FRAGMENTS: Episode 3: Gender


Photo by Josh Marcus.

Photo by Josh Marcus.
Photo by Josh Marcus.

More than a Haircut
Before we get into Max’s story, a bit of housekeeping: Max is a 19-year-old junior from Rockville, Maryland majoring in Creative Writing and Educational Studies. Ze is transgender, non-binary, gender-fluid and uses the personal gender pronouns (PGPs) ze, zir and zirs. Oh yeah, and ze’s a damn good storyteller. Hence the anecdotes.

Early Years

Max is given the name Naomi at birth. Friends and family label zir a girl. Ze doesn’t give it much thought.

“I was not really sure,” Max said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’m a girl apparently.’ It never really meant anything to me.”

Cisgender older brother, cisgender younger sister, Max is the middle child in every way.

“I always kind of thought of myself as the in-between,” ze said. “There’s the boy, there’s the girl, and I’m the one in the middle.”

Making friends with boys is easier. Whenever ze steals zir brother’s clothes, it’s a small victory.

1st Grade

There’s a trans woman in Max’s synagogue. The moment ze sees her, ze understands immediately.

Max’s four-year-old sister asked, “Why is there a man that dresses like a girl?”

Their mom said, “Oh, she’s a woman but she felt like she was born into the wrong body, but she’s a woman, she’s a girl.”

This is an imperfect explanation according to Max now, but fair for a four-year-old.

“That was my first sign that okay, my mom’s okay with trans people,” Max says. “Even at that age I knew, ‘I want to do that when I’m older, but the other way around.’”

3rd Grade
Max writes ze wishes to be a boy in zir journal.

“That was always the wish I made on stars,” ze said. “Like, that was actually the wish I’d make whenever I could.”

There’s an unequal number of boys and girls in zir Hebrew school class. Max plays on the boys’ team for Jewish Jeopardy to balance things out.

“It was really exciting for me. I don’t know why—I mean, I know why,” Max said with a laugh.

4th Grade

More wishes in the journal: Ze wants to get boy’s clothing from Target, not just avoid pink from the girl’s section.

The gender exploration gets bigger now, more public.

The Guttmans go on a vacation cruise. Max doesn’t like boats. There’s not much to do, so ze hits the kid’s club and doesn’t tell anyone ze’s considered a girl.

“It was my dirty little secret,” ze said.

Ze has an almost shoulder-length bob, but that doesn’t seem to confuse the kids.

“Everyone said, ‘Yo! This guy’s got rockin’ hair!’” Max said.

They ask if Naomi is a girl’s name. Max said, “Yeah, usually.”

Eventually, Max’s parents meet zir friend Davy on board. The scheme is foiled. That doesn’t stop zir from doing it again, this time for a whole session of summer camp.

“Whenever I got a clean slate, I wouldn’t correct people,” ze said. “It was short term and lower risk.”

With adults, gender presentation is a different story. They are harder to deal with, more rigid about conventional ideas of gender.

“Kids don’t care,” Max said.

5th grade

Journal-derived magic: Max is allowed boy’s clothing from Target, even gets zir brother’s hand-me-down polo for a birthday gift. It isn’t all wins though. Family life unit, 5th grade, no one’s comfortable, especially Max.

“I remember wishing that I wouldn’t grow boobs,” ze said.

Telling someone you’re a boy on a cruise ship is low risk; puberty is a different story.

Middle School

Grades six through eight arrive. The rockin’ hair persists. It’s a negotiated haircut, a bowl-cut/mullet. Ze wants short hair, but zir mom says it looks too much like a boy’s.

“In my head I was like, ‘That was the point,” Max said. “But I couldn’t say that. The bowl cut/mullet was the compromise somehow. It was just feminine enough that she’d let me do it.”

Teachers call Max “he” on the first day of school, ze gets mistaken as a boy in the girls’ bathroom—silent victories for Max. The haircut isn’t that “feminine.”

Max lives an hour away from school, so ze buses both ways. The bus driver’s strict: no talking allowed. One afternoon, another stipulation: boys in the back, girls in the front. Max stays in the front with zir friend Lara.

Before leaving, the bus driver walks the aisles, double-checks for nonsense.

“She looks at me and goes, ‘Boys in the back, girls in the front,’” Max said. “I was expecting this so I just said, ‘I’m a girl. I know I look like a boy, but I’m a girl.’”

The driver doesn’t budge.

“Boys in the BACK, girls in the FRONT.”

Lara jumps in.

“She’s a girl. Her name is Naomi.”

The bus driver begins to yell. The rest of the bus rallies behind Max.

“She’s a girl, she’s a girl.”

The bus driver threatens to kick Max off the bus. Ze trudges to the back. The bus pulls off, and Max pulls out zir Nokia flip phone to call zir mom.

Zir mom is teacher, has that works-with-children patience. But “God help whoever messes with her children,” Max said.

Max calls to the driver to talk on the phone.

“I’m not talking to no one’s mom,” the driver says.

Max’s mom fires back: “I’ll see her at the bus stop.”

They stop, seven kids left on the bus. Max’s mom steps on as the doors open.

“I would like for you to meet my daughter Naomi. How dare you talk to my daughter that way, tell her what she is and is not.”
They step outside. Seven noses press against the windows.

The irony of the whole situation is lost on both Guttmans; neither know Max is trans yet.

Ze changes bus routes.

High School

Ze takes the next step. The rockin’ hair persists. This iteration, in Max’s words, is the “A-plus bowl cut.”

Besides that, high school’s different. The middle school with the diverse student body and a Gay-Straight Alliance, where it’s cool to be bisexual—that’s gone. Max’s new school is in an upper-middle class, segregated, “whitewashed” area.

“I go so much crap for the way I looked from day one,” Max said.

People tell zir older brother, Joel, a senior, “Ha, I thought you had a sister.” Ze’s the only freshman in the marching band. Ze’s known as “The Little Crossdresser.”

“Dyke was a favorite nickname,” Max added.

Ze’s not deterred. Ze likes the way ze looks. Ze’s proud of it.

That changes sophomore year.

“I was having a really hard time making friends,” Max said. “I felt incredibly isolated.”

So Max does what everyone in zir life assumed would happen: Ze stops dressing like a boy.

“That’s what I was told,” Max said. “It was just always assumed I’d start ‘being a real girl’ at some point…That would make me more furious than anything.”

Still, it’s Halloween, sophomore year, and ze returns to the girl’s section.

“I wanted skinny jeans,” Max said. “I wanted skinny jean’s that weren’t guy’s skinny jeans. I realized I wanted girl’s skinny jeans, because of the look I was going for.”

People start to treat zir differently. They leave zir alone. Ze grows zir hair out. All’s not well. Ze’s not close to anyone on a deeper level, even though ze has new “friends.”

During zir third, final year of high school, Max develops an eating disorder.

“Primary at my high school was appearance, no matter what else you were,” ze said.

Max tries to keep up with those standards.

“Girls’ clothes aren’t very forgiving of different figures,” ze said. “Even though I knew intellectually things are Photoshopped and pictures are unrealistic, I didn’t know it emotionally. I’d see mannequins and think, ‘I’m supposed to look like that.’”

At prom, Ze’s wears a size 2 dress.

“Even though I was 100 lbs. and 5’6’’, people were telling me, ‘Oh you look so thin, you’re so beautiful,’” Max said. “I was a frickin’ skeleton.”


Another campus, another chapter. Max vows to zirself, “Make sure you look right. Make sure you look like a girl. Make sure you look this way.”

The pressure to present as a girl doesn’t go away. Ze hasn’t started feeling trans yet.

“It wasn’t that I wasn’t familiar with the idea,” Max said. “That was just somebody else. It just didn’t feel like it was me.”

Hair, names, schools—things change.

Sophomore year. Ze meets some non-binary first-years.

“I remember starting to feel much more comfortable with that part of myself,” ze said.

Until March. It’s a trans-inclusivity panel for zir transgender history course and ze introduces zirself with she/her/hers or they/them/theirs PGPs.

“I got home, and I was furious with myself,” ze said. “I was just like, ‘I do not want this, I did not sign up for this, I do not want this part of myself to be real.’ This whole thing had been opened up—and I am a professional at repressing things, not a skill you want to have. Don’t do it.”

The ball keeps rolling. Ze goes exclusively by they/them/theirs.

“I didn’t like they for myself, it didn’t feel personal enough,” Max said. Ze looked up other pronouns online. “Ze felt too harsh.”

Like other questions of zir presentation before, Max compromises with the pronouns. Then ze spreads the news to zir suitemates.

“I was in the shower and just thinking a lot, and I got dressed and came out of my room—ha, came out,” Max said. “I said, ‘Can y’all start calling me by ze/zir/zirs pronouns?’ and everyone was just like, ‘Yeah. Okay. How do you spell that?’ and that was the end of that—everything was cool.”

The ball keeps rolling. Ze tells zir siblings, and they’re supportive. Ze posts the decision to Facebook.

“I blocked it for everybody who might remotely tell my family,” Max said. “I just wasn’t ready for that conversation. I knew they were going to be fine with it, but I wasn’t ready for the conversation.”

Finals are coming up, Max is sick, it isn’t the time. Until it is.


Things aren’t over. The summer before this year starts, Max’s parents still have trouble with pronouns. It causes some emotional dissonance. They talk it out.

That same summer, Max works as an instructor at a summer camp. Old habits die hard. Ze uses the summer to try something new. Only it’s different this time: It’s high-risk. Ze decides to go by Maxwell instead of Naomi.

It doesn’t just mean something new for people to learn; in Jewish tradition, names are given in honor of the deceased, so Max is a departure from something larger. There are four other people in the family named for Max’s Aunt Naomi.

“I didn’t want to change my name at first because I always felt really connected with her, but finally I thought [Naomi] was too feminine for me,” Max says.

Noam, a somewhat gender-neutral Hebrew name, is the first thought. It’s not a perfect fit. Instead, ze choses Max, zir grandfather’s name, the name ze would’ve been given if ze was born a boy.

“For some reason I liked Maxwell; it just felt like the full version,” Max says, “even though it’s actually Irish…I also have synesthesia and I like the color of Max, it’s a steely blue.”

Naomi, Max says, is more of a fuscia, a color ze’s avoided since 4th grade.

A final symmetry: after making zir move at camp, Max finally gets the short haircut ze’s wanted since 4th grade, the one that sends a message to everyone—coworkers, friends, family.

“That was a big, liberating moment,” Max says. “I can get my haircut short, and you know why now.”

Six and a half inches off. Six and a half inches that weigh a ton. Six and a half inches after 18 years.

“I came back, and my sister said, ‘I wasn’t sure what it was going to look like getting your hair cut short again, but you just look so much more comfortable in yourself,’” Max says. “I’ve heard that so many times.”

Because it’s not just about a haircut. It’s about what it broadcasts, and what it doesn’t.

“Most of my high school experience revolved around me editing myself to be what was wanted of me or expected of me, not being too much this or not enough that,” Max says. “Once I came out…that was the biggest darkest thing, so why not just be every other part of myself?”

On a cruise ship, at the front of the bus—wherever.