First in a series on my non-binary gender identity.
Late last year, rather abruptly, I came out as non-binary. It was National Coming Out Day and I decided I was going to tell everyone, just like that. I IMed my partner and told him first; he was as unwaveringly and lovingly supportive and understanding as he always is. Ten minutes later, I’d posted it to my Facebook wall. Thankfully, due to the self-selection and curation I’ve cultivated online for years now, I was met with congratulations and love and support. Outside of carefully-created spaces (or at least ones where I can block people), however, I’ve mostly kept my mouth shut about it. I don’t have enough fight in me to deal with yet another Othering aspect to my person.
It wasn’t something that I’d consciously thought a lot about or planned to do. It was more a slow and lurching realization, backburnered to everything else I’ve always thought and talked and written about. In a lot of ways, it resembled the way that I “became” an atheist: I didn’t talk or think too much directly about it, not even with those close to me, and didn’t want it to be true, but stopped fighting it and eventually submitted to the truth.
While the act of coming out was a surrender to what I’d known was true on some level for a while, a building up to a realization of something about me, there were markers along the way.
The simplest sign of these goes back to my childhood. Until about eighth grade, I was always the tallest and overall biggest kid in my class. While the teasing for being fat hurt, it never occurred to me to be fussed when someone called my short-haired, grubby-fingered, shorts-and-tee-wearing self “a boy” or “he,” especially not when the person was some passing-by stranger. Why should I care if Random Old Lady at Supermarket, an extra if there ever were one in the story of my life, called me “little boy”? I had more important things to care about: Tiger Disney handhelds to beat, my Mario skills to perfect, books to read, Power Rangers to watch, favorite stuffed toys to rescue from my younger sister, Barbies to style, soccer cleats to put on and take off, necklaces to chew on to the chagrin of my mother, mud to play in.
Older female relatives taught me that I was supposed to care to the point of offense about being called by male designators. “That’s a little girl,” they’d clarify. “That’s my [daughter / niece].” Some of the more forward-thinking ones would even give a lecture about how modern 90’s girls were allowed to wear shorts and have short hair and didn’t have to wear dresses and have long hair to be girls. I learned that being a girl was not just a thing I was but also something about which I had to be defensive. A naturally obedient type, I internalized that rule.
“You must assert that you are a girl” joined the many other things that I was taught were important but that I never really intrinsically understood to be important. I was equally as befuddled by the significance of, say, ritualized exchanges of greetings whose words I understood but where I wasn’t meant to give a sincere answer. “Hello, how are you? “/ “I’m fine, how are you?” was a social script I knew. “Little boy.” / “I’m a girl.” was just another nonsense-to-me but world-ending-for-adults call-and-response “conversation.”
Gender, then, was something about myself that other people have assigned to me rather than anything I’ve known about myself. I was told that there were two primary categories of people and that, by virtue of my genitalia and other associated factors, I belonged to one of them. In conversations I’ve had with people whose identity aligns along the gender binary, cis and trans people alike, I’ve learned that many (though certainly not all) understood themselves to be boys or girls from a young age. The ones who didn’t know as children eventually, at some point, realized that they were men or women.
What is most striking to me is that way that binary trans people know what gender they are. Despite the best efforts of society to force them to be what they are not, they fight to be recognized and accepted for the gender that they know they are. If binary gender is something that you know about yourself, regardless of what society tells you that you are or aren’t, then I never have fit into that paradigm. I’ve never had a gender identity that aligns with my being assigned female at birth, but I certainly don’t have a male gender identity, either.
At its core, that’s what my non-binary gender identity means: I do not know that I am a man or a woman, so I am not a man or a woman.