my name is pan ellington.

my name is pan ellington and i am not a lesbian. i am queer.

nor am i a girl. or a boy. i am androgyne. i am trans.

me, shaving. ca, 1978.

i grew up in a boring, suburban town outside of los angeles with a regular mom and dad for a time, neither of whom i would describe as progressive, or even liberal (you could say the same about downey, cal, now that i’m thinking about it). for some reason, though, i’m still not sure why, my parents always bought both girls’ and boys’ toys for me at christmastime and for my birthday and i loved my dollhouse just as much as i did my firetruck pedal car, complete with matching gas pump. i was just as comfortable pretending to shave with my father’s razor, blade removed, as i was experimenting with my mother’s make-up or wearing her perfume on special occasions and on sunday for church and i don’t ever remember there ever being any judgment about it, friends and family, alike. living “in the middle” has always been my natural state of existence and i am grateful to my parents for allowing me to do so at such a young age.

me, applying blush. ca, 1978.

it was only when i ventured out into the world that i felt uncomfortable, because it was out in the world that i felt the pressure to choose, it where i felt pushed toward one end of the gender binary or the other. if my hair was cut in my mother’s favorite pixie cut, people assumed i was a little boy and i’d bristle when they’d say, “your little boy is so well behaved.” if she dressed me up in a dress and patent leather shoes they’d say, “what a pretty little girl,” as my legs itched on the other side of the frills. both made me equally uneasy because i knew i wasn’t either.

i went from public school to catholic beginning in first grade, attending st. raymond’s until eighth grade, the same kids as classmates all the way through, for the most part. i did what i thought i was supposed to do as i got to junior high school age or so, kissing boys and “going around,” as we called it. but deep down i knew i wasn’t anything like the other girls. i didn’t feel like one, exactly, and i liked them. in that way. i wanted to be close to them, physically. i wanted to feel what that was like. girls turned me on. i remember my best friend hugging me on the blacktop at recess or after school one time and getting so fucking wet for her. clearly something was wrong with me. i wanted to hide. so i did. pretending and laughing along with everyone else at the fag jokes the boys liked to tell in fifth and sixth grade even though i felt the truth in my heart: i was a fag. and i was really laughing at myself.

high school wasn’t much better, although it was because of me, because of my own fear, fear of what people would say about me and of what my father would think of me. fear that i would be abandoned by the people i loved, my mother then dead ten years already. so i enclosed myself in a prison of fear and misery, and locked up my queerness. it was there in my cell where i reveled and despaired in a series of silent crushes and my first real loves, the occasional boy crush adding another level of turmoil to my declining emotional life. i didn’t come out even after i transferred from my local high school to the high school for the arts (it was exactly like “Fame”). there was a gay and lesbian club, GALA, that met every week. i remember walking by them, sitting on the grass outside of king hall, having their lunch and just talking. i wanted to join them so badly, but i could never make my legs go that way, even though by that time i had been writing poetry all semester about the girl that sat next to me in mr. doty’s creative writing class. it was a friend that changed everything for me.

marc & i. ca, 1995.

marc and i met working stage crew for the musicals that ran at the local theatre in downey. i was sixteen and he was nineteen. everyone always assumed we were together and neither of us ever argued. but we never talked about it. i ended up coming out after marc came out to me working a show. he at twenty-one, now dancing, myself at eighteen, still loving crew. i snuck him into my room after the show and talked for eight hours that night, coming clean with everything we felt for each other and never said, our feelings for other people. it was 1992, we came out in the middle of a plague. a plague the religious right called punishment for our sinful ways and sexual deviancy, a plague that would eventually take marc’s life.

i came out as a lesbian because my physiology is female and since that is what i am mostly attracted to, that was the most appropriate label for me. but i never really felt like i fit in with the lesbian scene, or the community, and i hadn’t yet learned the language that would help me reveal the boy inside of me. the signs had always been there, of course. asking my best friend, grace, to call me “markie” in seventh and eighth grade, going by “andie” in ninth and tenth. then “a.p.” later on. feeling naked onstage at arts high, cast as a man, my acting teacher going on and on about how natural i was in the part, that it was my best performance out of all the scenes she’d assigned me so far, having no clue that it was really not a performance i gave.

i made various attempts to explore this boyish side of me over the years, but even surrounded by my chosen family, most liberal and variations of gay, i found only frustration: my lesbian friends taking issue with my dating straight women or hooking up with men; a friend from city college a few years ago, activist and self-identified feminist, saying, “but you’re a GIRL!” when i tried to explain the duality of my gender; an ex telling me it sounded like i was “trying too hard” when i shared my chosen name, “pan,” with her; even composing an ethnography on the genderqueer community for an anthropology final at city college.

androgynous body, zoo house. ca, 2012.

it wasn’t until i left los angeles and settled in at uc berkeley that i began to think about my gender and my name again. something was different this time, though. i was free of the ties from home that bind. with the exception of a few friends from city college, i really didn’t have any connections or relationships in the bay area. i began experimenting with my appearance, wearing ties to class, taking care to choose clothing that accentuates the more boyish aspects of my physique. all the while reflecting on my name. and not necessarily the “what” so much as the “what does this mean?” i was in the shower when “pan” came. and watching ken burns’ “jazz” when ellington did. and then i thought about it some more.

i was terrified and at first it felt strange, telling my professors that semester, “please call me pan. like peter or frying.” but for the first time in my life i felt like i was expressing the real me. i finally felt that the outside of me authentically matched the inside. it felt good to express both my boyish girliness and my girly boyishness, not only with my name, but my aesthetic, as well. my thin frame and flat chest, my tattoos and my dreadlocks. it was in berkeley, as well, that i found the word for what i am, androgyne: “a non-binary gender identity” who “may possess traits that are simultaneously feminine and masculine, or neither. Some androgynes have adopted an androgynous psychological gender identity, while some may still be questioning their gender or live with the social gender identity assigned to them at birth.”

that doesn’t make things easy, however. i still get those stares from people on the street that scream, “is that a boy or a girl?”, friends still say things like, “you’ll always be mandy to me,” even within my own community, among my LGB brothers and sisters, i am seen as less than by many.

i read leelah alcorn’s suicide note on tumblr last night. she was a seventeen year old trans girl who felt hopeless, who felt she would never be accepted by her family and friends, and that she would always be alone. she wrote, “my death needs to mean something.” there was a part of me still hiding before i read the words leelah left for us, not wanting to say what i really am, “i am trans. i am queer. i am androgyne” for the simple fact that i can still pass as something society is more accepting of — a lesbian.

in 1992 coming out was a political act. a generation of brothers and sisters was being taken by aids, the religious right, not only had reagan in the white house, but public figures such as jerry falwell and jesse helms publicly saying aids patients were getting exactly what they deserved. the thinking was that it was much more difficult for straight people to vote against us if they came to know gay people as their neighbors, family members, and friends. in the present day, another generation of brothers and sisters is being taken by suicide and murder. just as my coming out then was political, so it is today. for me to remain silent is to remain complicit. no more.

my hope in writing this is two-fold. first, to help those who don’t, understand. and second, and most importantly, to help those who feel they are alone and without hope a little less so.

me. 2015.

my name is pan ellington and i am not a lesbian. i am queer.

nor am i a girl. or a boy. i am androgyne. i am trans.

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