Girl Grows Up to Be Not-a-Woman: On Non-Binary Gender

I’ve never had an understanding of my own gender identity within the binary standards of male vs. female. As a child, I said that I was a girl because that’s what they told me to be. Since I had heard that girls grew up to be women, that was what I thought I was going to be. I’d grow breasts and start understanding how to dress myself and get a husband and have sex and have kids. Bam, woman.

Yet, in my self-reflective writings, I talked about how I went from kid to pre-teen to teen to young adult to adult, not girl to woman. Not even in my journal entries about getting my period did I talk about becoming a woman. I talked about giving up on childish things, about puberty, about my sexuality, but never about girlhood or womanhood.

Feeling like a woman was something that simply never happened for me. When I realized that was the case, I did quite a lot to try to feel like a woman without consciously admitting to myself what all was going on. None of it worked.

I tried using my male-focused sexual desires as a path to womanhood. I seduced men and was seduced by men. Much in the way of consensual hotness and fun was had, but all that made me feel no more womanly than when I was a never-been-kissed virgin.

I tried using feminism. I read and wrote lots of things about gender. I checked myself for internalized misogyny and actively rid myself of it as much as possible. I learned about femmephobia and slut-shaming and stopped being such a chill girl about things traditionally associated with women. No dice. I had stopped loathing women and feminine things, which is an awesome thing in itself, but that didn’t make me a woman.

I stopped ignoring my gayer feelings and came out as bisexual. I danced with and kissed and dated and had sex with women. Getting right with my queerness was good for me in infinite ways, especially for my body acceptance (nothing like finding someone else’s body attractive because of its flaws to realize that your similar “flaws” are just fine), but didn’t make me smack my forehead and go “yep, woman.”

I explored kink from all angles; again, I had a lot of fun, but no gender-based realizations happened. If anything, as a switch with varied tastes, I found myself questioning how well I fit into the “woman” box even more than I had when I was primarily vanilla in my activities of choice.

I went full-on femme. I explored my wardrobe with the help of thrift stores and Etsy. I acquired cool jewelry and explored makeup. Wearing pretty clothes on my person and applying fun colors to my face made me feel awesome and much more like myself, but oddly enough made me feel less like a woman. I approach and wear femme as a way to express myself, since there are a lot more options for my body type and tastes within more femme expressions, but it doesn’t make me feel like a woman.

What helped me to figure it out, in the end, was learning about trans issues, especially since I thought that, as a not-woman, I might be a man. All the binary trans people I spoke with understood their own genders the way that the cis people I knew understood their own genders. They knew themselves to be men or women in a way that I eventually realized I would never know along binary gender lines. All the force of cisnormative trans-hating society couldn’t stop the binary trans people with whom I spoke from knowing that they were men even if designated female at birth or women even if designated male at birth. I realized that I wasn’t a man just because I wasn’t a woman.

But what was I? I eventually settled on “gender questioning,” at least for the moment.

Girl Grows Up to Be Not-a-Woman: On Non-Binary Gender

14 thoughts on “Girl Grows Up to Be Not-a-Woman: On Non-Binary Gender

  1. 1

    At a similar age, I couldn’t stop think about my grandmother’s cone bra. I still have a huge think for true vintage lingerie pictures. And pictures of flapper girls. My god, that is so hot.

  2. 2

    This is so like my experiences, except for the part about doing stuff to try to ‘feel womanly’. I could never even get my head around that enough to know where to start.

    One of the interesting things that came out of the whole gender-neutral thing for me regards feminism. I was aware, obviously, that women say the representations of women in the media cause them problems… and I was like, well, yeah, I sure don’t identify with any of them! Now I’ve realized that is something a bit specific and a lot of women do identify with them. They see a representation of a woman and they relate it to themselves and what they’re ‘supposed to be’ like, then they accept it or rebel against it or get angry about it or feel they’ve failed at it or whatever. Whereas I’ve always been completely immune to these representations because I don’t identify with them at all. And I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live bombarded by images which are supposed to be ‘about you’. I’m still not sure I’ve quite got my head round what other women are experiencing and if it’s really so different and why. So now I’m wondering how many of the conflicts between feminists who appear to be women are actually due to deeper differences in gender identity.

  3. AMM

    But what was I? I eventually settled on “gender questioning,” at least for the moment.

    More or less describes me at the moment.

    I mean, if I look at myself in the mirror, I can see I’m male-bodied. But I can’t say I identify with it, any more than I identify with my car. And I don’t identify with pretty much any of the stuff that “being a man” is supposed to be about, other than having that brand of car body. (Actually, I’m mostly revolted by it.) Gender is pretty much irrelevant to who I am inside, and in fact, I still don’t understand what trans women mean when they say, “I was always a woman” (or trans men mean when they say, “I knew I was really a boy.”) All I knew was that I was always me (which wasn’t always a good thing, either.)

    If I do decide to transition, it won’t be because I think my “true self” is female (since I don’t see my “true self” as having any gender), but because I decide that I’d be more comfortable in the female social role and looking female than where I am now. Rather like deciding I’d be happier in the other neighborhood (given that in our society, there really are only two “neighborhoods.”)

  4. 4

    This is a difficult thing to be going through. It’s been tough for me, unpacking a whole lot of big and small things, the significance of which went entirely unnoticed at the time.

    If you do get past questioning to a firm sense of gender identity, if it’s anything like my experience you’ll be like “YAY AN ANSWER FINALLY WHAT THE FUCK HOW ARE THERE SO MANY MORE QUESTIONS”. That’s been my general experience in the last few days.

  5. 5

    My ignorance on this topic is clanging here.

    What is it that you are imagining “feel like a woman” would be? Many of the experiences you describe happening sound like just what it *is* to be a woman. What additional thing – qualia, property, sensation, whatever term you like – would need to be added in order for these experiences to meet your criteria for “feel like a woman”?

    To my knowledge, these experiences don’t come packaged with labels. The corresponding experiences I’ve had never came labelled with “man”, and none of them made me “feel like a man”. Yet I do call myself a man.

    What would it take to answer your gender question?

    1. 5.1

      I’d have to know I’m a woman or a man the way other people know they are. I simply have never known myself to be female (or male for that matter). My prior post on the matter explains that part better, I think.

      1. Heina:

        to know I’m a woman or a man the way other people know they are.

        That’s exactly what I want to ask about, yes. What is it you imagine is “the way other people know they are”, and how can you tell that’s not what you’ve already experienced?

        For this person: I didn’t ever have a “know I’m a man” moment, so I am confused what you are expecting that “know I’m a woman” would be like.

        My prior post on the matter explains that part better, I think.

        It’s a good piece, thank you for writing it. Doesn’t clear up the above issue any better.

        You don’t owe me an explanation, of course. But you’re clearly musing at length that you have not had an experience you believe others have had; when I don’t even know whether anyone has had that.

        So I’m trying to get at what recognisable quality you think was absent from your experiences which you think was present in (for example) mine. A simple “know it when you feel it” doesn’t clarify, since I don’t think I’ve ever felt it that way either; yet you clearly think there is a difference. What is that?

        Thanks for considering and discussing this.

        1. You beat me to the question. I was also trying to wrap my head around this. My own experience has been simply that I was told at a young age that people born with penises are boys/men and people born with vaginas are girls/women. Since I had a penis I just accepted that I was a boy and later a man and whatever I do is what boys or men do regardless of what society says we should do. The idea that we have some innate knowledge of whether we’re men or women doesn’t fit my experience any more than it seems to fit Heina’s.

          If a person is comfortable with their physical form and also seems comfortable with acting in the role society determines is of the gender they are perceived as, I don’t know of any other thing that would make a person not of that gender aside from semantic preference. Kind of like some people don’t identify as atheist not because they don’t fit any of the definitions or even assumptions about atheists but they just don’t like the label and prefer something like “bright” or “freethinker.” I don’t think that’s what’s being suggested, but I have no idea what else it could be. Hopefully I can glean some better understanding in time.

          1. xyz

            Michael and Ben, I have similar questions, and yet it’s obvious that at least trans people often DO have the experience of an innate knowledge of their gender or highly value their gender identity as an innate characteristic. And that’s despite the world trying to convince them of something different. I have to assume that some or most cis people feel similar about their gender, even though I don’t really feel like that myself.

        2. For most of my life I didn’t have an “I know I’m a woman” moment. I’d never thought to question the gender that was assigned to me. I’ve learned a lot about gender from reading bloggers such as Heina, Zinnia Jones, and Natalie Reed, as well as the gender discussion threads that have taken place on Pharyngula. It’s only after reading all these discussions of gender that I finally had a “yeah, I guess I am a woman” moment. I have the privilege of not having to worry about it too much, since everyone sees me as my assigned gender. But that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything that society tells me my gender role is or should be. I am interested in many things that are coded masculine, and I dislike many things that are coded feminine (though I will admit that I’m not sure how much of that comes to me naturally vs. how much follows from being told that feminine things are bad or lesser).

  6. 6

    My experience has been similar to Ben & Micheal’s, except that in addition to hearing and being confused when transpeople talk about “knowing” they are the opposite gender than the one they have been assigned, I have also noticed that many, perhaps most, other cis people seem to have a strong identities as either a man or a woman. I guess most of them never had a “moment when they knew” simply because their internal feelings simply always matched what everyone had already been telling about themselves since they were born, but nevertheless their gender identities clearly seem stronger and more important to them than mine does to me. Just a few days ago actually I was telling my 14 year old son that I feel “cis by default”, and if some day in future an androgeny movement gets society to accept androgeny as a third or non gender, then I will probably come out as androgenous and be grateful to androgeny activists for giving me the opportunity to be my “real” self, but for now I am comfortable just being “cis male by default” because my gender non-identity is just not important enough to me to warrant all of the effort it would take for me to buck the gender binary society expects everyone to fit into

  7. 7

    And I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live bombarded by images which are supposed to be ‘about you’. I’m still not sure I’ve quite got my head round what other women are experiencing and if it’s really so different and why.

    To some extent it certainly depends on one’s susceptibility to peer pressure. Mine is extremely low; I have never had trouble thinking that the makers of all these images are simply fuckwits. 🙂 But then, women get much, much more bombardment…

    1. 7.1

      Also women/perceived-to-be-women are trained from birth far more than men to capitulate and care about the feelings and perspectives of others in general. Further compounding that is the message that the worth of anyone seen as female lies primarily or even exclusively in their physical appearance. Even the well-meaning spread that message: “Everyone is beautiful” as a way to say “Everyone is worthy of respect”, for example.

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