I’m a nonbinary femme and recently, I’ve started to feel quite bad about my gender presentation.
I’ve always loved playing with femininity, and I’ve always been very femme, wearing dresses and lipstick and the likes and it makes me feel really good about myself. Being femme, for me, was always connected to being nonbinary because the feminine presentation, to me, was something that I put on and not something that I was. I felt like femme was my gender, not woman.
A couple of months ago, I started coming out as nonbinary to friends and coworkers and I changed my pronouns from she to they/them. It did that because it bothered me that friends and coworkers would often refer to me as a girl or a “lady”, like “hey beautiful ladies” when they sat down at our table. I wanted them to be a bit more aware of my identity, so I told them and in those first conversations they were accepting.
However, the misgendering didn’t stop. Only a few people made an effort to remember my pronouns. I don’t remind them all the time but sometimes I do, but it doesn’t have any effect. Two friends have even told me that because of my appearance and my body (I’m female assigned at birth), to them I do still belong in the female category (as in my sex is female while my gender can be whatever I want). It hurts me when people say something like that because I want everything about me to be perceived as non binary, also my body.
Another friend had a negative reaction to my outfit at her birthday party. She had stated in the invitation that people should dress up, so I wore a suit, to which she said she was disappointed because she was expecting me to wear something “girlywp_postslike a dress. I know she’s being rude, but what I just don’t understand is why someone who knows I’m nonbinary and whom I had conversations about my gender identity with can still say something like that. It makes me wonder if maybe she wouldn’t have said it if in my normal day to day life I wasn’t as femme as I am. Maybe then it would click for her that I really am non binary.
As an effect, I’ve noticed that I’ve developed some body image issues. Like, now when I look in the mirror and I see myself with lipstick, I feel like the lipstick is the reason people misgender me and perhaps it’s unreasonable of me to ask people to validate me as non binary when my appearance is so femme. However, dressing more masculine in my day to day life doesn’t feel good either. So I feel stuck. Sometimes I even question if I should be non binary at all, because why can’t I just be ok with being called a woman, it would make it so much easier and also most non binary people I know have a very androgynous or masculine appearance.
Do you have any tips for me on how I can navigate all this?
Hi, friend. I want to start by saying, unequivocally, that it is not unreasonable of you to ask that people gender you correctly. You’re absolutely right that your friend was being rude when she mentioned her disappointment over your outfit, and that shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t your fault, or your responsibility. You deserve better.
But these issues run deep, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I dive all the way into this. I have a lot to say!
I’m thinking of my own childhood, when I wanted to change my name to Crystal Diamond, when I never felt fancier than when I wore a ruffled dress adorned in ribbons. This was back in the days of camcorders, and one Christmas, my dad set up the tripod in the corner and just let it record for hours. There are presents under the tree, I’m waiting for our other family members to arrive, and some choral arrangement is blaring from the stereo. My dress is white with red bows. I am six years old and dancing, dancing, dancing. I twirl, I skip, I spin. I time a dramatic leaping entrance from the foyer to “Carol of the Bells.” I have no sense at all of being observed. I am fully and completely myself.
This memory comes to mind because I am not femme now. The last time I wore a dress, I felt uncomfortable every minute. These days, dressing in femme-coded clothes feels personally fraught, reminding me too much of the ways I’ve performed gender, the people I’ve pretended to be. It feels even more fraught than being masc-presenting, although both roses come with their own particular thorns. (It’s funny, isn’t it, to be human? I wonder if there is any other animal with such a persistent awareness of others, any other mammal who incorporates external perceptions so solidly into their sense of self as they grow.)
I’m thinking of Andrea Gibson’s poem, My Gender is the Undoing of Gender. I’m thinking of how when it comes to clothing, “gender neutralwp_postsalways just means masc. I’m thinking of the money I’ve burned through this summer because surely all my problems will be solved if I simply find the right pair of swim trunks. I’m thinking of the Tiktok filter that gave me a full beard, and how much I wanted to adorn that person in a crown of wildflowers, soft leather sandals, an embroidered linen dress. I’m thinking of the long pink skirt from the dress-up bin that I wore as a strapless dress when I was little, one of the hanger loops around my neck so I wouldn’t trip on the hem. I’m thinking of the femme clothes I might want to wear again if I have top surgery, hanging in a little dream closet next to all the buttondowns I’ll buy.
And I’m thinking of the stars, which look to us like simple points of light in the dark sky, easily defined, no more mysterious than a candle, when in reality they are gorgeous, complex, and ever-changing. I’m thinking of how we didn’t get to see the complexity of a nebula for centuries. I’m thinking of how our perception and understanding of the stars must surely still be shaped by the constraints of our science and technology, even our culture.
Gender, presentation, and how those intersect for you may be the work of a lifetime. I know it will be for me. And isn’t that how it should be? After all, you are not one fixed and knowable thing. You are so much more than what any one person outside of you can see. You are starstuff.
Here is what I know: You are not accountable to any other person in this world for your being, your gender, or even your presentation. Your work is not to make yourself more palatable to those who might misunderstand you. Your work is to be your glorious full self, too complex, too variable, to ever be pigeonholed by any other person on this earth.
And yet! We live in a society. Connection is important, and feeling seen is vital. Other people hold up mirrors that help define our reality, and when there are only distorted, non-affirming mirrors looking back at you, I know first-hand just how destabilizing that can be. The friends you’re describing to me aren’t just being rude; they’re also denying the reality of who you are right to your face. No wonder your sense of self has been shaken.
If you feel that these friends are worth keeping in your life, it’s time for one final talk with each of them. Because these talks take a lot of mental work, feel free to roll them out slowly or as misgendering incidents occur — there’s no need to exhaust yourself with a sort of grand opening of Boundary World. But if you want to keep spending time with these people, these talks do need to happen. I’ve included a little script below with important talking points; feel free to use it as a jumping-off place for what you want to say and how you want to say it. I like to break these scripts up into the conversation, instead of saying or sending it all at once, but having the script helps me keep coming back to my lines in the sand:
“It hurt me when you mentioned your disappointment about my suit/told me I still belong in a ‘female’ category/didn’t adjust the pronoun you use for me. It’s easy for all of us to make assumptions about people because of how they dress, and I realize you may not have seen how important this is to me. But my pronouns are they/them, and my gender is not up for debate. Using the wrong pronouns or calling me by gendered terms like “ladywp_postsmakes me feel really unseen. I care about our friendship, which is why I’m telling you this again. I hope you’ll be able to adjust so that we can keep hanging out! Thank you for listening.”
And if they’re not able to adjust? It’s not your fault. It’s not because of how you dress or what gender you were assigned at birth. If someone can’t see or respect you when you give them the gift of telling them who you are, that’s on them. And it means they aren’t your people.
But your people are out there. I promise. And something else I know from experience? Having just one friend in your life who truly sees and affirms you — it can be everything. It can be enough. It can help you feel freer to move through the world in the ways that feel right and good and powerful for you.
Once you start looking for people who will truly affirm you, I’ve found that they start to pop out of the woodwork, even in my semi-rural hometown. I’ve found them both inside and outside of specific LGBTQ spaces; what mattered most for me was being able to move on from friends who couldn’t see me, so I’d have the energy and space to nurture friendships where I did feel seen.
Until you do find those people in your day-to-day life, please know: we are out here. I see you, and I bet you see me too. I’m sending you strength to keep wearing exactly what you want to wear, and wishing you the very best of luck. Shine bright, friend. 💙
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.