You Need Help: How Do I Know If I’m Really Non-Binary?

Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection. Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection.

Q:

Dear website that has saved my queer life, this another “How Do I Know”-type question.

I am someone who has been struggling with gender identity for longer than I probably realized at first. Sometimes I end up doing the maths (hmmm I kinda disassociate when I see the female pronoun in my Twitter bio or am addressed as my first language’s equivalent of Ms and can’t see myself wearing a dress or longer hair ever again BUT I also end up with a deep writhing sense of discomfort and angst when wearing “too” masculine clothing or when somebody once even suggested the idea of doing male drag, etc.) and kind of end up thinking that nonbinary may be the solution even though I know full well that, only based on this, that’s not how any of that works.

Nb also sometimes seems to be a way of understanding my own queerness and how I relate to the people I have dated and/or desired. There’s definitely ~something~ there, and perhaps that should be enough of a sign, just like when you come to terms with your sexuality and realize after the fact that no, not ALL people have these questions, because some people are, in fact, straight.

Now, I want to make clear that I do not dream of denying that nb/genderqueer/fluid/… people exist and are 100% valid. I am just finding it damn hard to figure out whether I fall into this. For me personally, I can’t help but have a lingering sense that this is really just what you get when you think about gender long enough? Like, once you have internalized gender as a construct, isn’t it inevitable that something about realizing the arbitrariness of these roles would make you disassociate from them? Have I simply deconstructed myself and ended up with nothing to hold onto, leaving me desperate for identity?

I thought for the longest time that I didn’t need an answer to this question, but here we are.

Thank you,

Aren’t We All Tired

A:

Hi Aren’t We All Tired!

Yes, we’re all tired. Here’s the thing – from someone who once identified as a man, and once identified as non-binary, and now identifies as a trans woman, and is considering whether I’m on the asexual spectrum, and maybe won’t always identify this way or any other way and reserves for herself the freedom to change her mind and how she identifies – it’s OK to not know, and it doesn’t have to be a huge deal, even though I am certain it feels like it’s so necessary and important to land on An Identity.

There is no “solution” to gender identity. It’s all a construct; non-binary has no discrete meaning outside of our gender binary, and it will likely never feel like it “fits” perfectly. It’s just a word, a label, something we try to use to make sense of our lives and selves, but it’s only useful as long as it’s … useful. You say that “that’s not how any of that works,” but what you’ve described is, for many people, exactly how all of it works! A lot of people come to understand their non-binary and/or trans identity through the exact process you’ve gone through. Some come to it through completely different processes. There’s no one right way to be non-binary or trans. Some people feel like it’s really about their sexuality. Some people think it has nothing to do with their sexuality and is strictly about their own relationship to gender. However you approach it is OK.

By the way: lots of straight and/or cisgender people do have these questions, too – it doesn’t have to mean anything, but if it does for you, great! If not, also fine! Tons of people have done exactly what you’re talking about here – pondered the arbitrariness of the gender binary and its constructs for so long that they don’t even fully understand what it all means or how they fit into it – and some of them realize they’re non-binary or trans and some realize they aren’t. Some decide to stop caring. Some can’t (I’m in the “can’t,” group, by the way, right there with you).

The key to me is that you feel desperate and feel that you need an answer and need an identity. That sounds like this question is causing you distress, which means it is something worth trying to come to peace with. You’re already stressed out about it, so spending some time really trying to really figure it out can’t stress you out too much more. Maybe you’ll find out you’re non-binary – maybe you’ll find out you’re not. Either option is a good thing to know! Maybe you’ll realize you’ll just always be confused. That’s pretty normal, to be honest, and if you get there after some deep introspection, you’ll be more ready to just make peace with it, I think.

So why not try it out? Try out non-binary pronouns with your friends and loved ones. Try changing your Twitter bio. See how it feels. Try buying a shirt or something that feels right to you but that you don’t feel like you should normally be wearing because “women” don’t wear that, or whatever (but remember that you don’t have to be non-binary to like, dress androgynous or masculine. Or to do or be anything, really. We’re all free to live however we want, no matter our labels). Read a bunch of non-binary content on Autostraddle. See how it feels. Think about dating people as a non-binary person, how you’d think about your relationship, how you’d feel within it. Think of yourself and envision yourself as non-binary. Imagine someone referring to you that way. How does it feel? Try some of the things recommended in this YNH from a couple years ago. Sometimes that’s the only way to really understand it.

A lot of us think and/or are taught that “trying on” identities is somehow offensive to people in those communities, or that you have to just know or else you’re not trans enough or something. I didn’t realize I was trans until I was nearly 25 years old, and I felt guilty for years that I wasn’t doing things right. Or that if I was really trans, I would have known since I was a child (“Born This Way” rhetoric sure didn’t help). But that’s all bullshit! Human beings are in a constant process of figuring themselves out their entire lives. The loving people in your life will be so pumped that you’re going through this process, and will be ready to support you in doing so however it ends up looking. Other people will be skeptical and/or dismissive or will want you to “pick a side” or something. Those people are toxic; ignore them.

We have to allow ourselves the space and freedom to try things out, to explore, to expand, transform, move forward and backward and in circles, to find ourselves right where we started but with more wisdom. One of the core transphobic ideas many of us have internalized is that being trans is a problematic, negative experience that any reasonable person would avoid (or prevent their children from experiencing) unless they are absolutely sure it’s the right move. But being trans or non-binary honestly isn’t that big of a deal – you don’t have to be “sure” and it’s not a permanent state of affairs. Our culture sure treats it like it is, but you’re still you no matter what your gender is or if it changes. You don’t have to do things different or feel different or be different to be trans. You just exist, with slightly more information about who you are.

It’s possible to be very tired about *gestures at the state of the planet* and also be non-binary. It’s possible to have all of the gender feels and still be cis. It’s possible for none of this to ever make sense. It’s possible to live a fulfilling, wonderful life without ever getting your gender settled.

I hope you arrive at some clarity, but I also hope that it’s comforting to know that you don’t ever have to get there and you’ll still be fine and valid and loved. Good luck.

Abeni


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Abeni Jones

Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA.

Abeni has written 70 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. I’ve gone through this train of thought more times than I can count. I identify as a nonbinary woman because I’ve been socialized as a woman and that’s had really deep impacts on how I move through the world and how I relate to other people / myself, but I don’t relate to womanhood *as a gender* and prefer no pronouns (although I actually like she/her better than they/them when pronouns are necessary, for various reasons, which may change but who knows).

    I enjoy dressing anywhere from androgynous to feminine based on my mood. It took me a long time to be comfortable with the fact that I identify as nonbinary, and sometimes want a feminine presentation, and don’t relate to common nonbinary pronouns like they/them. But what’s been helpful has been really thinking about how arbitrary it all is, and deciding quite intentionally that it’s okay for me to reject the gender binary AND live my life however I want, including occasionally in ways that are often socialized as belonging to womanhood.

  2. Very interesting question and answer!

    The last paragraph is something I’ve been dealing with myself too. I got so confused and thought it was all just because of the way I see gender as a construct. After a lot of reading I think I just don’t have very strong gender feelings. But I often relate to feminine archetypes and I’m okay with my appearance and pronouns so I guess “female” will do. It is very common for people on the autistic spectrum to have some sort of gender diversity and I read some stories that resonated with me.

    @aren‘t we all tired: hope you will find your answers! And they don’t have to be the same every time. Sending some virtual love <3

    • Echoing the autistic gender thoughts! Very connected for me.

      I started talking to my partner about my maybe non-binary feels around fall 2020. Flash forward to spring 2021, turns out we’re both Autistic+ADHD (hat tip to TikTok for the heads up)! Figuring out that I’m autistic was like getting glasses for the first time, or the switch from regular TV to HD – suddenly everything makes sense, including my gender identity. While I’m open to whatever changes life has in store for the future, for now, trans non-binary “woman”* works for me!

      * (quotes required if woman is used)

  3. I love this advice, for so many of us there is a fear of just trying things because we are told that you have to know 100% of who you are in terms of gender/sexuality in order to declare it. And then if you try it and find out that it doesn’t fit, you are seen as a failure or as evidence that gay/bi/trans people don’t really exist. That’s just too much pressure to put on one person who is just trying to be their whole self. Maybe you’ll find that non-binary identity opens up a bunch of wonderful possibilities. Or maybe you’ll learn that it doesn’t suit you, in which case, no harm done.

    • Abeni, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I often feel uncomfortable supplying pronouns for myself because when I think about gender identity I’m in the same boat as the letter writer; I don’t “feel” innately a gender and I wonder if I just don’t have one. I like the paragraph where you say there is no solution to gender identity and that ultimately words like “non-binary” are labels which may or may not be useful. I also appreciate your line, “human beings are in a constant process of figuring themselves out their entire lives” because I feel like that’s so true and isn’t said enough!

      When people ask my pronouns I’ve taken to saying that I’m okay with anything, and honestly it’s been liberating not to label myself because it gives me the freedom to explore!

  4. I really appreciate what you say about viewing your sexuality through a nonbinary lens. Gender can be deeply felt and a strong internal sense, but in my experience the main ways we actually encounter gender day to day are all relational. The first hint that I knew I wasn’t a woman was that I very much wanted to date people, but the idea of being someone’s “girlfriend” was distressing to me. I think many people don’t necessarily have a strong sense of gender, including cis people- but your comfort in relational gender can be a guide to whether you want to take more steps to align with your growing and developing sense of self. Lots of love from this genderqueer human <3

  5. The point is that, besides being already complex by nature, gender issues are still impregnated by our society’s notions of binarity and heteronormativity, which imposes that everything has a label.
    Understanding one’s own identity is, most of the times, an impossible task to complete in life, even for cis or trans binary people, let alone non-binary ones.
    I loved Abeni’s reflections because they remind me that not knowing or not understanding does not necessarily, or at all, represent something negative.

    Jessa C.

  6. This is one of the best takes I’ve ever heard on non-binary questioning. I’ve gone through a lot of what “tired” mentions, and your response really comforted and helped me. Thank you.

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