Beyond the Binary: Question Fourteen

June 25, 2013 § 5 Comments

A really, really common question this morning – panel bios here.



Question Fourteen:

How were you able to decipher your identity? I’m having major issues working out how to even start! How do I gender?!



CN: Well, it helped when I stopped thinking that the ‘identity’ I was trying to decipher was in any way different from the self that was doing the deciphering, though it took a while. I remember, when I first came out, that expectation that I needed to find a category, as it were – almost like all these ‘types’ of people I could appear to be were lined up like different cuts of jeans in a store and I needed to pick one to wear. It took a few years, and a lot of soul-searching and reading, before I realised that gender was no different from any other part of myself – that I knew who I was, and I didn’t know who I was, that the ‘was’ was always changing, that I was the self asking the questions as much as the self being interrogated and, frankly, the  idea of fitting that into a discrete category didn’t define me – that the words I chose to use were just tools, nothing more.

Like anything else in life, I think that working out what feels comfortable for you and what doesn’t is a mixture of trial and error – made easier, to my mind, with a fuckload of research. Not just other people’s books/art/movies etc. but deliberately researching your own comfort zones, what feels right, what doesn’t, under what conditions…and it’s a process that never really ends. Toi toi!



GrrlAlex: I struggled historically because the language and ideas I’d been explosed to growing up and in early adulthood hadn’t allowed me to find an identity that felt congruent.  When I first learned about transsexuals in my late teens/early twenties the script was very simplistic and it appeared that being sexually attracted to women ruled me out since back then claiming an identity as a lesbian transwomen didn’t seem possible. In my forties whilst research the MSc I discovered transgender and the idea that brains could biologically have a gender identity based on latent interests and traits deemed socially to be congruent with either ‘male’ or ‘female’ descriptors.  The idea of transgender allowed me to embrace authenticity – but aware of the limitations of ‘passing’ as a transwomen I set out to see if it was possible to live as a women within a ‘male’ body.  Part of this process has been to create an image that has a congruent aesthetic – I seek to communicate femaleness on a male frame rather than trying to ‘pass’ as a woman (or worse being read as merely cross-dresser) – at this level the beard serves as a useful social rubrik for “trans”.




Nat: In my case I was aware in my teens that I was uncomfortable with my gender role and the results of puberty, and felt that I was supposed to be androgynous,. Unfortunately this was the late 1990s and there were very few resources about gender outside of the binary and none that I came across that suggested it could be transitioned to. My physical dysphoria increased as secondary sexual characteristics developed in late adolescence and I was forced to a crisis point of adopting a binary trans identity in order to access medial transition aged 19. It then took me several more years to pick apart my increased comfort with my body with my continued discomfort with social role and perceptions, including a period of ‘detransition’ or ‘retransition’ to a more neutral and comfortable presentation. I went through a period of trying hard to present and ‘pass’ as androgynous before settling into simply being comfortable and happy with myself without worrying about how that appeared to others.

During this period, I also went through a long set of increasingly specific and more convoluted identities in the attempt to decipher my gender and come up with the words that described it exactly. I eventually found more peace in choosing to ignore the specifics of identity and focus on the practical aspects. What made me most happy and comfortable? How did I want people to see me? How did I want people to treat me? Did I like to be gendered by others and under what circumstances? Which pronouns and gendered language felt affirming and which misgendering? Which set of hormones worked best and which body parts caused dysphoria? Were my preferences consistent, and did that actually matter?

I can see myself in the definitions and descriptions in several specific nonbinary identities, but I ultimately found more comfort in identifying with the wider umbrella terms and focusing on being my authentic and unrestricted self within them.



Jennie: Some people seem to have a stronger sense of gender than others, and this goes across the board, regardless of what that gender is or how it relates to the body they were born with. This means that, for some people, it will always be hard to empathise with those who feel gender recognition is something they need to fight for. That’s okay – it’s still possible to be an ally even if you don’t ‘get it’ on an emotional level.

Speaking personally, I didn’t really get it for a large portion of my life. I knew I was different but I didn’t understand how. I considered that perhaps I was transsexual, but ultimately I didn’t feel that I would be any more comfortable in my skin if I transitioned. Then, when I was in my late twenties, I finally got clarification of the diagnosis that was made in my teens, and discovered I was intersex. Suddenly, a huge number of things made sense. I felt, for the first time, that I had a wider set of gender options. I realised there really was something different about me, and I realised that it was time to stop blaming all women for failing to think and feel and act in a way that tallied more closely with my experience (I have healthy friendships with lots of women now; I had relatively few before). It was a huge relief. Latterly, of course, I realised that gender comfort should never have depended on my understanding of my body, but it is very hard to identify oneself as non-binary in a world where there is so little visibility for non-binary people. I hope that will change for future generations.



Hel: To begin with an ideological answer: your identity is not necessarily something you can ‘decipher’. You are a unique, complex, changing individual. The person you are now is not the person you were 5 years ago or the person you will be in 5 years now. While trans people are often encouraged to narrativise their experiences of gender – this whole “I always knew I was a boy/girl/other” thing – it’s not always that simple. It’s not as though you’re digging in the garden of your soul and slowly uncovering some perfect gem-like substance that is the unchanging core of Who You Are. There is no One True Trans Experience, and there is no certainly no one way to be trans (or to be male or female or genderqueer or non-binary…) There’s an awesome comic strip about this called ‘transcension’, by Katie Diamond and Johnny Blazes – it’s in Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, which I really recommend getting hold of if you can. (Actually, generally I’d recommend Gender Outlaws and GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary to anyone doing some soul-searching about gender stuff – there are so many different personal perspectives on gender in each book, it’s really eye-opening.)

So, perhaps it might be worth reframing things for yourself: what are the best ways I can describe my relationship to my body, to my gender role? How do I want to move through the world and be perceived in it? What language fits me, what language do I feel I can claim as mine, what articulates the way I feel? How do I transcribe the contours of myself as language, like a map-maker transcribes the land in paper and ink? Remember that our understandings of ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ are just the constructs of our current cultural moment – they’re not immutable truth. They are ways of understanding and expressing truth, but they also mould it to fit them – language and experience in a never-ending feedback loop. Like a great many of us, you’ll probably pick your way through a jumble of confusions and decisions, and take your time working out what works best for you.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you some practical advice to go along with this rather high-flown rhetoric. In terms of where to start: examining your feelings about your gender/sex/body is always useful. Maybe try taking some time alone with a massive sheet  of paper and just writing out all the things that are confusing you, then trying to sift through it. If you live in the sort of environment where this is possible, try experimenting by doing different things with your gender-presentation and see what makes you feel most comfortable, most like yourself. Pick a new pronoun – even a new name – and ask the people around you to use it for a given period of time. How do you feel about it? What feels right, what feels comfortable? Is it exciting because it’s new, or exciting because it’s right? (Or perhaps, is a feeling of newness in itself what’s right for you – do you need to feel fluid, in motion?) How do you feel about going back to your previous name when that time is up?

I also think it’s very much worth reading Natalie Reed’s “How Do I Know If I’m Trans?” piece – her blog is now down, but it’s on the Wayback Machine here.

§ 5 Responses to Beyond the Binary: Question Fourteen

  • sharon says:

    Thanks for this. Today’s answers in particular have made me tearful-happy.
    I’ve read so many answers to this question that really didn’t fit me, but this combination of answers speaks clearly to my condition.

  • Jamie Ray says:

    This is an amazing series of posts. Particularly for those of us who keep chasing our own tails.

  • […] How were you able to decipher your identity? […]

  • Heron says:

    I agree – thank you, everybody. I went from being the kid who was so proud to be taken for a boy, terrified of puberty, to, as CN says re qu.16, “being the only person at an ‘all girls school’ to wear men’s clothes and have visible body hair/masculine haircut.” Maybe if I hadn’t come through puberty flat-chested (phew) and still fancying men, I would have kept that youthful nerve to be myself, but instead I spent my late teens and 20s swithering between on the one hand trying to train myself into some sort of feminity in order to have the chance of being found attractive, and returning to the sort of hair and clothes that made me feel like myself (with abuse in the street for failing as a woman, of course) on the other, ending up with a sort of compromise I thought I was ok with, and trying to rationalise my feeling of queerness by wondering if I was bisexual.

    But a year ago I started working on my upper body strength for various reasons, and ‘suddenly’ my shoulders were even broader (and chest even flatter), so that I actually ‘had’ to buy tops marketed at men, and I recognised all over again that I prefer a masculine type of physique on myself as well as others. That got me half-thinking about transitioning, but the word “man” doesn’t seem linked to me any more than “woman” (I do have a bit of a woman’s identity through shared oppression, of course) and (unlike when I was a kid) I’m not sure I’d want to have to be culturally male any more than female.

    But now, thanks to reading these posts (look, relevance, just!) and “Two Strand River” by Keith Maillard, I am starting to feel that I don’t have to be either (and inevitably ‘fail’ at either), just the person that feels best to me. (I think I’ve officially given up on the attractiveness question, since not having found someone even to kiss by the age of 35 means it’s unlikely to happen now). So I think I might get my hair cut shorter again, and try and look people in the eye (acne scars, weird neck stubble and all) rather than hide behind it. I suspect I’ll still to an extent be read as cis female due to my social anxiety behaviours – anyone got any thoughts on the role of demeanour in gendering?

    Sorry for splurging, by the way – overexcitement at finding like minds…

  • Hey,
    autistic and nonbinary, so I apologize if I didn’t post this to the right forum or place. However, I did want to spit out a few things about myself and my experiences in case it might be useful for anyone who is researching or wanting to learn about nonbinary people and what sort of experiences they’ve had in life. I guess a few things about myself that might help me realize or identify myself as one would be:

    Wearing men’s clothes. Ever since high school I tend to shop in the men’s section just because I seem to like their “styles” better and feel more comfortable in their clothes. I remember one time in high school, I was wearing a shirt and some girl told me that I was wearing the same shirt of a boy in school.

    Dressing up as a guy for a school Halloween dance. We wore masks so it was easier to hide my gender at the dance. My name was Zeph, and a few of my friends played along with me. I was apparently a cousin of one of my friends who played along, and she told them that I was from out of town. Apparently, if I was a guy, I would have a cute butt. I even slow danced with a few girls and one of them even asked my friend (whom I was a cousin of) if I would be her out of town long distance boyfriend. Lol!

    As a kid, I tried to pee in a lake standing up, a behavior that might not seem “normal” for a girl.

    I tried to take Viagra once, and I actually got the side effects! A runny nose and a killer headache. I think the reason for this is due to having autism. Females with autism are known to have higher amounts of testosterone.

    I participated in a few alternative spirituality meditation type classes. For some of the exercises, they have males do some exercises with their hand to the right and females have thier hand to the left side….I either refused to do the exercise and walk out of the class or I did the exercise with my hand in the MIDDLE, refusing to choose one side or the other….or else I alternated by moving my hand back and forth from one side to the other.

    Also, I went to a channel service for spirituality called the Sistrum. One of the channels told me that I had been a man, a woman, and died as a young child a few times in my previous lives.

    Going through puberty, I was petrified. I couldn’t look at myself naked because I was so afraid to develop (breasts) and very afraid of getting my period. To cope, I would take showers in the dark with a swim suit on. Yes, that’s right, a swim suit and do this at 5:30 am for years probably starting around 7th grade til college. I don’t know how I got the courage to shower naked or see myself naked for the first time after going through puberty but magically it just seemed to happen one day. Also, I was petrified of getting my period. When I first got it, I tried to deny it and pretend I didn’t have it and wear black pants so you could see anything…twasn’t really working well….so then, after a few days I created a system where I’d grab a pad, a brown paper bag, and close my eyes whenever I’d change my pad and put it in a brown paper bag so that nobody or myself could see. Just like with the showers, I eventually was able to come to easier terms with this and now don’t have to use brown paper bags. Ironically, after I lost my virginity, I was able to use tampons and dispose of them in a regular fashion, with my eyes open.

    As a child in elementary school, I had crushes on both boys and girls. Because of the message society gave us, I didn’t realize this at the time and only thought I had crushes on boys…thinking that it was normal to fantasize about girls just like I did boys. I just thought “they were pretty” and even gave one girl a note saying how I felt. It wasn’t til later on in life that I actually realized that I had crushes on both men and women. However, the idea that one is supposed to be “heterosexual” was so strong that it did drown out my instincts of having both male and female crushes by the time I hit 5th grade, so that I didn’t have female crushes really after the 4th grade and remember only having male crushes.

    I tell people that I boycott purses and high heels…I carry a duct tape wallet that I made myself with tennis shoes. I’ve worn a dress with men’s swim suit trunks. I’ve worn a nut cup before to see what that feels like. I tend to be tomboy in nature. some traditional
    female hobbies, I hardly do or am not known for doing those things such as cooking, sewing, shopping, etc. My mind is more so mentally like a male ( but like a female as well) in the “traditional” sense of gender roles and identities….for instance, I’m better at math than I am at language. However, I don’t wish to be identified with my 23rd chromosomes. I wish to be identified as a soul, a spirit, or an individual with a human body…not a male or a female with a soul. This tends to be the way of society in many aspects beyond gender. They notice the physical body and hardly ever really see the soul inside of it. I sometimes say that humans are like “Christmas” or “birthday” presents. Many people look at the wrapping or judge a present by how beautifully it is wrapped (wrapping = the physical body) rather than opening up the present to see the real beauty of the gift inside (the human soul) for what it really is. I wish more people would realize this concept and not value a person’s worth on the skins of their physical body rather than the actual soul, their essence or who they really are as individuals.
    Just like artwork, I look at strangers as a blank canvas. I know nothing about them, so why paint myself a picture of a stranger that I’ve never met with the usual stereotypes based on their skins. In order to avoid discriminating/ stereotyping/ assuming who they are, I try to wait to get to know the person before I paint a picture…who knows if the picture is ever finished however. Perhaps, it’s never finished like the Mona Lisa, because souls infinitely never stop growing and changing over time…
    Adria Sorensen

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