Op-Ed: What if I’m not female but I’m also not male? What if I’m everything and nothing at the same time?

The author, Jill Soloway.
(Jesse Chamberlain Marble)

I called Isaac to find out who cut his hair at Vinny’s, the hipster spot on Virgil in East Hollywood. He told me the guy’s name was Angel, but that I could go only if I promised not to say one word about being his mom.

I loved going to the barber. They handed me a beer when I walked in, and Angel didn’t talk during the cut at all. All the customers seemed to be in a dull, floating meditation, a few of them with eyes closed as their barber coated the back of their neck in hot foam. No one said, “Cute shoes!” or asked, “So are you going out tonight?”

I saw my new self in the mirror.

Penguin Random House

That afternoon as I was heading out with [my son] Felix, I suddenly realized that “getting ready” no longer existed, not even the barest minimum. I was wearing denim shorts and a T-shirt. With my short hair, I was now already ready, all the time. I was just a head, a face. No side sheath of bangs or hair to hide behind. Felix and I walked to a friend’s house down the street, and he bounded off to play in the yard. The adults congregated in mostly gendered huddles, and I found myself in the kitchen with the dads, debating hard about some political idea. I slowly realized that in the past, when I was straight and femme, I would have never hung out with the dads for that long. I wouldn’t have inserted myself into their circle and held forth. I wouldn’t have wanted them, or their wives, to think I was flirting.

I’m far better as a father than I am as a mother. Imagine a dad like this: Every day at 6 p.m. I get home from my really high-powered job where I make plenty of money for everybody. I have taken care of dinner by checking in with the sitter on the phone at around three and saying, “Yes, turkey meatballs will be perfect! Maybe we should have some broccoli just to be safe?” Then when I get home dinner is on the table, and I thank the sitter and dismiss her, as I sit with my children and hold space for questions about their day. After dinner, I spend time with them and then put them to bed.

If you imagined a man doing the things I just described, you would think of him as an exceptionally emotionally connected and gentle man. A veritable master of the universe, doing everything at home and at work.

But look at me as a mother: I didn’t pick my kids up after school. I didn’t actually cook the dinner. We didn’t do crafts, sports, or homework together. I wasn’t a school volunteer. I couldn’t comb their hair without making them cry. I wasn’t warm and yummy and soft and cozy. I didn’t rock them in my arms. I didn’t make breakfast. I got no housework done. I didn’t get to the gym. And I didn’t do that thing they tell wives to do: I didn’t have sex whether or not I wanted to; I didn’t keep the marriage going.

If I were a man I’d be in the top 1 percent of all fathers. As a mother, I was a complete and total failure.

Sometimes I tripped on the math: I had finally made it, had this TV show and all of this power, and yet still, I lived in the constant fear that the show would say too much. I had to fight the urge to shrink from the exposure of all of these people knowing too much, thinking that I was too much.

Then I would think about Giancarlo Stanton. He played for the Miami Marlins and he had just gotten a $325 million contract for 13 years and he’s just one guy, one I’ve never heard of, on a team I’ve barely heard of. I used the idea of him to remind myself that I was nowhere near too big yet. I would multiply the scope of his salary potential atop all of the baseball players, at least 25 guys on a team, and how many baseball teams are there, 30? And not just baseball, but basketball and football and hockey and golf. OK now we’re talking billions upon billions of dollars spent to help men watch men do things of interest to mostly men. The culture offering them exactly what they love all weekend long in the form of professional sports. A whole section just for them about this stuff every day in the newspaper.

How would it be to have things you love surrounding you everywhere?

My favorite sport is feminist arguing. I’d love an Emily Nussbaum versus Lena Dunham face-off, to hear Roxane Gay and bell hooks disagreeing about a nuance around, say, consent through an intersectional lens, and then they get into it with Patrisse Khan Cullors and Linda Sarsour, with a couple Glorias — both Steinem and Allred. What if the thing I like — feminist arguing — was on TV all weekend long? Women wearing jerseys and carrying key chains that had names like Tina Fey and Alicia Garza and Tarana Burke on them?

What if I got to watch this collision of all my very favorite people every Sunday all day at home in my sweatpants with a beer, and my whole family had to watch and cheer with me? Picture Masha Gessen and Jessica Valenti sitting across from each other in folding chairs on a huge field, with close-ups on the jumbotron. And if I didn’t want to watch the Gessen-Valenti game at home I could walk into a bar and there would be a bunch of women watching it. And then when the matches weren’t on TV, I’d be clicking away, entering names into an Excel spreadsheet where I’d be betting on fantasy feminist arguing? Now this would be privilege.

After the haircut, I started to wonder how it would feel if I could interact with people without them projecting identities on me: dykey woman, cute girl, loud lady, lousy mom, cool man, short mannish human. I began to experiment in my mind with the idea of identifying as nonbinary. What if I wasn’t female but I also wasn’t male? What if I wasn’t cis but also wasn’t trans? What if I was everything and nothing at the same time? What would we call that?

As the weeks passed I found that I was much more comfortable in the world. I felt free to express myself more clearly, newly interested in having real conversations. In being present. How could such a distinct mind and mood change come with a haircut?

Jill Soloway created the TV series “Transparent” and won two Emmy Awards for directing. This piece is adapted from Soloway’s memoir, “She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy.” Soloway will be in conversation with Hannah Gadsby for a Live Talks Los Angeles event on Oct. 29.

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