Opinion

Don’t box me

Disclaimer: I have referred to my childhood self, using my assigned pronouns; this is not an invitation for others to do so.

Tw: misgendering, transphobia, examples of gender affirming things cis children may have experienced, which could, in turn, be triggering for trans readers

“While I do not believe that there is an impenetrable wall that separates women from men, or queers from straights, I do believe that one exists between our own experiential gender, which we live, feel, and experience firsthand, and the genders of others, which we merely perceive or make presumptions about.

 – Julia Serano, Whipping Girl, 2007

In the fall of March, 1998, a queer little thing was born.  She weighed just a few pounds, had curly black hair, and the darkest brown eyes.

Growing up, she was different. While most girls played with barbie, she drew towards action men. While most girls adored Busted/McFly, Celtic FC stash was all she wore. On weekends, she played football with boys, and it was the approval of men she sought. She had her moments though, of standing beside a mirror, wistfully wishing for long blonde hair, or of playing with her Baby Annabelle. It’s just these moments were few and far between, and this was fine; she didn’t need or want a box.

As she grew older, the pressure mounted. “In a few years, you’ll be over this”, she was told. “You’d look so beautiful, if you just wore some makeup.” A friend invited her to her 9th birthday party, on the condition she wear a dress. This made her very anxious – it was the last thing she thought of at night, and in her diary, she drew a picture of herself, wearing a dress, wanting to cry.

The men who’d accepted her now felt discomfort – this was cute when she was younger, but she’s 11 now, she should’ve grown out of it. The validation she’d basked in was gone. She was a girl, she was supposed to be pretty, to attract boys.

Attract boys she did – but not how anyone wanted. “Disgusting,” they called her, “Are you a boy or a girl?” An older man slapped her round the back of the head once, before making comments about her gender. Boys at school sometimes kicked, punched and pushed her; she wasn’t woman enough for them. Animosity, revulsion and hatred hurled their way at her, then peeled beneath her skin, and infected her heart and mind. She hadn’t fit the box she was assigned, so she was granted a new one – freak.

At 16, she bought her first dress. She wore makeup for the first time, feminized her behaviour, and started to flirt with boys. Suddenly, the acceptance and validation she’d craved came flooding; she felt confident and worthy for the first time. So, she ran into womanhood gleefully, never looking back… until she did.

Questioning

It was September, 2019. I was lying in bed, and the fragile, cracked, façade guarding me slipped.

A lot had happened this year, to bring my being itself under the microscope. An infinity of questions – but no answers – whirling in my mind. I couldn’t take it anymore, I snapped.

Several things had happened, you see. There was the time an acquaintance told me he thought being trans was a mental illness, and this plagued me for weeks. There was the time a member of staff, from the university, rolled their eyes when pronouns were mentioned.  I cried the next day. There was the time I was strolling down Magdalen Street, and stopped in my tracks – “no don’t think about it, don’t entertain that possibility, don’t even approach it.”

Then there’s the time my best friend said to me, “When my friend came out to me as nonbinary, I thought, ‘of course you are, you’ve never been anything else’”, and upon hearing that, I felt peace swathe through me.

Being

“Identification is always an act, a repetition, a name we give to a collection of discrete traits, behaviours, urges, and empathies.”

–        Riki Wilchins, It’s Your Gender, Stupid!, 2002

I should preface this by saying, there is no single idea about what gender is. This is how I think about mine, for others it will be different.

In March this year, I read Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. Firstly, this is an incredible read – I strongly encourage you all to buy it (or borrow it from the Bodleian libraries).

Secondly, in Whipping Girl, Serano – a trans activist and geneticist – presents her “intrinsic inclinations” model of gender and sexuality. She argues there are at least three major categories of gender/sex feelings (though notes there may be more) – sexual orientation, subconscious sex, and gender expression.

Across the general population, these inclinations correlate with assigned sex – but only roughly; there’s natural variation. Over time, society has exaggerated these differences – forcing perceived-men to be masculine, perceived-women to be feminine, and everyone to be (perceived) cis and straight.

For me, this theory works in spirit. However, I’d add a fourth category: gender empathy.

“Gender empathy,” for me, is group identification. It means I’m hanging with friends, and I feel “at one” with the group. It means I see a stranger, and think “yes, I am the same entity as them”. It means I find my “gender home.”

If you’re sceptical of trans identities, this concept may appear a little confusing. So I’d ask you to think about how you feel when you’re at a rugby social with the lads, or how you felt when you wore makeup for the first time. Think about the bond you share with your older sister, and ask how that compares to your feelings for your older brother. Think about your Dad teaching you how to shave. Think about a bottle of wine and rom com with the girls. Go to Bridge, or watch Love Island, and observe the gender dynamics there.

Your gender does impact the way you see yourself in relation to others; this is visible in every facet of our society.

My queer expressions arise from this social self. I was not a girl who happened to like masculine things. Rather, I felt a strong affinity with my masculine role models, and so emulated their behaviour – the same way a boy would. See the subtlety?

I don’t think gender expression can be completely divorced from my social self, since I learnt my gendered behaviour from my “gender role models”. However, I think it’s a very broad term that  encompasses a variety of distinct things. When looking exclusively at gender stereotypes (e.g, “women are sensitive”, “men are assertive”), I probably fall on the more feminine side.

Experimenting

So, now you know how I think of my gender, you may be wondering: what is it?

Unfortunately, I’d rather not go into depth.

My gender is a private and vulnerable part of me – a part that’s been subject to rejection and abuse. In my own company, I’m still exploring and coming to terms with it.

For strangers, the relevant info is that my pronouns are they/them.

The one piece of information I will divulge (since I fear I may be misinterpreted otherwise), is I don’t feel “trapped in the wrong body” – for the most part, my assigned and “subconscious” sexes feel aligned.

Allyship

By this point, (I hope) you might be wondering: how can I help?

My biggest fear is that nonbinary becomes another box. I know many committed allies who use the correct pronouns, who separate gender identity from expression, who use trans inclusive language and acknowledge there aren’t just two genders. These are certainly progressive steps. However, unless coupled with questioning society’s basic “gender assumptions”, this can only go so far.

Many people think of nonbinary as meaning “not a man or a woman”, but nonbinary men and women exist. People think nonbinary equates to they/them pronouns, but many of us use he/him, she/her, xe/xim, or ze/hir. “Nonbinary” is often associated with a neutral type of androgyny, but my gender euphoria maxes when I’m around loud, campy, bold gender expressions.

True nonbinary acceptance means relinquishing the desire for “gender rules”. Creating new and improved ones will only leave people behind.

The main thing I’d ask of any cis ally, is to critically analyse your own gender: ask yourself, “what makes me a man/woman?” Justify it with the same precision, depth and rigor that is demanded from the trans community. Learn about gender euphoria, and understand when you’ve felt it. Read work from trans authors to avoid cis-normative bias.

Once you understand your cisness in greater capacity than being assigned it; once you see it as one of several, possible gender identities you could’ve been born with / developed; once you see cis not as a single thing, but a diverse spectrum of identifications – acceptance of trans and nonbinary people will come effortlessly.

Concluding

Throughout the questioning process, I tried to put myself in a box. But how do I box the fact I’m an androgyne lesbian, who feels at “gender home” around effeminate, gay men? How do I box that masculinity is my comfort, and femininity is my exhilaration? How do I box the empathy and connectedness I feel with women, on the basis of our shared life experiences, with the discomfort and awkwardness I feel in women’s spaces?

I do not have a gender; I have a set of traits, behaviours, urges, and empathies which are gendered. When compiled and contrasted against that which I’ve been assigned, I feel a deep incongruence. For this, I am genderqueer, and I am valid. 

The unfortunate, young “girl”, who suffered at the hands of the gender binary, found a happier ending. This child became a full and complete person. Their family and friends accepted them. They merged with an innate, primitive, self they’d been coerced to repress. They found a community of kindred spirits, and discussed gender at length many a night. They stopped needing validation from others. Through understanding themself, they healed.