I’m nonbinary. I am writing this not for me, but for all of you because breaking the rules of gender benefits us all – trans, cis, we are all in it together. Making the world more gender-friendly helps everyone, yet people argue that trans people are a minority. That is irrelevant. We are all policed under societies rules of gender, and the more we break down those barriers, the better it will be for everyone.
It will be better for cisgender girls who are tomboys and don’t want to do stereotypically girly things but still want to be called girls. It will be better for boys who identify as boys but want to be allowed to cry or wear a dress and eyeliner. It will be better for cis women who are proud of their femininity and cis men who like being masculine and butch. It will be better for people who are trans, genderqueer, nonbinary or gender nonconforming and want to live their life in the way they choose. It benefits all of humanity – trans rights are not a zero-sum game.
So back to being nonbinary – what does it mean, and why is it so scary to say out loud? For me, being nonbinary is a profound recognition that gender is a fiction that was placed on me when I was born, and which no longer resonates with me. A common argument by uninformed people against nonbinary and trans people is that we are embedding societal stereotypes. Let me break this argument down further because it’s crucial. I am not girly, I have never been stereotypically girly, and when I wear a dress, I honestly feel like I’m in drag (and sometimes I like dragging it up as femme for fun – I recognise it is a performance, as all gender is). I have had short hair since I was 8 years old and I don’t like wearing makeup or nail polish, and I live 24/7 in jeans, Vans sneakers and a t-shirt. BUT these things alone are not what make me nonbinary – not at all. A woman can have short hair and wear no makeup and be a construction worker or do all kinds of gender-nonconforming things if they want, and still be a woman. Those external things are all about gender presentation; however, presentation does not necessarily tell you anything about gender identity – how that person feels inside.
Louder for those of you at the back – your gender presentation does not determine your gender identity. You can wear a skirt and still identify as a man. Or your gender presentation can fluctuate from day to day and some days you might feel more man, more woman, or something completely different. You can be a female-bodied person with long hair and big boobs and loads of makeup and identify as nonbinary (really!). Or any possible combination of these things. You know why? Because gender is all performance, the world is our playground, and you can do whatever you want. (Except that you can’t because gender-nonconforming people are at much higher risk of being assaulted and killed, which is why this is a human rights issue). Gender roles are performance and yet gender is incredibly real because we have invested so much in this fiction as a society. Gender is incredibly real because it changes the way we treat people, the way we raise our children and talk to others. I agree with Simone De Beauvoir – “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.
This doesn’t mean that everyone is nonbinary.
Not at all. Many people identify with the gender they were born in, and they feel comfy and happy with that. That is cool. For many trans folks who may have made the journey from one end of the spectrum to the other, being perceived as a binary is incredibly essential. I respect your choice to identify how you wish and your pronouns. And I ask the same of you.
Pronouns are a common sticking point for some people. They think it’s all just too much fuss, that we are making a big deal or being fragile snowflakes. But if you are a ‘he’ in your day-to-day life, think about how you would feel if you were called ‘she’ at school or at work, against your will. It would feel shitty, right? It would be considered bullying. Because words have meaning. Words have power. New parents don’t hesitate to correct people about their babies’ pronouns. Hands up who’s been told tersely by a parent – “She’s a she” and even pet owners will boldly state their cats’ pronouns: “Fluffball is he actually”. And yet when it’s in a situation that is new or uncomfortable to people, all of a sudden some people have a massive problem with respecting people’s pronouns. Pronouns have an effect and language is so powerful. Only you know what is right for you, and we should never assume what someone’s pronouns are. As long as we have a society that treats hes and shes differently, then we need to respect all people’s rights to choose whether they want to be treated as he or she or they. And if anyone has a problem with your pronouns, ask them – are you telling me that I am less important than a dog?
Another common argument from the angry anti-trans brigade is that ‘There are two genders, male and female! Get over it!”
This is such a common mistake, and yet it is so, so simple to debunk. Without even getting into the whole ‘there two sexes’ debate, this comes down to one main thing – gender and sex are not the same things. Gender is the role we expect people to exhibit the moment they pop out of the womb, and the nurse says “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!”. From that moment, we start viewing everything that new little human does through the lens of gender and treating them differently.
This is not to say that I don’t feel solidarity with women – I do, even though I am not a woman. I am AFAB (assigned female at birth), but please don’t call me a woman or a girl. I am a person. I am Dee. My gender is Godzilla. My gender is alien. My gender does not fit in your box of what you think a woman is or what you think I am. To me, it seems odd that the world is heing and sheing all the time, we may as well be shouting “hey penis!” “hey, vagina!”. Why does our language always keep referring to what we think are people’s genitals? Seems odd, no?
Genitals don’t equal gender.
I don’t care what anyone has between their legs or on their chest. What I do care about is that we have these two categories of people, and we operate according to very different rules depending on whether they are a ‘she’ or a ‘he’. And yet if someone tries to cross over those boundaries – if a he decides they want to be treated as a she – then society polices and bullies them for transgressing those boundaries. We are all complicit in policing and enforcing gender, just by allowing the norm to continue without question. I try to break it down, but even I am not perfect – gender is structural and societal, much like racism. So please inform yourself and speak out – gender is literally everywhere, as is racism and classism.
But this isn’t just an ideology – this is personal for me. Because my nonbinary identity is constantly invalidated by society. We are told we are doing it to get attention or that it is not real. I am here to tell you that – hello, no matter what your gender is, it is not real either. So let’s live and let live, shall we?
Here’s some of my story.
I have really never felt part of ‘the girls’. At school, my best friend was a boy called Eoghan. I wore his itchy wool sweater all the time with his name on it – maybe it wasn’t so much a romantic thing or a friends thing, but a little kid genderqueer thing, not caring if you wear boys clothes with a boy name on it. I liked to do “boy” things and climb trees and make model aeroplanes. Thank God my parents didn’t shame me for any of that.
When I was eight, I got my hair cut really short into a bowl cut, much like I have now. I loved my hair, but I was relentlessly bullied by other children. I learned that short hair equalled rejection from both boys and girls and that there was a punishment for stepping out of these lines. I was quite often asked if I was a boy or a girl, and I liked that, but I also cottoned on that that wasn’t a thing that I was supposed to like. You are supposed to pick a side – and preferably, the one you were assigned at birth.
When I was fifteen, I discovered I fancied girls and had my heart broken by one. I didn’t have the terminology for this then, as the narrative society had taught me was that we are all straight by default. Gay people were somewhere else, ‘over there’, they were ‘those people’, and I wasn’t one of ‘them’. I didn’t have words for my heartbreak, but it cut me to my core, and I couldn’t talk to anyone about it.
Two years ago, I did an experiment in being “a girl”. I grew my hair out and even got extensions. It was so surreal. I got treated so differently. I had random men messaging me telling me I was “so hot” and all of a sudden they were making much more eye contact with me than usual. I felt like I was honey, and they were the bees. It was fun, and I felt kinda powerful, but I’d look at pictures of myself, and I wouldn’t recognise myself. I didn’t feel like me. I looked straight and cisgender, and that is not Dee inside. I could have carried on reaping the rewards of my societally applauded traditionally femme appearance. Still, I felt lost and not at home in my body. So here’s what I did next.
I got a queer haircut. Yep. I wanted hair that shouted to the men and the ladies and the theybies that I am here, and I am queer, and I am proud. I love my hair, and I am proud of who I am, with my haircut that looks like I borrowed it off a Chinese boy. I love that my hair does the shouting for me. My hair shouts, yes, Wagamama, I do need the vegan menu. No dudebro, I am not interested in you, and hello yes lovely queer person over there, will you be my friend?
But haircuts do not make you nonbinary. Some people pursue some form of medical transition to bring their body more into alignment with how they feel – all people do this, nonbinary, cisgender and trans. That is a personal decision, and I don’t think it’s as big a deal as it’s been made out to be. It is now totally acceptable, as it should be, for cisgender people to get their boobs, lips, nose changed, and nails done. And I believe that the same privilege should be extended to everyone. Revolutionary, I know. But it’s also OK for people to not have work done if they don’t want it – it is entirely personal. The interesting thing about being nonbinary as well is that it’s not a transition per se (though it can be). In many ways, it’s a removal of the layers, and unwrapping of the things society has conditioned into us, an expansive and limitless feeling. But it doesn’t mean I’m going from A to B. Unless you mean from girl to Godzilla, because I am definitely Godzilla.
There’s one more myth I want to address before I wrap this up.
The idea that nonbinary people hate women because we hate the idea of being a woman so much. That is so wrong it is laughable. I love women, no really I love women, but I do not recognise myself in them. What I don’t like is being put in a box. You may not call me by the name of the box you wish to put me in. Let me repeat that again because this is at the crux of the issue for me: you may not call me by the name of the box you wish to put me in. I get to determine what I am called. You may not call me a woman. That is your box, and your words, not mine. And most importantly, I don’t need to call myself a name to stand in solidarity with a group.
I am not in your box. I am Dee. I am queer and nonbinary. My partner, who I love to the end of the earth and back, does not define my identity or my sexual orientation. No one can define me except for me. And no one can define you, except for you. My pronouns are they/them. What are yours?