Why I’m Non-Binary, But Don’t Use ‘They/Them’ Pronouns

Close up of a person in a pink shirt smiling, their fingers laced below their chin.

Close up of a person in a pink shirt smiling, their fingers laced below their chin.

Originally published on Wear Your Voice and republished here with their permission.

Long before I came out as nonbinary, for most of my life, I struggled with gender and gender performance.

I spent most of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood being violated for being a Black fat girl. I was often treated as if I was “one of the boys” or an “it” because I wasn’t feminine or girl-enough to be seen as attractive, worthy of being treating like a human, or seen as innocent/controllable.

My blackness and fatness and proximity to girlhood was always othered in a way that most others did not experience.

As we see in the media and within our interpersonal spaces, femininity is significantly scripted through whiteness and thinness. I am none of those things. So my body being bigger, being Black, and being read as cisgender/or being assumed to be DFAB (designated “female” at birth) but not being seen as a girl/woman has forced me to grapple with gender in specific and violent ways.

As I was growing up, I couldn’t fit into the girl clothing most of the time, so I was forced to shop in the boys’/men’s department to find attire. This alone is a queering of gender, incorporating a lens of fatness as a gender non-conforming quality, because girls’ bodies are supposed to be petite and small, be seen as controllable (fatness reads as “overpowering” to the gaze of masculinity), for consumption but only when you fit within certain beauty and humanity standards.

My body was none of those things. And my only opportunity to find ways to present my gender in ways that would allow me to be seen as “more feminine” were denied to me because the clothes that would affirm my girlhood/womanhood were not available in my size.

In addition to issues of presentation of gender, my performance of gender was constantly policed by adults in my life. My teachers recognizing my girlhood enough to tell me to close my legs — to shrink and to be ashamed. But yet, they would validate my hypo-femininity in not seeing me as a potential victim or as someone who can be harmed when I was constantly defending myself from my mean classmates.

I was constantly tone policed because I was seen as “too aggressive” and “angry,” while also being told to stop saying “like” too much. I was asked to be quiet when I was too excited, but punished if I kept to myself. The mixed signals and stringency of binary gender performance became hard to reason with internally.

While I experienced a very specific type of invisibility, policing and lack of resources for my body/gender, I also began to experience the sexualization of my body from older men who recognized my fatness and development of body parts through a lens of assumed adulthood/womanhood. Having bigger breasts and a bigger butt when I was younger became something exploited by older men who read me as older than I actually was, and also became a premise for men to justify sexualizing me and assaulting me.

As I was being denied gender from peers my age, and being denied gender by adults who are not sexually vested in me, I was also experiencing very specific gender violence from older men who were targeting my body as a representation of woman/fullness/sexual availability through a lens of misogynistic violence.

Throughout my life, I was experiencing so much of this journey called Black Girl/Womanhood while also experiencing a denial of gender conformity. This complicated internal struggle led me to a very difficult realization as I grew up and found more resources, language and tools for navigating my gender identity: I felt disconnected from the notion of seeing myself as a Black woman, yet I also felt uncomfortable saying that I didn’t identify or experience Black womanhood. So much of the trauma and violence I moved through, and resilience and power I embodied is that of Black womanhood and Black femininity.

In acknowledging that, I chose to use she/her pronouns because those pronouns were not afforded to me and they are a derivative and gift of the time I spent in crafting my Black femme-ness in a world that denied me to do so. They represent the work and fight I put into my Black girlhood/womanhood within my alignment of gender expansiveness.

I don’t like using they/them pronouns because it feels so foreign to me. It’s really no shade to those who have found a home in they/them, but more so calling into question the terms “gender neutral” and “neutrality” in a world where nothing is neutral or objective, and often all defaults are based in masculinity and whiteness.

The only time I ever feel inclined to use it is when I want to disrupt spaces that feel comfortable ignoring my gender identity and continue to read me as a cisgender woman. Often these situations cause me to feel like I have something to prove with my gender because my declaration of being “nonbinary” will never be enough, especially being read as presumably cisgender/ DFAB + high femme and navigating in a way that people draw comfort between my presentation and performance. For example, seeing me wear makeup, wigs and dresses seems to align with their idea of womanhood and the assumptions around my body being that of a woman.

But what does that say if I only retreat to they/them in the face of violence instead of being seen beyond my gender presentation and performance?

I’m not a Black woman, but I identify with Black womanhood and the experiences I had in creating my own girlhood/womanhood for myself when it was always denied to me. Not just the trauma of the sexual violence, the anti-black misogyny and the dehumanization of my person to strip me of a childhood, but the cultural and social resilience and innovation of being a black girl is so much of my being.

I am not a Black man or a masculine-identifying person, but I identify with the experiences I’ve had with being read as masculine because my Black fatness and my Black femininity has always been scripted as such.

So much of Black femininity and the performance of Black femininity is that of being loud, demanding, truth-telling, Petty LaBelle, ratchetness, too strong, too big, too much, too powerful. The way whiteness and white supremacist ideology is set up, we’re not seen as feminine or woman or human.

In many ways, the masculinizing of our bodies and performance has been the basis for our dehumanizing and denial of gender conformity. The antiblack transphobia experienced by all Black women, femmes, and girls is because our beauty, humanity and gender identity is constantly viewed through a violent lens of whiteness.

In holding all of my truths of gender and experiences with gender, I am not gender neutral. I am not neutral in anything I do. I am very much biased, loud, and a messy bitch that lives for drama in this body and in my gender.

But, again, they/them is not my home or my comfort. She/her feels the most aligned with my gender because I had to fight for those pronouns in my journey to be seen as a Black girl/woman my entire life through all the ways gender, safety, and humanity was denied to me.

And even now, I realize that so much of what I’ve experienced is carried with me within those pronouns. I can still be nonbinary and have assumably “binary” pronouns because I do not believe there is neutrality in my gender, nor do I believe they/them is an appropriate for MY Blackness.

My gender has a journey, a depth of trauma and a world of resilience behind it. Every moment I am able to tell someone my gender before they assume it is a community act of power.

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Ashleigh Shackelford is a radical, queer, Black fat femme cultural artist and writer located in Richmond, VA. Ashleigh is a pop-culture enthusiast, community organizer at Black Action Now, and the founder of a body+ org. Free Figure.