I am non-binary. This essay is about me and you. It is an exploration of what non-binary means to me as a 39-year-old, living in London in 2022. This is also about what that means to you.
Life is interconnection, whether between you and me, between our minds and our external worlds, or between expectation and reality. I am impacted by others’ perception of me, as anyone would be. As much as I’d like to blaze a triumphant trail of Polly-ness, screaming, “to hell with the rest of you”, as I ride off by myself into the sunset of my own destiny, I’m not that independent. And no one is.
There seems to be a real pressure on marginalised minorities to be strong, fearless, unperturbed by criticism and all in when it comes to fighting for our identity. Sometimes I do feel that way. But other times I’m less loud and proud. Sometimes I feel energised by the thrill of living a revolutionary existence and feel bold enough to shout it from the rooftops. Other times I just want to be unobjectionable and fit in. And sometimes I want society to step up, play its part and not rely on the minorities to do all the work in the fight for representation and equity.
These complexities and vulnerabilities don’t lend themselves to slogans or banners. Or triumphalism. They make things messy. As someone outside the gender binary of male and female I struggle to find my place. But isn’t that the point? I am “non-” something that most people are. What’s not to love? I should just lean in, right? If only it were that straight-forward.
A real challenge for the enbies among us is dealing with “feedback”. That’s really what this essay is about. Being trans means constantly negotiating and processing global and local feedback, whether that’s positive or negative. Ideally, we’d surround ourselves with positive feedback, and that is one of my goals as well. I am working on getting more non-binary and trans friends, but it’s been slow progress during the pandemic (when I came out as non-binary), and only now that social events are taking place again do I feel like I’m starting to slowly find my feet. But that’s all about social life and interpersonal relationships. There’s also the wider world to think about.
The day-to-day existence remains unnerving when you feel so different. From encounters with delivery drivers to restaurant waiting staff to neighbours, most people judge you as one thing or the other instantly. It’s getting better and the more we talk about gender identity the better it will get. It may not get better initially, but it will in the long run, at least that’s what I hope. Unfortunately, with visibility comes backlash, which we are experiencing painfully now in the trans community. It may take decades to achieve safety, recognition, acceptance and celebration.
Identity is a strange fish. It feels radical to be yourself, though this shouldn’t be radical. Not being oneself surely takes more work and effort, more self-scrutiny and monitoring. The only choice I feel I have is to be myself, and to go along with all the ups and downs this entails. I am resigned to my fate, sometimes joyful, sometimes hesitant, but most of the time accepting, despite my acknowledged vulnerabilities. This essay is not about me being unhappy with myself.
I don’t know what the hardest thing is about being genderqueer. Whether it’s one’s presentation, when one says to the world: no, I’m not going to wear what you have assigned to me; I’m going to wear what makes me feel like myself. Or the language, the much-discussed pronouns. Or the existential scariness of being the perennial outsider, the only “they” in the village. Perhaps it is the reactions of others that are the hardest.
Like I said, I’m trying to find my “tribe”, but I’ve never been good at community so it’s hard. And as someone who ultimately likes to fit in and not be the centre of attention it would be nice to feel affirmed and normalised in a variety of settings, not just among a peer group of like-minded folks. Maybe that’s too big an ask. Maybe I should lower the bar for my diplomatic aspirations.
I am, afterall, a diplomat. Or so I think. I want to please, assuage — I am a middle child and I don’t like conflict. The difficulty I have is that being myself seems to piss off so many people. And that is hard. It is isolating. Like I said, I’d love to be someone who can just say, “fuck the naysayers. I am who I am”. But honestly, I do really care. It makes me unhappy and scared to think that there are people who want to kill me for being trans. Of course, I should be used to this as when I identified as female, I could have just as well been the victim of a deadly misogynist. And as a lesbian, I would be equally vilified and targeted. Only the truly privileged in this world can live free from the threat of identity-based violence.
Perhaps it just feels that to be trans at this moment in time, in the UK and US at least, is to be completely under attack, whether from anti-trans legislation in the US, the “gender critical” movement within the UK, everyday violence or from the transphobic media everywhere. And that’s just the global picture.
Again, the day to day, the local, the friendships, family and work relationships can be difficult to navigate as well. To be fair to my circle, almost everyone has been really open to me and my transition, though I tend not to fight my corner if I detect any push back. I’ll usually temporarily go inside the closet if I sense disapproval, so I wouldn’t say I’m loud and proud when it comes to my gender identity within all my relationships. And this is another sadness.
Perhaps what I’ve learnt from this latest bout of introspection is that I need to be bolder. It just feels like a burden to be bold every day, and some days you just want people to get it without having to explain everything. I haven’t chosen to be difficult, or “woke” or cool. And I don’t really want to rock the boat. I have experienced enough tidal waves in my life already.
But I also don’t go around saying “anything for a quiet life” because life is not quiet, and assuming it is can be damaging. I do value authenticity and I have been told that I’m “quietly firm”, so I think I now have a pretty solid core (no small thanks to the brilliant work my therapist and I have achieved).
Firmly non-binary, quietly non-binary, and authentically myself. What can be done? Nothing but continue on, I think. And in this Pride season, as in all seasons, I want you to come with me. No one can go it alone. What you think matters.