In our cis gender, binary, world, I could never have identified my nonbinary gender without a good deal of reflection. With it came two main questions: how could I have recognised my gender identity throughout my life, and to what extent does it explain why I never ‘fit in’?
As a Kid, Gender didn’t matter as much
I’m a nineties kid, born and raised in Australia. Back then, their were boys and girls -that was it. In lower primary, I had two friendship groups. Girls with whom I played imaginary games. And tough boys, who, like me, were inclined to hit back when punched by random bullies in the yard. I got to wear pretty clothes and play with girly toys when I wanted. Alternately, I got to wear baggy t-shirts and shorts when I felt like it. And when I wanted to play with boys toys, my brothers were at my disposal. It was in later primary (around puberty) that I started to feel adrift.
I Don’t Quite Fit
Even before then, as young as eight, female friends had seemed closer to me than I was to them. And I didn’t quite like who I was around them. Something was off about me. Then, I changed schools and made new friends, but they were all girls. I didn’t feel like I connected to them as well as I had connected to boys. But boys saw me differently now. I was a ‘girl’ and someone they did or didn’t have a crush on. And that was it. And it was very disappointing. I had crushes as a teen, but as an asexual, friendship is infinitely more important to me than romantic relationships. I liked a boy at the time, but I didn’t actually want a boyfriend.
In hindsight, something that fuelled what was probably clinical levels of depression in my early teenage years (when I had a lot of non-gender related baggage to sort out), was my isolation. On one hand I was vastly more emotionally mature than most kids my age. On the other, I didn’t relate to a single kid at school when it came to gender identity.
Friendship groups were very much boys or girls in early high school. Boyfriends and dating were a thing. I had no prospect of male friendship. I related to girls even less than I had at primary school. And while I’m asexual, I could find certain boys aesthetically pleasing, or like their personality, but I always felt like they were more into me than I was into them. In hindsight, that’s because I’m also inclined towards a-romantic. So my gender neutral side was not destined to find a partner it related to, as I’ve never really wanted a romantic partner (beyond intellectual curiosity.)
Struggling to Relate
Late high school was bittersweet for me. I made some great friends, but the divide between single me and friends with boyfriends began. I knew some lovely girls in high school. But it wasn’t just the ones who had or sought boyfriends that I drifted away from. It was the more girly ones. They were lovely people, but I didn’t relate to them. They were too feminine. I did have some male friends around this time. There were a few boys who could see me not as a potential girlfriend or a ‘female’, just as a friend. I treasured them.
Boys brought out my gender neutral side. Girls generally brought out my feminine side. But when I’ve been surrounded by girls or women, with no break, I’ve felt kind of smothered. Its like those times use up all my femininity, and my gender neutrality was kind of shut in a room by itself. That was what felt off about having only female friends. That was why I couldn’t connect to girls and I haven’t been able to connect or relate to women the same way they usually connect and relate to me. Because I’m not a woman. The feminine is only half of who I am. When people only respond to my feminine side, displaying awareness of only its existence, it can feel like they only see me on the surface. Like they don’t truly know who I am.
In my Twenties, Nonbinary Clues
At Uni, there was more opportunity for female and male companionship. But I didn’t meet anyone who recognised me, or I them, as nonbinary. So who did I relate to more than 50% of the time? I often (pre-covid) travel by myself, and strike up conversations with retail assistants, people in hospitality and fellow tourists. Since joining Twitter, I’ve been very active in its WritingCommunity and created not one, but three writer Discord Servers. I’m a people loving person, whose always sensed an invisible barrier between myself and most people.
For my entire life, everyone I meet has assumed I am female. Girls and women have welcomed me as such. I have the lived experience of ‘girlhood’ and ‘womanhood’ so yes, I can relate to much of what women say. But in a conversation with multiple women, there always comes that point where the women are connecting more and more, and I’m feeling increasingly emotionally distant from them. I’m like a guest in their world. A welcome guest. On the surface, I fit in very well. But I don’t belong there.
That’s why male friendship and colleagues have always been so important to me. When men see me not as a ‘female’, nor as a potential date, just a person they can chat to and hang out with, my gender neutral side naturally engages with them. The other half of me gets to live. Its like oxygen after a bad head cold. Like pulling off too tight clothing that hinders your movements.
Gender Fluid Clues
And this is probably a good point for me to define the problem with ‘woman’ as an identity for me. Yes, I can relate to much of it. I can relate to the feminine as a feminine person. But at the end of the day, its a garment that’s too tight. It doesn’t allow me to be all I am. It masks my gender neutrality and my masculine side with make up and pretty clothes and all the cis female expectations society attaches to those.
When I told my mum I’m nonbinary, she tried to relate by saying how she enjoyed dressing up as a man at a dress up party once. When I wear a pretty dress and make up to dinner (very rarely), that’s almost the same to me as going to dinner dressed as a man. Why? Because it isn’t who I am. Yes, I do sometimes wear dresses. But I’ve donated the prettiest to charity. I like them, but I’d rather pin them to my wall and admire them. Or admire them on women. I don’t actually feel like wearing them much, because they’re not me.
I talk about ‘women’ -not me. I talk about ‘men’ -also not me. If you’ve noticed this, it shouldn’t surprise you that in my twenties I defined myself simply as, ‘I am not most people. I do not do what most people do. I cannot relate to either binary gender the way they relate to themselves, or each other.’
I know Who I Want to Be When I Grow Up!
Other kids looked to pop stars etc, and said, ‘I want to be like that when I grow up!’ I never felt that way. I saw only little bits of me in any one person, perhaps in part because they were all binary men and women. But in my early twenties, I saw much of myself in a fictional character. A sociable, people loving person. A traveler, passing through, helping out where they can: Dr Who. No, not Jodie Whitaker. David Tenant’s portrayal. And Matt Smith’s. I find Dr Who in the new seasons quite androgynous. Unbound by gender in character, behaviour, thinking and feeling. And that removes what would otherwise have been a barrier to other Dr Who traits I relate to.
Gender Fluid –Wardrobe Development
When I started teaching in 2011, I was drawn to women’s professional clothing. Its more stylish, interesting, arty or attractive. And I like elegance. So in summer, when I noticed very few smart shorts for women, I found myself in dresses five days a week. By Friday, I felt like the wind had gone out of my sails. I wasn’t quite myself. I also noticed that when I skipped my usual evening run, I felt sad. In hindsight, it wasn’t exercise I missed most. It was doing what has traditionally been a masculine activity, in gender neutral clothes, which gave my gender neutral side room to breathe.
From then onwards, I made a point of wearing gender neutral casual clothes at home, and for exercise. I reserved feminine clothing as much as practical for work. Dressing half the time in a feminine way and half the time gender neutral worked for me. That’s a nice clear point to establish that I’m not only nonbinary, I’m gender fluid. My mood, my responses, which other gender I relate to best changes not just every day, but can change throughout the day as well.
In recent years, I’ve removed the prettiest clothing in my wardrobe. I’m happiest in clothing I can be comfortable in whether I’m in a feminine or a more gender neutral mood, as that’s likely to change after I get dressed for the day. And while I can be happy in androgynous clothing for five days in a row, I’ll often wear dresses for a couple of days after that. Its all about balancing gender neutral and feminine for me.
Still Not Relating
A teacher in my twenties, its after 2011 and I still haven’t claimed ‘gender fluid’ or ‘nonbinary’ as my identity. One of many schools I’ve worked at liked Friday night drinks. It was usually a few women and a few men. Every time, we’d start off sitting and talking together. Then came that inevitable point when the women gravitated towards and chatted with one another and the men did the same. I always, usually quite literally, found myself sitting in the middle, drawn to neither. I’d sit looking from one to the other, and have to choose which to make an effort to join in with. Sometimes I’d just listen and sip my drink for twenty minutes, before saying a word. That’s unlike me. Here was more proof that I simply did not relate, connect or gravitate to a binary gender the way either gravitates towards itself.
So when did I FINALLY find the words to name the identity I’d pretty much figured out by now? It was after Miley Cyrus identified as ‘girl’ and ‘boy.’ After a celebrity or two announced that they would like to be referred to by the personal pronoun ‘they’. In a society seeing and expecting nothing but binary male or female, words were finally finding me.
That wasn’t the end. By now, I was in my thirties. Still teaching. I’d had a lifetime of not relating to either binary gender the way they related to each other. A lifetime of being a stranger, just passing through, who meets, likes and helps people, then moves on, without fully connecting. I defined myself now as simply ‘other’. As ‘labels, boxes, societal conventions, blah, blah, blah don’t apply to me’.
In my teens, I was often labelled an ‘airhead’ because being a pretty, female-presenting, thin person was perceived as scientific proof of lack of brain cells (or so thought many a moron). I’d been labelled a ‘slut’ in my teens at times too (oh yes, despite zero dating, kissing or even hand holding and oh yeah, being asexual!) I was used to not being seen, being mislabelled (and in my teenage years, to thinking most people were idiots because they consistently failed to notice SO MANY things that were bloody obvious to me).
Gender Identity Became A Thing
Now, I was 33 and had joined Twitter’s WritingCommunity. By this time, ‘sex’ was no longer a synonymn for ‘gender’. People didn’t speak of ‘gender reassignment surgery’, like they had in the nineties. Now, I’d come more often across the word ‘trans’. I was introduced to the idea that gender identity, who a person is in their mind, their heart, their soul can differ from biological sex. I started hearing that trans men are men, and trans women are women. For the first time in my life, a fact that was self evident to me was finally visible to other people: that biological sex does not determine a person’s gender.
Twitter was the first time in my life that I was given the choice of stating my personal pronouns. Not having them dictated to me by a cis, binary gender society. Of actually telling people who I was, myself. But what the fuck words did I use?
Label & Personal Pronoun Aversion
Then there was the other problem. I’d privately concluded that when it comes to my gender, people have no fucking clue what I am. There was no point trying to tell them something they knew nothing about, using words that didn’t exist. I’d forgiven them for their ignorance and was moving on with my life.
Now the words did exist. But for thirty three years I’d never applied them to me. Since the age of fifteen, I’d had an aversion to boxes, labels or categories of any sort. After all that time resisting boxes, did I now elect to put myself into one? And having called myself simply ‘nonconformist’ in my teens, ‘other’ in my twenties and simply ‘me’ by my thirties, did I now want to give my gender a name that was foreign to me? I’d heard that ‘they’ singular was becoming a thing, but it too had had nothing to do with me for my entire life.
I totally accepted the idea of putting personal pronouns in Twitter bios. It challenged the assumption that biological sex is the sole determinant of gender. It encouraged cis people looking at a profile pic, going ‘biological male = man’, to stop, and recognise that actually, she is a trans woman. I also liked the idea of normalising personal pronouns in bios, so the onus of identifying gender isn’t just on trans people, its on everyone. Why am I not mentioning nonbinary folks here? Because the conversation I saw at that time didn’t yet include nonbinary people.
Overcoming my Label Aversion
My problem? Other people called me she/ her/ woman all my life. They were the only personal pronouns. Suddenly I had the choice to use ‘they’. I didn’t, at first. I used she/her to signal my Twitter feed was a trans friendly space. But it felt wrong. So I pulled back to ‘she’. On its own, ‘she’ wasn’t enough. ‘They’ was still alien, so for a year, I went to no pronouns. (If you’re in this boat, ‘all pronouns welcome’ or ‘pronouns any’ is a good way to indicate your account is trans friendly. I only heard of it later).
By now, its was 2020. Months of lockdown awaited me, as did unemployment when I spent lockdown in Australia and couldn’t return to teaching in New Zealand. I had time to think. To reflect. And FINALLY, I met and interacted with nobinary people on Twitter. It was a short leap to realise I’d found my people. To re-writing my author bio on this site using they/ them/ their pronouns, to try it on.
For a few weeks, I felt painfully aware of personal pronouns in general. Every pronoun in my author bio seemed to be shouting. But I kept switching my pronouns, on Discord, then Twitter. Because it felt right. It fit. And in telling people my personal pronouns aren’t just ‘she/her’, they’re ‘they/ them and their’, I felt like I was giving myself room to breath. To speak, act, dress and relate to others in a gender neutral way when I was in a gender neutral mood. To be masculine on occasion and to act feminine when I felt that. With a balance of feminine and gender neutral, in clothing, speech, actions and how I relate to other people, throughout my day and week, I’m comfortable. Happiest. Myself.
I Just Came Out as Nonbinary, Here’s What That Means, by Arlo, at Minus18.
Gender Definitions and Personal Pronoun info & advice, by NPR.
On perceiving nonbinary: Some Thoughts on Being Nonbinary by Luke Roelofs.
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