My Earliest Self Is a Boy Who Wasn’t Treated Like a Boy
Jendi Reiter’s “Made Man” braids poetry with the embrace of nonbinary identity later in life
A year ago, my spouse and I abandoned the small northeastern town we’d lived in for more than two decades and moved to a different small northeastern town. Our official reason for moving—the elevator pitch to friends and family—was financial; our original house was suddenly worth more than twice what we’d paid for it, the nicer house we’d found to move into, a fraction of that. The less official reason for our move was change; we didn’t seek a fresh environment to change us, we needed tabula rasa to accommodate our changed selves.
Like many trans and nonbinary folk, I first came out as “gay,” confusing and submerging gender with sexuality. My earliest self-knowledge was being a boy unable to be treated like a boy. During an unhappy childhood—desperately begging to be called “brother,” “son,” “nephew,” “grandson”—I relegated my identity to a religion I practiced alone and in private. Coming out as gay, moments following my shipwreck of a first marriage, I found unprecedented joy and freedom. I was never again questioned for wearing my signature men’s attire (including socks and boxers) nor the plethora of other gender nonconforming behaviors that were simply me being me. As a queer person, I met other people like myself, eventually meeting and marrying (albeit in Canada) my wife Beatrice. Yet I continued answering to the name that had been force-fed to me since birth, and checking a lifetime of gender boxes I knew didn’t describe me. Returning to grad school as part of the pathway towards becoming a full-time writer, my MFA cohort was a mixed age group – some older than I, some of similar years, but most were younger. Being immersed four semesters within this generation stew helped me claim my true self-hood. I re-wrapped my queer mantle around my gender without embarrassing spotlight nor fanfare. When the university president called my updated name at graduation, I nearly lunged for my diploma, cracking open the pigskin binder and grinning at my simple androgenous name while still walking back to my seat. A few months later an essay I wrote about my long and winding gender journey won first prize in a prestigious writing contest, launching my career as an essayist.
Outside of grad school, coming out again was less fluid; reminding circles outside my closest friends to use my correct name and pronouns proved incessant. Moving to a new location instantly solved this; a fresh start with neighbors, business owners, insurance agents and car dealerships allowed Beatrice and I to be seen as who we actually are, rather than through a hazy lens we’d left behind in our former town. Choosing our new home involved gravitating towards lush nature, progressive local government, proximity to some dear friends, (and yes, economy.) Learning shortly after movers deposited our myriad boxes and drove away, that we had unknowingly relocated to a county aptly named “Middlesex” absolutely thrilled me.
Though nonbinary (or non-binary) presence appears recently ubiquitous, the term first entered mainstream use in 2016 (in California and Oregon as legal gender option on driver’s licenses and passports) and only entered Websters Dictionary in 2019. With a hyphen or without, the ranks of those publicly claiming the tag grow daily. Performers Janelle Monae, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus and Sam Smith, all use it. Literary notables include Danez Smith, Kate Bornstein, Cyrus Dunham, Masha Gessen, and Eileen Myles. The first Winter Olympian defining themself as nonbinary is Timothy LeDuc. The first State Representative is Mauree Turner of Oklahoma.
Ever since adopting the term myself in 2019, I’ve happily noted when film and television offers representation and increases visibility, but a surprising amount of production falls under sci-fi, fantasy, and animation–genres not included in my regular viewing diet. Yes, “Billions” made history in 2017 with Asia Kate Dillon playing Taylor Mason, but “Umbrella Academy” and “Steven Universe” represent the bulk of what currently proliferates. Similarly, few literary depictions of nonbinary characters align with my reading; While Maia Kobabe’s 2014 graphic novel, “Gender Queer” was groundreaking and remains a favorite, very little fiction crosses my path dealing specifically with the nonbinary journey.
When I learned nonbinary author Jendi Reiter had a poetry book coming out that specifically dealt with their gender journey, I pre-ordered my copy to ensure I’d receive it as early as possible. While I often read poetry, even concentrating on it for much of my masters degree in creative writing, my anticipation for Made Man had more to do with common denominators I share with Reiter. While I didn’t expect to see myself precisely reflected within these poems, something about this book imposed a strong gravitational pull in my direction.
Made Man, a thematic volume of 76 poems, is divided into four sections: “The Obligatory Masking”, “Great Tits of the World”, “American Eclipse” and the fourth sharing the title with the combined work, “Made Man.” Not only does Made Man‘s chronology echo the author’s individual nonbinary experience, it is the first poetry collection explicitly exploring a nonbinary journey (my research found this slim volume has cousins, but no clones.) As Section I flows into Section II, the creature we are witnessing evolves, as readers parse the most intimate of details, those unfamiliar with aspects of transition get an insider look.
Of course this volume doesn’t illuminate every nonbinary journey—rather, just Reiter’s. That fact contributes mightily to making the collection unique; the personal unfolding each poem contains. The second poem in the work, I’m a Laura Ashley Man, Myself, begins “mother desired a sofa but instead she had me…” A few lines later, “…when I watched Tootsie I was sick / in lonely schoolday bed tear-stung comedy of red lame / my dowdy fate to teeter knock-kneed toward mistaken love…” And ends “…her razor prettying my thighs / and so ribboned I raced blindered away.”
Smiling and nodding my way through the familiar cultural touchstones in those lines, I simultaneously imagined Gen-Z thumb-tapping for google clarifications. Do 12- to 24-year-olds relate to cultural references like “Tootsie”? Or in poems immediately thereafter referencing “the people’s princess” and “Mr. Miyagi.”?
I think about this because when reflecting on my own nonbinary journey, I think about Gen-Z-ers and how utterly different their experience is. The Trevor Project’s 2021 reporting that 26% of Generation Z identify as nonbinary follows me around most days, tapping on my shoulder and nudging me to pay attention. I interact with this self-reporting nonbinary population – the largest to date as defined by age– in classrooms, bars, restaurants, gyms. Wherever young people are found, more than a quarter of them define themselves as I do. How can this be? During childhood I met one other kid (like me, assigned female at birth) at sleepaway camp who seemed to share my brand of otherness. Mackie moved through space the way I did, athletic and physically bold, like me, she stuffed her hair into a baseball cap all day, and at night slept wearing a stolen-from-the-lost-and-found boys’ camp shirt (the boys’ shirts were dark navy, the girls’ light blue.) Mackie and I once ran away from camp for the day to avoid a tradition of having nail polish applied (in our case, to bitten and gnawed fingertips) by the senior girls. We hid out at the far side of the lake, swimming and sunning wearing only our shorts, our shirts discarded off to the side. But that was it, Mackie didn’t return the following summer and our worlds never again collided. I otherwise grew up entirely alone in who I was, isolated by what I assumed to be the rarest of birth defects. My Gen-X gut can summon, in a single click of a red sequined heel, the intense alienation born of my innate otherness. So now, how can there be, forty-some years later, so many of me? Will an era soon arrive when visibility couples with sheer numbers to dissipate my hard history? Or, more pointedly, does the generation Reiter and I share traverse such an entirely different trajectory that current and future nonbinary generations can only read such touchstones as historians, absorbing the culture and context via brains rather than hearts?
A few pages later, in a poem entitled Trans Formers the cultural references leapfrog decades ahead: the last stanza beginning:
“Seven-year-olds across America take it in stride
on the next Netflix snowday
when all the striking women have disappeared
from Griffin Rock, Cybertron, and NinjagoCity.
The next most beta-male character takes their place…”
Here, those potentially clueless to Reiter’s allusions to “Minecraft”, “Strongarm” “Optimus” and “Grimlock” are Boomers and Gen-Xers (at least the ones not paying attention during their kid’s childhood.) Reiter’s fluency with such a broad range of culture icons makes reading these poems like reading a lush lexicon that a reader can either identify with or decipher via context. There is no judgment to ignorance of a reference point—the poet takes each reader by the hand, making it clear they will be treated as respected insider. In this poem Reiter introduces their son. In many other poems within the volume the boy is referenced in his various stages of growth and development. I relate in spades, having raised a biological son along with four additional children courtesy of my nearly 20 year marriage. Involved parenting can draw you so close to another generation’s culture, you can internalize it as your own; thrilling as much to Nintendo’s release of a new Switch Pro Controller as you did 20 years prior to the original Apple IPod. But relatability stemming only from first-hand experience is beside the point in art . How else could contemporary people purchase tickets and stand in line to view Picasso or Mattise? How else would consecutive generations relate to Dickinson, Clifton, Angelou, and Oliver? This ability to jump era when relating to art is how any reader should understand Made Man’s poems – because the power of transcendent work relies on depth of experience rather than shared experience.
And yet, what if it isn’t cultural iconography I readily identify as the missing link, but rather something deeper? Just as a love of vintage can be nostalgic for some and novel for others, age itself may govern my perspective in ways making me smile and nod when reading Made Man and experience a faint wave of loss when watching nonbinary 20-somethings at work and play.
Was this the source of my sadness last month heading towards our town’s Pride celebration? My t-shirt emblazoned simply with letters across the chest spelling out: boy(ish) garnered a couple compliments from members of my gender tribe, as it usually does. But its essence is an inside joke I share only with myself. Emanating from a generation devoid of acceptance, mainstream medical interventions, and nomenclature, while I knew I was born a boy, my childhood never allowed me to claim it, roadblocking me into tomboy trope and, with puberty, eventual submission to what society tolerated as acceptable cis hetero-normative modeling. While I finally claimed a queerness presenting itself first lesbian and eventually nonbinary, my adult years are marked by the scabs and scars defining that evolution.
Reiter’s poem Don’t Get Your Penis Stuck in the Bubble Wand is about one parent’s daily drudge reasoning with their 3-year-old. The first line “You have a choice” is simultaneously tired repetition, and something greater: “Choice” being the uber gift a parent can offer a child. Moreover it’s the invaluable opportunity one generation can bestow upon the next. In offering the toddler what they know is their child’s modern-day birth-right, the poem’s voice also speaks from a place of healing what they themself had not been offered. The poem’s last lines “The ___ on the bus goes ___ and ___, / ___, ___.” make one read words which are clearly there, though they are represented in absentia. The reference point is core–it need never be filled in; there are constants to every generation, and there are overlays which can improve (to continue the metaphor) the ride. While being queer remains enough of an otherness from mainstream that each individual must still navigate it, the generation currently coming of age grew up with what would have been inconceivable to my (and Reiter’s) early self. They grow up with role models, with increased visibility across entertainment and sports. They grow up with knowledge and (ideally) access to hormone blockers and testosterone and estrogen injections.They grow up with enough controversy surrounding public bathrooms and the amplification of that controversy throughout social media, to understand that while they may not be accepted everywhere, they are clearly a group that exists. I am beyond glad for the progress of my younger gender-peers, but I also feel the sting of having personally missed it.
In Mr. Miyagi Mourns Another Anniversary, “Meanwhile, for a boy/almost like you, one legged bird”, Reiter’s embrace of their own fledgling self is palpable. In How to Lick a Lollypop on Main Street we are told “Risk being ranked as you lick/ the melting cherry swirls/ like a man’s damp secret hair.” so we endure the fraught exploration as we trust it’s necessary process for the burgeoning new self. In Lust it’s the lines:
“and how long must I look at the damn roses
to do them justice they confuse me
with beauty no one really has
the right to walk away from”
that acknowledge the deep pain, but one that has a time limit. Throughout, there is an ever-present attitude of hope in these lines, a desire to brave the path towards metamorphosis.
In the poem Ode to Butternut Squash written to (and about) an oversized gourd “… the War and Peace of vegetables” for guests who, as the last lines explain, “will not be grateful for your sacrifice/ and fill up on pie instead.” is a departure of sorts within the work. Lighthearted, devoid of trauma and seemingly less about the nonbinary, a contemplation on gender still lies within it:
“your brute firmness, flesh pink and unmarked,
sized to give Anna Karenina the shivers.
I do not have the conquering spirit.
Because I am afraid, butternut squash,
that even if I cut you in half without losing a finger,
and you yield your virgin territory”
This poem snapshots what it is to be a gender other than the more famous binaries; to have thoughts of body and flesh never far from one’s conscience as one endeavors to navigate the rest of life…for example, the cooking of a vegetable. For me, because I was queer in ways not always visually recognizable, when meandering through a straight cis world, my presentation often camouflaging me as their cohort, my antennae sensed queerness wherever it hid; in peoples’ unintentional use of language and gesture, in how someone wore their scarf, buttoned their coat, zipped their fly… there was no getting away from my perception, real or imagined, of innuendo, because it was the steady silent baseline playing beneath my life.
The TV series “Sort Of” does similar justice to the experience. I thrilled at “Sort Of”, a scripted half-hour HBOmax dramedy series diverging from other gender fluid content. The shows focus on 25-year-old nonbinary Sabi, a part-time bartender at an LGBTQ club and part-time caregiver to two young children of a married hetero cis couple. Sabi’s best friend 7ven is also nonbinary, and the pair offer two very different representations of gender fluidity throughout nine episodes of season one. Sabi and 7ven have complicated lives and what’s groundbreaking is the fact of being nonbinary is not one of the complications, but rather the thread running through everything else. Bilal Baig (star and co-creator of “Sort Of”) said in an interview with Yahoo Canada, “Understanding that everyone’s transition looks different, the way our world looks at transition is different and they’re not equally the same.” There is a simultaneous inner and outer life of each transition, and the out of sync-ness reverberates within both universes. And yet, Sabi and 7ven have each other, and through Sabi’s workplace we see their gender community is widely populated. A generation earlier, their gender would likely have eclipsed everything else going on in their lives; so seemingly unusual, resolution with it would at best have been delayed by decades.
In Dreaming of Top Surgery at the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop, the opening poem from Made Man’s third section, the reader visits a rest stop bathroom along the New Jersey Turnpike with the poet, long a spouse and parent by this point, whose transition is still commanding center stage. The poet’s voice describes physical FTM transitioning, simultaneously entirely aware of how onlookers view them: “trying to sneak into the Men’s Room / Behind my hopping little boy and patient husband…” then later:
“no one will honor
my Provincetown tank top, shaved scalp and untrimmed chin hair
as more than the forgivable marks
of a 12-hour road trip mom who’s quit trying.”
The poem employs humor to gift wrap its seriousness throughout, abandoning that wrapping only at the final line to pose the quintessential question:
“how do you know where the end zone is
without a trophy, a team
of mighty men drenching you in Gatorade
that shocks you breathless like love?”
“They’re looking for They/Thems” said an old advertising buddy of mine recently, referring to the target market a client is hoping will expand brand sales. The team developed the strategy after viewing the Indeed commercial “New Beginning” which does exactly that: emphasizing comfort in the workplace as the motivation for verbal inclusivity, this internet job recruiter tracks one nonbinary person’s initial job interview where the interviewer first shares his pronouns (he/him) then asks the applicant if they are comfortable sharing theirs…they are, and gladly say “They/them”. A voiceover summarizes, “we can’t show what we can do until we can show up as who we are.”
I wasn’t initially an adopter of “they/them” pronouns. While “they/them” has become the standard since its 2019 introduction, some of us use “E/Eir” (Spivak pronouns developed in 1983). I used “Eir” for a while before trading it in for the easier recognition of “their”. Less common pronouns folks have used include “Xe/Xem”, “Ze/Zir”, and “Fae/Faer”. Performer Justin Vivian Bond has always used “V” (standing for Bond’s middle name.) Personally, I wish everyone used “e”. That is, I wish all hes and shes would just modernize to e. It would underscore that we are all part of one human team, instead of divided so disparately. Before “They” became the hands-down go-to, I floated this to someone at GLAAD who liked it a lot but said I was “too late.” It’s always an additional encumberment though, having to announce one’s difference. Since I wasn’t they in college or in my earlier career, since I wasn’t they when I married my wife or raised my kids, I burden countless others when asking them and reminding them to address me as they. I don’t embrace the spotlight being turned on me in this ask, nor tasking others with the added assignment of updating. Yet I do it because the opposite of being misgendered feels better than incredible—it feels like affirmation that who I am is both valid and true.
The significance of pronouns is explored in an episode of “Sort Of” when Sabi expresses their deep ties to their boss Bessy who asked, at their initial interview, what pronouns Sabi would like to be called. Responding “They/them”, we learn is the first time Sabi had verbally spoken their truth.
Reiter’s poem They Say Don’t Say They offers the most eloquent exploration I’ve encountered of the issue. Beginning, “My pronoun is Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dog. It knows the/difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.” and later in the same poem “…Yes my / antecedent is unclear….” And “…I Could remind you language is a table that of course/ sets no place for those not allowed to exist. …My pronoun is the seder’s open door for Elijah at the end…”
If there exists a common denominator for the nonbinary, for those of Reiter’s and my generation and those just coming up now, perhaps this is it. Not a pronoun, but a presence; not for all nonbinary people, not for all trans folks, not even for all queers – but for all humans. Are we not all, upon reading these lines, ignited somewhere deep within ourselves? Pointing excitedly to the poem on page 97 and screaming within our own heads, “YES! EXACTLY! ‘they’ and ‘their’ is not the point – we are all Elijah hoping a door is left ajar and a seat awaits!”