It wasn’t until this week that I fully realized that I get to decide how I talk about my gender.
It was a long time coming.
I was assigned female at birth, and for two decades, I didn’t even know I was allowed to identify differently.
While I don’t experience dysphoria, being a “woman” doesn’t resonate with me either. Going through puberty was distressing as I realized that people would begin to interpret my body – and consequently me – as feminine. I used to tell my friends I wanted to be a boy.
I didn’t really, but I didn’t have any other way to say that I didn’t want to be a girl.
During college, I learned that some people who were assigned female at birth identified as male, and vice versa. I wondered if there was anything in between.
A Google search revealed the word pangender, which I liked because it acknowledged that someone can have masculine and feminine qualities.
I tried identifying that way to my friends for a few months, but soon, I gave up because people didn’t believe me. It was exhausting to justify my gender identity to everyone.
This summer, I went on a retreat that forced me to question how my upbringing influenced me. I realized that my gender was one of many things I’d let my parents and other people dictate for me, rather than asking myself what I actually thought.
After that, I started describing myself as non-binary in some of my writing.
According to the Gender Wiki, “non-binary” includes “any gender identity which does not fit within the binary of male and female.” This can mean someone who considers themselves both masculine and feminine, someone who’s somewhere between masculine and feminine, or someone who doesn’t identify with masculinity or femininity at all.
Using this word seemed like a good way to signify that I’m not a man or a woman and that I don’t buy into that system as a whole.
I spent a while feeling like I’d be “caught” for not being a “good” non-binary person because of all the things people had said to me the first time I identified on the non-binary spectrum.
But I also realized how messed up it was that people act like there’s a right or wrong way to perform your gender – and that anyone ever questioned something as personal as my identity.
I still haven’t come out as non-binary to most people I know, so the change hasn’t been drastic. But even just telling a few people and putting it in my writing has been a small step toward liberating myself from people who try to tell me who I am, in this respect and others.
So here are all the things I was told that once stopped me from identifying as non-binary – and why they don’t anymore.
1. ‘You Seem Pretty Feminine to Me’
When I first explained to one friend in college that I identified as pangender, he said he didn’t get it because I was wearing a dress and makeup. I explained to him that I have other qualities that are socially constructed as “masculine,” and that these qualities don’t have to dictate how I identify.
But I shouldn’t have needed to defend myself. I shouldn’t have to prove my gender, the same way someone who identifies as a woman shouldn’t have to convince everyone she’s a woman by only wearing dresses.
This burden is rarely placed on cis people. We don’t ask them “How do you know that you’re a woman?” or tell them “You don’t seem that masculine.”
When I wear dresses, it’s not to express femininity. It’s usually because I think I look most attractive or best dressed for the occasion that way, because I find the dress I’m wearing comfortable, or because it was literally just the first clean thing I could find.
A genderqueer person named Sharna sums it up in this episode of Degrassi: Connecting the Dots. “There’s a lot of people who are like, ‘You can’t be gender non-conforming’ or ‘You can’t be non-binary’ because you look like a girl,” they say. “What does ‘look like a girl’ even mean?”
You can only tell someone they look like a man or a woman if you believe a man or woman generally looks a certain way.
2. ‘You Need to Stop Thinking About Yourself and Focus on Real Feminist Issues’
One of my friends in college told me that questioning my gender identity was a form of privilege. “In some parts of the world, girls get acid thrown in their faces just for trying to get an education,” she said. “We need to be worrying about those things, not ourselves.”
First of all, there are people all over the world – of all different social identities – who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, and their identity is by no means a privilege. Being transgender or non-binary is never a privilege. As a marginalized group, we face painful and violent backlash, as well as inner turmoil, in a society that often rejects us.
But let’s say I would have stuck with my female gender assignment if I didn’t have the education and time to think about these things. That doesn’t make it spoiled or entitled for me to think about them. In fact, in this society, it’s a privilege to be cisgender and not have to think about these things at all.
And it’s my hope that maybe, by thinking and writing about gender identity, I can help open up the space for others to do the same.
Gender identity isn’t a life-or-death issue for me, but it is for many people. Plus, caring about feminist issues that put people’s lives at stake and ones that sometimes just put the quality of their lives at stake aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, these types of issues tie together. Part of the reason people face oppression due to their gender is that we have such rigid gender roles.
Calling certain social justice issues “first-world problems” just detracts from the very real impact they have on many people. People of all privileges and marginalizations can question their gender, facing varying levels of struggle because of it – and all of those struggles are valid.
3. ‘Isn’t Non-Binary Just Another Label?’
I’ve also heard the argument that, like “woman” and “man,” the label “non-binary” can put people into a box based on their masculinity and femininity.
But that’s not how I think of it. “Woman” doesn’t necessarily mean “feminine,” “man” doesn’t necessarily mean “masculine,” and “non-binary” doesn’t necessarily mean equally both.
“Non-binary” to me is a protest against masculinity and femininity and their associated labels. It’s my way of refusing to buy into a system I don’t believe in and don’t want to participate in.
It is a label, but it’s a helpful one, because it identifies me the way I want to be seen. Labels serve a very practical purpose, and cis people shouldn’t expect us to give up what labels offer us if they’re not willing to give that up themselves.
Non-binary is also an actual gender and a term that helps people with this gender feel less alone.
And it’s very personal. The word doesn’t have to box us in – non-binary is a broad enough term to mean something unique to everyone.
One of my friends believes it would be more radical for me to just identify as a woman because that way I’m expanding what “woman” means instead of saying, “I’m not feminine enough to be a woman.”
But I’m not saying the latter.
What I am saying is that, regardless of our identification with femininity or masculinity, we should get to define ourselves however we choose. And I prefer to reject the binary system altogether.
4. ‘It’s Not Realistic’
Perhaps the most convincing opponent of my pangender gender identity during college was a gender studies professor. Citing Judith Butler, she essentially told me that, since gender is a social construct, you can’t be something that society hasn’t constructed.
I was a woman, she said, because there was nothing else in our culture for me to be.
The argument made sense, except for one thing: While gender is a social construct, “society” is not singular.
People are always constructing new identities. There are plenty of cultures and subcultures that construct gender differently.
Maybe, one or two decades ago in the US, most people’s environments wouldn’t offer them something to be other than a man or a woman.
But that’s not the case now, at least not everywhere. Fortunately, I’ve found communities where identities other than “cisgender man” and “cisgender woman” do exist.
I may not be recognized as non-binary in every situation, but gender is different everywhere, and which identities are accepted will vary from place to place and time to time.
By creating spaces where we do recognize non-binary people, we can help them find their way into spaces that haven’t traditionally acknowledged them.
And even if nobody else thought of me as non-binary, I still would be, because what matters is how I think of myself. We get to define our own gender, and our definitions are not up for debate.
When it comes to gender identity, I’m in a very privileged position. I’m also in a position that’s rarely spoken about.
I pass as a woman, so I don’t experience as much oppression as many gender-nonconforming people. But I also rarely see my gender identity acknowledged or validated.
Even within the trans and gender non-conforming community, there can be pressure to “look like” a trans or non-binary person or have a pronoun preference or to experience your gender identity as a fixed thing deep within your heart.
So, I’m writing this for all the other people out there who don’t feel totally like a man or a woman – who don’t want to identify the same way all the time, who don’t feel like they have a “true” identity, who don’t have preferred pronouns.
You don’t need to have any of these things to identify however you wish.
Gender wasn’t created with all of us in mind, so we shouldn’t have to comply with it. It’s done us no favors, and we owe it nothing.
Putting restrictions on who can be non-binary is just as bad as putting restrictions on who can be a man or woman.
So, I’m done believing the people who tell me what I am and am not. And if anyone tries to tell you who you are or aren’t, you don’t have to believe them either. You get to decide.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss. Read her articles here.