First-Generation, Non-Binary, And Just Enough The Way I Am

By A.L. Hu

Courtesy of author

I am a non-binary person. My gender does not fall within the bounds of the male-female binary. I am also a first-generation Asian-American. I wrote this to add to the many stories out there of trans-embodiment. There aren’t many non-binary people who are visible to the undiscerning, uncaring eye, but we exist. I exist. I have to tell myself every single day.

When I was 9 years old, the world seemed an endless but knowable place. Riding my bike on suburban streets and running as fast as possible was as real as it could get — the wind flying through my hair, acceleration and momentum propelling me forward. I wore whatever clothing I wanted. I was a kid, free and boundless. My life was in motion and no one could stop me, boy or girl, man or woman.

But then, at age 12, the world began closing in on me. Middle school was a special hell for me, as puberty propelled me abruptly from child to adult. As my body started to develop, I began to feel a disconnect between who I thought I was, who I was supposed to be, and who society said I should become. I could not explain how I felt in words. A toxic combination of society’s expectations and my immigrant parents’ unemotional, stifling strictness for me as a girl growing into a woman caged me in my own mind. I felt guilty for no longer being the shining, perfect little girl I thought I was, since my appearance and preferences no longer matched what society deemed “female.”

I couldn’t possibly talk about this guilt with my parents or my peers, so instead, I bottled these feelings up and turned on myself, leading a double life: happy on the outside, desolate on the inside. My own skin became a canvas for expressing what I could not say; self-imposed pain felt more real than the life that was happening to me.

My non-binariness, and the sense of isolation it led to, didn’t only involve my gender. As a child of immigrants from Taiwan, I also always felt in-between or outside of the boundaries of racial “norms.” The typical conversation on race in the United States often excludes discussion on racial identities other than white and black, or glosses over the nuances and specificities of being a first-generation person of color. Left out of the “spectrum” of visible races in America, I was siloed into various stereotypes: the smart Asian who goes to a prestigious university; the model minority who works hard and leads a productive, normative life. Ultimately, I was neither Asian nor White enough, and I remain on the outskirts of what is considered to be “acceptable” for an Asian-American.

For my first 24 years, I was invisible not only as an Asian person in America, but doubly as an Asian woman. Mitsuye Yamada, a Japanese-American feminist, activist, and academic, wrote about this double invisibility in an essay titled “Invisibility as an Unnatural Disaster”: Asian women are taught from a young age that their existence does not matter as much as men; that they are born into a “ready-made world” in which to mold their existence; and that they are powerless over their own lives and cannot make a difference on anyone or anything.

Though Yamada assumed that she was free because she could choose to marry, to become a professor, and to have children, her reality was “double invisibility” as an apolitical middle-class woman and an apolitical Asian woman. Yamada’s experience mirrors my own growing up as an Asian woman. The “model minority” myth functions only insofar as Asians remain quiet and invisible in society, and the additional layer of the passive woman stereotype compounded my feelings of being an outsider.

And so, realizing that my gender identity was also somewhere in-between, or elsewhere, or completely invisible, was not an alien feeling. And navigating the terms for the myriad transgender identities out there became an exercise in reminding myself that I am enough just the way I am.

When I left for college, I was finally freed from familial obligations and crushing depression, but one mental prison morphed into another — this time I sought not to cut my skin, but to shrink its entire existence. Restricting inevitably led to binging, but I never stopped feeling hollow. I had reduced my existence to a mere echo, as I became obsessed with controlling my food intake. As I did when I was in middle school, I kept quiet about my personal, shameful struggle.

Slowly, though, my life began to change. Years of therapy and dozens of self-help books had laid the foundation for a new self-awareness, and when I moved from California to New York for graduate school, my sense of self shifted. Right before I left, I got a pixie cut. For years my hair was longer than my torso — a security blanket behind which my true self remained hidden. Cutting my hair in California was a catalyst to creating a new identity for myself when I moved to one of the cities of my dreams and took control of my professional career. I still identified as a woman, but something inside of me knew, vaguely, that I had to transform to become who I wanted to be. When I let go of my hair, I also let go of the passive Asian girl that had defined me for my entire life.

I was 24, and ready to start the long process of carving out a space of my own for exploring who I am. My quarter-life milestone was marked not by crisis, but by realization — by making real my voice, my life, my existence. I could finally concentrate on me. In the summer, I experimented with wearing men’s clothing. I asked my barber to buzz the sides of my hair shorter and shorter. I let myself think about my own identity in relation to but not defined by my race, my family, or my gender. I reflected deeply on what I endured in the past — depression, self-harm, disordered eating — and how those experiences shape who I am today.

I found that my past mental struggles were both impediments and stepping stones to discovering myself. My transgender, non-binary gender identity is, in fact, not new. I am who I have always been — my “trans-formation” is but an amalgamation and progression of who I was, am, and will be. Being a non-binary person does not mean that I do not exist. Rather, my existence calls into question the validity of the “norms” that govern the boundary that delineates men from women, that produces transgender subjects who must “pass” to be real, and that renders all other genders unintelligible.

There are moments when I still do not feel real, when I’m trapped in my head, or a prisoner to my own rules again. But now, I speak and write my truth instead of staying silent. I advocate for my own bodily and mental well-being instead of conforming to oppressive standards I can never meet. I request that others call me by a name that I gave myself because hearing it makes me feel euphoria. I use gender-neutral pronouns because I do not want language to constrain my being. I have become more confident in myself and who I am becoming. My skin, my clothing, and my hair are my exterior self, representing a certain ambiguous gender to others, but they do not form the boundaries of who I am.

The “trans” in transgender refers to transitioning and transformation, but perhaps it also means transcend: to move beyond such designations that constrain who I am. My life is in motion again and no one can stop me but myself — I’m 25 and right on time.

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