Gender in Watercolour

Writing by Kermie Breydon // Illustration by Maggie Chiang

It’s been many years since I last fought to believe in a dichotomy of gender. Around seventeen and asserting myself as gay, I’d wondered about being trans. Later I encountered the term “genderqueer” and pinned it to me in a tense, hopeful bearhug. But, for all its relief and bravado, ours was an uneasy embrace. Like cuddling an eel. I loosened my grip pretty quick.

By the thick of my twenties I was just a person, you know?

Meanwhile, my insides had been doing unsustainable things with an increasing ferocity and my body, it turned out, wasn’t producing “normal” blends of sex hormone—for anyone, according to medicine. Skewing things “female” calmed the underlying disease somewhat but exacerbated what I began to recognise as a dysphoria. Approximating a “male” profile was associated with its own unsettling dysphoric shadows, but suppressed the least endurable physiological phenomena more effectively and appealed to my aesthetic sensibilities.

“I guess I’m interested,” sang my psychologist at the time, “how you’re finding… that validation as a man… with people recognising you as… male, obviously male.”

She’d make level eye contact when her words got rushy and/or firm. And I’d so wish I could relax into those words and that gaze, like another snug set of fixtures to the house in which she practiced.

“And I want to invite you… to explore that.”

Instead I would squirm. Squirm my way to another reminder that I wasn’t a man; that helping my body to function more smoothly through medication, which happened to intensify certain physical characteristics, wasn’t about masculine identity, nor coming ­of ­age; that I disputed the presumption of sex, too, as any sort of binary (or continuum) of male/­female.

That, particularly, being regarded with gendered suspicion by people who’d be commonly taken for women was heart wrenching, not only because of empathy and how it smarts to be an object of fear in any case…


Between youthful genetics and the hormonal nonconformity, my grown­-up self got read as an adolescent constantly.

Towards the end of my twenty ­sixth year, fleetingly sighted white hairs were joined by a rush of silvering companions. I’d coincidentally come to be on the whole more grounded in settings that used to crackle most terribly with my social anxiety. Bits of my face huddled into sharp wrinkles of unprecedented reach.

“Sir” began being pelted at me with an intensity I’d never imagined could be.

A crack at dating strangers found me fending off a torrent of man­ tailored come­ ons. I’d grown up around and identified with girls who used “guys” as a collective term of address for themselves. Who exchanged words like “mate” or “dude” as a matter of course. So up until this deluge I’d given a lot of those ambiguous ways I’d been greeted the benefit of the doubt.

The benefit of tomboyish potential! This, though, was unmistakable.

Gender stuff, for me, has gotten easier over the years, as I’ve found affirmative practices, people, and spaces that it helps to have to hold onto. And I’m not so invested when it comes to men. The gulf between women and women’s cultures and the ways in which women and women’s cultures tend to perceive me, however, has remained as poignant as ever.

Every day, just about, I was averting myself from certain ideas, lest I rob trans women. I’d confine myself more or less to one tiny stroke of the asterisk tacked onto the umbrella term “trans*”. I wasn’t trans, to me, but I could identify with an unspecified skerrick of unprinted *footnote. Sure.

Sure. My personal sense of gender existed in the spaces that weren’t the print; wasn’t represented by rules set in white colonialist heteronormativity. The space we inhabited may have been ridden with those artefacts too, but it didn’t exactly exist because of the narratives they had formed.

But at the diminishing hesitation with which I was, as Hari Ziyad puts it, kicked, painfully through those extra doors opened for being perceived as a man, I wondered if some of my positioning, as a self within the pages of society, didn’t overlap in ways that needed honouring, with more binary texts.

“How can you identify as genderless AND a woman? That’s like a binary gender” began a post I dashed past one day on Tumblr.

The riposte: gender is fake bro and women is a social class under the patriarchy; I don’t know what else to tell you.

A few weeks later, Jennifer Down tweeted how it’s weird as a woman to weigh up cutting through a park alone at night, thinking “This is silly, I’m allowed” versus quickening your step and daring yourself, then being relieved that there’s only one shadow when you pass beneath lamps, that it’s flapping canvas not footfalls, and feeling like you’re home free when you leave the park and set foot on the lit street again, like you were somehow lucky.

That’s not restricted to women and surely it operates on numerous axes of oppression, I thought. Though as with so much from my women friends, from girl commentators, and overheard on the train or street or wherever, Down’s words evoked something foundational to my gender experience too.


Maggie Chiang

Born to a Taiwanese family in the City of Angels, Maggie Chiang is a full time artist and part time dreamer. Inspired by both places real and fictitious Maggie’s illustrations evoke a longing for adventure and the pursuit of the unknown, exploring impossible landscapes and places unseen. A central theme of her art is the relationship between humanity and nature, oftentimes the underlying thread that ties together her work and establishes her individual artistic voice. Follow Maggie on her Instagram, Tumblr, and website.

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