Being non-binary or genderqueer is inherently kind of confusing because it depends on not identifying with a gender. Therefore, its definitions are wide and varying and complex. Here’s how just a few of us on staff think about what it means to call ourselves non-binary. Guess what? Our definitions are wildly different!
Alaina, Staff Writer
Non-binary is the easiest way for me to publicly recognize that my gender is not woman or man or anything really, and so I keep it around. For now. But like, what does it mean? I don’t know! It means that my gender is not on the binary. Which is not very specific at all. Very unhelpful, indeed. I’m not a woman, and I’m not a man and it’s not because either of those are wrong, or too rigid it’s just because they’re not me. They fit uncomfortably. I want my gender to at least sorta fit.
I’m re-evaluating an LGBTQ+ and feminist glossary for my school this semester, and something I keep struggling with is that we define gender as something that has to do with your innermost self. And like, I don’t know, maybe I’m too much of a Gemini or whatever, but my innermost self changes literally hourly. How could I expect to find a gender that expresses that? I just want to be able to exist and like be a person who is just themselves and is only seen as that, an individual human being. Non-binary is the closest I’m getting to being able to talk about myself in that way.
I think being non-binary, or really just being any marginalized identity at all, is inherently political, and therefore I think my identity is tied to political and social movements like feminism.There has to be a way for us to still be able to center and uplift women while also recognizing that people who aren’t women suffer under misogyny and the patriarchy. And like, everything isn’t for me, I get that. But sometimes, it feels like there are those who try to push me out due of spite. As if my choice to live my truth as someone who doesn’t want to accept a gender or a binary makes me a threat towards feminism. Sometimes there is a need for space to be held that is woman-specific, and I’m fine with that, and it also feels important to me that feminism not be reduced to “uplifting women,” at the cost of excluding other non-men who suffer under harmful systems. But saying these things out loud feels wrong, like my politics are wrong or something. I just know that I had a girlhood, and it was a good girlhood for the most part, and I aligned myself with girls, and learned how to become an adult from queer women, and that one day, queer women helped me feel comfortable enough to say out loud that I didn’t feel like a woman anymore. So of course I feel connected to them. I love women and want to build community with them. I want the definition of feminism to be about the liberation of all people from misogynistic patriarchal conventions. We all need that, regardless of where we lie or don’t lie on a binary.
Even though it’s not perfect, being able to identify as non-binary has been freeing. A professor sent out a departmental email a while ago and used they/them when she referred to me and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since then. I have colleagues who’ve corrected other people when I wasn’t even there. Sometimes I’m able to be seen and then, just for a minute, I don’t feel like some ghost in a body that wasn’t meant for me.
Cee, Tech Director
I’m definitely not an expert on this, but my understanding of nonbinary is simply someone who exists outside the two option male/female gender binary.
My gender has always been a bit different. I was an artsy tomboyish nature kid who liked to read and harass amphibians. I started to question my sexuality in 1994, in high school. During that time I loved playing with gendered clothing, mixing vintage dresses with knee high combat boots, and started wearing men’s clothes as a teenager. I always felt gender was an optional thing you could participate in however you wanted, if you felt like it, like a daily performance art. I tried to redefine what it meant to be a woman, and felt gender non-conformity was essentially freedom from the strict rules of gender, which I felt were made up anyway. I couldn’t understand why so many people were so caught up in subscribing to gender roles – it felt like they were all operating on autopilot.
I thought for years and years that’s just what it means to be queer. Queers always play with gender, right? Gender doesn’t work the same for us. But as words evolved and new words to describe identities popped up like genderqueer and nonbinary, I began to notice queer friends who did indeed feel very comfortable in their prescribed genders and saw no need to push the boundaries. I started to see other queer friends that happily existed within this gender binary. I saw femme friends feel very themselves in heels and dresses (and look fantastic while doing it). I started to see butch women who strongly identified as women. And I realized that not every gender nonconforming queer woman has issues with her body being feminine, or experiences dysphoria. It made me think more about my own gender – why if I wear those same clothes do I feel deeply uncomfortable and feel like I’m acting a part in a play? Perhaps being queer doesn’t automatically mean feeling out of place with the gender binary and your position on it after all? While that may be the case for some or most queers with binary identities, it isn’t the case for every queer. So, I now identify as genderqueer/non binary, and I’m thankful for the new vocabulary to describe myself.
I’ve also never felt the need to bring attention to my chest, and felt really uncomfortable in anything that showed cleavage or wearing womens bathing suits. I slowly realized that’s not the same experience for everyone. The more androgynous or masculine I dress, the more if offsets the femininity people read in me to create a bit of neutrality. The more people interact with and see me the way I feel I am inside, the more comfortable I feel in my skin.
I decided to do something to help with my dysphoria, and several months ago I had top surgery. It took me several years of back and forth to finally make a decision and do it. I’m so glad I finally did – I’m looking forward to my first summer where I don’t have to spend so much energy blocking out and ignoring a part of my body. I’m pretty excited about the idea of wearing tank tops with wide sleeves, long necklaces, and getting a tattoo on my chest — things I’d never do before, as it would have drawn attention to that part of my body. I feel like I have all of this new space on my body I have claimed as mine.
About 5 or 6 years ago when I first heard “they” being used as a singular pronoun it felt weird. I was always in support for gender neutral pronouns – but “they” as singular felt odd for use with one known person. Over time, and use, it became very normal to me, and I grew to love it. Now I’m a big defender of the singular “they” pronoun, identify strongly with “they”, and prefer my friends use it for me. And being part of those folks who are changing and evolving language is fun.
A year ago I changed my name legally to Cee, a nickname I’ve used for almost 20 years. I always loved it because it was gender neutral. I no longer have to cringe when my old name is called at the doctor’s office, or anywhere else. My name on my driver’s license is my real name. It’s freeing.
I don’t really feel like I fit in non-queer women’s spaces. I feel like I’m intruding on a “ladies happy hour” or “ladies who tech” space. I cringe when someone calls me a lady, so why would I put myself in a ladies space? I never really felt like I fit in in those spaces to being with, so that hasn’t changed since I came out. I still do feel connected and like I fit in queer spaces, as long as they are not women only spaces. Most spaces like this that I end up in are the “no cis men” or “gender minority” spaces.
Not to start off on the wrong foot, but I’m terrified that everything I’m about to write is wrong. I am a white, afab, spilled-glitter-on-my-tie-of-center, liberal arts-educated human with money in savings and a Toyota Corolla. What gives me the fuckin’ right, ya know? Like, I fully expect everyone else to assume I don’t have any real problems so I’m inventing a gender crisis to seem interesting. I’m not doing that, but listen, it took me three years of kissing girls to come out as bi because I assumed that all girls felt that way when they kissed other girls. It’s taken me a lot longer to embrace the word genderqueer; I assumed all women felt deeply ambivalent about being women. For the first quarter-century of my life I lived into the idea that “being a girl can mean whatever I want it to mean,” and I did whatever I wanted and cut my hair short a bunch of times (but never said I wanted a boy’s haircut, always a pixie — always one centimeter and a razor fade from having my head look how I really wanted it to). At my first A-Camp, all that suddenly felt like punkass bullshit. I saw people with all kinds of haircuts and bodies and dance moves using all kinds of pronouns, all kinds of language to describe their heartbeats. It made me want more. It made me want all of it. A few months later someone I briefly, deeply loved used gender-neutral pronouns for me, and that was the ballgame.
To be clear, being a girl can mean whatever you want it to mean. I know that in the venn diagram of gender there are many women who share many characteristics with me. I don’t feel the desire to reject the identity of “woman” completely, but I have decentered it in my understanding of my identity and the way I view the world. It feels more and more alien when people call me “ma’am” or “lady” or “miss,” which happens a lot here in Texas. That language is so far from the way I see myself that it makes my brain hurt trying to figure out how other people still see me that way. I don’t feel totally comfortable identifying as trans, but the gender I was assigned at birth is pretty useless to me, a skin-tight costume I grew out of very quickly and have finally thrown in the dumpster. Sometimes I get stuck on the idea that if I call myself trans, I am taking up space or power from others, especially trans women of color, who need it so much more than I do. Then I feel like a real asshole when I remember my brilliant, generous non-binary trans friends. This Autostraddle community reminds me that there is enough space for all of us, and we can do so much to build each other’s power.
I’m still at the teeny tiny beginning of being “out” as genderqueer/non-binary or whatever the heck it is that I am. I’m a damn wimp and really have no idea how to talk to cis straight people about my gender. She/her pronouns don’t make me feel much of anything, positive or negative. They/them pronouns make my heart click together, make my legs stop shaking in their subconscious effort to burn off my endless anxiety. But the psychological peril of trying to explain that to people all the time makes me want to hide under the bed with the monsters. I’m still learning, and I’m still trying. For now, I call myself genderqueer and tell people I trust about my pronouns. I’m giving myself more grace. I frequently quote a line from The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson about how it’s important to create new language, but we must also relish the complexities of context and embrace “the wings with which each word can fly.” My words are growing wings, and so am I.
For me personally, gender helps me match my inner feelings with an outer expression. I think my notion of gender is weaved into my practice of identifying as a witch, or my concept of spirituality. With spells, for example, I’m trying to actively call-in a certain energy into my life. I’ll do a new moon ritual to try and attract confidence and courage, and then I’ll find myself on a day-to-day basis enacting the desire of that ritual through gender expression and performance. Like, for example, I have three kinds of queer femme that I find myself rotating through, one of which is “Knife-Licking Femme,” a gender expression which is simultaneously the hottest and scariest version of femme I perform. It’s like, she’s not a Scorpio but at the same time, is she? For this past Aries new moon, I found myself expressing myself more through this version of femme, which helped me enact some of my desires to bring fierceness and courage into my life. Then I also have “Glitter Witch Femme,” and “Cyber Femme,” which help me bring other energies into my life.
I don’t ever really feel masculine in a full-grown-man sense, but I do have two prominent boyish gender presentations, which are some combination of “Child in a Miyazaki Film” and/or “Futuristic Ash Ketchum.” These actually feel more tied to personal identity, and interestingly, racial identity. I’m Japanese but I’ve always been alienated from that part of myself. I think in expressing these two boyish, playful, rebellious tomboy identities I’m trying to embody the energy of my Japanese grandmother who I’ve had to get to know through my pieced together recollections of her. I remember she always had this really playful, mischievous, secretive but lighthearted energy. But it’s really hard for me to embody the authentic part of myself that feels playful, boyish and lighthearted. In fact, I really surprised myself when I began expressing myself this way. It took me a while, actually, to realize that this gender expression reminded me of the energy of my grandmother. So in this way, gender feels like a canvas for self-discovery in ways that are surprisingly significant beyond myself. Not to get too far-out, but I truly believe that people who are alienated from their culture still have inherent remnants of their ancestor’s spirits in their own bodies. And for me, gender expression has been a way for me to discover that story in myself, name it, and embody it. In this way, I think experimenting with gender can help someone resist not only the alienation they feel from their own body, but the alienation they feel from other parts of themselves as well.
Then I have more neutral gender expressions that I rotate through when I have to roll my eyes at the world and tread invisibly through it, which are something like “Cis-Passing Art Hoe,” or “Neutral Cis-Passing Take Me Seriously I’m A Capricorn Rising.” This is usually what I’m doing when I go to work at my server job, or on the off-chance I go to an art gallery opening to “network” or something (barf), where I know there will be hot, wealthy people surrounding me. In these moments, my internalized shit just throws its arms up in exasperation and gives up, and I deal with the situation by just invisibly passing as one of the many blah cis stereotypes. Funnily enough though, in terms of “ gender performance,” these gender expressions feel the most like a costume that I wear to the fun “participate in capitalism & survive in the world” themed party.
One thing that I know for sure about my gender is that I’m not a woman. I haven’t fully formed my thoughts about why I feel this way. I feel comfortable with so many other words: boy, prince, femme, and I’m even okay with being called a girl. But the word “woman” doesn’t work for me. I don’t make a big deal about this though, because I know it’s complicated, obviously. I’m really riled up about “women’s rights issues,” like reproductive justice, but even then I’m super critical of the categorization of the notion of women’s rights. Like I straight-up don’t think reproductive justice is a “women’s rights” issue, because, for example, these issues affect not only me but so many other more marginalized folks who don’t identify as women. But I know that “woman” is the word we need to organize around in order to be recognizable and enact change in any way on a legislative level (and even then, it looks like it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves, sigh, sob, scream-with-my-mouth-closed-all-day-everyday).
Tiara, Staff Writer
My sense of gender is very similar to Vi Hart’s in that I don’t really feel all that strongly about my gender – ‘gender agnostic’ is a great term. I was assigned female at birth, and that’s how most of the world is going to parse me as, so ¯_(ツ)_/¯. I have noticed a lot more fluidity in the past year or so, even developing a male alter ego, though I’m still grumpy that that alter ego is often what people needed to really see me as non-binary. And frankly, I have given up on being more assertive about my non-binary gender situation.
Despite knowing I was some kind of ‘androgynous’ since I was a teenager in the early 2000s when all I had was the Mx honorific (even before I came to terms with my sexuality), I found that people – particularly other queer and non-binary people – didn’t really take me all that seriously. I had the alternative lifestyle haircut sometimes, but that wasn’t enough. I didn’t bind, didn’t dress masculine all that often (outside the aforementioned alterego), didn’t do or wear all the other things my fellow non-binary friends did to flag their gender – even though the straight cis world is confused enough about my gender to keep calling me ‘Sir’ even when I’m dressed as feminine as possible (no thanks, Singapore Airlines). About the only time I really make a deal of it is when I sign up for apps and they allow a Non-Binary gender option.
If other non-binary people won’t remember or recognise me as non-binary, and if my non-binariness has no material consequences (it’s not like my ID changes), then what’s the point?
As someone who hates processing with words but isn’t afraid to process my shit through art, I’ve drawn about my genderqueer body and how I relate to this fleshpile that I inhabit. For so much of my life, I’ve felt like a stranger, a visitor, an invader and a voyeur in my skin. It took me years to figure out that maybe I’m genderqueer. In fact, in fear of sounding old, it is WILD that this is a word you can Google now! That it’s in the dictionary! I am so envious of those who are able to name their feelings with the help of the internet, although TBH, it’s not like naming feelings or your gender will instantly make everything better.
It was years of feeling this feeling before realizing that maybe I was feeling dysphoria. And then what! I had to come out and tell people! I explained what non-binary meant over and over again! I taught everyone close to me how to use a new pronoun. I had to listen to folks who I thought loved and cared for me explain the plethora of stubborn and stupid reasons why they wouldn’t use they/them pronouns. I got so frustrated and often wondered if this was even worth it. I felt like such a bother! I felt like THAT person! I felt so needy! For someone as sex-driven as I was, sex was difficult. If I had to explain to one more person I tried to hook up with what a binder was or that I didn’t want my chest touched I was Going! To! Freak! Out! I now know how common and universal these feelings are. At the time though, they felt overwhelming. And lonely.
But it got better, in some sense, in some ways, over time, with patience-for myself and others- and a thick skin. I eventually learned to enjoy baths again. I moved. I found new friends. Work was harder because, to make money, we so often have to play the capitalist’s game, which means fitting into the comfy boxes others have set out for us. Even at my crappy jobs, I learned the skill of finding that ONE person/queer who got it. Eventually folks sought me out – I was the one person/queer in their life who got it. I was able to find folks, online at first, and later in life, who saw me, felt like me, and who fucked me the way I needed. I used my zines and comics to explain myself so I didn’t have to use my words. I discovered and learned a way to do androgyny that wasn’t focused on imitating the male, where skirts/long hair/makeup/glitter/mesh/leather are not in opposition to being genderqueer, that felt like a political statement, a way of protest, as well as a way to find home and comfort in my skin. Especially during these political times, it’s vital to be able to be our authentic selves.
I feel lucky and challenged that I’m able to still express my ever-changing and growing gender-feels in monthly comics drawn for this very unnamed website. Honestly, learning to be flexible with myself and my gender expression is so healthy for me. Allowing myself room to play and stretch and experiment with my gender (and sexuality) enabled me to get not just a solid sense of who I am, but what my body wants and needs (especially as it changes with time/age). Like gender, the processing of our genders is not linear. It’s important to have a community, or art, or books, or online spaces where we remind ourselves that we’re not alone in this process.