As a fiction writer-turned-journalist, I spend a lot of time reading personal essays. Some of them are fantastic, and others don’t speak to me as much. When it comes to Melissa Faliveno’s essay collection Tomboyland, I’m only sorry that I didn’t come across it sooner.
Tomboyland focuses on place and identity, detailing Faliveno’s growing up and coming out across eight essays. Tomboyland ranges in subjects from kink parties to softball to gun culture to tornadoes. Though all eight of the essays are beautifully written, this review will focus mostly on one, titled “Tomboy,” for its exploration of bisexuality. To best discuss this piece, there will be some SPOILERS about this particular essay, though I’ve tried not to spoil too much.
Tomboyland does not supply content warnings, but the following material is addressed, or alluded to, in “Tomboy” specifically: biphobia and homophobia, internalized and external; misgendering and transphobia; threats of violence; body issues; and suicide. The full essay collection also addresses alcohol abuse, depression, rape, self-harm, and gun violence, among others.
All of which is to say this: Tomboyland doesn’t shy away from heavy material. In Faliveno’s discussion of biphobia, in particular, I found this directness refreshing. There are so few authors writing bi memoirs or fiction and even fewer looking at the complex, and sometimes ugly, ways that bisexuality is maligned, both by society at large and by the LGBT community itself. Reading this essay collection as a newly out bi helped validate some of my fears and confusion — and acknowledging those things was the first step towards addressing them, in my daily life.
“Tomboy” opens with a discussion of gender and sexuality. They intertwine and conflict, for Faliveno. She struggles to feel comfortable in her identity. She grapples with womanhood and tomboyism. She struggles with the way her more masculine appearance, which she describes as maybe soft butch, leaves others assuming she likes only women.
"Bisexual", she writes, is a term she only sometimes uses. She doesn’t like labels.
There are a few reasons for this. For one, she doesn’t feel like she fully belongs in the queer community. This is due, in part, to her steady relationship with a man.
Though that relationship of course doesn’t “disqualify” her from calling herself bi, it does complicate her feelings about the label. It leaves her asking: What does it mean to feel comfortable in your body and in your identity? What does it mean to feel “queer enough”?
Intertwining her own life with research on Virginia Woolf, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and a historical overview of the terms “androgynous” and “tomboy”, Faliveno unwinds the ways she wants to dress and act and be from what society has told her is acceptable for a body like hers.
One of my favorite passages is a little less than halfway through “Tomboy”. In it, Faliveno identifies the ways in which she has experienced biphobia both from straight friends (who suggest bi folx may be deviants or experimenting) as well as from the LGBT community (who’ve told her that bisexuality is simply repression).
Even Google had something to say about it. When Faliveno searched the word bisexuality, “the fourth option on the auto dropdown was this: Bisexuality doesn’t exist.”
These experiences of biphobia have left Faliveno anxious. They compel her to withhold her sexuality around new friends, regardless of their gender or sexual identities: “As soon as I reveal I’m in a relationship with a man,” she writes, she fears her sexuality “will be questioned or invalidated or both”.
That fear rang especially true for me. Like Faliveno, I’m also in a steady opposite-sex relationship. Mine is straight presenting and can sometimes make me feel as though my bisexuality is obviated or otherwise invisible.
It may sound obvious, but knowing that other bis struggle with biphobia and erasure and invisibility helped normalize my own discomfort.
Another powerful section of “Tomboy” pushes these questions about identity even further: Who, exactly, gets to decide our identities? Can we lose them? How can we feel certain about a label when our identities may change over time?
Faliveno addresses that potential for fluidity: “Language,” she writes, “provides a limited number of options,” and it may never cover the full expanse of our experiences.
This, too, resonated with me; in fact, it felt almost revelatory. I didn’t realize I was bi until I was 25, and I spent years agonizing over how “late” and “behind” I felt. I didn’t know what to call myself, or how to describe my experiences, because “straight” had felt too simplistic even before I knew I was bi; once I knew, even “bi” felt too limiting.
Faliveno’s work reminded me that it’s okay to feel in-between.
Even more to the point, “Tomboy” noted the importance of “trying to say things aloud”, despite the limits of language. Maybe there aren’t easy answers when it comes to labels or anything else. Maybe that’s okay.
I found Faliveno’s essay collection in early 2022, when I was binging queer books in a bid to feel closer to the LGBT community. Faliveno’s essays directly addressed the shame I was wading through, including my own opposite-sex relationship, my long history with tomboyism, and, most importantly, the nagging feeling that I wasn’t “queer enough.”
At a time when I didn’t know what I needed in order to feel better, Faliveno’s work grounded me and gave me the chance to read someone else’s experience of bisexuality. It made me feel a lot less alone.
Though I’d recommend Tomboyland, and “Tomboy” in particular, to anyone interested in an exploration of identity, it was particularly apt, for me, in the early stages of my coming out — when I didn’t yet know that what I needed was to feel seen.