I'm Not

Chapter from Trans and Gender Diverse Voices in Libraries

Keywords: masculinity, non-binary identities, public trans narratives, trans (in)visibility, perceived men in youth services

Working in Youth Services means I can relate a lot of things to picture books, because there are picture books on most subjects, identities, and situations. This works well when you're recommending them to children and their grownups, but sometimes feels a little awkward around other adults who aren't similarly steeped in Youth Services and the picture book hoards that public libraries have in their locations. So, when I came across Pam Smallcomb's 2010 picture book I'm Not, it gave me a framework to describe how I feel about my own relationship to the big trans umbrella.

At it's core, I'm Not is a book about two friends: Evelyn, an alligator with a very outgoing and confident personality and definite opinions on everything, and the unnamed narrator, a different-hued alligator who is pretty shy and makes a lot of comparisons to Evelyn about all the things she isn't. I identify pretty hard with the narrator in this book, because it's a lot easier to see what you aren't when you have a friend who is supremely confident and has opinions about everything and everyone they come across. The narrator describes Evelyn as "not one single bit ordinary," and her choices in fashion and actions certainly reflect that. The Evelyns of the trans community look the part, unabashedly, publicly, and everywhere they go. By being loud, proud, and changing their presentation in visible ways to fit their internal image, they set the popular perception of hat a trans person looks like. We need more visibly trans people to help show others that it's possible to live as a visibly trans person. But in the same way that the unnamed narrator looks at Evelyn and primarily sees what she lacks, compared to someone who's much more visibly trans, it can really feel like I'm not.

Physically, I look like a cis white dude. I dress like one, too, in men's fashion choices, and like other dudes, I complain about how difficult it is to find clothing that actually fits my proportions, looks good on me, and feels comfortable, because being Tall and not Big is relatively inconceivable to clothing manufacturers, it seems. I don't have any outward signs of being non-binary, save for when I'm wearing my pronouns upon my person, and I'm not trying to make my figure, form, or silhouette look more androgyne. I'm fine with my presentation, and even if it means I get engendered by other people, there's still value in being someone who looks like a dude and works in Youth Services—if for no other reason than as a way of making people stop and think again about what stereotypes they may have internalized about who engages in programming for children. Among the many commandments of Scroobius Pip in "Thou Shalt Always Kill" is the admonition not to assume that someone who looks like a man and plays with children does so with a sinister purpose.1 Some men are genuinely good around children, or perhaps they work in libraries or education. Yet another way I can say that I'm not, and it is "I'm not," not "I'm not like them," because "I'm not like them" almost always implies I'm better, and on that, I can assure you I'm not.

I choose not to identify as a man because masculinity is built on a shifting philosophical core, which comes out in more or less toxic forms depending on how threatened masculinity feels in any given situation. If the central tenet of masculinity is "don't be womanish," there's never any solid ground to build an identity on, and instead, it requires someone who wants to be a man to constantly be checking to make sure the men around them agree that they're a man and haven't slipped into some not-man status. It's a system rife with opportunity for a man without morals and with a large ego to declare that he is the sole arbiter of what masculinity is, and everyone who wants to be a "real man" should fall in line with him. Not-men become acceptable targets, and the in-group mentality reinforces toxic tendencies. If being a man means I have to perform toxicity and yoke my identity to someone that I think is a repulsive human being, then I'm not.

Making a choice about your identity brings its own problems. In I'm Not, Evelyn has more than just a strong personality, she has opinions about everyone else, as well. Through the book, she redecorates the narrator's living space, changes the narrator's outward presentation, and assigns her roles to play in their pretend games, without asking the narrator if it's okay to proceed Evelyn assures her that "your ceiling will look dreamy in orange!", "you are scrumptious in pink!",2 and assumes the narrator's lack of objection is sufficient permission to go forward. The narrator says she's not a decorator or an artist, so she lets it happen, believing that Evelyn's opinion is the better one, because, well, Evelyn has one. Outside the world of the picture book, there's a lot of Discourse about what qualifies as falling underneath the trans umbrella, with very strongly held opinions about what is and isn't trans. Excluding the unqualified and the hostile still leaves lots and lots of opinions to sift through. Some of those opinions have been enshrined in law or procedure (usually because of the unqualified and the hostile), and many concern themselves with whether someone is legitimately trans if they don't conform to a particular narrative, or don't do specific things. It's easy to fall back on "if you're not cis, you're trans" as a bedrock argument for your own legitimacy, but seeing so many people making changes to their presentation, undergoing therapies and surgeries, and being much more obvious about their transitions or their trans selves makes me wonder if I'm only pretending. If my claim is "the current definitions of masculinity are terrible, toxic, and I want no part of them," does that really make me trans, or does it mean that I'm really in the man category and need to do work toward expanding and reforming the definition of masculinity until it can include me? In the book, Evelyn takes on the role of a circus performer, an artist, an Antarctic explorer, and the Queen of England, all with appropriate costume selections for those roles. If the standard of what is to be trans requires very outward and public presentation that matches the identity inside, then, like the narrator, the best conclusion I have about being trans is that I'm not.

If I go looking for things that are common experiences among people under the trans umbrella, one of the things I end up seeing is that the community comes together to provide support for those who are experiencing oppression in their lives. There are enough stories of harassment and discrimination to fill our social media, article, and discussion spaces, but I'm not likely to end up getting strong pushback or harassment from anyone, because I'm not changing my presentation, I'm not really all that fussy about correct use of my pronouns by the public, and I'm not stuck at a worksite where co-workers are loudly, obviously, and deliberately misgendering people to be jerks and confident they won't be disciplined for it. I'm not saying you have to be discriminated against to be under the trans umbrella. That's a trash take like "only people who have been abused by the public are 'real' library workers." That said, sometimes I wonder if the privilege of not being visibly trans in my presentation stops me from being fully able to understand the trans experience. Perhaps, after talking about why I identify the way I do, I sound like someone who's pretending and playing at non-binaryness, since it would be simple enough, if I decided to, to go back to identifying as a man and pick up where I left off. Popularized trans narratives talk about people who know they're trans in their guts, and have known forever, to the point where it's painful to continue staying closeted. Those narratives are the easiest for binary cis people to understand, even if it's only a small portion of the possible space under the trans umbrella. But, as the refrain goes, representation matters. It's hard to imagine the umbrella includes you if you don't see someone like you in it already. A lot of the narrative energy is (rightfully) being put into telling the kinds of stories that will make it easier for people who are more visible transitioning to get to the place they want to be and live their lives fully and unapologetically. This doesn't leave a lot of narrative room for people who are pretty sure they're not cis, but who aren't necessarily interested in binary transition or significant changes to their presentation.

Because it's a picture book that's ultimately about friendship and celebrating what makes someone unique, I'm Not doesn't end in a down space as a story about someone who has low self-esteem getting run over by her outgoing friend with very little sense of boundaries. In the last few pages, Evelyn admits that she's not all that great at spelling, karate, or making cookies, and she's afraid of the dark. The narrator is good at all of those things, and not at all afraid of the dark, so "I'm not" becomes a positive thing and a way of showing that the narrator has different skills and abilities than Evelyn, an that they're valuable things. The full ending is that Evelyn needs a friend who will stick with her through everything, which, y'know, given Evelyn's trouble with boundaries and tendency not to check in about what other people want, could mean trouble for the narrator. If we explore that facet too much, though, we wreck the nice metaphor and lose the happy ending. We need supportive people, but good supportive people are the ones who will tell us when we're in the wrong or we're not behaving well.

So how do I turn my own narrative of not into something more positive? I'm not bad at using the proper pronouns with people once I know what they are. I'm not confused or deluded or any of the other adjectives that people throw at children (or adults) to insist they're wrong about themselves. I'm not going to back down from the idea that more people who look like me should be doing work like mine, without being shunted into other places that people think are more "appropriate." I'm not insisting that because I went through a long process to get where I am, that everyone else has to, as well. I'm not the worse at messing with people's expectations of gender and who does what work in libraries.

I'm not. And that's a good thing.


dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip, "Thou Shalt Always Kill," recorded November 2007, track 11 on Angles, Sunday Best Recordings, compact disc. Back.

Pam Smallcomb, I'm Not (New York: Schwartz & Wade, 2010. Back.