Understanding My Non-Conforming Gender Identity
Is it a story if it doesn’t have an ending yet?
Most English teachers will tell you a good story always has a distinct beginning, middle, and end in which the protagonist overcomes some obstacle to reach a new point/place/self. In the modern era of blogs and social media reels and sites this like one, we love to read about the people who risked everything to take a leap, following their hearts to find themselves somewhere wonderful: the twenty-something who eschewed college to pursue their passion and now runs a thriving bakery; the teacher-of-the-year who started out as a corporate lawyer before leaving that world for the kindergarten classroom and a lifetime of occupational satisfaction and personal fulfilment; the trans woman who struggled through the complexity of coming out and difficulty of transition to become her true self, and the peace and joy that she found once living her life on her own terms.
What we don’t often hear about is the messy middle or the stories that don’t end up with a neat and tidy resolution. We don’t see a lot of blogs entitled, “I quit my corporate job to run a doggy-day-care but the business failed and now I’m back as an entry-level accountant because I have to pay my rent and I have no idea what to do now” or “I left my wife when I realized I was gay and in love with my best friend but he cheated on me and now I’m miserable and alone and hate dating”.
We want a solid ending, we want a resolution that involves clarity and a lesson learned — we need to know if it ends in a wedding or a funeral and what subsequent lesson we should be taking from it: triumph from risk or a cautionary tale.
But maybe sometimes we could benefit a little more from hearing about the uncertainty and messy complexity of human growth and transition while it is still occurring, when the protagonist doesn’t know where they’ll end up and doesn’t yet know if it’s going to come out all right in the end.
In our own lives, we have to make choices and choose paths without the comfort of hindsight-certainty and I think it would be helpful if we were able to see other people’s struggles and processes to know we’re not alone and to have help working through some of the thoughts and feelings that create that mess in the first place. Especially when it comes to finding our true selves, when we aren’t sure who we are but we know we don’t fit into those neat little boxes society lays out for us to keep life simple and clear. Especially when we’re queer. Or maybe we’re not. Or we’re trying to figure out how to know if we are.
’Cause the story of my gender is really messy right now
Right now I’m in the messy middle of figuring out my gender identity. A week ago it felt more clear and solid and certain. And then it felt messy again. This cycle has been happening for a while now. For my whole life, if I’m honest and actually take a moment to think about things.
I’m AFAB (Assigned-Female-At-Birth because of the shape of my genitals and related assumptions about my reproductive parts and chromosomes). And I’ve lived my whole life, up to and including now, as a female.
Bu-u-u-u-u-t… lately I’ve been exploring the idea that maybe I’m actually non-binary. And I kind of think maybe I am. Somedays I know I am and it all feels right and true. And then other days it feels like maybe not.
Maybe that’s just natural fear and apprehension and anxiety about making a life-altering change. Or maybe those doubts mean I’m not “really” non-binary — that real “enbys” don’t have those doubts. Or maybe the fears are actually discomfort around coming out and taking on the work of being someone who doesn’t fit into society “properly”.
It could be that I’m just scared about what it means to actually live as gender-queer in our gendered world.
The idea of my whole identity and presence being a kind of protest is a pretty big thing. And facing a life of having to fight against the powerful force of how the majority of people see the reality of gender and sex and all that is pretty daunting.
Or maybe it’s not that fear, maybe I’m just a woman who doesn’t like what society says a woman should be. I could just be a butch or masc-leaning woman struggling to redefine womanhood.
Or… maybe… this is a really complicated issue with a lot of layers and complexities and consequences for me, my life, my family, and everyone everywhere.
I process through writing and writing my thoughts here has helped me clarify and understand things a little more. Like sorting the clutter on a desk into semi-neat piles, some of the mess is becoming more clear.
Yes, I’m scared of coming out. Scared of judgement and people being shitty, sure, but (thanks to all kinds of privilege) I’m mostly scared about the immensity and weight of that act, about what it means for the rest of my life.
bell hooks* once explained the experience of being queer as, “… being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live” and that really resonates with how I’m feeling right now.
On one hand, being seen as female, using female pronouns exclusively, wearing femme clothes, my very female coded first name, all of that feels very wrong. For a long time, however, thinking about being non-binary also felt kind of wrong — not necessarily the idea of breaking down the gender binary but how I see that identity, what it means and, I’m embarrassed to admit, how I felt a little uncertain about those who identify as non-binary. My discomfort stems mostly, I now realize, from internalized transphobia and lack of understanding.
Part of the internal work I’m doing includes exploring why I feel uncomfortable with folks who present certain kinds of mixed gender presentations and working on my ability to really see the non-binary person rather than automatically classifying them as male/female-but-also-non-binary (the best way I can kind of explain my confusing mix of thoughts and feelings). I’ve also been confronting internalized voices about “attention seeking” or “just wanting to be different” when explorig my own non-binary feelings and have realized they’ve added to my discomfort with others too.
Ugh, socio-cultural conditioning, am I right?
So there you have it, my current location firmly held in the messy middle of all these ideas — I’m pretty sure I’m some kind of gender-queer but I haven’t yet invented and created my place in the gender-queer spectrum because I’m still figuring it out.
How I got here
When I first decided to explore my gender discomfort, my first thought experiment was to eliminate the possibility of being trans — I quickly found that I don’t feel in any way that I’m actually male. Then I tried thinking the same thoughts about being female or not, and I felt conflicted.
I’ve always felt kind of… off when thinking of myself as a woman — it’s hard to put into words but it really never felt like a great fit, it wasn’t really part of how I thought about myself and it felt mildly wrong somehow when coming from others. But when I tried thinking, “ok so I’m not a woman” I felt, and still feel, a tug of something.
So maybe I am actually a woman, then, just one who feels uncomfortable in how society deems that identity is meant to be lived out.
When I looked at examples of women who are most definitely cis (biology matches their gender identity) but who present and act in ways that don’t match what society expects for that gender, however, I didn’t feel an alignment with them either. I looked at them and saw a woman being herself, enjoying her physical appearance and expression in the social world that was completely counter to almost every societal expectation for a woman and it still didn’t feel like the right thing for me. This lack of resonance or feeling of kinship told me I don’t think this is me either.
Through all this confusion and back-and-forth thinking, I kind of knew that when I found the right “answer,” I’d feel it; I trusted that I’d know it in my gut like I always do with big important things.
My next step was to join some non-binary groups online. I felt uncomfortable there, though. The angst and anguish so many of the members felt didn’t really match my experience and the general feeling of those communities didn’t really feel like my vibe either. Which I didn’t think necessarily equated to my identity but it certainly muddied the waters.
So where did I fit? Or rather, what description of gender fit me?
Maybe the answers didn’t lie in thinking about how I fit into society, or don’t fit in, as the case may be.
I realized that the answer probably didn’t lie in looking for external examples but was ultimately a deeply personal knowing, so I tried some more mindfulness exercises and thinking about when I felt good about my gender or gendered things in my life.
And that’s when I found that solid, Real and True feeling in my gut.
When I let go of labels and the ideas and images that went with them, I turned a mental corner and let myself just be with the idea of being really and truly free of all of the gendered stuff that felt wrong and uncomfortable, without framing it in “non-binary-ness”, or any other social/cultural frameworks, and it felt amazing.
I thought about wearing a suit to my sister’s upcoming wedding and felt almost giddy, especially when I envisioned pairing it with fancy short hair, makeup and maybe some chunky earrings. It felt like a forbidden joy I’d been pretending I wasn’t denying myself. I thought about wearing baggy jeans with fitted t-shirts, an undercut hairstyle that was choppy and layered on top, and a bunch of other external choices that give me that special kind of right feeling.
And thus I realized what gender euphoria feels like and that I’ve been experiencing it, and it’s negative counterpart, dysphoria, my whole life.
This was a lightbulb moment with firm grounding in my gut. It’s not about fashion or feminism, there’s a deeper discomfort and comfort associated with gendered ideas and subjects.
Then I went deeper and thought about no one calling me “she” or “her” and when I overcame decades of unconsciously suppressing those emotions and let myself really feel that possibility, it felt really good. I wasn’t super keen on “they/them” but it felt better than “she/her”, so I guess I’m still working on my pronouns.
Pronouns led to me confronting another big thought — I thought about how every time someone says my name it feels both uncomfortable or wrong and yet also kind of mine, and that made me sad. The idea of not being called something that feels wrong gives me that giddy feeling again but the idea of changing my name makes me sad. I don’t want to be called my name but I don’t want to choose another one, I don’t want that pressure, I don’t want to go through the change, I don’t want to give up what my parents gave me. In my imaginings, I kind of just want my name to always have been different but since that’s not possible, I played around with various name options.
After much exploring and thinking and mentally trying things on I think I’ve landed on a name that feels right but when I actually think about having someone call me by it, it feels weird.
Maybe that just means it’s the wrong name. Or maybe that means it’s too masculine sounding and I’m not really that non-binary and just “a little” gender queer instead. Or maybe I actually kind of love the masc-ness of it but I’m scared of it because of a lifetime of suppressing these interests and feelings and tendencies in favourite of being more acceptable as a female.
Oh man, that’s a big ole pile of baggage right there but unpacking and discussing consequences for gender non-conformity will have to wait for another time.
After all that thinking and reflecting and imagining I felt semi-certain about some things but still was uncomfortable with the idea of acting on them because I wasn’t completely certain.
But I couldn’t be certain until I tried them on, until I knew what it felt like to use different pronouns or a different name.
But trying them out would mean making some kind of commitment and risking the embarrassment of having to take it all back if it didn’t feel right afterall.
And maybe this fear for committing to transitioning was what was holding me back.
Or maybe I was feeling and thinking these things because part of me knows it won’t feel right.
Or maybe it’s because I know it will and I’m still scared of taking on the challenge of living life in our society outside the gender binary.
Or maybe I’m just not sure yet.
And that’s the story thus far.
There it is, a small glimpse into the messy middle of figuring out a non-cisgender identity in middle age.
This is a slice, there’s more to all of this thinking than I can possibly include here (thank you hyperactive ADHD brain), but I wanted to both write it out so I can maybe understand it better and because I want to share it with you. I always “think” better when I’m writing for an audience, it forces me to be more organized and clear and honest, but I also think this is important stuff to share.
It’s important to share for representational purposes, to diversify how we all see things like gender identity and representation. It’s also important to share the uncertainty, the process of exploration, and the path we eventually forge through the confusion, so that those who feel lost and alone will know there are others out here in the wilds and so that they can maybe even borrow parts of our paths to help find their own way too.
I have a feeling I know where my path is leading but I’m not certain yet so I’ll probably keep writing as I keep exploring.
*This was originally drafted a day or two before bell hooks passed, parenting in a pandemic over the holidays doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing and editing. Rest in power, you beautiful and articulate soul.