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Know the West

How to choose a pronoun

The land does not care what parts of you are male or female.


I am a man, but sometimes I hate it. It is an inexplicable sensation — dysphoria, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a state of feeling very unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied.” Sometimes, I am all those things. Sometimes, I am none.

I feel privileged for being comfortable with my anatomy, for feeling at home with any pronoun. Still, I lose myself in a suit because it makes me feel like a man, and I am not one. During puberty, I took scissors to my face — I hadn’t purchased a razor because I was still in facial hair denial — and chopped my bristle until I bled down my parents’ sink. I kept cutting at my neck and body, trying to sever the timeline that made me masculine. These scissors stayed in the bottom of a drawer to emerge only when I was alone, terrified of this shame being uncovered by my parents. Bodies were eternal, I was taught, and God didn’t make mistakes. Men were men; women were women. As leading Latter-day Saints church authority Dallin H. Oaks put it many years later, “Binary creation is essential to the plan of salvation.”

Those like myself, who tilted toward their assigned gender, had choices. I chose to be masculine and learned to occupy a fraction of my being. I understood, though, that I could hide from neither God nor myself. We both knew what was beneath my clothes, particularly when I succumbed to temptation and shaved my chest bare.

NECKTIES WERE MANDATORY on church Sunday; mine was gray with dark diagonal stripes — a sort of discount-clothes-store design that felt appropriate, given that I couldn’t have felt more subtracted while wearing it. Entering sacrament meetings was an all-you-can-eat buffet of dysphoria — dressed in a manly man’s costume while being characterized by every synonym for masculine. It was the LDS churchgoer’s way of mingling with the youth, staying involved. Little by little, I gaslit myself into believing they didn’t bother me, but in the sanctity of my parents’ bathroom, I wept at the precision of their words.

Over the years, I failed at finding the person I wanted to be, even in LGBTQ+ spaces, where nonbinary didn’t fit the shape of my spirit. I was looking for revelation and came home with slivers of uncertainty. I concluded I must be faking it, digging too deep. I thought I should ignore this incongruity between my mind and body. Because the English language had no word to give meaning to my pains, I felt like I lacked the authority to exist.

FOR YEARS, I had beautiful dreams where I was a different person. I was not male. I was not female. There existed no society to guard the outlines of my gender. I had curly dark hair, tinged purple, my body strong and capable. There were mountains carved from clay. I felt myself a part of them. I became as I was born: a person, a spirit, a witness to creation. My God was a tree, an old juniper who had weathered their branches to silver. I knew who I was, not because my language gave me permission, but because I was. I existed, and the expansiveness of my being grew with the cultivation of my knowing.

I could simply be and be kind, love this world because I belonged to it. I was everything as much as I was nothing. 

Being born of the earth, between mountains and desert, was a source of great power. In the landscapes beyond my rural Utah hometown, I didn’t need to define what parts of me were female and which parts were male, fractionalizing my identity until it shattered. I could simply be and be kind, love this world because I belonged to it. I was everything as much as I was nothing. My only future was clay as it sifted through my fingers, holding grains of once-deer and once-primrose, and the fragments of fungi that produced the enzymes to decompose their bodies, giving them new form.

Binary creation is not eternal, nor does it exist. Our bodies are biomes for trillions of microbial cells: bacteria, fungi, viruses. The liquid component of our blood, plasma, is 90% water, recycled from the tiny bladders of grasshopper mice, from evaporative water that escaped from trees and rivers, from moisture captured by soil. Perhaps I am they, they plural, a thing of many things, and a living history of everything that swims through my veins.

This essay is excerpted from When I Was Red Clay: A Journey of Identity, Healing, and Wonder, to be published in October by Torrey House Press.

Jonathan T. Bailey lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is a conservation photographer with a background in cultural resources. Author of the photograph and essay collection Rock Art: A Vision of a Vanishing Cultural Landscape, Bailey’s work has been published in Archaeology Southwest, the Salt Lake Tribune, Indian Country Today and elsewhere. 

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