What’s your name?
My name is Kaylyn Palella.
What are your pronouns?
It depends in what context. At work and home with my immediate family, “she/her.” But around friends and people I know, “they/them.”
Where do you work?
I work at Great Island Boatyard in Harpswell, Maine. And I also work for myself captaining boats. I started Captain K Marine Services; so people who either want help bringing their boat from point A to point B – I’ll help them deliver it, whether they’re on board with me or I myself am bringing it from point A to point B – or people who want to go on vacation, but maybe are too old to do it safely, or don’t know enough about boats, so they hire me to take them around on their boat. So I don’t have a boat, but I drive other people’s boats.
Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
Yeah. I like all kinds of things. Well I like sailing, obviously, and reading, and taking walks. Playing my guitar, and singing, and drawing, and hanging out with my friends talking about this sort of stuff. I love just sitting and talking and asking questions.
How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?
[laughs] I mean, it so depends on what mixed company, right. In most cases of work and home, especially the holidays, I don’t even approach the pronoun subject. I don’t even touch it. And so people assume, and I don’t correct them, because I’m already in a space that I feel like I’m the only one. To be the only one [when I’m not with a group of similar folks], it’s like they assume that I’m the only cisgendered woman working on boats, that I am the only lesbian working on boats – I don’t identify as a lesbian, but it’s closer than….the not. And there are a few co-workers I’ve talked to about what queerness means, as far as a sexuality, but as far as a gender, I haven’t even…actually that’s kind of intentional, I guess. All the people I work with are men. Cis, straight, white men. There’s one person of color.
So it’s like – I’ve shown them pictures of me, and they [say], “Ooo, Palella!” and I [say], “Hey, yeah I can look like a girl,” and they [say], “You’re hot!” and I was like, “That’s right, fuckers. And now you’re kinda gay.” You know?
Although there are one or two co-workers, we talk about how we wish we had – this is getting weird already, I’m just going for it, whatever – “How awesome would it be to have a penis and a vagina?” He was like, “Yeah, I would love that!” Y’know, so we are actually talking about trans stuff and queerness, they don’t even know it. And it’s so amazing. It’s so amazing. And I confuse the shit out of them, and I love it.
It just for me goes to show that heteronormativity and gender norms are hurtful to everyone. Sexism doesn’t just hurt women. Racism doesn’t just hurt people of color. Once in a while there’ll be glimmers of, Wow, okay, we’re all kind of in this together, we just don’t really have the language for it or we don’t feel like we have the space to explore it. Which is partly why I love hanging out with my people, because that’s what we do. Let’s explore those spaces, and just take up those spaces – that hopefully gives other people permission to do so. I’m thinking about the men that I work with, men in the trades – it conjures an image, which is somewhat very wrong and somewhat not wrong. What I do, we’re colleagues, we’re hauling each other up on ropes 60 feet in the air, so we are quite literally putting our lives into each other’s hands. So there’s this required level of trust and connection that has to happen, or people die. It sounds so dramatic, but that could be true. So there is this level of trust, which I think sometimes fosters a level of intimacy that I think a lot of them don’t have with one another. [I think] they feel safer with a female-bodied “woman.”
What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?
Queer. Genderqueer. Good friend. Captain.
Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?
Short answer, yes. Like hair length, for instance, is so immediately intertwined with gender and with femininity and masculinity and safety. So when I first came out when I was 19 or 20 – so almost 20 years ago, 19 years ago – I cut all my hair off and made it short, and somehow that changes something, but it is just hair length. And yet it does change something. So 3 years ago, my now ex-wife and I sold our house and farm and moved to Florida so she could go to grad school. And in anticipation of moving to the Southeast where I had never lived, I grew my hair out to feel safer. To feel less genderqueer. And I’m glad I did, to be read more obviously. Because everyone “ma’am/sir”s you down there. And I eventually was down there – in South Carolina and Florida – for about two years, and eventually cut my hair short again, which is how I feel more comfortable and confident in my own body for whatever reason. We could analyze that for days. But I finally just cut my hair short again and got “sir”ed all the time, but it was for other people’s comfort. I don’t fucking care if I get “sir”ed. I care more if I get “ma’am”ed than “sir”ed. I identify as genderqueer. I’m not transitioning to anything, I am how I am, and always since I was a child feel more comfortable in clothing [where] I can move more freely, and I just feel more comfortable – that’s the “men’s” section.
I don’t know if that’s whether it fits my body better, or it fits my heart better, but I can just move more free. I remember being a kid and being like, “Why do you wear Keds and dresses? You can’t climb a tree and ride a bike in that stuff!” I still feel that way about how I dress. So now the way I dress – I’m in a tie and a button-down collared shirt and Chuck Taylor’s, so is that…transgressive? Because I feel like that’s sort of how all masculine-of-center female-bodied people dress, so it’s kind of a “style” in its own way. But it’s how I’ve always felt most comfortable, so maybe that’s why this is a style, because I’m not the only one. I don’t know. So yeah, I guess I specifically wear what I wear and look how I look because I feel more comfortable that way, even though sometimes it makes me really uncomfortable because [of] the fear of how people will react. But if I’m not thinking about how people are reacting, I feel more comfortable in going to the men’s section to find a tie. The first time I remember wearing a tie and a vest to a wedding – it was incredible. It was an incredibly powerful feeling.
How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?
Well I didn’t have the words for it or awareness of it, but as early as I can remember, I felt different than my two sisters. And so my mom tried to really buy equal things for us, so that meant dresses and tights, and I fucking hated it. And then [they would say], “Oh you’re just a tomboy,” “Oh, it’s just a phase.” I’m like, Okay, so I’m supposed to grow out of….what now? I always preferred playing with boys and being more physical, and not understanding why they cared about fashion, because it was so restrictive for girls. Now I love fashion, because it makes more sense to me now that I get to wear suits, and I might even rent a tuxedo for the first time soon, that’s so exciting! But my earliest memories are, Oh, I’m somehow different, and somehow that’s a problem. And when I came out when I was 18 or 19 – I grew up Catholic, so it was not an easy process for my family, or for myself. But one of the first reactions from one of my sisters was, “You’re not gonna be one of those butch lesbians, are you?” So there’s this level of masculinity that is part of me and always has been that is still something I struggle with just in relation to my family. It’s always been there. And it’s still somewhat a complicated thing to embrace and to love.
Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?
[laughs] Yes. I mean, it affected everything. Because there were certain very clear rules about men and women, and those were the two options. Everything was binary, and very black and white. Not just about gender, but about right and wrong, wrapped up in gender; masculinity and femininity… Yeah, there have been a lot of years of struggle about my identity, and continue to be, honestly. You know? Most of my chosen family, my friends, are trans and queer identified, and yet somehow I still struggle with my own queer identity. Again, in relation to my family. And [my family] has been shockingly supportive in getting me everything I have, too. They fucked me up deeply, and gave me everything I have. It’s complicated, and I am still in therapy about it. [laughs] We are Italian, but we are [basically] Puritan. We’re Italians who’ve sort of tried to repress the fiery Italian-ness and be well-behaved WASP-y Puritans. And we’re not WASP-y Puritans, but we try to be very fine all the time. So it comes out sideways, man.
Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?
Oh my god. I mean I think my first exposure to a non-binary person was the character Pat on SNL in the 90s. So Pat was this ambiguously gendered person who was also extremely asexual and the person nobody wants to be. Not like a bad character, just – okay, so let me describe Pat. Pat was shaped in a short tubular kind of way, with this unkempt puffy head of hair; dark-haired, white-skinned, pasty, with big bottle-cap glasses, and probably had a crew neck sweatshirt and sweatpants, maybe snorted when they laughed, and – made people uncomfortable. Because people couldn’t identify Pat in a gendered kind of way, but also [Pat] was this non-sexual, super unattractive, super unappealing kind of person. Physically, personality; I’m sure said very odd things; weird behaviorally, so it just made people uncomfortable. So it’s [basically saying], Oh, you have to have a gender. Because if you’re not, if you don’t, then you’re like Pat. And that’s the worst thing. Pat would be like the most bullied person in the school. Everyone knows who that person is. And when it’s wrapped up in gender ambiguity, it’s super dangerous to be like Pat. So that was my first exposure. So I just avoided it.
I think because disrupting gender is more disruptive than being gay, lesbian, or bisexual – arguably, arguably, than being transgender, even, because even if I were to be trans male-identified, it speaks to something like: I at least know you can either fit with a man or a woman. So you’re either gay, or you’re straight, or you’re bisexual. But if you disrupt one’s gender, then you have to erase their sexuality, because if they’re attractive to you in any way, that makes you a little bit queer. And that makes people so uncomfortable.
So at my workplace – if I were to be like, “Okay, now I’m ‘he,’ and I’m taking hormones,” – and that is one of the most incredible, bravest, most badass things I can imagine – if I were to do that, and then pass as a man, there’s this way in which I would just be a dude, and the dudes I work with would just [think], Well I’m not gay, so this person’s not attractive. There’s this sexuality that is clearer for people. It’s hard to describe it, even having studied it.
I think if somebody finds someone attractive, and can’t place their gender, that is extremely disrupting to people and their own attachment to the binary, and their sexuality. And it doesn’t have to be. It’s actually not about them, because we’re humans, and whatever you’re attracted to, you’re attracted to. But because we’re all socialized in that way, it does mean something about them, and that’s really uncomfortable, because that goes against everything that I know I was taught and learned. I had to go through an extremely painful process to unpack it and let it go, but that took a decade. So in that way, the very existence of us within this somewhere-in-between place – including trans people – is really uncomfortable for people, because it doesn’t have to do with them, and they don’t want it to, because the black or white is super comfortable and safe, and there are times when I wish I could just sit back and be comfortable.
In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?
It’s very different…and yet related. Gender identity is how one….feels. it might have nothing to do with presentation. How one feels about themselves in relation to the world, because it can’t happen in a vacuum. [Alex tells Kaylyn about the saying, “Gender identity is who you go to bed as, sexual orientation is who you go to bed with”] Oh I love that. Let’s leave it at that.
How do you feel represented in media and society at large?
"...if you disrupt one’s gender, then you have to erase their sexuality, because if they’re attractive to you in any way, that makes you a little bit queer. And that makes people so uncomfortable."
What improvements would you like to see happen inside your communities, and in society at large?
I mean, I think that this is the moment that we as queer people and gender non-binary and trans people…maybe, just maybe, it’s safe enough for us to be writing our own representations. And I think that’s happening more. You know, in small channels, and Youtube, and people doing interviews, people doing projects. I think that’s what you’re doing. There’s this moment in time right now where we are representing ourselves, because I sure as fuck don’t want to leave it up to some Hollywood company to represent me. They’ve tried, right? I mean that’s what The L Word was. Which was amazing at the time, right, but – they didn’t go far enough at all. But yet at the time, I remember there would be a dozen of us gathered every week. I didn’t even really like the show, but it was like, Wow, lesbians on TV! That’s amazing! You know? And I feel like that has given us enough of a taste of representation to be like, Oh, this is the moment in which it’s our time to generate books and movies and stories and artwork of ourselves. That’s kind of where I’m at in my life too, like okay, I need to be doing something that speaks to me in my life in a deeper way. I feel most myself and powerful when I’m on the water, but that’s a very solitary experience. I would like to feel that way on land.
Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.
It was a period of time. I had just moved to Portland in 2001, I guess, and I had fairly recently come out as a lesbian, still. And I met – there were probably a dozen of us, similarly aged, and people started transitioning, and questioning gender, and that was so incredible to me to see that bravery. That, you know what, this is who I am, and this is how I’m gonna be. And it’s not gonna be easy, and I’m doing it, and I’m creating the safety I need in the world. And we got each other through. And I still consider that group of people to have saved my life. Not being one of those people who transitioned, or had surgery, or went on hormones, and they saved my life. So that’s a pretty impactful moment – for about a decade.
Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?
My queer chosen family in the greater Portland area.
How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?
In some cases, it has meant the world, and in some cases it has – made everything infinitely difficult. I’m going to leave it at that.
Are you able to find adequate medical care?
I am extremely privileged in that way, and I know [my experience is] very different than a lot of people’s experiences who are not able to find adequate medical care. Because a lot of people I know don’t have adequate medical care. I, for reasons of class, have health care; and race – I’m white; gender – I still am female-bodied… And it gets a little sketchy sometimes, but I would say yes, largely I am able to find much more adequate medical care than a lot of people who I care about.
How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?
That’s a great question. I feel like now I am more similar to how I was when I was 8, 9, or 10 years old. Then there was that period of puberty up until a handful of years ago that [felt] like just working really hard to try to be who I thought I was supposed to be. I remember in high school, observing all the girls [thinking], Oh, wait, there’s a way – I’m not holding my books right? I’m supposed to hold my books in a certain way? All the girls hold their books in a certain way? I didn’t get that memo. So – I feel like I’m more similar to who I was when I was younger now than I was for the past couple decades. [laughs]
What advice would you give to your younger self?
You are more loved than you will ever know. Don’t let anyone make you forget that.
What do you look forward to in the future?
Making the world safer for people who come after us. And ourselves.
What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?
Oof. That’s kind of the same answer, oddly. One of the things I’m really proud of is being a captain. Getting to be that person who is in charge of a boat that is in the water, and you have to figure it out, and get from point A to point B safely, and I’m really proud of that. And it’s extraordinarily frustrating because – people who have access to that… Part of the reason I chose that path is because I can’t afford to buy a boat and live on the water that way, so I have serious class issues. And the people I work for – my clients are always extremely wealthy in a way that I didn’t really know existed. And so I find that it’s a huge sore spot. My hugest success is the hugest sore spot. That’s the one that comes to mind first.
Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?
I would say, the best piece of philosophy and advice I’ve ever received was from an old man in an antique shop in a little town in western Maine, and upon leaving, he said, “Don’t be good, but be safe.” So that’s what I’m gonna say. [laughs]