Whenever I tell people about my study abroad experience, I blush a bit. I spoke three European languages in college and was a major Francophile, but for my semester abroad I went to English-speaking Cork, Ireland to study the tin whistle. Why the tin whistle? Well, in a roundabout way, it was about a boy–but not in the way you might think.
I’ve recently started rethinking a period of my life that I’ve found embarrassing for a long time. The whole experience sounds like a familiar story of a kid with a crush on a cute rock star, but I’m starting to understand that it was actually about finding permission to explore my own gender identity.
Let’s rewind a bit.
I went to my first Jump, Little Children concert in 2003. I was immediately drawn to the tall, skinny multi-instrumentalist, a slightly femme boy who played, among other things, a tiny bright pink electric mandolin. It was the summer I graduated high school, and I was trying to figure out how to be an adult queer in the South at a time when I really didn’t know what to think of sexuality, and also was pretty fucking afraid of the local homophobes. I went to the concert with my best friend, Emily, on whom I totally had a schoolkid crush, and our friend Tom (a fellow queer who had his older boyfriend in tow on this outing). While sexuality was fascinating to me that summer, I wasn’t thinking much about gender at the time.
For a while, as my Jump fandom exploded, I assumed that my interest in Matt Bivins, the mandolin-player, was also a crush. I tended to be interested in queer guys, though they were scary and unapproachable. Matt was straight, but was unlike most men I knew in his willingness to play fast and loose with gendered clothing. He was the exact opposite of my college boyfriend, a very insecure dudely dude who wore awkward-fitting jeans and t-shirt with a scruffy beard and got really jealous any time I talked about getting to be friends with Matt or the other guys in the band. This was a guy who actually cried when I came out to him as bisexual. In contrast, Matt fearlessly wore pink and swapped stories of folks they found hot with his girlfriend at the time. I pretty quickly figured out that any crush I had was on said girlfriend, not Matt himself, but I did enjoy getting to know him as I started selling merch at shows and driving down to Charleston for tin whistle and harmonica lessons. I liked how chill he was about things. For an uptight person with anxiety who was terrified to be too non-conforming in many realms, he was kind of what I wanted to be when I grew up.
For the last couple of years of college, I realize now, I was totally trying to emulate him. So I went to Cork instead of France (I did take Irish language lessons, but they didn’t stick). I dressed more and more femme-boy glam. And I still had no idea what my options were related to gender. It was a couple more years before I knowingly met a transgender person, but I think spending time around Matt and going to Jump shows gave me the first baby steps of permission to myself to try on gender fluidity. I didn’t know any queer femmes yet, but I knew a guy, a lanky nerdy awkward brunette like me, who played a pink mandolin. Maybe the rules around gender were actually safe to bend and break? I mean, in a regional context, this dude was a rockstar. Obviously he wasn’t suffering any major consequences.
When I talk about being trans, I talk a lot about the permission to be femme, and how gender fluidity is often portrayed as androgyny. It might be for this reason that my first gender fluidity role model was a presumably cis straight guy. I didn’t relate to transness at first, even as I did start to meet trans and non-binary people, because androgyny seemed so bland (at least, to my babyqueer eyes). I also didn’t understand that femme could be queer. I didn’t believe that I was allowed to let pink be my favorite color–that was something to be suppressed. So emulating a kind of indie boy rock chic look with femme elements was a safe way to start figuring out who the fuck I was. It’s not the style I landed on, exactly, but it’s really clear to me now that just as it took me so long to understand my sexuality because it was actually my gender that was so different, it took me an equally long time to understand that I was so drawn to Matt because he represented this scary fluid thing that I was, not so much because of a more typical crush.
That said, I still get a little pink and blushy watching the Jump, Little Children reunion concert on YouTube. Not so much because I’d want to date the man (that’s all you, LJ!) but because I remember that fast, hot prick of suddenly seeing the gender possibilities that just might exist–and finally starting to fall in love with myself.