One of the thing I remember most about coming out as trans was worrying about whether or not people would believe me. I felt that I had to have some sort of proof of being transgender before coming out to people. Of course, the proof is already there – my experience of life, my own self-determination that I am, in fact, transgender – all of this was the proof that I was so desperate to find. I didn’t want to be caught out with my pants down, so to speak. If someone was to challenge my transgender identity, I wanted to be ready with every comeback available.
So I read. And I read. I didn’t go the usual route of trying to relate to other people’s journeys. Instead I drew on my degree studies – Jack Halberstam, Judith Butler, gender studies, sociology, psychoanalysis – critical theories that told me much more than anyone else’s personal story could have done. By understanding the social structure and constraints placed on binary gender, I understood that I was not male, nor female, but something else completely.
I’ve never fit in properly. I don’t belong within the box, within the structures of gender and sex. I know that many others also feel this way, but not all of them identify as transgender. My knowledge that I am transgender came from somewhere much deeper. It came from a sense of wrongness within myself. My inability to fit in was not just psychological, it ran deep into my bones, into my very being.
I’ve been fascinated with fantasy and sci-fi from a young age, a passion passed onto my sisters and I by my mother. Both allow the fantastical, both create the seemingly impossible – genders outside of binary gender, bodies different to binary sexed bodies. I always knew that my fascination with such characters went beyond simple curiosity to self-identification. I identified with these mutants, these aliens, these half-and-half characters and their bodies and genders.
So when I started to critically analyse my own existence, when I tried to take apart my understanding of gender and sex and my body and put it back together, I came up with non-binary. It took me a long time to accept this. At first I denied it and told myself and others that I was a trans guy, and I was going to transition to male. But it always sat awkwardly with me. My psychiatrist kept telling me that I was denying the feminine aspects of myself – aspects which exist in all people, regardless of gender identity or sex. I didn’t want to see it, but she was right. My intense discomfort with the feminine aspects of myself came back to my misidentification of femininity with femaleness.
It’s unfortunate that fem-ale and fem-ininity start with the same base. It tricks people into thinking that they are one and the same. It’s unfortunate that descriptions of gender are linked to male and female sexes. In fact, the balancing aspects of gender exist in all people, those aspects that we describe as masculinity and femininity. It’s more helpful if we take sex out of the equation and think of gender as a variation of many different aspects that are not related to sex in any way at all.
Words like camp, butch, femme, twink, they all link gender to sex by opposing it to the expectations society places upon the gender of people assigned male or female at birth. Just like masculinity and femininity, they apply gendered expectations upon those people by highlighting the ways in which they ‘fail’ to meet normalised standards of behaviour and presentation.
Although to the outside world I have not always ‘failed’ to match gendered expectations, those occasions on which I ‘passed’ were always fake, put on to please those around me and to avoid questions and complaints about my appearance and behaviour. All of this was exacerbated by the fact that I had always felt that I was starting on the wrong side of sex completely. My body didn’t match what my mind expected to see, and the gendered socialisation that came along with that just reinforced the feeling of wrongness inside of me.
If I had begun to transition at a much younger age, when I lacked the insight and understanding that I have now, I think I would have just transitioned to ‘man’. However, my experiences of gendered socialisation and behavioural expectations have altered my understanding of sex and gender so completely that I could never see one as synonymous with the other again.
There is no right or wrong way to be a man, just as there is no right or wrong way to be a woman. Gender is infinite whereas sex is perhaps somewhat more finite, although the argument is there to say that sex is also infinite. There are male, female and intersex sexes. Within these three sexes, there are many many variations, but the nuances are lost on most people as sex characteristics are often hidden under clothes, visible only to those who know them best. Gender is begun to be understood as male, female, and non-binary, but perhaps just as with sex, these categorisations are over simplifications of infinite options, many of which do not sit comfortably under one category.
So where does this leave us all? As humans, our brains have been wired to categorise the world around us as much as possible. It goes back to the beginning of mankind, where categorisation often saved us from life or death situations. Safe/unsafe. Eat/don’t eat. Drink/don’t drink. The binary is built so deeply into our thought processes that to oppose it seems to go against the very grain of our being. It’s only when opposition to the binary becomes the only option in a struggle to understand the individual self, that these thought patterns can be broken. And it’s only when the people around that individual attempt to understand their struggle, that those people also break the binary pattern of thought.
All of this goes beyond gender to our understanding of humanity itself. As individuals, we are capable of understanding that life is not black and white, and that the grey areas make up much of our existence. We simply need to learn to apply this knowledge to all aspects of our life, including our categorisation of sex and gender. There is a call for gender to be removed from passports and driving licences in an effort both to even the playing field for women applying for jobs, visas, loans etc as well as to remove the biggest obstruction to the wellbeing of transgender people, particularly those at the early stages of transition. It’s not going to change people’s understanding of non-binary genders, but it could alter the emphasis that society currently places upon a person’s sex assigned at birth.
If I could go back and tell my pre-coming out as transgender-self one thing, it would be not to worry. On the whole, most people have been extremely accepting of my transgender identity. Very few people have questioned it at all, other than to ask for an explanation of what it means to me to be non-binary. The reality is that most people know that gender isn’t black and white. It just takes a lot of courage to state that publicly and explicitly. Being transgender isn’t brave in itself, but opposing the gender binary publicly takes a lot of guts and a lot of overcoming of fears about prejudice from the people around us.
So if you want to be a transgender ally, don’t question our knowledge of ourselves, and don’t tell us that we are being brave simply by being who we are. Instead, accept us, defend us to those who do not accept us, and try to alter other’s misconception of gender and sex as intrinsically linked.