The pressure to appear stable, to have a fixed identity, job, and set of interests, increases for most folks as they age. Gender presentation is no exception. The gender binary continues to shape common conceptions of many age-based milestones. Late last summer, I sat with three gender-nonconforming (GNC) folks in Portland’s Overlook Park—Alex Deets, Jamondria Harris, and Bridgette/Bird Hickey—to unpack their experiences of age and aging along these lines.
Hickey, Harris and Deets refrained from ascribing labels to themselves or their creative practices during our conversation. Instead, they worked together to expose fictitious paradigms and identitarianism they have had to contend with in order to exist as social and creative beings. This dialogue, one that I have been longing for since the start of this series, pulled back the veil on many gendered as well as raced, classed and abled expectations that intersect with age—expectations that dictate who among us is worthy of resources, who is worthy of the patience of others, and who is worthy of a livable life.
Gender Deconstruction: An ArtsWatch Series
When I asked everyone in our group how old they are, Harris replied that their experience of aging does not match up with others who share their same chronology. “How many years I’ve been in this incarnation, in this embodiment, is almost immaterial,” they said, noting that they feel out of sync with most others their age. They described a sense of being thousands upon thousands of years old and very young all at once. Public perception of their age skews toward the latter.
Hickey jumped in next, sharing that they often feel at the “extremes of the spectrum” of age, old and young. Though they were on the cusp of their 28th birthday at the time of our gathering, they said that lately they’ve been feeling about fourteen years old.
Deets has felt like a forever-elder since childhood. Chronologically speaking, they are 43 years old, but they have been clocked as much younger in public—a phenomenon corresponding with their transition. “As I presented more masculine, I started getting 14-year-old boy comments and treated more like a youth,” they recalled. “I guess I’ve just always been a little old man, Benjamin-Buttoning.”
As is the case for Harris, Hickey and Deets and many other trans and gender non-conforming folks who present out of sync with their given age, other contingent facets of social legibility, such as race, class, and ability, become amplified and, in some cases, more difficult to contend with.
“Not having a car and all of those markers of whatever you’re supposed to have by certain ages—it’s always been really skewed for me,” mused Deets, who just recently got their driver’s license. “I get treated as younger because [it seems like] I’m still figuring things out. But I’m not. I’m just making do with what my life is.”
For Harris, being in a Black body often involves being masculinized and dealing with the projections of others who see them as a protector. In this way, they often find themself hemmed in place by a sea of referents and projections in social spaces, which reinforce notions of difference, separation and lack.
“I have to present in a certain way to receive care.”
“I cannot be seen moving,” Harris illuminated. Their presentation of gender nonconformity becomes contextual in this way: “It is contingent on what care and support I can receive in order to be as I am, to be witnessed as the flow that I am.”
Speaking of their experience living in Portland, Hickey echoed these sentiments. “If I want to be treated with any kind of respect, then there’s an equation between what my hair is doing and how relaxed my outfit is.” Sometimes, they wonder how they might dress if they lived somewhere else, adding, “I’m just trying to understand, like, who I am? Not in response all the time.”
Deets, who was raised by fancy southern women, loves feminine aesthetics yet dresses in what they describe as their “boring outfit.” Between being clocked as transmasculine and feeling their age creep upward, Deets has felt precluded from experimenting more with feminine clothing. “For safety reasons and to be perceived outside of [a certain] sexual expectation of me, I dress this way. But it’s just clothes, you know?” they said. For Deets, transition has given way to unexpected and disheartening social ramifications, even as it offers much needed bodily relief and actualization.
In this vein, Harris reflected, “I always have felt really agitated by the cycles of the ways in which people have sought to define and have these identity contractions”—gesturing to the misgivings of identity politics. “Ultimately, if you look at it, it [comes] from economic insecurity, and the power to name, and the power that gives you access to what could eventually be economic viability.” In essence, the act of claiming fixity (even genderqueerness) opens the gateway to claiming more resources for oneself.
“That’s when those spasms in the community happen. It’s just like, ‘Who’s gonna get the money now?’” they added.
Of course, for centuries American bureaucracy has facilitated white cisgendered and heteronormative access to resources via marriage and inheritance, giving certain people the ability to move wealth into the future beyond the limits of a lifespan. As society slowly reconfigures its notions of who is worthy of access to resources, the underlying systems of violence that make resource hoarding possible in the first place have yet to come apart: Pick an identity or do your best to live with what you’ve been assigned, perform a legible existence, and perhaps you will get a little piece of the pie to ensure your survival to the next day, week, year as the climate crisis worsens. This knot binds humans in place within social paradigms.
Self-understanding through creative practice proves a welcome antidote for these three, something that becomes differently possible when superimposed time markers and identitarian assignments can fade.
Hickey’s creative practice entails sensing into an experience of being ageless, beyond their present carnal form. “I can feel or remember when I was something else, or I have information recall from when I was something else,” Hickey elaborated. Their multidisciplinary artistic work unsettles age in relation to the number of the earth’s rotations and acknowledges that humans are amalgamations of elements cycling in and out of form, leaving the residue of memory.
“Being with beyond-human beings is my most comfortable place and is where I can hear and recognize and feel myself best,” Hickey mused. Their creations emerge from a commitment to claiming a sense of self-worth, cutting off the voices that would tell them they are unworthy. “I don’t even care about other people seeing it [their art], but I’m like: ‘I’m worth trying to understand myself. I’m worth trying to understand myself’,” they repeated affirmingly.
For their part, Deets is working to reclaim a sense of abandon in their creative pursuits. They were the first of their family to attend college, where they studied art. Yet they ended up feeling their connection to creative work dwindle with the academic pressure to learn certain skills and to follow ill-fitting traditions.
Nowadays, Deets’ creative practice has become “allowing myself to try new things and fail,” as they seek to reconnect to their sense of play and self-satisfaction.
Harris’s creative practice is contingent on, in their words, “How well I’m doing with regards to my disability [and] what access to community and support that I have when I’m trying to make my work.” They create across many mediums, including sound and textiles, and they feel they could make anything if afforded resources and the patience of others. “All of that has had more power over whether my art-making is seen and engaged—more than what it is I’m doing,” they underscored.
Because of this, Harris has learned to operate outside of attention economies. “The idea that because you’re not receiving witness, you fail, is a form of fascistic violence that has been internalized,” they emphasized.
“My practice is grabbing what I can and encouraging others: If you want to do this, if you want to just be wild in your making, grab it! Don’t hesitate.” For them, this is an ancestral instinct, a calling to “take and then show others they too can take, and prove abundance as opposed to scarcity.”
“Abundance means that you can be witnessed as you are.”
For all three of these folks, creative practice provides an open space, a way of being outside the projections and desires of others. Taken together, their testimonies are evidence that it is never too late for humans to refuse the expectations that have unwittingly kept us in place and to unsettle the sediment of who we have become.