First off: I’m nonbinary.
I’ve identified as nonbinary for years, and it’s never exactly been a secret.
What is Nonbinary?
For those unfamiliar, nonbinary can be a little bit confusing, because it’s the equivalent of checking the box that says “other” instead of “mr” or “ms”. It means I don’t fit neatly into the female-ness I was born into, or the male-ness that I assumed was my only alternative. And it’s confusing because every nonbinary person is going to have their (or indeed his or her or xir, etc) own experience with and relationship to gender. It’s as broad a category as “non-English speaker” and “non-bird”– there’s a whole lot that that can include. So with everything that follows, please understand it’s my experience, not one that speaks for all trans or nonbinary people.
For me, that means I generally use “she/her” pronouns to save time and energy; “they/them” are fine, too; “he/him” is amusing sometimes, but there’s no dysphoria or insult attached to it.
When I present, it’s generally in a fairly “neutral” way– t-shirt, jeans, no makeup, bra sometimes, shoes from the men’s section. These days that’s considered generally normal for women’s fashion; decades ago, I’d be a weirdo trying to dress like a man. Turns out clothes aren’t gendered. More on that later.
What I was before
In the past, I’d tried wearing makeup, but I always felt like a clown. When I wore skirts, I felt like an impostor– one who wasn’t fooling anybody. When other women would talk about their experiences, I was at a loss. My experience was nothing like theirs. Constantly I felt like I was Doing It Wrong. Like every step I took, every word I said, every breath and thought was an error. The harder I tried, the more Wrong I felt.
And I did my troubleshooting– maybe I was just really bad at makeup? But when it was put on me by professionals, it still felt wrong.
Maybe feminine clothes all felt wrong on me because I didn’t have the “right” body type? I bought dresses made specifically for me, and it felt the same– like a weird costume meant for somebody else. Even attempts to “girl up” in small ways wound up feeling false.
Some have argued that the real culprit was a misogynistic society: that to be a woman is to be uncomfortable, to feel ugly, to be an impostor. If I disliked feminine things, they said, it was because of internalized misogyny, or because of impractical standards set for women. And come on, everybody hates seeing themselves in photos.
So I wrestled with body positivity. I found every single aspect of myself and looked at it, really looked at it, on other women. I studied the way the parts added up to a whole– how every aspect of the person in the mirror was reflected so beautifully on the people around me. I loved the looks that other people put together with hair and makeup and clothes. So why did it feel so right on them and so wrong on me?
For a long time I just let that be the background radiation of my life: that constant feeling of Doing It Wrong.
Looking back, I realize that feeling is called Dysphoria. According to the American Psychiatric Association:
Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender.
Kinda vague, isn’t it?
I’d heard of dysphoria in those kinds of terms– and with it the narrative of The Surgery, and the reflexive disgust when presented with one’s own anatomy, etc, the desperate need to be the “opposite” gender. But I didn’t want anything in those terms.
I spent some time thinking about it: do I want to be a boy? Do I want surgery? Do I want hormones? And resoundingly, the answer was no.
The term “nonbinary” was tossed around occasionally, but only as a vague idea, and only ever as a strict androgynous entity that used “they/them”. Do I feel my skin bristle when I’m called “she”? Do I prefer “they?”. Also no.
But then I started talking to more people and listening to more stories, I started noticing elements that resonated with my experiences and my feelings. And then I started learning that you can be androgynous-leaning-feminine or girl-and-sometimes-boy or “meh”. I learned that you can be a “she” but not a woman.
I took what was presented to me in those stories, and I tried that on for size. I put on the label “nonbinary” for a bit, and let it sit with me. And it felt right in a way that nothing had for a very long time.
A lot of my previous Wrongness started falling away. I stopped reflexively hating pictures of myself. I started feeling calmer, and it became easier to manage my temper. Without the thought of “what is she doing right that I’m doing wrong?” scraping at my mind, I found myself celebrating the women around me more often and more genuinely.
And here’s the other thing: as I got comfortable thinking of myself as nonbinary, I got a whole lot more comfortable with the rest. Dresses no longer feel like costumes, makeup no longer feels clownish, heels– well, heels are still hard to walk in, but that’s got more to do with my dexterity. Before, any attempt at femininity felt like a miserable impersonation of the woman I couldn’t actually be. As I am, there’s no more pretending. The clothes I wear aren’t a disguise, but just the things I wear when I feel like it.
It’s a feeling of rightness. Of being at peace.
And that’s really, really nice.
Why am I telling you this?
Maybe my narrative will resonate with some part of you. Maybe seeing one experience will make you think harder about your own. Maybe you’ll think about trying something new, or maybe you’ll find that you’re even more confident in where you stand right now.
May you find the best version of yourself, whatever that turns out to be.