“I fall on my sword. I fall on my words. I impale myself here. I am the author of my own misfortune.”
I whisper the words as an incantation, a spell, a charm against harm every time someone forces me to define myself within the rigid rules of the inadequate binary system of the ‘This or That’. Me and She are not the same at all. He weighs me down and forces me into too neat a slot. I long for the freedom of the They. I am in the process of breaking away from the demands to conform to a reality that fails to define me, and it’s been a wild and painful ride.
After all, human experience is so much richer than an on/off switch, it is more than binary code to fuel a computerized reality. We are more even than merely organic beings. Humans have a magic that we seek to pin down and define. We have that ingredient x that the scientists and engineers have no business dabbling in. There are shades of difference too subtle for pure mathematics to be able to express. My artistic inner life cannot be reduced to 1 or 0. I do not experience life in that way. Of course, others have a very different experience of living within the binary, mainly because they are the ones that it does not fail to define. They exist at the extremes, gathered far away from that blurred line that me and other nonbinary folk exist on. I used to envy such clear-cut people and wished for more solid ground to inhabit. Thankfully I have now moved beyond wishing I could be something I am not.
It is not like I didn’t try to fit in and willingly handcuff myself to the status quo: I tried very hard indeed at the expense of my sanity and my happiness. If I was a younger person perhaps, I would be dismissed by many as following a fad. I’ve seen it happen and winced in sympathy. As it is, I am middle-aged, with a lifetime of enforced womanhood stretching behind me, and as such subject to a different kind of vitriol. Any attempts at coming out as nonbinary have been roundly mocked, I have been accused of being a traitor to the feminist cause and summarily dismissed as having lost my mind.
It is only now that I feel brave enough to be able to define myself outside of the expectations of the status quo of the This or That. I went back into the gender closet only to poke my head out the door, be ridiculed and dismissed once again, and to cowardly retreat once more into the shadows of femininity. Womanhood feels like dress up to me, so much froth that gets in the way of the heart of the matter and blocks the path to my own happiness. It is a façade which hides the austere wounded bird that sits within my chest. I long to fly. I long to be set free of fripperies and falsities. I long to be allowed to exist beyond the hegemony of the This and That. Non-binary people have always existed, even if we did not have the freedom to express it in a consistent and cohesive way.
It is too late now. I have fallen on my own words. I have said it definitively. I am nonbinary. I have struggled with my identity for my entire life. I was a tomboy; I fell in love with other girls and female gym teachers. I cut my own hair off very short and resisted all attempts to make me into a good daughter. I started off as an unruly girl and became a very bad woman indeed. In fact I was not very good at being a woman at all. I identified with boys more than girls, and felt out of place in my own skin. There is a photo of me that still exists somewhere. I am seventeen years old, wearing a severe short back and sides haircut, black jeans, a loose teeshirt and dark wayfarer sunglasses. I stand with my legs slightly apart, staring right into the camera as if to accuse it of something terrible. Around me stand my female teenage friends. They are wearing pretty dresses and long hair. They are frozen in the act of giggling and smiling. They are holding themselves fluidly and gracefully. I wear a scowl and a fighting stance. If someone was to look at that photo and ask to pick the person that did not fit in, it would be an easy task. I was simply not the same as them. I was the thing that did not fit. I was the odd one out.
I knew it too. I felt so much less female than I know I was supposed to feel; so much more male than was allowed, yet not wholly one or the other. I did not dare name my plight, nor did I realize back in the days of my youth that I had any option but the female side of a brutal binary. I was saddled with girlhood and led screaming and kicking into womanhood. Life was uncomfortable. I developed a serious drug problem for a while and tried to kill myself on more than one occasion, unable to voice the struggle that I felt inside. I simply did not have the words. Now I do.
There are only a few that don’t mock or question me, and those individuals tend to be much younger millennials or from the gen Z generation who were raised to be tolerant for the most part. People of my own Gen X cohort have a bad habit of pretending that using ‘they’ in a sentence to refer to a nonbinary person, something theydo all the time to refer to multiple people, is too taxing an act of supposed ‘linguistical gymnastics’ for them to handle. Instead they amuse themselves at my expense, making their distain clear by their misuse of a simply yet powerful pronoun.
Others tell me I am wrong, that I am a woman. They barely know me and yet know my soul better than I know my own apparently and continue to use female pronouns for me. This pleases them and distresses me. Apparently baiting and misgendering nonbinary people is a kind of sport for a lot of cis women. Somehow it appears to make them feel better about themselves to emotionally and psychically wound other people who are not the same as they are. They can’t escape the Patriarchy that sells the gender binary as the only mode of existence, so why should anyone else!
On one immensely painful occasion one of these enraged women decided ‘Princess’ was the correct way to refer to me after deciding that the pronouns that they demanded from me didn’t suit their agenda. I only wish these mockers and scoffers could see what a long hard road this has been for those of us who fall outside of the gender binary, and how much bravery it takes to stand firm when someone attacks the very core of the light inside that makes us more than beasts, more than automatons, but instead fully rounded and whole individuals, just as I see and respect the humanity in them. Speaking for myself only, it has been a very hard road, and eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that those friends I love, that I support and believe in are not going to do anything but mock and lash out at me unless I conform and submit. Some do it out of fear, others out of principle. Some try to blend in for the sake of being able to run with their herd and not be exiled away from those they love and so express vehement views they do not necessarily believe in. They use their terfdom like a camouflage because the existential beatdowns are too excruciating to bear. For a short shameful while I fell into that trap, in an effort to fit in with women that I respected and cared about. I simply did not want to be alone.
Peeling off layers of womanhood is like peeling a sticker from a gift that bears an insultingly low price alongside a standard identifying barcode that belongs to a system that I do not believe in. This sticky label, printed and in no way unique, was slapped onto me transforming me from my one-of-a-kind and not standard issue self, into just another unit to be traded and sold off to the lowest bidder in the prevailing cis-insisting culture. I am reduced to being that cheap gift that is meant to be given to someone precious. That label has to go so that good intent remains, yet traces remain of the shame. Scrappy gluey globules of life as a woman refuse to give up and stop marring the surface of something unvalued, yet sweet all the same. Some of it refuses to yield to nail-polish remover, fingernails that splinter, carefully applied heat and recklessly applied force. The long slow peel has never worked for me. I tug gingerly at the corner of womanhood and try to wiggle the offensive label free, millimeter by millimeter. I have a little success … and then it all comes unstuck at once, or rather tears leaving a fuzzy shadow of the label behind, torn and ugly.
This is what it feels like to come out as non-binary: an impossible task of peeling off labels without leaving a trace.
So here I am, middle aged and uncomfortable in my own skin, wearing the remnants of a label that someone else stuck on me, devalued, unwrapped for all to see, exposed and vulnerable, but a little more myself. I was never a woman. I wore the clothes, ironed my hair, painted my face. On one horrible occasion I even went so far as to go for a manicure and ended up with vicious shell-like red fingernails that made me feel ridiculous and pained me until I removed all their hyper-feminine traces; but I was never a woman. I felt a disconnect from other women. I did not fit into their subset, and female friendships rarely worked out with straight cis women. It is clear that I am simply not like them. From the way I look, the way I express myself through my clothes, my interests and my body language, I am not the same breed as those gaggles of women whooping and laughing and chatting.
I played music with the boys, I found my friendships amongst mostly cis males, where I became one of the guys. A queer boy-ish creature, with an intense love of baseball and rock and roll, who wore guyliner and embroidered their denim jacket with sashiko patchwork stitches, trying to pull together the fragments of a life lived trying to be something that I really am not. A boyish, artistic, creative and free soul, despite it all, and one who is now trying to live a more authentic life. I thus reached my uneasy entente with the straight cis world, but at least it is some kind of bearable agreement. I can see there is possibly a place for me in the world that is not anathema to me. I can almost see how I can be happy, and that is only possible because of the way being lit braver souls who let their luminosity brighten the path towards self-acceptance.
I have my armor: I keep a photograph of Rimbaud in my breast pocket. I wear Lou Reed’s smile across my chest. I dream of Amelia Earhart and wonder if she flew into another dimension where a soul does not have to declare allegiance to one of the two major teams and can be free to soar into the stratosphere into a friendlier reality away from the infernal and authoritarian culture of This or That right into the bright blue free artistic beyond of the There and Now.
I used to be ashamed of my furtive early sexual encounters with women and went to extreme and futile lengths to hide who I was and what I was. I gave my body up to men for a variety of reasons: some of them paid, some of them for free, some of them to punish myself, but none of them for pleasure. I might have set my bones down next to women and it almost felt right, very nearly felt like that label was hidden if not removed entirely, but nothing seemed to ease the fact that I didn’t feel right in my own skin. I held myself up against the rules and expectations that women conform to and realized that I was on a doomed mission. I was comparing oranges and apples. I was neither female, nor male. My soul tended towards the masculine, but settled at a point of freedom beyond male or female.
Gradually I came to care less about the judgement of family and friends, and more about my own sanity. I stopped forcing myself to have sex with men. I started to feel as if I could breathe. Living a lie smothers the very life out of a soul. It took longer to accept my nonbinary reality. I wrongly censured myself that I was on a flight of fancy, that I longed to be free, but that it was not possible to ever be so.
I have reached a point where I don’t rule out anything as impossible, but accept I am mostly drawn sexually to the feminine. The binary which suffocated me led to such an intense self-hatred I wondered how I was ever going to survive it. Now I am older and spicier and care not a jot about other people. I feel freer to reject the entire rotten system. Time has moved on so that there is now a hope that people can be glowing vessels for their souls, can radiate their own personal truths, and know that there are people out there who will accept them for the reality of their truth that shines through them and out into the world.
Being out as nonbinary in a binary world is exhausting and feels like a constant battle. I am in danger of becoming a misanthropist if I do not take regular breaks from the vitriol online. For someone who does not care what others think of me these days I seem to spend a lot of time fighting my corner and arguing my point. In the heat of the onslaught of second wave feminist vitriolic diatribes I sometimes fail to make my case. Yes, I suffered fates society mostly labels ‘womanly’: I was beaten and raped. I was used and abused. I was bought and sold and hurt and shunned and thrown out from the fold. I was discriminated against in courts in favor of the man I married in my greatest idiotic attempt at conforming. I gave birth. I mothered and sacrificed and cared for and all the time I did so feeling like me, not as some cookie-cutter abused woman who meekly accepted the disaster of abuse. I fought like a man. I withstood it all like a warrior. I escaped against all odds. I wrote my own successes and rode out the tidal wave of horror that ensued. I am not the ‘she that was hurt by the patriarchy because she was a woman’, I am me, the soul that refused to yield to bad luck, fate, desperate men, and a society that refused to accept me as myself. A self who is not quite woman, not quite man, who exists beyond the gender binary in a state I like to think of as rebellion.
I was not abused because I was a woman, I was abused because I refused to conform, I refused to yield, I refused to give in. I was viciously attacked in an attempt to bring me into line because other human beings, particularly cis males who are attracted to people they see as ‘female’ do not like anything or anyone to survive that exists to challenge the supremacy of the ‘this’ or ‘that’. They cannot control what they cannot define. They exist in a state of desired dominion, one that is frustrated not by women, who play the role of either resistance or submission, but by those of us who simply refuse to play their heteronormative cis-gendered war games.
I suffered because I did not wholly fit in. I was not a good victim, I was not a good woman, heck I was not a woman at all. The shame of it! I was not a man either. I say these words trembling in anticipation of being rejected once again. Of not being ‘correct’ and therefore being shunned and censured. I live in constant fear of ridicule and attack. Then I pick myself back up and hoist my axe again: the only thing that the status quo is good for is cutting down like a diseased elm tree, so the roots can be exposed and burnt down to the dust and ash of it all. I want to bury the binary and see that its grave is kept clean so everyone can read the gravestone:
Here lies This or That:
He and She failed..
That’s all folks …
I did wonder in periods of extreme dysphoria whether I might be a trans man but that did not quite fit me either. It was like wearing a jacket that was too big for me. I put it on and instead of freeing me, it weighed me down. I always said that I loved Lou Reed. I didn’t want to fuck him or date him. I wanted to be him. I looked up to his avowedly demonstrative existence beyond strictly male or female. I wanted to walk on his wild side, unfettered by the ‘this’ or ‘that’. I wanted to be James Dean for a day…and Marlene Dietrich the next; I wanted my own Berlin burlesque dance. I idolize the tough street queerness of Bukowski, the gay culture of the beat poets, the chutzpah of Allan Ginsburg who dared to speak the reality of the love and the lust and the life of it all. I sit down with William Burroughs and the Collected Letters of Neal Cassady. I watch Patti Smith on the screen, as her girl-as-boy moves transport through music, travelling to a little place called space where I can feel free to put on a shirt and tie and yowl into the wide-open freedom. It is through Patti and Bowie, Lou Reed and Johnny Thunders that I found some strength to exist as myself. I found the energy to think about what stuff I am made of. I found a route forwards which did not leave me broken and battered by a binary which oppressed me and reduced me to the This or That that I am not.
So what I am? If not This or That, then what?
To the outside world I look like a bit of a punk, I suppose. I sometimes get ‘sir-ed’ which pleases me immensely. No lipstick. Lots of guyliner. No dresses, but perhaps a pretty scarf, a la Keith Richards. You won’t catch me in a dress, I would look and feel ridiculous. I wear tough boots and black leather driving gloves. I’m not made of sugar and spice and all things nice, nor am I composed of frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails. I’m formed of boiled bagels, antique labels and Margot Fonteyn’s left ballet shoe.