The Long Road to Non-Binary

By Denarii Grace

CONTENT NOTE: transmisogyny

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The non-binary pride flag. It has four stripes. The top is yellow, the second is white, the third is purple, and the final, bottom stripe is black.

As I begin to write this essay — second-guessing a beginning, middle, and end, trying to decide if I should do the “responsible writer” thing and work on an outline first — “How…did…you…GET HERE?!” a line from the R&B song ‘Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here’ by Deborah Cox, pops into my head.

How indeed.

I knew for my entire adolescence that I was bisexual, though thanks to bi+ (plus) erasure I didn’t have the language for it until high school. College allowed me the freedom (and gave me permission) to come out, explore, and find community, culture, and history in ways that I never had before or even thought possible. So while I was thrust into the role of “queer student leader” by necessity in 2007, it was a very natural progression for me. I was home.

Almost.

Before my undergraduate education, gender was never a question for me. There were two genders — male and female, man and woman — and men had penises and women had vaginas. Simple, clear cut, and obvious. But being a student leader in an LGBTQIA2S+ (plus) organization for students of color meant unlearning all that I had been raised to believe.

In some respects, it was an easy transition — perhaps too easy. In hindsight, I wonder if the ease and speed with which I accepted the concept of trans identities and rejected so much of everything that I’d been taught about gender stemmed from a subconscious recognition that I, too, didn’t quite fit in the box I was forced into.

In other respects though, it was hard. And scary. And sometimes violent.

As I began slowly coming out to a few friends within the last month or so, most of whom are also non-binary, I found myself reflecting on this journey — looking for moments and clues into how, exactly, I got here.

A major part of our organization’s regular offerings was our weekly meetings. We’d have facilitated group discussions, show a film or documentary, or sometimes have a small party or something — standard fare for undergraduate student organizations. The other executive board members and I would cook up ideas for issues to talk about that we faced in our intersections as melanated members of the alphabet soup collective. From family woes to dating and from future careers to history, we talked about pretty much everything under the sun, including gender identity and gender expression.

I don’t recall the exact topic of the day in this memory, but it was related to gender expression somehow. A Black, gender non-conforming cis lesbian was talking about how she felt more comfortable in “men’s” clothing (and I’m using quotes because I’m non-binary and LOL WHAT IS GENDER AND WHY ARE CLOTHES GENDERED LOL). I remember, while reassuring her (and everyone else) that I was totally cool with others doing what makes them comfortable (and I genuinely was — that was the easy part), I was adamant that I could never wear “men’s” clothes. I was decidedly not comfortable in them (though I’d never worn them). Even the thought of it, for myself, produced a visceral reaction. As I look back, I can truly only describe it as fear.

At the time that I was on the e-board, there were no (openly) trans folks among us. I can’t even recall any openly trans attendees, regular or sporadic. (I’m happy to say that the organization has grown exponentially since our time there and this is no longer the case.) However, despite our supposed cis privilege (because, turns out, not all of us were cis!) and, cis or not, obvious ignorance in many respects, I also distinctly remember us having a discussion about trans identity and issues.

I remember nothing of the discussion itself except for a friend jokingly reenacting a typical episode of Jerry Springer, where a trans person — almost always a Black trans woman — decides to be on the show to reveal to her partner — almost always a cis man — that she is in fact trans. The physical joke was his reenactment of, upon the reveal, the man grabbing a chair and hitting the woman. My friend imitated the trans woman as she experiences the impact of the chair hitting her.

I remember laughing uproariously at the violence. His physical comedy was superb, I thought. Now, I look back at that memory with shame and anguish and, though I’m sorry, I never expect collective forgiveness. The violence, and my amusement at it, is something that I’m sure is unforgivable to most. Sharing both my work and my journey — and highlighting and uplifting the most marginalized voices in my communities — are the only ways that I know to make amends.

Maybe two or three years later, I left school and returned home to New York — without graduating. It would be a few more years before I officially got my degree. In the meantime, I worked (part-time, of course) at a local Target. I worked in what we called “yellow world” — where you find clothing, shoes, accessories and, in our store’s case, the “baby stuff.”

That’s where I bought my first “men’s” shirt. I was finally comfortable enough to cross the aisle, so to speak. I would sometimes be assigned to the “men’s” section of the store, folding the clothes that customers would inevitably torpedo through like the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil. I would see all these really nice shirts. I wanted one.

I wanted one.

That was all that mattered to me.

I love all kinds of colors, but I’m a huge fan of darker versions of colors: dark reds, dark greens, dark blues, dark purples, etc. The well-known attire for Target employees is a red shirt with khaki/tan bottoms. I went for the pretty, dark red hued short-sleeved, button-down “men’s” shirt. Another to add to my collection of work attire.

I brought it home. I don’t remember how it came up that it was a “men’s” shirt, but the first time I recall wearing it, while I don’t recall his exact words, I remember my younger brother — who knew that I’m bi, as I was out by that time — saying something about it meaning that I was “changing” (read: becoming even more QUEER than I already was).

And then there was the time, in winter 2015, while doing domestic work for an interracial queer family, that I was gifted a pair of “men’s” boots because the one pair of sneakers that I wore were coming apart, and they noticed. They were not cutting it for a snow-blanketed New York. I remember, as I learned that the much-needed, weather-appropriate footwear were “men’s” shoes, that visceral feeling of fear creeping back up again. But I needed proper boots and they fit, so I took them.

Then I wore them — everywhere. All the time (although…my legs are on the small side, so the legs of the boots would constantly hit them, creating bruises, but I didn’t care). I still have (and wear) them.

But it’s only been within the last few years that I began to make sense of what all of this truly means to and for me. Everything began to fall apart in order to fall into place.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how or when it started, but I’ve been lucky over the years, especially over the last few years, to have befriended many trans, non-binary, and Two Spirit folks. Some I know in a professional or acquaintance capacity, but there are quite a few with whom I’m very good friends. Some are white and some are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC).

And, more than any other factor, it’s been through both their friendships and their work of various kinds that I started to really reflect on the concept of gender — in general and for me personally.

Sometimes I’d find myself wondering, “What is a woman, exactly? How do I know that I’m a woman? What does being a woman look like? Am I really a woman?” or “What is gender?! Why is it a thing — who made that decision? Why is it connected to what our bodies look like?”

These were questions that, over the last few years, became harder for me to ignore. It’s one thing to rhetorically ask yourself these questions; it’s another thing to actually desire an answer to them.

At first, I assumed that it was just the willingness of a cisgender person to practice empathy. I was grateful for the works by trans, non-binary, and Two Spirit folks — including many of my friends and comrades — that were challenging me to continue my journey of unlearning and reconsider all that I thought I knew about our hypergendered world.

But over the last few months, probably starting some time in November or December 2017, I began to realize that, when describing myself, I was secretly less comfortable with calling myself “cisgender,” not quite able to put a finger on it, but no longer truly feeling like the gender I was assigned at birth quite fit exactly how I felt and what I was experiencing. Gender, as an entire concept, was starting to make less and less sense — not just in general, but for me personally.

By this time, I knew that gender is a social construct, a man-made contraption that has served various purposes throughout human history, not the least of which is the subjugation of those deemed “lesser.” I knew that white supremacy and colonialism have robbed many indigenous peoples — including my own ancestors — of our own ways of perceiving (or not perceiving) what we call “gender” today. And I knew that there can not only be as many genders as there are people, but that for some cultures and individual people, gender doesn’t even exist (in any real sense)!

I knew all of these things. But, even as much as I’d learned and grown over the years, fear was still in the back of my mind.

It was a different kind of fear.

Back in September, I wrote what was meant to be a two-part series on that seemingly neverending “bi vs. pan” debate. I was writing as a “cis ally” (lol me) about how, ultimately, the heart of the issue was inclusion of trans, non-binary, and Two Spirit folks and, therefore, they should be centered in these conversations and “fellow cis bi+ (plus) folks” (lol me) needed to take a backseat and make room for trans bi+ (plus) folks to lead these conversations and the issues that arise from them.

A white, non-binary friend did sensitivity reading for me and helped me shape it up before I sent it to the editor. One of the constructive criticisms they had for me was that I sounded too angry; they knew that cis people would shut down and not actually heed my words if I didn’t approach the subject firmly but gently.

As I started coming out as non-binary, I was finally able to commiserate with other non-binary folks. A few of them were talking about how, before coming to terms with their own non-binary identity, they would often find themselves “overidentifying” with the plights of trans folks, and non-binary folks in particular. In my case, anger at the gender binary and the erasure of non-binary people and their (our) needs turned out to be what I now know as “social dysphoria” (as opposed to the more well-known “body dysphoria” that many [but not all] TNB2S folks experience). I jokingly recalled that memory to them and how that was probably a sign. But it’s no joke.

There have been many times over the last few years that the gender binary has thoroughly pissed me off. Like my friends, I thought I was just being a “super good” ally, raging on their behalf. After all, I’m a long time activist and I’m known, particularly among those who know me best, for championing for marginalized people as a whole, whether I belong to that group or not. The more I learn, the more righteously angry I become at the systemic injustice.

It’s what social justice warriors do, am I right?

In hindsight, of course, who was I kidding? But this new fear was less a fear of myself and more of a fear of others, of living in this world as Other, of having to (in my case) eventually go through another coming out process that, like being bi, will last my entire life.

And that fear came to a head earlier this year, in a Facebook group of all places. By February of this year, it had been a couple of months or so that I’d been telling myself that I should talk to someone about all of my “feels.” Of course, like so many things in life, I kept putting it off.

In an online space for “Black fat femmes,” I asked the group a question about the demographics of the space, specifically wondering if there were any cishet members (people who are both straight and cisgender). The conversation turned to the naming of the group. I was new to the group and it was a conversation that, it turned out, had been had previously. People questioned my disturbance and, at one point, I was even accused of deliberately starting trouble, just for shits and giggles, I guess. Eventually, I was kicked out (and, presumably, banned) from that group.

It was a very hurtful experience, and I had a hard time processing it. The truth was that, at the time, I couldn’t fully answer some of the questions that the more seasoned members had for me. In hindsight, I realized that, besides my personal and ideological objection to cishet people co-opting the term “femme” (directly or, in this case, indirectly), the discomfort and anger that caused the ruckus in that group that got me removed stemmed from wanting — needing — more spaces in which both straight people and cisgender people were not present. I was (and still am) tired and exhausted of them being everywhere and, in a group that was supposed to be for femmes, “Why the fuck are you here?!” was the only thing on my mind.

But of course, this begged the question: if I’m tired of straight and cis people taking up space, what does that say about me?

I realized that I really really really needed to talk to someone, a (fellow) Black non-binary person, but I still wasn’t quite ready. It wasn’t until, maybe a few weeks after that incident, that I found myself crying in the middle of the night (not about that incident) that I realized enough was enough. The next day, I reached out (via Facebook, of course) to see if any of my amazing Black non-binary friends had the time and space to talk. A couple of days later, I chatted with three friends, one after another and, for the first time ever, came out as non-binary.

In the space between going from “Ugh what is all of this RAGE inside me?!” to “LOL just kidding I’m not cis!” I tried to be present, as best as I could, to reflect on this new identity and what it would mean for me going forward. Language is fascinating, evolutionary, revolutionary, and weird (among other things), and I realized that I was struggling with finding the right words to describe my specific non-binary experience. I wanted precise language but, while I played around with the idea of identifying as agender, nothing truly seemed to fit how I felt and my racialized, color- and size-based experiences of gender.

Then one evening, while standing in front of the kitchen counter, it hit me out of nowhere: exogender. It literally appeared in my head out of thin air, like it was given to me by some invisible, benevolent force — an (a)gender fairy perhaps.

As I explained to my friends, like the term “exoskeleton,” which describes an animal with its skeleton on the outside (like lobsters) instead of on the inside (like humans), “exogender” describes my experience of (a)gender as such: on the outside I am strongly (and proudly) a woman, but on the inside I have no gender — I’m agender. This definition is uniquely tied to my experiences living as a (fat, brown-skinned) Black woman and, as such, it’s a term that — should others adopt it — should only be used by Black folks.

Every time I explain it, even as I type this essay, I feel floaty, a permanent internal grin, like everything makes sense. But my journey doesn’t end here.

There are still so many questions, so many doubts, every day. In addition to the daunting premise of having to come out again, I struggle with the idea of identifying as transgender, a term that has seemed distant from me since I first learned of its existence, wondering if these thoughts are genuine explorations of identity and language and meaning or if it’s a simple case of internalized trans antagonism. As opposed to a cis woman or a trans woman, I consider myself an exogender woman, a subcategory of agender, a new word for what I’m sure are old experiences for many Black folks. So should I call myself that? Or be folded into the trans umbrella?

And am I sure? What if I’m wrong about who I am? What if this isn’t exactly accurate? What if no one believes me because I’ve viewed myself as, and been perceived as, cisgender for so long? And what if people just chalk it up to a desire to be a “snowflake,” wanting so badly to be as “different” and as “oppressed” as possible?

How do I navigate all of this?

It actually takes me back to the start of my journey as a bisexual person. I came out to myself on February 21st, 2006 and immediately after joined an online support group for bi+ (plus) women. Though they were different back then, I had many questions and I wasn’t sure how to navigate them (which was why I joined the virtual space).

In October 2017, I celebrated 10 years of being out publicly as bisexual. It’s been a long journey, but it reminds me of how far I’ve come and that, with support, I’m capable of this long walk, too.

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