Today I sat in the salon chair staring at myself in the mirror as the stylist trimmed up my side-shave and clipped my split ends. I’ve always hated how I look in styling chairs with the black cloak wrapped around my neck leaving only my bare face. Today my face hadn’t been shaved in a day and had no makeup on it.
I stared at myself and didn’t see a woman looking back at me.
But that’s ok, right? Because I don’t actually identify as a woman. But as a nonbinary person who uses she/her pronouns I have a complicated relationship to my own femininity. I don’t like being seen as a man yet I often don’t feel like putting in the requisite effort to maximize my own femininity.
Some might say, “Well, that’s your own damn fault then!”
But let me defend this contradiction, this desire to be seen as a woman yet not thinking of myself as a woman.
You see, my identity is nonbinary but my desires are binary. I’ve been on hormones for over four years and have had ten painful laser hair removal sessions. I see myself as nonbinary but often dream of being binary. When I started my transition I operated with a more binary identity and over the years gradually moved towards my current understanding of myself as existing outside the gender binary. Part of that is a defense mechanism, but in recent years it’s become more than that, reflecting a deeper sense of self.
So when I’m sitting in the salon chair staring at myself, I try my hardest to see a nonbinary person. But what does a nonbinary person even look like? The question doesn’t even make sense. There are no “standards” for what a nonbinary person should look like.
So why did I feel like I didn’t look “right”?
Perhaps this was just my gender dysphoria rearing its head. But perhaps it goes deeper, into the essential contradiction within myself: knowing myself as nonbinary yet seeing myself as a failed attempt to live within the binary.
When I looked in the mirror that’s what I saw: failure. Failure to be sufficiently feminine to subdue the dysphoria in my brain and failure to be whatever it is I should look like in order to trigger the thought, “Yes, I look nonbinary, as I should.”
Feeling bad about myself I came home to take a selfie via a snapchat filter. In the blur of digital makeup I could see myself again. But that is just my binary desires leaking through, something that happens when my dysphoria surfaces. It’s a fine temporary relief of these contradictory feelings.
I don’t think I’m alone in having these oscillations in identity and self-perception, these paradoxes of gender.
If I am happy being super feminine why not just be super feminine all the time? Because I’m often more comfortable without makeup, without trying to conform to the impossible standards of patriarchal femininity. That and laziness, if I’m being perfectly honest.
I can anticipate the response of someone “critical” of trans women or nonbinary people.
You’re probably thinking: What a bunch of bullshit! You’re clearly just a confused and deluded individual! You’re just a feminine man who wants to be something he’s not. This whole essay is just a bunch of navel-gazing, wishy-washy bullshit.
To which I reply: I refuse to comply with the expectation that trans people are supposed to have everything figured out when it comes to their gender or their expression. In a sense, I am deeply agnostic about my gender: I don’t really know what I am. I just know I’m trans and not a woman or a man.
With that said, I still don’t quite know how to reconcile my agnosticism with my desires, which fuel my dysphoria, and filter my self-perception.
But I think I will end this short essay on a positive note to my fellow trans people who are also struggling with issues of identity and desire: it’s ok to be ambivalent. It’s ok to feel like a contradiction. Paradoxes can still be true. You don’t have to have everything figured out. Your desires can conflict with your identity. Your identity can fluctuate with your desires. Your desires can lead you on a wild goose chase of gender. Gender can be liberatory and oppressive at the same time.
You don’t need be a perfect exemplar of your own gender. You don’t have to have a perfect match between the performance of your gender and your self-perception of your gender. You can feel conflicted about your desire to pass and your desire to live outside the norms of gender.
Most of all, it’s ok to not be perfectly happy with yourself as you try to perform this wild thing we call gender. But if you can find happiness in those small moments where everything lines up perfectly, hang onto those moments. String them together and you might just get a glimpse of the person you want to be.