“Gender, OK” by John Elizabeth Stintzi
Before we head out for breakfast
during my partner’s family’s visit,
I go into the bathroom and unpin
my pronoun from my jacket.
I do this because I don’t want to
field the question: “What does that
‘they/them’ button mean?”
I leave my pronoun face-down
beside the same bottle of acetone
I used last fall—the night before
we drove to Tulsa for Thanksgiving—
to ceremoniously unpaint my nails.
I don’t wear this part of me out
even though Kansas City is my city.
Instead, they’ll spend the morning
with this character that I play.
This has become the life I was dealt:
being most visible with so few.
At least on the rare visits we oblige
ourselves to make, we can drive south
chuckling as we read the signs warning
their city’s approach in sarcastic tones:
Tulsa, OK; Tulsa, OK; Tulsa, OK.
I suppose, after their visit, the signs
will mean something different for them.
They’ll find in OK home instead
of nervous laughter. And when we’ll pass
through in a month on our way to Texas?
(My nails will be unpainted again.)
I’ll be so warmed and worried
to find a barista in the Tulsa Starbucks
with ‘they/them’ written on their name-tag.
And their name? It will be a color,
missing a vowel, and I’ll just want
to say “Me too,” but I won’t. My throat
is still afraid of the scrutiny so I’ll smile
and thank them for the Americano
and—in my head—for existing.
A pin, a button, a sign to promise
that home is no longer so far away.
How seeing them there will bolster me
and fill me with protective love:
them, well-lit in a place like that,
a place where this part of me stays dark.
Hope, a lit candle dancing between the rain.
Nancy Jo Cullen on “Gender, OK”
John Elizabeth Stintzi’s “Gender, OK” is an intimate exploration of living with the painful complications of a genderqueer identity. The poet lays bare their heart in this quiet poem, a brief road trip through the removing of the visible markers of one’s queerness for the comfort of others and for safety, and the surprising joy of finding shared identity in unexpected places.
John Elizabeth Stintzi is the recipient of the 2019 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award and the Sator New Works Award. Their writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Malahat Review, Kenyon Review, Best Canadian Poetry, and others. They are the author of the novels My Volcano (2022) and Vanishing Monuments, as well as the poetry collection Junebat.