As a teenager on the internet, I was often mistaken for female. “No, I’m a boy / a man / a male,” I protested without thought. I had learned – from parents, family, friends – that femininity was a bad thing. Yet I still flirted with it. Was I bad? The role I was assigned at birth never fit me like it did other boys. At that age, I didn’t have the terminology to explain why it felt wrong when my father proudly called me a young man.
I knew I was gay from around age eleven, though I didn’t have the terminology for describing what gay was yet. It took another ten and some years before I embraced being nonbinary. By then, I’d grappled with my gender identity in a Herculean wrestling match, never able to find a satisfying winner. Masculinity felt like an ill-fitting costume I put on to go out and perform to expectations. But I wasn’t a woman either. I knew that firmly.
When I introduce myself as nonbinary, it raises questions in people’s minds. It surprises some. I have no wish to undergo HRT or gender affirming surgery. I don’t find he/him pronouns painful, though I do prefer they/them. But I’m not a man.
The sort of androgyny – thin, genderless – that encapsulates many nonbinary portrayals in media is never going to be physically possible to me. I embrace jewellery and makeup. But I am also proud to wear facial hair. These are coded traits. We might as well assign a value that tells us how many points we get. 10 points masculine for facial hair, 2 points feminine for earrings.
They’re goals in a gendered game with rules that are both inscrutable and fluid. Pink wins you 10 feminine points now, but it used to win you 10 masculine points. High heels would give you a masculine high score a few centuries ago. Long hair flips back and forth every few decades.
I’ve chosen to reject the game. Nonbinary is not a third gender, neither is it a Lagrang point between masculine and feminine where perfect androgynous balance may be sought. For me, being nonbinary is taking a step outside the playing field.
But the price of rejecting gender is the difficulty in navigating gendered spaces. I’ve been yelled at by shop clerks for walking into the “wrong” changing room lobby. I’ll remove my jewellery and tie up my hair before I use a male coded public toilet. When I see an event advertised for “women and nonbinary people” or “non-male people”, my anxieties know deep down they don’t really mean me.
In leaving the playing field, I can’t fail to recognise both the advantages and harms I carry with me. It is impossible to ignore gender’s role in violence. I fear inserting myself into traditionally feminine spaces because I know that women have been hurt by cisgender men. Yet I also face violence and abuse in masculine spaces for failing to score enough points and appear masculine enough. This is nonbinary invisibility – when nonbinary people are ships charting a course in hostile waters.
I don’t know whether I seek to pull down the whole edifice. For many people, gendered roles bring them joy. They find happiness in both challenging and embracing them. But gender has never brought me joy. The game of gender only offers me a fruitless fight.
My social perception as, and ability to appear coded as, a man has given me privilege. But the protection of male privilege only extends so far for queer people of any identity. And it has also led me to learn I must fight to come out in every new introduction. Some days, I can’t raise the power to state it again – I am not a man!
Then, I let them have their victory and slot me into male spaces. When a class discussion on gender asks the “non-men” to contribute, I stay quiet. When a cousin angrily calls me a “mansplainer” for disagreeing with her, I mute myself because her privilege makes the battle too intimidating, and then, when I’ve proved I’m not a man, where will the original debate be left? Forgotten in the dust, my points discarded to fight just for my right to take up space.
Nonbinary people need space too. Space to just exist without justifying ourselves with every breath.