the world is trying to give it to me again but with cannons.  

What did I do with all this piling conflict? How did I deal with the shit storm that is navigating the world as a trans person? I did what any self-respecting queer person would do: get into musical theatre.

But really, ever since I performed in my first show with MacMS, I’ve overcome so many issues I’ve had about my gender and my relationships. MacMS introduced me to so many new people that accepted me for who I am, unconditionally. My affectionate nature could now properly manifest without ridicule because a backstage cuddle pile is always a good idea when it’s eight degrees in the Lighthouse Theatre. All that pent up passion finally had an outlet in embodying various characters from a stoic sharpshooter to a bubbly high schooler. I could channel my sheer excitement for life into scenes and songs. And best of all, I have the opportunity to inhabit a totally different headspace every night during a show. Getting out of my own head into someone else’s proved to be therapeutic for me. It helped me process countless issues I couldn’t put into words and it helped me understand my situation in different perspectives.

I have nothing but praise for the community I found in musical theatre. There are so many people I admire and respect that I want to mention here, but I think it’s best if I did that in person. They all taught me so much about acting, about life, that I sometimes feel like it’s too good to be true that I even know these people in the first place. 

I took a chance in MacMS and MacMS took a chance on me. And by God, were the odds in our favour.