A friend of mine agreed to help me understand gender, sexuality, and the myriad ways both influence our day-to-day lives. I hope you enjoy this just as much as I did.
Q. When were you first aware that the gender assigned at birth wasn't how you identified?
A. I realized my sex, which is what is assigned at birth, didn’t line up with my identity when I was a sophomore in college. I identify as non-binary and genderqueer. A large part of why I didn’t realize my identity until college was that I didn’t know there were any options beyond man or woman. Sophomore year I learned what non-binary was and that’s when I started processing that I’m not cisgender.
Q. I've heard a lot of discourse lately about the difference between biological sex and gender. Can you speak to that?
A. Biological sex is your reproductive organs, and is the thing actually being revealed at “gender reveal” parties. Gender is more complex. It’s about how you process and move through the world. There’s a quote I like, “Sexuality is who you go to bed with. Gender is who you go to bed as.”
Follow Up Question: True-gender is very socially constructed right? And social constructs are defined as "ideas created and accepted by the people in a society." Do you think gender is real in a literal sense?
Gender is a social construct, yes. Basically, what that means is that gender expectations are different for every society. However, I think saying that gender isn’t real can be a bit problematic. It’s something I hear a lot in trans/non-binary/gender non-conforming circles, meaning “this is a social construct, so do what you want and be happy.” I’m somewhat uncomfortable hearing that from a cis person (a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their sex at birth) because most of the time their attitude is “I’m going to misgender but gender isn’t real so it’s okay.”
Q. Socially, what are the repercussions of defying gender norms?
A. Honestly, I haven’t faced a lot of repercussions, but I present very femme and am afab (assigned female at birth). The people who face the worst repercussions are transgender and non-binary amab (assigned male at birth). There’s more space in our society for presenting masculinity than there is for femininity.
Q. How did the people in your life respond when you told them about your gender identity?
A. This is a hard question because only one family member knows, so I can’t really speak to that. I’m lucky that I surrounded myself with good friends who are supportive. I first came out between sophomore and junior year of college. My friends instantly got on board with my name and pronoun changes. It hasn’t been a perfect experience by any means, but I am grateful to have had a coming out experience that has been overwhelmingly positive. I had a few experiences in college where people were not accepting but my friends were always willing to shut that shit down.
Q. What are some triggering things people say or do? How can people who may not know better, like myself, become aware of the language we use and how it affects other people.
A. I wouldn’t personally use the word triggering. One of the biggest things is overly apologizing for misgendering me, to the point that I’m left convincing them that it’s okay. “Oh, I’m sooo sorry I’m a terrible person” type of thing.
I guess the biggest thing cis people can do is work to remove unnecessary gendered language. For example, “How are you?” is a complete sentence. Words like “ladies”” added to that (“How are you ladies?”) are not necessary.
Also, getting into the habit of using neutral/ not using pronouns for people whose pronouns you don’t know. Gender presentation isn’t an indicator of pronouns. My presentation can skew feminine, but no matter how I look my pronouns are always they/them.
Q. Mental health is something we've both dealt with, and something that's hugely important. Can you talk a bit about your personal struggles and give some insight to others who may be struggling?
A. My mental illnesses really became prevalent in high school when I was part of a church that I now recognize practices conversion therapy. The messages I internalized from the years I spent there shaped me in ways I still can’t fully explain. This was the first place I heard that who I am was wrong. Because of this, I started to self-injure. I felt out of control, and truly believed that I was damaged goods. The pastor would tell me consistently “Your chooser is broken.” He meant that I’m queer because of a personal fault, and if I prayed enough maybe god would fix this “broken” part of me.
I was a junior in high school when I first attempted suicide. Somehow, I made it through high school and got to Bradley University. Freshman year I made queer friends for the first time in my life. I was still depressed but I managed. Things started slipping sophomore year, I was self-harming again, but still functioned. Junior year everything fell apart—I was self-harming every day. In the middle of fall semester, I started having daily panic attacks, which went on for almost a year. During this time, I struggled with suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Senior year I finally kicked self-harm. A friend who had been watching me self-destruct for years threatened to walk away because he couldn’t watch this anymore. I didn’t believe him, but he did fall out of my life. That’s when I finally realized that this wasn’t good for me and was finally able to stop.
Six months after getting clean, I got a tattoo of what became my mantra. It comes from a Jeff Buckley song, “all flowers in time bend towards the sun.” The tattoo is: "bend towards the sun," and it’s a reminder that it’s always possible to grow and heal. The day I got the tattoo was when I first started feeling like I was recovering.
I don’t have a ton of advice for coping with mental illness. The best thing I did for myself was finding a queer therapist. I’ve seen probably 50 therapists, but I finally feel like my therapist gets me. All this to say, don’t hesitate to change therapists to find the right fit for you. If you can’t afford therapy or are uninsured, check your area for sliding scale providers, or colleges where students may need clinical hours.
Q. Who (artists, writers, singers, people) do you most look up to? A. Ever since the 2016 election, I’ve been consciously surrounding myself with queer media.
Kaveh Akbar (He isn’t queer but his book is amazing).
Q. Tell me a bit about why you started writing poetry and what you love about it.
A. I’m not sure what drew me to poetry the first time. Writehouse Ink (a writing club at Bradley University) was the first time I ever truly wrote frequently. At my very first Writehouse workshop I brought a poem about self-harm on a one-on-one feedback night. I was terrified but the comments I got back were so positive. There was no judgement about the fact that I wrote explicitly about things that probably shouldn’t be the first conversation you have with someone.
I don’t know if I would be a poet if not for the community at Bradley. I was able to bring poems about any topic without fear of judgement. At the end of my first year in Writehouse I shared a poem about the anniversary of a suicide attempt that fell on that day. I’m so grateful for the space to share the kind of things that you aren’t “supposed to” talk about.
Poetry is the way I process my emotions. I love the way poetry allows me write experiences into existence. I wrote poems about being clean for self-harm before it happened.
Q. Lastly, plug your new poetry book!
A. "Lipstick Stained Masculinity" is my second chapbook, and focuses on gender identity, mental illness, and the intersection of marginalized identities. Readers can find it HERE.
Amazon Description: “Mason O'Hern, author of Rising from the Ashes, is back with an unforgiving and powerful chapbook of poetry. Lipstick Stained Masculinity is a short yet heavy collection, stating loudly that "gender is an ocean." Pulling from personal experiences, Mason provides a strong voice in every page of this book; a voice that is necessary. Lipstick Stained Masculinity is filled with truth, and it's a collection that should not go overlooked.”
P.S. Mason, thank you for being so open, honest, and generous with your story. I'm so lucky to call you my friend!