A long post on why I’m not nonbinary just because I want to “escape being treated like a woman”
I resent and find deeply offensive the assumption, popular among terfs (but also held by other people) that nonbinary afabs are only nb because we don’t want to be treated like women and we don’t want to suffer the way women do. That we’re only identifying out of womanhood as some kind of lame-o, selfish gotcha move to escape sexism and misogyny. A pretty oft-cited quote describes this as slipping out of the oppressive cage that women are placed in, leaving the rest of womankind behind.
Sometimes, this is combined with the secondary assumption that nonbinary afab people don’t identify with women or with womanhood because we have internalized misogyny that we haven’t worked our way through. Under this reading, we don’t see ourselves as women because we think womanhood is a terrible thing, or we lack a broad enough understanding of what womanhood can be. These three assumptions often go together, and thus people assume that nonbinary afabs are just delusional, self-hating women who hate themselves and don’t see the relevance feminism has to their own lives.
This reading of what nonbinary-ness is presumes that we are ill-informed and not at all reflective on our identities and our place in the world. It also supposes that nonbinaryness is some identity we latched onto as an escape hatch from womanhood as soon as the opportunity presented itself, but only because we happened to encounter the terminology online. Latent in this understanding of nonbinary-ness is that we never would have arrived at this understanding of our gender if we hadn’t read about nonbinary identities online, and that prior to learning about nonbinary identities, we had never thought of ourselves as distinctly nonfemale or nonmale.
I have a lot of things to say to people who think that’s what being nonbinary is about. First of all, uh duh, yes, of course I have considered the possibility that I am using nonbinaryness as a last ditch effort to escape misogyny. I have entertained the possibility that I was working under a reductive, limiting idea of what womanhood is. I have asked myself if I felt like not-a-woman for woman-hating reasons.
These possibilities are not new to me, or probably to any of us. I have processed them and grappled with them and let them stifle my self-expression for years, actually. That logic has been used to shut me up and quiet me down about my identity since I first started talking about not being a woman or not feeling like a woman, and it’s come from women, men, straight people, gay people, feminists, and anti-feminists. It’s not a new, unthinkable, unspeakable latent idea that unlocks the door to my whole fraught, nonbinary gender identity. I’ve considered all those possibilities for as long as I’ve known I was nb, which was a long time, actually.
I told people I wasn’t a girl or a woman years before I knew what nonbinary gender identities were, and long before I had even learned to fully acknowledge the pervasive sexism that I radfems believe I invented my gender ID to escape. I remember no ties to my gender assignment from a young age, and never understanding gender segregation in school or in play dates and sleepovers. I’m not talking about frustration with sexism or gender-based exclusion here. I wasn’t opting out of a “girl” identity as a child to try and grant myself all the privileges of a boy. I just didn’t understand or feel right about being grouped in with girls and included in girl-only activities. I could imagine myself being included in the boy activities with equal ease. But most importantly, I didn’t want there to be a divide at all. I didn’t want anyone to be cleaved off from half of reality for no reason like that.
I always felt uncomfortable when my friends tried to put make-up on me or do my hair, but I didn’t feel like I belonged playing sports or doing most of the things that boys did, either. I enjoyed play-acting and pretending to be characters and spinning out elaborate pretend scenarios with the neighborhood kids. In the imaginary worlds my friends and I created, I was a swashbuckler with a moustache, and a princess with ice powers, and a horse that could breathe fire, and a genderless demon, and Meowth from Pokemon, and Link from Legend of Zelda, and a massive fruit bat darting the sky.
Gender didn’t matter. It wasn’t even on the radar for me. When my third-grade “boyfriend” tried to protect me (the all powerful ice elf) from the attacking horde of fire demons, I was offended and stopped the game to get into an elaborate discussion about the ethics of prioritizing my safety over the safety of all the other people on our “team” (who happened to be boys). When I was excluded from a game or treated more delicately because I was a girl, I stabbed people in the leg with pencils or snarled or, on better days, initiated pained diplomatic discussions.
But I didn’t see myself as separate from girls because I hated girldom or the oppression that comes with girldom. My best friends were girls. We held seances and summoned demons and held “town meetings” in garages and rode around the neighborhood pretending our bikes were horses and that we were cowboys. Until one of them interrupted to say no, cowgirls. And I’d say cowboy because it felt more neutral. I didn’t see girlhood as lesser than boyhood, and I didn’t feel any need to distance myself from it. It’s just that when the time came to talk about boys we had crushes on and do makeup and crimp our hair and imitate what we thought ideal womanhood was, I had zero interest, and hated being dragged in, and sucked at it.
In middle school this was more pronounced than ever. I could no longer perform girlhood in a suitable enough way to keep the friends I had. I didn’t dress right, I didn’t wear makeup, I didn’t want boys’ attention, I was too weird. They weren’t cruel, just exclusionary. The friends who embraced me were scrappy, funny, messy girls (and a few boys) who liked to scream and pull pranks and tell jokes and leave strange anonymous letters in unfamiliar mailboxes. They dressed simply and mostly didn’t wear makeup or date or do stereotypically girl things and they appreciated my humor and strange perspective.
Most of them still identify as women. They certainly did at the time. I knew girlhood was not the problem. I knew it wasn’t a bad or limiting thing. I still did not feel like a woman and still saw myself as a person, a generic, genderless person. I didn’t think about growing up into womanhood or what kind of woman I wanted to be, though many of my friends did. And their ideas of adult womanhood were pretty diverse. I knew there were many ways to be a woman. I still wasn’t one.
By high school, I knew I wasn’t completely het and cis though I had trouble pinning down my identity. For the first year or two I was vague. My style was a mess, I dated but didn’t know what I wanted, a few boys tried to make advances and I shut them down overzealously, defensively, with anger they didn’t deserve. LGBT rights were beginning to receive a lot of media and social attention (it was the early aughts) and I knew, intuitively, without a thought, that I supported gay rights and that I saw no reason for lesbian, gay, or bi people to be excluded or treated any differently from straight people. I had trouble understanding why some people saw a qualitative difference.
I was the vice president of my school’s GSA. The president and I organized a lot of events and ran weekly meetings and fought with the school’s administration for protections and the right to wear shirts or buttons that acknowledge LGBT identities (and other things that seem petty in retrospect) on a regular basis. I was in a health class that was gender segregated and I sat in the middle of the room, in between the group of girls and the group of boys, and that separation felt right, even as I got ridicule for it. I identified as asexual. I even did a class presentation about it for a sociology class. I told everyone. I knew I felt separate from much of the gendered and sexual world but I didn’t quite know how to place it.
I wore a lot of business casual and didn’t wear a bra. I started cutting my own hair, and kept it short. I gave another class presentation, this time on childhood toy preferences and gender identity and had the class reflect on which toys we enjoyed as kids and how gender stereotypical we were. Nearly every girl in the class mentioned a favorite doll or playhouse. Many of the boys mentioned toy guns or balls. I noticed, and made the class notice, that those of us who were a little less gender conforming had generally mentioned less gendered toys – video games and plastic wolves and fantasy-themed lego sets. I wasn’t the only person who wasn’t into super gender stereotypic toys. I knew I wasn’t some one of a kind snowflake. When I saw that the other kids who had enjoyed more androgynous toys were also more androgynous teenagers, I felt comfort, and brought it to the attention of everyone in the room.
I went to college, and I told my best friend that I didn’t identify or see myself as a woman. He told me that didn’t matter, because the world saw me as a woman and treated me as one. Those words had a massive reverberating impact, and they’re of the exact same tenor as the ones that radfems and others say when they tell me (and other nb people) that we are just trying to opt out of our oppression.
I took those words very seriously back then. And internalized them. I stuffed my identity down for years and whenever I got the feeling that I wasn’t a woman, wasn’t a man, wasn’t any gender, I told myself to shut up, because the world sees me as a woman. I even listed that as my gender on my freaking Myspace profile. “Not a woman, but the world sees me as one”. I pursued feminism with far more ardent interest. I joined my college’s main feminist organization and took part in activism. I fought the sexism of professors, peers, boyfriends, boyfriend’s dads, to the extent that I could at the time.
But I still didn’t feel like a woman. I wrote a blog post about it, back in 2008, long before I knew much about nb identities. I had a friend who was gender fluid and a friend who was neutrois, but everyone shat on their identities all the time and misunderstood them and misgendered them. I had transmasc and transfeminine friends at the time too, but couldn’t see myself in their desire for bodily change. I didn’t want to be a man any more than I felt like a woman. I noticed I was always able to switch pronouns and switch how I saw people with total ease, when they came out, compared to other people. I wondered why that was. I decided it was because gender didn’t matter that much to me and it was easy to shift how I saw and thought of someone once they told me to do so.
(My neutrois friend, by the way, was afraid to come out and transition for years because his radfem friends had him convinced it would be a ‘betrayal’ of his feminism and his ‘womanhood’. He confided in me, multiple times, that he wanted to transition but that he felt guilty about it and couldn’t get away with it if he wanted to remain part of that friend group. Eventually he did come out and transition once he’d moved out of that community. He’s now married to a lovely lady and living in Philadelphia, and was one of the first people I came out to about being nb).
The years went on; I went to graduate school and moved to Chicago, I worked, I dated, I explored. I made a Facebook post thanking my mother for raising me to be a “person, not a girl”. Then I felt like that was unfair to girls and deleted it.
I refused to select a Facebook gender, and was delighted to see that Facebook would refer to me using the pronoun “they”. This was before Facebook had unveiled official nonbinary gender options; it was a backdoor way to get representation, refusing to pick a gender, but it worked, and I loved it.
I told a few people I dated that I didn’t feel like a woman, and that I didn’t want to ever get pregnant or have kids or fulfill certain gendered roles, and most of them were disgusted with my saying that, until one of them wasn’t. I stopped wearing makeup. I stopped, or tried to stop, trying to change my body into something thinner and more sleek and androgynous. I started refusing to fill out gender options on surveys and forms unless it was absolutely required.
I made more friends. I escaped an abusive relationship. I graduated. I started working on myself. I wrote and wrote and wrote and read all about gender stuff on here and elsewhere. I saw a play where audience members (who were presumed to be women) were pulled onto the stage and asked questions. I was asked if I compared myself to other women. I said, only the successful ones. Then I was asked if I compared myself to men, and I said, only the successful ones. I couldn’t really understand why women were more competitive with each other than with men, but I knew it was a thing.
Another group of audience members were pulled onstage and asked when they felt most like women. They said things like while getting manicures, or while drinking fancy cocktails, or when getting condescended to during a work meeting, or during sex. On the walk home from the theater my boyfriend asked me what I would have said to answer that question. I said I never really felt much like a woman.
A few more years rolled on. I knew by then what nonbinary identities were and what I was but I felt like it was silly to share. I thought I didn’t count. I thought people would never take it seriously. But gender kept coming up organically. I found myself defending and explaining they/them pronouns to everyone who misunderstood the practice or mocked it. I noticed that whenever someone was misgendered it made my blood boil, but when someone totally failed to understand nonbinary people and their pronouns, I was particularly saddened, threatened, and incensed. I identified with nonbinary people. But I knew they probably didn’t see themselves in me. I was sure that even to them I looked like a cis woman.
I still felt like my situation was different. That it didn’t warrant being out. I looked like a woman. I was still treated like a woman. I also had all the advantages that cis people have. But I couldn’t keep myself from writing about it. I write about all my baggage. So i wrote about it. I got questions about it. I was asked what pronouns I wanted people to use. I told the truth. A few people started using “they/them” for me and it felt right. “Her” and “she” had always felt weird, even when I was a kid. Not bad, just uncanny. I always felt weird that people would say “she” or “her” and mean me. “They” felt more natural, even if some people struggled with the basic, simple grammar of it.
I kept writing. A few people reached out to me and told me they really identified with what I said. I felt less like a fraud. I saw a few more plays and live lit performances by nonbinary people. I watched a lot of Youtube videos. I read material critical of nb identities too. All the critiques were the same, condescending admonishments I’d heard all my life. I was in the gutter with women, why act like I wasn’t? Maybe I just didn’t understand how broad a category “woman” can be? Maybe I just still deep-down believe that being a “woman” is bad! I’m at war with my body or own lot in life, that’s what it’s about, it’s not a real identity.
I know I get treated the way women are treated. I know how broad the category of “woman” can be. I don’t think being a woman is bad. I don’t want to escape the bars of the “woman” cage and leave all the other women inside. I’m not at war with my body or my lot in life. It is a real identity.
How dare anyone think that they’ve thought about my identity more than me? How dare somebody try to undermine me more than I’ve undermined myself in the last 28 years? I’ve kinda got the self-doubt thing covered, okay. Oh, you think you have some super challenging critique of how I see myself that uncovers secret, repressed woman-hating reasons for why I think I’m not a woman? Oh really? Do you really think I haven’t heard that shit before? Do you really think I haven’t grappled with it?
I’m done having my identity minced and undermined by people who aren’t experts on it. I’m the expert on who I am. Me. And I know what the inside of my head is like, and what inhabiting my life has been like. I’ve been doing it for kind of a while now. I know why I’ve loudly (sometimes obnoxiously) embraced a nonbinary gender identity of late. It’s not to escape the plight of sexism, it’s not to distance myself from womankind, and it’s not to express some latent hatred of femininity. I kept myself from sharing who I was for years because of those criticisms, and I have faced them head on and I know they aren’t the reason I feel this way. I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. Both of those are great things to be. But what I am is a great thing to be, too, and I’m done being quiet about it.