As a lot of you know, I am a pretty open-minded individual. I would go as far as saying that I am probably one of the more socially progressive people in most of the local groups I volunteer with, my small circle of local friends, my lifelong friends from childhood, and even my immediate family. I mean, one of my favorite shows on TV right now is "We're Here". It's a series on HBO about three drag queens traveling around to small, conservative communities with hopes of opening the minds and hearts of the folks who live there, to be more accepting of people within their communities, who feel like they don't belong. It has ALL the feels and the best cast! I'm also an empath, I'm learning how to be a better ally, and I always pull for the people who feel like they don't really fit in. Mainly, because I know that feeling all too well.
I have very short hair, I have broad shoulders, not much to speak up for hips, I wear a t-shirt or hoodie every day and I rarely go without wearing a ball cap. I am a forty-four-year-old female, who has spent most of my life being mistaken for a male. This is my story about a struggle I have dealt with since I was about six years old. This very well may not seem like a big deal to some, and I have even laughed it off myself at times, but it’s something that has left my heart hurting, left me feeling like I am not 'enough', and at times, just made me downright angry.
My brother Mike and I, early eighties, at Grandma's house.
I was a tomboy from the start. I was extremely interested in sports at a young age, believing that I was a better athlete than any boy I would face, in any sport I would face them in. I have two older brothers, and I often joked that I was more boy than both of them put together. They were both great brothers growing up, Mike and I were closer in age, having only three years between us, so we spent the most time together. He was always more interested in reading his Dungeons & Dragons books and watching science fiction movies, while I wanted to make big ramps for my BMX bike and practice my free throws. Mike always let me tag along though, when he went to the woods to make forts with the neighbor boys, when he went to play video games with his friend Jason, or when he went to catch crawdads in the creek. He never told me I couldn't do something because I was a girl, or his little sister. That's not to say he wasn't extremely protective, because he was. But once he watched the neighbor boy run home bleeding and crying, because I punched him in the nose for shoving me, my brother had a good idea I could hold my own, by the time I was seven.
My dad was and is, my biggest fan though. If you know me at all, you know how close we are and what he means to me. Like my brother, he never held me back or discouraged me from doing anything I wanted to do, solely because I was a girl. I think he got a lot of satisfaction from watching me prove people wrong and he always encouraged me to compete. I played Biddy Basketball and soccer, early on, and dad never missed a practice or game. When I was nine, I won the Montgomery County Youth Soccer League's Most Valuable Player award, out of a league almost entirely made up of boys. I think my dad was the proudest human on the planet when we got that phone call. I, was of course, very proud also, although I was most excited about the brand-new orange and black soccer ball I received for winning.
But those amazing childhood memories did not come without having my feelings hurt on a regular basis. I suppose it was almost entirely based on how I looked, or the clothes I chose to wear, more than how I performed on the court, or the field. I had short hair, cut similar to the way my brother wore his. I always had on shorts and a t-shirt, sneakers, and socks pulled up to my knees, because that's how the guys in the NBA wore theirs, and if I was ever going to make it to the NBA, I needed to look the part, right? This drove my mother nuts. Granted, she would often remind me how disappointed she was, because she finally (and unexpectedly, yes, I was an accident) had a little girl, and I dressed and acted just like a boy. She would buy me yellow and peach-colored tops and I would hide them in the back of the closet like they didn't exist. She wanted me to have long hair and get a perm in it, so I would look more like a girl. I can remember her saying that she felt jealous, due to how close I was with my dad, rather than with her. Mom and I didn't have the greatest relationship from early on, for a variety of reasons. When mom left and my parents divorced, I was almost twelve, and Mike was fifteen, so we were given the opportunity by the judge to choose which parent we wanted to live with. We both chose to go with dad. For me it was a no brainer, he never made me feel like I wasn't who I was supposed to be or that I needed to be something else. For my brother, I think he just wanted to try to keep as much of the family together as possible, but he was more torn about everything than I was.
During those years between about six and twelve years of age, I was accused of being a boy almost every single day. Back in the early eighties, there really wasn't a name for it, now days that is called being misgendered. Kids would approach me in the church parking lot, behind my Grandma Stites' house in Crawfordsville, where I used to shoot baskets most days. They would do a lot of whispering, then one of them would be pushed forward by the others and ask if I was a boy or a girl. I would tell them with much certainty, that I was a girl, but they never believed me. They said I looked like a boy and played basketball like a boy, so I had to be a boy. Sometimes I would get my brother to tell them I was a girl, I figured they would believe him, but other days, I felt like short of pulling down my pants, they weren't going to believe me. And no, I never went to that extreme.
Things changed a little bit when I hit puberty and my body started to change. And by the way, I was mortified to have boobs and I am not going to lie, I still dislike them, immensely. I would wear baggy shirts to hide them, because part of me felt like they were ruining my life. Ridiculous, I know, but I was twelve and thirteen years old, so it felt like the world was ending. By the time I got through middle school, I had started to let my hair grow out, because you know, hormones and boys. I always liked boys, as friends, boyfriends, best friends, competitors and teammates. There was never any question regarding my sexuality, at least not by me. There was never an attraction for other girls, nor was there never a feeling that I wished, or felt like, I was a boy. There still isn't, so if you are reading this expecting a big reveal, you are going to be disappointed!
I got through high school, dating and a few serious relationships in my late teens and early twenties, and decided I wanted to cut some of my hair off, not super short, but just shorter. I got married to a shitty human, which in hindsight, wasn't one of my better life decisions, but his abusive tendencies didn't reveal themselves until after we married. During that eleven-year train wreck, he always wanted me to go get my nails done, he would buy me jewelry that I never wore, or even liked. He should have had ownership in Victoria Secret, as he was constantly bringing home bags of slinky bras and underwear for me. Much like the tops I hid in my closet as a child, they were never worn. He always wanted me to be more feminine, dress sexier, be more womanlike. It reminded me so much of my childhood and how I was never the little girl that my mother wanted. I was never enough.
One day, in my late twenties, I was walking out of the mall in Lafayette, wearing a pair of mesh basketball shorts, a t-shirt and a ball cap. I was minding my own business, when three girls, who looked to be, maybe twenty years old, give or take a year or two, started making comments. You know when your friends are teasing you and they pretend to sneeze while saying 'bullshit', or whatever word that is fitting at the time, to mock you? Well, these girls did that, looking right at me, but instead of saying bullshit or something funny, they said 'lesbian' and 'dyke', while laughing and running into the mall. I looked around, not realizing immediately that they were talking to me, then I was mortified, when I realized they were. I sat in my truck in that hot parking lot for probably ten minutes, trying to process what had just happened. The longer I sat, the more pissed I got. But I wasn't pissed because they assumed something that wasn't true about me, I was pissed because in that moment, I realized that there are millions of people who deal with this hatred and vitriol on a daily basis, and they cannot escape it. I felt bad for feeling embarrassed about being mistaken for someone in the LGBTQ community. I had friends who were part of that community and it broke my heart to know firsthand, what they had to deal with, although I would never know completely.
Another incident that I remember well, happened in my early thirties, while working in Lafayette. A group of us were in the Garden Center, and since it was winter, and we weren't busy, we were standing around talking. I can't remember precisely what was being discussed, but someone said that they needed me to look at something, because they needed a woman's opinion on it. Without missing a beat, my best friend at the time said “Well, Cindy's opinion doesn't count, because she's not a real woman." My heart sank. I could not believe what she said, but I was more embarrassed that everyone heard her say it. I laughed it off in front of everyone, but I was very hurt, and I don't think I will ever forget it. I have also been told by someone else one time that it was refreshing that I wasn't a hot chick, that I was just a cool person, with a personality. Um...Thank you??
And now at forty-four, I am a middle-aged woman, a girlfriend of almost eight years to Chance, a bonus mom to Cianni, and someone who has gained confidence in who I am and what I stand for, and I am still being misgendered, almost weekly. I have been called sir, as recent as last week, at Kroger. I went to vote in our state's primary last month and the older gentleman who signed me in, called me over to his table by addressing me as "sir, or ma'am, or whatever you are". No shit, I am serious as a heart attack that that is exactly what he said to me. I was in a t-shirt and shorts, with a ball cap. Yes, my hair is very short now, pretty much a pixie cut, but for Pete's sake, if you looked at me for even a second, from the front, it was obvious I was a woman. And who says that? Why not say "step forward please", or simply just "next" if you aren't sure? But he said it, and he said it in front of about ten other people. Not that it matters, but I was as nice as a human could be to that fella, I didn't want to return the nastiness in any way, shape or form. Usually, the people who have misgendered me feel more embarrassed than I do in that moment, because I'm used to it, but it doesn't make it hurt any less, after the fact.
Chance and I on Lake Michigan
I deal with this constantly. Even at home. I love my boyfriend, he is always joking, rarely does he not have someone laughing about something. He thinks it is hilarious every time someone calls me sir, or mister, or mistakes me for a man. He has gotten in the habit of calling me 'dude' on a regular basis and made comments about how he would like to have a 'girlfriend with long hair.' I know that he is just saying what he does because he knows it gets my goat, and he's teasing, but it still stings when I hear that. Like I said, I love him, but I think I am making it abundantly clear, that while he is quite the funny guy, he can quit with the 'dude' jokes.
So, why am I telling my story, and why now? In case you live under a rock, June is Pride Month for the LGBTQ+ community. I will never know what it is like to live as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer person, but I have a tiny sense of what it feels like to be ridiculed, bullied and and made fun of, as if I did. If there was ever a social movement, or group of people I felt I aligned with, the LGBTQ+ community is it. My experiences with people who are not accepting of others who don't fit their idea of social norms, has made me hyper aware of the hurt that words and assumptions can cause someone, even if it is meant as a lighthearted joke or an innocent mistake. I have always been more comfortable around guys, I have never felt like I fit in at typical female oriented event, like a wedding or bridal shower, Lularoe or Mary Kay parties, or a girl's shopping trip. I have never worn make-up, I don't feel comfortable in a dress, and I don't own a pair of heels. I knew as a young girl that I never wanted to have children, not a fiber of my being felt that urge, ever. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't change the time I have had with Cianni for anything in the world, she is everything to me. I will live and die in my t-shirts and hoodies, I'd rather be hiking in the woods alone, then laying by the pool in a two piece with the girls, and if you challenge me in a free throw contest, I will still probably kick your ass.
Deer Camp, 2018 (photo by: Lindsey Mulcare)
Deer Camp in Montana is the only place I have felt like I truly belonged, with regards to an event welcoming all women, including cis and transgender women, and nonbinary folks, and ironically, it's based around an activity that has traditionally been dominated by men. I was mortified of going and hanging out with a bunch of women, but I quickly realized that at camp, we are all just hunters, and anglers, and foragers, and storytellers, and we aren't expected to act any certain way. I also feel proud that, as a mentor back home, I can teach young girls AND boys how to hunt, shoot archery and skin a squirrel. We need to stay true to ourselves and go out and do things that make us happy, regardless of the activity being considered by society as masculine or feminine. Thank goodness for my dad and my brother for instilling that in me from a very young age, because of them, I have never wavered with who I am, and I have never felt obligated to change, because society thought I wasn't doing 'female' right. I only hope I can instill that in the young people I get to work with in the future.
My biggest supporter, my dad.
I will be called sir again, I am sure of it, but I will continue to wear my favorite ball caps, whenever I choose, and I won't apologize for it. I will not grow my hair out, because this is the most "me" cut I have ever had, and I do not think I should have to have long hair to be accepted as a woman. Everyone has the right to feel good and be themselves. Everyone has the right to live their best, most authentic life.
I am doing just that, and so are my friends in the LGBTQ+ community, and I bet it hasn't hurt YOU, or complicated YOUR life in the slightest, so why not just let people live and love the way that makes them happiest? The world would be a more joyful, peaceful place, if we did. Halleloo!
About the Author: My name is Cindy Stites, I was born, raised and still reside in west-central Indiana. I previously worked in the Horticulture/Arboriculture industry for 24 years, but I am currently taking a break. I am a hunter, angler, forager and mentor. I like to say I am a conservationist in training, as I have much to learn. I started hunting eight years ago and never looked back. I am a volunteer Indiana Hunter Education Instructor, a Certified Indiana 4-H Archery Instructor and a member of the State Teaching Team for 4-H Shooting Sports. I also volunteer as the Communications Advisor for the International Caribou Foundation Board of Directors, as a member of the Indiana Turn In A Poacher Citizen's Advisory Board, and a Regional Committee Member for 2% For Conservation. I live with my partner of eight years, Chance, his eleven-year-old daughter, Cianni and our two Catahoulas, Ady and Teddy. If it isn't hunting season, you can find me spending my free time hiking in one of the nearby state parks, or working in the garden.