The day I learned to be okay with my androgyny…

It was November 1st, 2005, and I was driving back to my Fresno home from staying the night in the Bay Area with some of my cosplay friends. We had won Best of Show at YaoiCon that weekend for our Rainbow Links skit.

When really good costume makers phone it in… I’m the pink one.

After the contest, a gay fellow asked why we had picked the “butchest one” to be pink link. Mind you, I was described as the butchest of a group that included a certified momma-bear lesbian, as Goth Link. My voice is kind of low, I guess?

I had spent the previous day (Halloween) dressed as a man to prove a point about cross-play, and how little it takes to visually redefine my gender to the casual observer. (In comparison to some of the more elaborate makeup techniques used by other cosplayers.) I had been telling one of my friends about how often I’d been mistaken for a boy, despite my body shape, the cutesy outfits, and all of the other things I’d tried to accentuate to stop it from happening again. She was incredulous, so for Halloween, I dressed as Tommy Montgomery, from Essex. (Accent and all…)

Now, I need to give you a little history to work with to understand why this was a big deal, and not your typical frat boy in a dress escapade.

In fifth grade, I cut my hair short for the first time. This was 1985, and I’d gone from long pigtails to a close bob. The boys at school were not nice about it, and my friend Sarah cut her long, curly hair short the next week for solidarity.

Despite the snarky remarks, (which were already commonplace by that point, due to my other weirdness…) that was the first year I’d actually liked my school photo. I’d discovered that I looked good with short hair. (I didn’t know enough about aesthetics at the time to understand why, but it was because it made my facial features appear larger and more balanced.)

From that point, I only ever started to grow it out as my self-esteem dropped, and since that was also around the same time my classmates started puberty, and my weirdness was becoming more and more pronounced, I went through a constant cycle of growing it out to appear more feminine, then cutting it back off again in frustration. I quickly learned that it didn’t matter if it was long or short. I just wasn’t attractive, or at least, not attractive enough to overcome my lack of social skill.

By my Junior year of high school, my hair was short again, and I finally had a boyfriend. However, this is when the gender and sexuality issues really hit the fan. I was regularly mistaken for a boy, or if not a boy, a butch lesbian. At the time, I identified as female hetero, so I saw every other label as an insult. (I was seventeen, try not the read too much into it.)

One of my teachers kept me after class one day to try to “counsel” me about coming out as lesbian. Which was super awkward when I had to tell her that I was dating one of her former (male) students who’d already graduated. People assumed that I was gay because my boyfriend was no longer in high school, and I hung out with my female friend who was in exactly the same situation. (In fact, our boyfriends later became roommates.)

In response, I attempted to lean deeper into the feminine, and quickly realized that I had no idea what that even meant. This was now the early 90’s, and women’s fashion during that point was basically tailored men’s clothing (pantsuits and shoulderpads), or teeny-tiny, super tight outfits that I was definitely not going to be able to wear to school.

I opted for column B, and then the next thing happened: My boyfriend made fun of me for trying to be sexy. He said I looked “ridiculous”. (If you’re reading this Matt, yes, that was the exact word you used.) I don’t think he was trying to do it consciously, but my boyfriend discouraged me from presenting as feminine, and encouraged me to dress in boy’s clothing. If I wore his jeans and t shirts, he told me a I looked cute. If I wore a tight velvet dress, he laughed at me. He made me feel like the only way I could be attractive was as a boy, so I boyed it up, and was mis-gendered even more often. Every time it happened, I felt even worse.

This went on for almost fifteen years.

Which brings us back to YaoiCon, and the challenge from my friend. For all of Halloween, I was Tommy. All I had to do was brush my eyebrows the wrong way, comb my hair a little differently, and duct-tape my boobs down. I wore men’s cologne, and opened doors for ladies, and chatted up the various people who came to have themselves drawn at my table. Even though my own books, with my REAL NAME were sitting in front of me, nobody batted an eye.

At one point, one of my fans walked by the table and did a double-take, “Is that Katie Bair?” I had to quickly lean over the table with my finger on my lips, “Shhhh! Ziggy! I’m incognito!” He was the only person to recognize me, and he got the only picture of the weekend:

I blinked…

Probably the best part about that day was when the same fellow who had referred to me as “The Butchest Link”, came by my table to flirt with me… as a man. It was an entirely unintentional reverse-catfish. He was a nice enough guy, but I had no penis to offer.

I had fun being Tommy, although it was very difficult to drop the accent after using it for twelve hours straight. The next day, I drove home, proud of proving my point about gender perception, and stopped by a rest stop to go pee. A homeless man approached, asking for gas money, “Sir, my girlfriend and I are trying to get to Bakersfield, and we’re out of gas. Could you help us out?”

My boobs weren’t taped down. My face and hair were clean. I was wearing jeans, a tank top, and the same loose white shirt. I gave the guy $50, “Yup, no problem. Drive safe!”

I headed into the women’s bathroom, and checked the polished steel mirror. It was just me, just like it always was, and I laughed.

The point is, we can’t control the labels other people give us. As much as we alter the packaging to try to market ourselves as the person we want the world to see, we can’t get too upset if the message isn’t received the same way to everyone. Sometimes we’ll be misgendered. Sometimes people will make assumptions about our sexuality, religion, or political views. The trick is to know who you are on your own terms, and let the truth of that guide you. – K

Damned if You Do: Paradoxes of Female* Authorship

*Let me start out with a disclaimer for those who are already angry that I’ve included a gender in the title of this post. If you think gender bias doesn’t exist in writing/publishing, it’s only because you haven’t encountered it personally. That’s the whole point of why I’m writing this. I don’t write for any group in particular, I only write the truth. Be a better person, and take a moment to learn something you don’t know, so you can have a more developed brain to interact with the world in the future.

I’ve been writing stories since the first time I got access to paper. I’ve never really considered why we didn’t have paper in the house, but I distinctly recall that having anything to draw or write on was a celebrated rarity. Usually, I only got access to paper at other people’s houses, and it was almost always that slick kind that came with finger paint sets. So when I found my dad’s bound, lined-paper journal, I immediately started using it to make story books. My dad eventually gave up on trying to reclaim it from my re-purposing, and I still have it to this day.

My brother was seen as the artist in the family, so relatives would often send him art supplies. (Which he didn’t use, because his medium of choice is cinematography…) Paper became more available, and my stories became more complex. I drew my first stories with only a few word bubbles or sound effects, because I see my thoughts as pictures. As my vocabulary grew, I began to include captions, then moved to a more “story book” format. That evolved into graphic novels, and that’s where I hit my first roadblock.

You see, women were not welcomed in the sequential art industry. (I’ve been told it’s getting better.) The general consensus was that women couldn’t write or draw what men would be interested in, and since the readership was mostly male, that’s all they cared about.

When I brought my first book to a publisher, I did all of the things literary agents will tell you not to do, but they absolutely worked for me. I drove from Maryland to San Antonio, Texas, wore my best cute/sexy outfit, and walked directly into the publisher’s home office with a completed book in hand. I walked out half an hour later with a signed contract. (That was probably my first real victory in Kaede mode.)

My first book, Oasis Destiny, features not one, but five strong female characters. And by strong females, I don’t mean “girls who beat people up”. They are five very different people, but their strengths come from fairness, compassion, patience, ingenuity, and intellect.

Shortly after returning home, the publisher asked me to take over their flagship title, one that had been written and drawn by men, and had a male fanbase. The reason they selected me? Because I could “draw what men wanted to see”. This is the image the decision was based on.

Mostly naked, anatomically-improbable, emotionally-vulnerable demon girls.

Now, keep in mind, I knew exactly what I was doing when I drew that. That pinup was self-marketing my ability to draw “what men want to see”. I did that because I wanted to show the publisher that a woman knows damn well what their male fanbase wants.

I accepted the job, and went straight to writing good characters, of all genders and body types. Flawed personalities, complex romances, weird and wacky, and sometimes larger than life. The “new” fans loved it, the “old” fans, and the publisher, hated it.

The new fans, (some of whom were actually old fans who were interested in more than boobs…) would tell me how much they loved the new characters, and the fact that there was an actual original story instead of being a collection of ham-fisted parody and gratuitous panty shots. People from all walks of life read my work because they could connect with it. It made them laugh, or cry, or want to punch a watermelon, and they wanted more.

The old fans would complain because I was a woman. Because I didn’t “get it”, and begged loudly for the original creator to come back. But the extra funny part was, he hadn’t been writing or drawing the book for a long time, but they kept his name on it anyway. When I took over, Robby Bevard had been the ghost writer, and David Hutchison had been the artist. (Robby wrote the script for the first issue of my run… which I later found out he’d plagiarized from a manga he’d read.)

The new fans were marginalized, or even insulted by my own publisher. (Not very LGBTQ+ friendly, I’m afraid.) They’d include advertising in my issues that would basically feature women bending over to expose their latex-coated labia. This was not an adult title. These were hyper-sexualized images being marketed to kids.

Meanwhile, the title I’d brought them, with the strong female characters, was mangled and mishandled for two years. When I confronted my liaison about the contract violations, I was called a “primadonna” and told that I should “learn to keep [my] mouth shut”. My liaison was a man celebrated for writing female main characters. Luckily, he was stupid enough to put these comments in an email, so I was able to dissolve my contract.

So, if I wrote good male characters, I “didn’t get it”, and if I wrote good female characters, my book would never see the light of day because the existing fanbase was mostly toxic males. (Never mind when I wrote non-binary characters, because they didn’t even know what do with those.) That was basically my cue to move to a new medium.

What women want, and what men want has nothing to do with being women or men. It has to do with the intangible identity inside each person. Unfortunately, that’s harder to market to. That’s why marketing is put in place from a very early age to tell us what our genders are “supposed to want”. Toys for girls are pastel and soft, toys for boys are dark and metallic. (That’s probably why I played with Legos instead.) This continues into adulthood, for the sole purpose of selling products in a more easily grouped manner.

This systemic gender marketing carries over into writing. As a woman, there’s this bizarre idea that I can and should only write for women. Pause, and think about how stupid that is for a moment. Did George Lucas only intend his work for heterosexual white males? Does Neil Gaiman stamp “No Girls Allowed” on his books? I’m not writing a how-to manual for proper vaginal care, I’m writing stories that apply equally to everyone.

But the extra, EXTRA stupid thing is, other women expect me to write only for them. As if writing a male protagonist somehow voids my woman card. (I’m pretty sure I don’t have one of those in the first place, but my dentist seems to think that’s an actual thing.) If a man writes a strong female character, we give him an award. If a woman writes a strong male character, we revolt. It’s not a matter of under-representation, it’s taken as burning betrayal. “You had a chance to create a good female character, and you wasted it on yet another male!”

J. K. Rowling’s books have male protagonists, but are crammed full of strong female characters. In many ways, the females are actually the strongest characters, even in supporting roles. But she had to author the books as “J.K.” because she knew she’d be a harder sell as a female, and if “Harry” had been “Hermione”, there would NOT be a theme park centered around her world today. J.K. Rowling wasn’t selling out, she was being smart. She saw the long game.

Think about Harry Potter for a moment. I mean, the character, not the series. He’s “insta-famous” as a child for doing absolutely nothing at all. (His mom is technically the one who thwarted Voldemort.) He bobs around like a cork in a river of intrigue and turmoil, but he really isn’t the most interesting person in the series. Not even close. The world of the story is more interesting than the titular character, and that’s what Rowling knew ahead of time. But we would have never been able to see the world if Harry had been a girl. (Go ahead, tell me about the comparable success of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”. I’ll wait.)

My latest series has a male protagonist, but he is often eclipsed by the capability of women and non-binaries around him. He is male because his role as a male is significant to the story, but not because of his “maleness”. He represents a familiar idea dropped into an unfamiliar world, and the story follows what happens to that idea as it evolves. (It’s not a book for kids, though.)

So, for my fellow authors and hopefuls out there, of every stripe, remember that “for women” or “for men” is purely a marketing term, and has no bearing on the content or quality of your writing. If you can’t find a literary agent who knows how to bridge the gender gap, keep looking. Write the story you want to tell, and let the readers surprise you with just how flexible their imaginations can be. You might even end up with a theme park one day. ~K

Other Ramblings…