I look like what you think a woman looks like.
Okay, that’s not fair. I don’t actually know you. What I really mean is: Every time I leave my apartment, someone calls me “miss” or “ma’am” or “lady,” even in trans-inclusive spaces. I am invited without hesitation and accepted without question into women’s circles. I offer my pronouns and receive immediate reassurance: I am welcome, my truth is welcome, my pronouns are welcome. Plenty of women who don’t look like me aren’t granted the same courtesy. Women in many of my friend groups casually refer to our group as “ladies” or “women” or, at one point, “girl gang.” Occasionally they remember me and apologize after the fact. More often, it doesn’t occur to them. I don’t blame any individual person for this. It happens with everyone, regardless of their heritage or gender. If I met me, I’d assume I was a woman, too.
It’s obvious that there’s an F on my birth certificate. My cheeks are full and rosy, my body all curves and flare: narrow waist, broad hips, small but prominent breasts. (Extra prominent because bras give me dysphoria.) For some people, that’s more than enough to make the assumption.
For others, it’s the long hair. Long nails. Long, flowy, colorful clothes. My wardrobe is a mess of odds and ends. In cold weather, I mostly wear black pants and men’s shirts, while the warm weather brings out a sea of colors and patterns. My favorite skirt reminds me of a garden: it is a long, shining green wrap skirt, plain on one side, shimmering with blossoms on the other. Mostly I wear pants, even in summer, but they are loose and brightly patterned, which Americans also associate with women’s clothes.
And the assumptions run deeper than how I look. I love cooking, and especially feeding people. I love talking to people about their feelings. (I’m a ghostwriter and a somatic coach, which means I spend a lot of time being paid to talk about people’s feelings.) I love kids and bunnies and lilacs. I swing my hips when I dance. I sing often and laugh loudly and cuddle frequently. I am the classic Mom Friend, complete with the constant exhortations to stay hydrated. Of course, none of these are exclusive to women, but they are certainly associated with them.
As an AFAB person in the U.S., being seen as nonbinary requires being seen as masculine. A rigid, colorless form of masculinity, defined primarily by what it’s not. Skirts, not allowed. Flowers, not allowed. Softness, not allowed.
Masculinity in India looks very different. Certainly, there are requirements and restrictions, probably more than I’ll ever be privy to, as someone neither raised in India nor treated as a man. But I’ve observed that men in India are expected to be expressive in ways men in America are not: to laugh, to dance, to hug.
My loud, muscular dad has always been considered manly. Like me, he sings often and is aggressively hospitable — in India, these are seen as masculine traits. (Women are also expected to be hospitable, but not aggressive about it.) My dad also takes great pride in filling his backyard with colorful roses, and no one has ever questioned the manliness of that.
Plenty of my colorful, flowing clothes are men’s clothes from India or Thailand. I have bright kurtas, Indian men’s tunics, and loose men’s pants from Thailand patterned with feathers or elephants that are also popular in India. In the U.S. these would be considered feminine, but in India they are somewhere between masculine and gender-neutral.
Indeed, to my family in India, I am shockingly unfeminine. I’m not as social as women are expected to be; I don’t say yes as often as women should. And I certainly don’t engage in any of the endless grooming and dressing expected of women. Even my long, wavy hair is considered unfeminine, because I neither straighten nor curl it.
If the aesthetic of masculinity in the U.S. is often defined by what is not allowed, the aesthetic of femininity in India is defined by what is required: makeup, “hygiene” (which could better be described as a war on hair), modesty, fitted clothes.
My nieces and their moms are always asking why I don’t do the things women do. Questions like: Why don’t you tweeze your eyebrows? Why don’t you wear makeup? Why don’t you dress up? Why don’t you shave? Why do you sit like that? Why do you travel alone? Why do you say ‘no’ so much?
Of course, they don’t consider the possibility that I’m nonbinary. India legally has three genders, and a broad swath of identities fit into India’s third gender, but the assumption by cisgender people is that the third gender primarily consists of AMAB people who present in a feminine way — a box I don’t fit into at all.
I used to ask questions back: Why not? Why should I? Why do you?
The answer tended to be, Because you’re/I’m/we’re A GIRL, so I stopped asking.
When I was a kid, it was easy. I wore shorts and a t-shirt, cropped my hair short, rode a bicycle. My little brother called me bhai — big brother. No one questioned this: if there’s one thing Americans and Indians seemed to agree on, it’s that a tomboy phase is no big deal, as long as you grow out of it.
The struggles started around puberty. I successfully argued out of wearing makeup, and I (briefly) surrendered to wearing bras, but the biggest battleground was jeans. I hated them. They itched, they pinched, they reminded me that my body was changing without permission. My dad took me shopping regularly for jeans, and I hated all of them. Sometimes they were too tight on my hips, sometimes they were too baggy on my legs, sometimes they fit perfectly, and I had no vocabulary yet to explain why that was the most uncomfortable of all. To this day, jeans feel like prison. They also, for reasons I’ve never been able to articulate, feel like gender.
I went to college on the other side of the country. Suddenly I had no family around to tell me how I was supposed to look. My campus had an enormous queer population, and maybe as a result of that, many of the cis straight people also freely experimented with clothes and gender expression. For the first time, I could look however I wanted. But I already had clothes, and no money to buy new ones, so I didn’t change my look overnight: I just put away the clothes I particularly hated, especially the jeans.
My best friend, a white cis girl who rarely wears makeup, who wears her hair long because it makes her feel like a princess and always paints one nail a different color than the others because Cosmo told her it would pop (it took months for me to figure out if she was being facetious), introduced me to the joy of long skirts. The first time she lent me one of hers, it was a revelation: a floor-length peasant skirt with enormous rainbow stripes. It was soft and colorful and it fit, no matter what shape I was. I remember standing in the college courtyard, spinning and spinning, and marveling at how the fabric lifted and fell, never restricting my movement or clinging to any curves I wasn’t comfortable remembering I had. To this day, floor-length skirts feel like freedom.
For years of college, I borrowed her clothes regularly. She bought me a floor-length peasant skirt similar to hers, in bi flag colors, and I romped around in it gleefully, even in the winter, over very thick leggings. I tore and re-stitched it many times before fully wrecking it during a snowball fight, stomping right through it with my boot as I clambered out of a pile of snow. I was oddly delighted by the loss: what a fun way for a skirt to die.
When we graduated, my friend bought me the beautiful green wrap skirt that is my favorite piece of clothing. I haven’t torn it yet, but if I do, I hope it’s for an equally fun reason.
I never really wanted to come out as nonbinary. I’d already gone through the exhaustion of being an AFAB bisexual with a cis boyfriend and of being a person with multiple invisible disabilities and of being multiracial but not quite looking like any of those races. I didn’t especially want to go through defending one more aspect of my identity.
Then my office started asking us to put pronouns in our email signatures and to introduce our pronouns at the beginning of meetings. It had been easy enough to just never say anything one way or another, but actually writing she/her felt like a betrayal of something deep. So I put they/them at the end of every signature, introduced my pronouns as they/them at the beginning of every meeting.
No one treated me any differently, mostly because no one seemed to believe me. In my theoretically queer-friendly office, no one ever remembered my pronouns on the first try. When people listed the women in the office, my name was inevitably mentioned. My very last email to my former boss, sent after I had already resigned, was the single line, “Friendly reminder that my pronouns are they/them and have been for over two years now.”
Of course, I tried the short hair and the men’s clothes. I was pretty into them, especially when my hair was just the right length to go fwoop whenever I shook my head. But the part I wasn’t into was not wearing skirts for a full year. I missed them. I missed color. I felt restricted again, in a way I hadn’t since high school. My plain black pants always felt too tight. When summer came, I looked at people in lovely flowing skirts, purple and pink and tiger-striped, and wished I was wearing them.
And then I got mad at myself, because who was stopping me? Theoretically, coming out as nonbinary should have meant freedom, but I’d just shoved myself into a different box, desperate to feel like a “real” nonbinary person the way I’d never felt like a real woman.
So I took my skirts back out.
Coming out to my friends was a relatively easy process. My friend group is mostly Ashkenazi and East Asian, mostly queer, and heavily nonbinary. Some of them forget my pronouns more often than others, but most of them remember most of the time. Only one friend actually said to my face that she didn’t believe me: she said I just didn’t like the restrictions that come with being a woman. As far as I’m aware, no one likes the restrictions that come with being a woman.
Slowly, steadily, beautifully, people across the world are fighting to shift the boundaries of what masculinity and femininity look like. They’re fighting to acknowledge that masculinity is not exclusive to men, nor femininity to women. Some will say nonbinary people hurt that cause: that by rejecting the gender assigned to us, we’re rejecting the battle to broaden gender for everyone. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I reject this argument. Prescriptive, exclusive views of gender hurt everyone. Nonbinary people are hardly immune from restrictions or expectations. Ideally we reject those restrictions and expectations, but I want everyone to do that. I want everyone, cis or trans or otherwise, to seize the same freedom I did.
Recognizing that I was never going to fit comfortably into my American peers’ idea of masculine or my Indian family’s idea of feminine meant freedom to throw out both scripts and write a new one. I laugh, cry, cuddle and bask in color in ways men in the U.S. are not expected to — and I think men in the U.S. should, too, if they feel like it. I don’t tame my hair, voice or opinions the way women in India are expected to — and I don’t think they should, either, if they don’t feel like it.
Someone’s always going to be unhappy with the way you look, talk, and act. That someone shouldn’t be you.
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