The hardest, and perhaps the most strange continuing experience throughout my life has been living as a non-binary person in a binary world. I was not fully aware I identified outside of the gender binary until I was in my 20s, but once I found the term I finally had the language to describe how I experienced my gender throughout my life. Being non-binary is something that feels almost intangible at times. Given how rigid our gender binary is in our society and culture, one cannot escape being placed into a male/masculine or female/feminine box. We categorize by gender – it’s what is ingrained within us. We gender clothing, scents, colors, hobbies…the list is extensive. But it is the extent of our collective gendering that makes living as a non-binary individual the most difficult.
Take a moment to reflect – what even is gender? Can one describe it without relying on physical, bodily, or societal attributes or behaviors? For me, gender feels like the air that permeates our day to day lives. It’s barely or not even tangible but it somehow exists and creates ramifications on our day to day lives. Air is not the best metaphor for how gender exists in our lives, since it presumes that we need some form of gender to function in the world. That is what we are told anyways.
Our gender binary creates the need to adhere to either blueprint for each binary gender. Being assigned female at birth (afab) and raised as a girl, I was taught explicitly and implicitly how I should live up to the societal and familial standards for my gender. I was taught what to wear, how I should act around people my own gender and the opposite gender, and what was/wasn’t acceptable behavior for my gender. When I was 12 I got my first short hair cut, and a male classmate remarked on how I looked like a boy. I didn’t find that an insult personally, but I ended up kicking him in the shins as a reaction to uphold whatever sort of femininity I had. I was afraid of being mocked and ridiculed for not conforming, so much so that I resorted to violence.
Being non-binary has left me grasping for straws on how I should exist in this binary world. How do I dress to show I’m neither a man nor a woman? How to I act to show that I do not fall into certain gender stereotypes? What even is gender? It’s exhausting. I feel the need to validate myself constantly and I’ve questioned before if I should just become a trans man for others to understand who I am. Additionally, non-binary individuals face unique struggles that some binary trans individuals may not face. The topic of transitioning, especially medically transitioning, can be difficult. How much do I want to alter my body to align with my gender? How low/high do I want my voice to be? (Micah, from GenderqueerMe, gives informative workshops on non-binary transition which you can listen to here.)
Gender expression can also be challenging for non-binary people. Some non-binary individuals choose to present very as very masculine or very feminine but not identify as either binary gender. Others, like myself, fall into a androgynous presentation. I find androgyny great because it helps me mirror how I experience my gender internally in a way for all to see. However, not all non-binary people present androgynous. Additionally, there is the difficulty of “passing” as your gender while being non-binary. What does “passing” mean to someone who is non-binary? There is often the assumption or association of non-binary equating androgyny. This is furthered by images of androgyny meaning thin, white, afab individuals donning masculine clothing. But what of amab androgynous people? Non-binary PoC? What constitutes “passing,” really? For me, the idea that non-binary people must “pass” is toxic and furthers the idea that the gender binary needs to be upheld in some way.
Overall, I long for the day that non-binary individuals can stop being exceptional in our conversations about gender but rather commonplace and normal. Until we recognize that gender is fluid and malleable, many of us will continue to asphyxiate.