Living Outside the Binary
I remember having to fill out school picture forms every September. Some kids hated getting their picture taken, but I didn’t mind; I had fun choosing between the oh-so-wide background choices of mottled red-grey or faded blue-grey, looked forward to the toy-like wallet cards and keychains my parents ordered to distribute to family members. No, for me, the problem only arose when I had to check off my gender. M or F. Male or Female.
Every time I reached that question on an emergency contact slip or while making a new video game character, I felt a nagging wrongness in my gut. There was always a split second of hesitation before I chose “girl”. Sometimes, my pen would drift to hover over the other box before hurrying home to its correct place. Something didn’t fit with “boy” either. Everyone told me that I was a girl, so I had to be one, right?
It would be years before I learned about the idea of being trans. Were it not for the grace of the Internet, I wouldn’t have known until the middle of high school, through a few sparse mandatory health classes. Nobody around me ever brought up the issue; I remained blissfully ignorant of statistics like how 77% of trans kids have been harassed or how 40% of us have tried to kill ourselves. I accepted the discomfort I felt every time I was called a girl. I was never different enough for the adults in my life to raise concern. Sure, I liked martial arts and clothes from the boy’s section and sometimes got the boy’s toys from fast food places, but I wore dresses without complaint and watched princess movies. My friends recognized me as both a “tomboy” and “girly girl”, I played with boys and girls equally, and my hobbies — reading, video games, running around with other kids pretending to be magic — weren’t necessarily gendered. When I learned of the wonders of the LGBTQ acronym, I became involved as an overly-invested ally, but never once questioned my gender.
In fact, as I grew older and learned more about the institutions and system of power dynamics I lived in, I overcompensated. I was terrified that my discomfort with the label of female was just deeply buried misogyny. I vocalized my pride any time the topic came up — no self-hatred allowed here, no ma’am. This girl was proud to be a girl.
I accepted that I was a girl because it was the only option that the world provided for me. Two things happened that changed that.
Firstly, puberty. I don’t want to characterize this as a period of torture and angst (although honestly, isn’t that puberty for everyone?). Still, when I got my first period, I didn’t feel that expected surge of pride in the supposedly uniquely female act of being able to bear children. I couldn’t commiserate with my friends over PMS and tampons and cramping; where they found bonding in jokes about uteri and chocolate, I found banality and couldn’t make myself relate. It served as merely a reminder of biology. Stick on a pad and ignore it.
I was more concerned with the changes I — and everyone else — could easily see. I watched as, without my permission, my previously comfortably androgynous body began curving and warping in strange places. I had to start wearing a bra, something I had regarded with taxes and the stock exchange as part of the far-away world of adults. I didn’t mind wearing them so much when I didn’t really need to, but as they became increasingly necessary, I began to grow squeamish at the sight of them.
Secondly, a close friend came out as transgender. This friend, who seemed so secure in their gender before, who never outwardly showed a single sign of struggle, was now confidently saying they were trans — and not only that, nonbinary.
After that, we fell like dominoes. If someone who we had been so sure was cis before turned out not to be, why couldn’t the same apply to one of us? How could we be sure? A series of friends each came forward confessing their own shaky identities, to the point that older students mocked us as the “genderbenders”. To me, being trans — being nonbinary — explained everything. I wasn’t a girl, but I wasn’t a boy, and that was something that could exist in this world. It was the answer.
But I felt fake. I was uncomfortable, but not suicidal (something that would unfortunately change, but that’s for another time). Besides my body, everything about femininity and being a “girl” was just enough to disturb me, but not torture me. All the stories I read of trans people espoused great struggle. Confusion. Self-hatred. What’s more, they knew as soon as they could conceive of the notion of gender that they were “opposite”. There was never any doubt that some unfortunate mistake had happened and they received the wrong chromosome, a mishap they now had to fix. Supposed boys put on mascara and supposed girls rough-housed. It was clear as day.
Compare me. I didn’t stamp my feet and insist I was a boy in kindergarten. Anyone would take one look at a picture of me in a little white dress for First Communion and declare me a girl. I couldn’t even go all the way and say I was a boy; no, I remained in the magical imaginary middle ground of nonbinary, third gender, other. I was a transtrender, a fake, just jumping on the bandwagon. Sure, I was dysphoric, but was I dysphoric enough? Was I uncomfortable enough? How hard did you have to flinch at being called a girl, claw at your chest wishing it would go away, before you could call yourself trans?
I began to consciously eschew femininity. I never wore makeup in the first place, but now I scowled and hurriedly wiped off the garish bright lip gloss my mother tried to apply to my hopelessly chapped lips. Wearing the color pink made me physically ill. I chopped my hair short — which honestly, I recommend that everyone, regardless of gender identity, try at least once. I was thrilled whenever someone called me a boy, tamping down any discomfort. When I finally came out to my parents, I came out as a trans male.
The next few years were full of confusion and self-doubt. I bound my chest sometimes, wore makeup other times. I would wear baggy clothes to disguise my body, but go by my birth name. I would curse my hips but check off “female” on forms. I always felt that if I wasn’t a boy, if I didn’t feel that determination to grow a beard and rippling muscles, I wasn’t trans enough. All the trans guys I saw online were thrilled at the sight of body hair and broadening shoulders; why did the thought repulse me the same way plump lips and a full chest did? It had to mean I was a fake, just a girl desperate to be not-like-other-girls.
Part of this was medical transition. I knew I wanted a flat chest, but I agonized over the idea of hormone therapy. I searched desperately for pictures of men who had obtained the body I desired — straight as a pencil, neutral, genderless. I searched for ways to narrow my hip bones and came up empty-handed, then fretted over if the shifting of fat would have any difference if my skeleton was already set in stone. Eventually, I was brought down to earth by my parents. They loved me and supported me, but the reality was there was no way we could afford hormone therapy and surgery. If I wanted to do it, it would have to be on my own, as an adult.
The delay between that realization and adulthood gave me time to think. If I knew I was nonbinary, what did it matter what others thought and saw? If I was confident in my own journey, I could disregard what others thought — to an extent. My dysphoria was real; no taunts of fakery could change that.
At the same time, I saw people mocking the idea of nonbinary genders. Gender-neutral bathrooms? Other gender options on forms? Singular they? Special snowflakes, kids looking for attention. Teens dying their hair and blogging about how oppressed they are because their friends won’t refer to them as star/stars/starself. Grow up. There are two genders, pick one and stick with it.
But I can’t be a boy or a girl. I’ve tried both. Neither worked.
I don’t have anything to say regarding the brand-new gender categories being made or new pronouns. They’re not something I feel the need to use, so I’ll leave the debate to those who have a stake in it. Hell, I don’t even know what gender I am. I remember trying to nail it down to neat percentages — 34% female, 50% male, maybe 60%, a weird mix of something else — but I gave up trying to figure out the specifics a long time ago.
All I ask for is a third box after M and F. All I ask is that I can shrug in response to someone asking if I’m a boy or a girl and let that be a valid response. My identity as nonbinary is not a call to arms, a cry for help, or a desperate bid for attention. I don’t want to be special for it. I don’t want my existence to be political. I just want to be me, authentically.