LGBTQ Magazine

Queer Lit: “Gum For All” A Gender-Wild Story

By Wildgender @wildgender

By Sem

I was approximately forty-two months old when I became aware of the importance of gender conformity. This realization happened on a night in the living room of my parents’ three-bedroom New York City apartment.

One year earlier, I began to show signs of what mental health professionals had for several decades called “gender dysphoria” or gender variance. Though I did not wear my mother’s clothing or make-up, I had daily fantasies about doing so. Just before being tucked in, I would sing on my bed in my pajamas pretending that I was my mother’s favorite singer, Diana Ross, and that the stuffed animals behind me were the band members. The pretend lipstick and eyeliner would take nearly 30 minutes to apply. Together we were embarking on a national tour of which I kept track by using the Peanuts map on the adjacent wall. Fame was the main destination.

My parents never commented on these nighttime concerts at least not directly to me. Sometimes, just after getting tucked in, I would approach the living room, careful not to make a sound, and try to hear if they were discussing these performances but the sound of the television noise prevented me from hearing them. Other attempts at expressing my feminine gender were less subtle. When my mother would give me baths, I would tell her that I was trying to wash my hair the way the women did on commercials. She would often laugh and continue putting the water in the cup to rinse out the Johnson & Johnson shampoo from my dirty blonde hair.Bosom Buddies

In during play with peers, I mostly portrayed the female character that was to be rescued by the boys. Though they were trying to woo a fellow male, their sexuality or gender identity was not questioned by anyone else who was around. Unlike for me, to them, perhaps this was all a game.

When I would play with action figures, I turned most of the male toys into female characters. One year, the top of my Santa Claus list featured Jem, a then-popular female cartoon rock star. To my pleasant surprise, she arrived on the morning of December 25, glowing earrings in-tact. She started joining the Diana Ross tour

While watching television programs and their advertisements, I was increasingly aware of and confused by gender stereotypes and their contradictions. Boy George, Annie Lennox, and John Ritter’s character on Three’s Company fascinated me. Bosom Buddies, which starred Peter Scolari and Tom Hanks in drag, was even more intriguing. Their combination of femininity and masculinity seemed powerful and quite confusing, much like She-Ra’s.

This period of cross-gender innocence was brief. One evening, my parents sat me down and asked me why I only wanted to be “the girl” character in board games like Candy Land. I said I was not sure and my father sternly told me that since I was a boy I was only supposed to be play male characters. No one mentioned Jem.

Later that night, I turned on the television and a Bosom Buddies rerun was airing.

“Daddy, what about them? How come they can act like girls?”

My father’s only response was to turn off the television. The darkness that ensued spoke volumes.

My television watching continued in earnest but I was careful to avoid that program. On the shows that I did view, I noticed that it was only women and girls chewing gum.

Naturally, I grew quite anxious when, on an April night not long after being reprimanded, my father offered me a piece of Big Red while he, my mother, and I sat in the living room. I was fearful that my parents were testing to see if I thought was a girl and even more worried about the consequences of failing.

For several seconds I was speechless. I patted our dog Patches for comfort, which helped somewhat, and looked at the television for guidance but this time saw no models of how to behave. Desperate, I scanned my parents’ faces to discern cues to help me pass this trial. To my surprise, I only saw grins. I also started to smile as the nervousness wreaking havoc on my stomach subsided. Within seconds, a palpable sense of relief and then euphoria over took me. I reasoned that my parents must have also perceived me as a girl.

“Do you think gum is just for grownups?” my mother cheerfully inquired, which dashed my hopes.

I was still uncertain of how to respond because I did not know if my gender identity was being questioned. I swiftly determined that yes would be the safest reply.

“Kids can chew gum too,” my dad said as he offered me a stick of gum, the white line in the middle of the two red columns seeming to glow in the relative darkness of our apartment’s den.

I concluded that my parents did not perceive chewing gum to be a gender-based activity. Thinking back on the Bosom Buddies incident, I decided I needed to prove my masculinity to my parents and quell their own fears.

“I don’t want the gum! Only girls chew gum!”

My parents laughed and said, “No, it’s okay, your dad chews it. Gum is for everyone!”

Perplexed as ever, I took a piece and lost myself in the taste of cinnamon.

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