Marci and her mom look through (and critique) dresses together.
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Marci and her mom look through (and critique) dresses together.
Credit: KUOW PHOTO/Marceline Flynn

I didn't know my mom was non-binary until I started to question my gender identity

I

n thrift stores, you can find the craziest, most interesting mix of clothes that really suit who you are. At the same time, you can find lots of clothes that might suit someone else. It's a great place to explore your identity and to see what clothes make you feel most comfortable.

My mom, Jennifer Leigh, and I like shopping at thrift stores because we both have complicated relationships with what we wear and how we present ourselves. At thrift stores, cashiers often call us "ladies," despite neither of us really felling like a lady.

I started questioning my gender about two years ago. That's when I learned that my mom has been grappling with a similar set of questions throughout her life, even though we have very different experiences.

When my mom was young, at the age of five, she started thinking about herself as a boy.

My mother was assigned female at birth, but when she was little, she had the classic childhood experiences of a transgender boy. It was almost stereotypical. She thought about being a boy before she was even in kindergarten.

"I would have dreams," she said. "I called them my 'Jeffrey dreams,' because I was Jeffrey.

"It was a recurring dream series of being a dude and going through days in different worlds. A lot of them were pretty fantastic."

My mother grew up in a conservative family in the South. They weren't happy when these desires started showing up in her interests, too.

As a child, my mom didn't want to play with dolls or kitchen sets. Her favorite toys were her matchbox car collection. But she did not get to keep them.

One day, her mother let her play with cars at a neighbor boy's house.

"I didn't get to bring any of them back," my mom told me. "That was a very formative memory for me."

My mom's family wasn't supportive of her as a tomboy, let alone as a transgender person.

People weren't talking about it, in her home or the world around her.

That's why her first exposure to the idea of being transgender was in her teen years. That was when she started researching what it would be like to live life as a man.

But with where medicine was in the early 1980s, she didn't think she would actually get the body she wanted.

She decided not to transition, which made her reflect on what was important to her about it in the first place.

"I didn't care, nearly as much, what I was physically or how I was seen," she said, "so long as I could do what I wanted to do, and be what I wanted to be."

She decided to find that freedom in California. There, she began working as a software engineer.

In her new job, my mom could remain relatively anonymous. She did most of the work remotely, and she used a pseudonym.

That's why she loved the work — she was able to be herself, and gender wasn't as much of an issue.

But all that changed when she went to a big meeting and met her coworkers in person for the first time.

"Instantly everything I submitted became questioned," she said. "Everyone was propositioning me, and it was like a switch flipped. I couldn't just do my work anymore."

"I had to deal with the 'being a girl' part, and it was so frustrating," she said with a laugh.

That laugh is something we share. Sometimes laughing through the pain is the only way to make it through.

Even though she doesn't regret her decision not to transition, my mom recognizes that she still has to deal with her gender —like with the sexism she experiences in the workplace.

Now, my mom identifies as non-binary. That means she isn't really male or female, but somewhere in the middle.

Gender isn't really the focal point of her life anymore.

"I just want to ignore it," my mom said. "I want it to not be important. I'm a person, not a man or a woman."

It's been really surprising to hear this about my mom, and it's helped me develop a deeper connection with her.

We see each other as confused people, just trying to answer questions about ourselves.

Now, I've spent a month presenting as female and using the name Marceline at college, and it's been feeling great. My mom has been very supportive, and I plan to keep testing the waters to see how I want to live my life.

This story was created in KUOW's RadioActive Intro to Journalism Workshop for 15- to 18-year-olds at Jack Straw Cultural Center, with production support from Kyle Norris. Edited by Caroline Chamberlain Gomez.

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