The joke goes like this: one day you’re young, and the next you’re looking up the names of birds. My sister and I have poked fun at my father for it since we were children, reveling in our youthful avian apathy, even getting him gifts of bird charts and glossaries as gifts (though that particular joke was on us: he enjoyed them). So it came as a bit of a shock to me that, on a cold, overcast Oregon December morning, I found myself typing tiny brown winter bird black and white head into my phone’s search bar.
A shock, because I don’t consider myself old just yet. Like others, I’ve spent some time lamenting how the COVID-19 pandemic stole the last of my 20s—who wants to be that thirty-something at the bar, awkwardly trying to dance to new music you don’t know?—but I still haven’t had the age crisis I’m told I should be knee-deep in by now. In fact, I feel like I’ve gotten younger, somehow—even now, sipping coffee, wrapped in blankets on the couch, watching the black-capped chickadees bounce along the bare branches of the tree beyond my window. I feel like I’ve just been born.
I’m writing this as I recover from a bilateral salpingectomy—or bisalp, for short—one of the types of surgical procedures known as “getting your tubes tied.” At the moment, I’m a month from turning 31. I’ve been begging for this procedure since I was 18, the youngest you can legally consent to sterilization, but I’ve known I didn’t want to have children since I was a child. Once, while standing around after church as my parents talked with their friends, I remember one of the adults in the group asking me if the doll I was carrying was my baby. Obviously, this person wanted me to say it was, so I screamed and threw it on the ground and ran away. Probably not the best precursor to trying to convince everyone for the rest of my life that no, I don’t hate babies, I just don’t want one.
My sister has two children and I love them both with my whole soul. When they were born I wanted to hold them, and as they’re growing I want to play with them and learn about them, who they are, what they think and feel, but I’m afraid to express it. Every time I do, without fail, someone says something about how right I look holding a baby, how good I would be at being a mother, and it’s usually framed like a “gotcha,” like they’ve caught me; as if they’re saying, “See? You can do it! We knew you wanted this for yourself!” Here’s the kicker: I know I have the capacity in me to love a child because there are children who I love. I know I’d be a good parent. I could do it if I had to. But I don’t want to.
It was three states and twelve years before a doctor believed me. Realistically, I’d have little luck in my home state of Alabama, or in Texas where I briefly lived while working on my MFA. When I moved to Oregon for my PhD I was so used to being told no that I put it off, and then the pandemic happened. But I’ve always wanted to move back to Alabama to be near my family, so when Roe v. Wade was overturned, I knew it was time. I made a consultation appointment, and for the first time, for some reason, checked the box on the forms indicating that I’d prefer an LGBTQ+ inclusive doctor. I’m bisexual, but in a heterosexual-appearing marriage, so it never seemed worth the risk—especially in the South. But something made me check that box, and I think it was this: I am also nonbinary.
When a short-haired woman wearing rainbow “love is love” and pronoun pins introduced herself as my potential surgeon, I felt the first wave of relief. I was guarded, but told her the truth: I don’t want to be pregnant, ever, especially if I’m going back to the South where I wouldn’t be able to easily or safely access abortion. I felt the second wave of relief when instead of the typical You’ll change your mind or What about your husband? she rolled her eyes. “Fuck, yeah, I don’t blame you,” she said. “Let’s get this thing scheduled.” Because of my other chronic health issues, we opted for a total fallopian tube removal, scheduled for December 5th, 2022.
Despite some general anxiety and OCD-based trepidation leading up to the surgery, I knew when I came out on the other side, I’d feel a third wave of relief: I would never have to worry about being pregnant again. I did feel that relief; I do feel it. What I didn’t expect to feel was gender euphoria. I’ve heard transgender friends explain it before, but I’ve never felt it myself. Hell, I wasn’t sure it was for me to experience. I was assigned female at birth, and for the most part, I’m okay with that. “She/her” pronouns are fine with me. Because of the shape of my body, I move through the world being seen as a woman. More than once in my life I’ve been told I have a very feminine face. And really, I’m fine being seen that way—or I was. I am? Most of the time. Sometimes.
When I moved to Texas in 2017, away from anyone who knew me, I started slowly soft-launching my nonbinary identity via a subtle shift from “she/her” to “she/they” pronouns, but I still didn’t consider myself nonbinary—or at least, not nonbinary enough to claim it. It wasn’t until the pandemic, when isolation stripped away the layers of performance I felt beholden to in public that I fully felt the freedom of claiming nonbinary, of understanding that “nonbinary woman” wasn’t the contradiction I believed it to be. Being a woman is okay with me. Being not a woman is also okay with me. Being nonbinary means I get to live my truth as both and neither. Maybe it is a contradiction. That’s okay too. I am large. I contain multitudes.
What I don’t contain (anymore) is fallopian tubes. I don’t look any different, but I feel it. It isn’t just that I can’t get pregnant, though that’s part of it. It’s that at home in the deep south, woman to most people—and definitely sociopolitically—still means mother, incubator, womb. A woman, to them, is someone who can get pregnant and have children, and now I can’t, so I’m not a woman. But I am! (And I’m not!) The next time someone asks me—because I outwardly look like what they think a woman should look like—when I’m having kids, I can say I can’t have kids instead of not wanting them and, suddenly, they no longer think of me as a woman, even if they don’t realize it. So I win. I won. Even if it’s because of their incorrect ideas about sex and gender. Fuck them, they can be wrong twice. Even if I’m the only one who knows it.
I am nonbinary, and I won.
Unlike other birds, the sex of the black-capped chickadee can’t be determined by its feathers. In cardinals, the males are a bright and boisterous red, the females a soft brown with lovely crimson accents. Starlings are more difficult, the difference in the color of the beak: pink for females, a dark blue for males. Ravens are harder still, but not impossible to discern: Though strikingly similar, the male raven’s larger size and slight scruff around the neck give them away. But male or female, to humans, black-capped chickadees all look the same. As I watch them from my window, 30 years young and belly still tender, I like to think they’re in on the joke.
Raye Hendrix is a writer from Alabama. Raye is the author of the chapbooks Every Journal is a Plague Journal (Bottlecap Press) and Fire Sermons (Ghost City Press). She is the winner of the 2019 Keene Prize for Literature, Southern Indiana Review’s 2018 Patricia Aakhus Award, and a 2021 Bread Loaf scholarship recipient. Their work has been or will soon be featured in Poetry Daily, American Poetry Review, 32 Poems, Shenandoah, Poet Lore, Cimarron Review, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. Raye is the poetry editor of Press Pause Press and co-editor of DIS/CONNECT: A Disability Literature Column (Anomalous Press). Raye holds degrees from Auburn University and the University of Texas at Austin, and is a PhD candidate at the University of Oregon. Find out more at rayehendrix.com.