LGBTQ Literature is a Readers and Book Lovers series dedicated to discussing literature that has made an impact on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. From fiction to contemporary nonfiction to history and everything in between, any literature that touches on LGBTQ themes is welcome in this series. LGBTQ Literature posts on the last Sunday of every month at 7:30 PM EST. If you are interested in writing for the series, please send a message to Chrislove.
This diary will be on the long side. I hope you can spare a little time; don’t believe it will bore most readers. (BTW there are pootie pix — on-topic, too! — at the end for persistent readers.)
The diary weaves together a discussion of four books with personal reflections sparked by them. They are anthologies of essays, each published in the past three years. Altogether the volumes include 148 written pieces and 19 illustrations by some 160 contributors, as well as thoughtful introductions, glossaries, resource lists, and bibliographies.
The contributors share one trait: each, as they explain, has been unable to cram their sense of self into either one of a pair of standardized containers, labeled “male” or “female”—concepts dunned into us all from toddlerhood as categories both exclusive and universal.
Rejecting that forced choice, the term “nonbinary” (sometimes shortened to NB or enby) serves in its very blandness as an umbrella for a rich and complex array of gender experiences that just don’t fit in the standard pigeonholes.
“Nonbinary” can signify a sense of gender that is someplace in-between, a bit of both, neither, varying, nonexistent, outside the system altogether, contradictory, evolving, or quite removed from the usual way we think about gender.
The four volumes comprise more than 950 pages—a bigger challenge to process than I realized starting out. Further, it proved impossible to review them in the impersonal style of an academic, psychologist, sociologist, journalist, or literary critic. To understand why, a little personal background wouldn’t hurt.
(Or it might. The inner critic frowns. “Are you sure about this? You could lose respect, even on DK. There’s real hostility out there. Not all of it from cis straight people, either.”)
In January 2017 National Geographic published an issue titled “Gender Revolution.”
Its cover portrait of seven young people—an image that seemed to pop up all over the Net—included three individuals identified in captions as neither male nor female. Respectively, they used the terms “intersex nonbinary,” “bi-gender,” and “androgynous.”
I’d caught hints before of some such possible gender identity, but never dared to think about it too much. The photo made it real.
I couldn’t look. And couldn’t look away.
I walked past the grocery-store display, heart pounding. Faking total disinterest. I’ve still never read the issue. (The version with that cover has been offered online, used, for $68 or even more.)
Yet. It somehow lit a fuse.
So in time: after first finding that the mere thought “what if maybe” did not actually collapse the sky; and after a horrid, exhausting siege of repetitive self-interrogation; and finally settling with myself that yes, okay, “nonbinary gender” makes sense to me, makes solid sense in terms of my own life and subjective experience; and after a few cautious mentions online….
...it seemed safe enough psychologically, and suitable, to dive into other people’s stories.
I had chosen not to read much about others in the self-interrogation phase, because independent judgment seemed crucial. (In hindsight, an approach that might not be right for everyone, but it worked out okay.)
There aren’t a whole raft of accounts about nonbinary experience out there in book form, even now. So far as I could see tell, none centered on science. No cultural histories. No sociology. A plethora of dispersed articles, blog posts, YouTube videos, and news stories, but not yet many book-length treatments. I picked four recent anthologies with decent online reviews.
Their publication data reflect the novelty of this field. Only one enjoyed the prestige of a university press; its lead editor was still working on a Ph.D. The second on my list was brought out by a publisher specializing in books on “autism, social work, arts therapies, and related subjects.” The third had been printed through a pay-to-publish concern. The last on the list was crowdfunded via Kickstarter. Two are American-edited, two British.
--Rajunov, Micah and Scott Duane, eds. Nonbinary Memoirs of Gender and Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. 250 pp. plus 13-page intro.; 30 narratives.
--Twist, Jos; Ben Vincent; Meg-John Barker and Kat Gupta, eds. Non-Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2020. 244 pp., 30 narratives.
--Brown, Michael Eric and Daywalker Burill, eds. Challenging Genders: Non-Binary Experiences of Those Assigned Female At Birth, An Annotated Anthology. Miami, Fla.: Boundless Endeavors, Inc., 2018. 207 pp. plus 10-page intro.; 16 narrratives.
--Hendrie, Theo, ed. X Marks the Spot: An Anthology of Nonbinary Experiences. Great Britain: Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019. 245 pp., 62 narratives and 19 illustrations by 77 individuals.
Among the first impressions to hit
this reader was the sheer, intense, grinding labor to which the narratives testify. Despite grousing by critics who claim nonbinary gender is a fashionable delusion, these authors testify to lengthy sieges of discomfort, uncertainty, and intense self-questioning before each person arrived, step by experimental step, at a nonbinary self-identification. And often, a rocky path afterwards.
Labors of so many kinds. Trying to “fit in” with comprehensively gendered societal norms. The effort of denial. Cringing inwardly. Trying to change oneself, somehow. Enduring taunts and harassment over poorly concealed, or rebellious, non-conformity. Wrestling with self-hatred. Trying to split the difference between “Just act normal, why can’t you?” and an unkillable imperative for self-expression. Concealing part of one’s self in personal relationships. Dodging trouble at work. Grappling over and over with words, concepts, explanations. Dipping a toe into different communities. Doubting oneself. Steeling oneself in the face of skepticism, repulsion, ridicule, contempt, indignation.
Fashionable delusion? Hardly.
Another quick discovery: Nonbinary experience cuts across highly diverse populations.
While the average age of contributors to these volumes (especially Hendrie) skews young—as do nonbinary individuals featured in the media—that’s not necessarily representative.
The concept itself is young. Most early ferment around it occurred in media full of young people: ‘zines at first, and an evolving menu of online platforms: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, TikTok. It was explored in school and college settings. Moreover, youth in general is a more open phase of life; has less to unlearn. Lately it was reported that fully a quarter of LGBTQ youth identify as nonbinary. They’re leading the way.
“Genderqueer” seems to have been the earliest common term, dating to the 1980s and still used. “Gender-nonconforming” surfaced in a 1995 mainstream autobiography1 but sparked no sudden revolution. The heresy spread mostly behind the scenes, with limited impact on public consciousness. An annual “No-Gender November" was launched in 2007 but doesn’t seem to have achieved much long-term traction.
A key year seems to have been 2014. Facebook extended gender ID options beyond the binary. That brought more buzz—outrage and ridicule, too. TIME magazine proclaimed a "gender tipping point" in a 2014 issue with a cover portrait of transgender woman Laverne Cox, though TIME’s article merely nodded at the concept of a gender “spectrum.”
GLAAD recommended in 2016 adding “Q” to the LGBT acronym, covering genderqueer, nonbinary, and miscellaneous identities not otherwise expressed.
(So getting jolted by the 2017 National Geographic wasn’t really all that late, especially for someone close to Medicare age and generally out of touch with youth culture. BTW, while near the “old” end of the spectrum in terms of nonbinary people standing up, still I’m not the oldest on record. And we have always existed, history strongly suggests.2 )
Media attention to nonbinary people, such as it is, has been selective in many ways.
Even when stories of nonbinary people are published...Left behind in the shadows are those who are nonwhite, assigned male [at birth], middle-aged or older, femme, disabled, medically transitioned, parents, religious, live in a rural area, or are part of countless other overlooked groups. --Rajunov, p. xxi
Immigrants and other non-native speakers of English who grew up in “foreign” cultures might also be mentioned. Likewise the neurodiverse. All four anthologies take pains to remedy such lacunae as well as they can. (The Brown anthology alone deliberately limits itself to those labeled female at birth.)
Given the medium and subject, it’s not surprising that contributors to these books tend to have at least some college education; fluency in English; a gift for introspection; expressive talent; and the guts to lay out their personal stories for public scrutiny. So it’s not surprising, either, that a number identify themselves as writers, artists, academics, or as working in the field of psychology.
That being said, they testify to widely dispersed origins, not an ingrown clique. Catholic, Chinese-American, Mvscoko-Creek, Jewish, Swedish, Filipina, born in the Indian subcontinent, in Germany, in Borneo...they are autistic, working-class, a politician educated at a single-sex prep school, a clergy member, a linguist, a video game enthusiast, a sex worker, a playwright, a nurse….
There are times when my intersectional identities make me feel like a mythical creature, something like a centaur, a biological impossibility….I can be a black parent, a queer parent, but a queer, black, Muslim, disabled parent is almost a theoretical identity….I’m almost always an ‘outsider’. On the other hand, I find that being an outsider gives me freedom to define myself. --Eli, in Twist, p. 181
But what does it actually feel like
to be “nonbinary”? It proved impossible, from all this material, to pick out a representative distillation. Definitions are too abstract, personal accounts too diverse.
Most importantly, the sense of gender itself, while felt so deeply by the individual, seems unconveyable.
Try describing your gender without using the terms male/female, masculine/feminine, girl/boy, woman/man, or any variation thereof—you are likely to come up blank. --Rajunov, p. xvii
My identity as a non-cishet person did not begin with a lightbulb moment of claiming words that applied to me, because the words were yet unknown. Instead, it was a negative reaction, a response against, rather than a claiming of space. I knew what I was not, not what I was.
--Karen Pollock, in Twist, p. 150
Descriptors for other-than-binary gender perceptions are, to most people, little more than labels: It’s a vocabulary under construction, obscure, variable, confusing, with territorial negotiations going on, and much questioning by individuals as to which terms, if any, most accurately reflect their particular state.
Thinking back: Our ancestors long ago must have labored to refine the terms we use now for highly specific physical sensations, such as “acrid,” “staccato,” “dazzling,” “slimy.” Even “blue.” Words to indicate the fine shades of emotion must have been even more of a challenge.
So our ability to talk about the sense of gender is, simply, as of yet in a primitive state of development.
When nonbinary people try to explain their gender perceptions to others, lacking common vocabulary, they usually describe a process, often using the word ”journey.“ Typical stages described (though not universal, nothing is) include gnawing discomforts, inchoate struggles, hints, clues, experiments, chronic self-doubt, successive approximations, gradual growth of confidence.
And virtually always, these stories refer to...clothes.
At the first read-through I wondered, why do these accounts so often start with, obsess about, and/or come back to, fashion? Isn’t that superficial, I thought? Terribly Gen Z?
We weren’t well off financially, so I usually had hand me down clothes, and my older cousins were mostly boys. But come Christmas and Easter, a new dress or fancy Scottie dog sweater would appear and I would either resign myself to the indignity of frills or fight like hell against the monstrosities.
--Lis Regula, in Brown, pp. 122 f.
Until 2017, skinny jeans had been the ceiling of my public femininity for my entire adult life…there’s still a way to go before I’ll feel able to dress in whatever I feel like every day….[O]ut in...historically working-class but increasingly gentrified...East London...I might wear short shorts, and longline/oversized t-shirts and t-shirt dresses. Then in specific spaces...I might dare to wear other types of dresses…. --Ynda Jas, in Twist, p. 53
I’m still working through the years of stigma and shame that accumulated as we were growing up in Malta. Years when I was shamed for not wanting to shave my legs or when I was questioned for the clothes I chose to wear. I felt that I was hurting others by choosing to be myself….hurting my Mum….So there were days when I chose to hide myself under dresses and blow-dried hair. I never felt comfortable when I was pretending to be female….
--Ludo Tolu, in Twist, p. 71
And I have to admit, clothes were a sore point with me too.
Me, Clio2: In typical off-the-rack dresses and skirts, as a teen I felt awkward and exposed. On the street, though! Pickings from Goodwill, as-is or made-over. Empire-waisted velvet minidress with fishnets and clunky shoes. Circa 1911 newsboy look—with long hair pinned up, and Art Nouveau jewelry. Pre-Raphaelite, with long hair down. Grunge, and a single deep-blue labradorite ring. Neo-Edwardian corduroy “walking skirt” and man-tailored shirt (someone’s mother attacked my mother over that outrageous ankle-length hem!)
Later as a professional, I had to “dress for success.” How many weekday mornings I ground my teeth while getting into silk blouses and makeup and teetery shoes and nylon pantyhose and tiny wristwatches and blow-dried curls that affected me like—as I thought to myself—being forced into drag. Not that I wanted to give the impression of a man. But something about all this felt so—demeaning.
Aha! Memory digs up some wisdom from an old friend, Archy the Cockroach:
“expression is the need of my soul”
--”The Coming of Archy,“ Don Marquis, Archy and Mehitabel
Every person has a basic need to express who they are. In themselves and in relation to others. This is human nature.
Clothing is one highly visible marker attached to everybody. While lexicons of garments and accessories and decorations and their meanings differ widely from culture to culture, setting to setting, one of the most basic of social messages is about gender.
Since few cultures or subcultures today recognize any genders but two, the nonbinary person daily squirms over the poor fit of this form of messaging. Naturally!
So to the question, “What does it feel like be nonbinary?” one answer is: “Deeply uncomfortable when limited to typically gendered clothing.”
While on the other hand, self-presentation that conveys a more accurate nonverbal message feels viscerally more right.
...I mix signifiers, pairing men’ shirts and skirts, boots and jeans with heavy eyeliner, or a dress with a tie. This combination makes my body safe ground, a place where my identity can rest. It chases the sense of disconnect away. (Melissa Walter, Hendrie, p. 158)
In fact—aha again! This is one meaning of gender dysphoria.
Gender dysphoria isn’t always about anatomy (though it can be that for nonbinary people, as well as for trans men and women).
I remember reading Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret and being horrified at those strange creatures who thought puberty was something wonderful and couldn’t arrive fast enough. —Aubri Drake, in Rajunov, p. 169
Gender dysphoria can also be, as discussed, about clothing. And/or a given name that chafes like a wrong-sized shoe. The inward wince when faced with the F or M choice on a piece of paper. The pronoun or form of address that feels like erasure. Not being quite at ease in either women’s or men’s spaces, from changing rooms to conversational clusters.
Uncomfortable. A certain tension in the body. A chronic, lurking anxiety. A suppressed grimace, a crawly feeling under the skin, a tinge of dissociation. If you’re human, you know about “uncomfortable” in certain social situations. That’s the feeling.
“Facts don’t care about your feelings,” a certain transphobic pundit is known for pontificating. That seems like a truism, yet there’s truth in the opposite:
Feelings are facts.
It’s a fact that strong feelings about not fitting the gender binary exist, and are far from vanishingly rare. Those who report on the experience bring us information about human nature. Information about the world.
And for many nonbinary people, the very first place in their life that an unmistakeable dissonance strikes them, between their actual sense of gender and what society assumes their gender to be, concerns the very basic and obvious gendered expectations about clothing.
“But isn’t gender—as opposed to anatomy and physiology—just a social construct in the first place?” someone may ask. “Isn’t this all arbitrary?”
Here my lack of reading in “queer theory” may be a hindrance, but based on these readings, strictly IMO, gender presentation is in part a social construct, while gender itself involves some kind of inherent trait.
Gender presentation is constructed in terms of language (in most languages, some more comprehensively than others). Constructed in terms of symbolic signifiers; for example, a “skirt” signifies “female,” while the similar “kilt” or “lungi” signify “male.” Constructed in terms of social role; for example, tasks such as weaving or making pottery may be construed as inherently “male” or “female” activities, or as gender-neutral, depending on the culture.
We absorb IMO those local meanings in the process of socialization; they therefore form an integral aspect of the nonbinary person’s struggles, both as a source of frustration and a source of insight.
I was taking on more roles that seemed both feminine and masculine. I...wondered if I might be a trans man. But after a weekend of this, I decided that I just did not feel like a man. I labeled myself “genderfluid” at first….
--Jo Smiley, in Brown, pp. 106 f.
The first time I felt like I fit in my body was when I changed my pronouns. That’s the only way I know how to say it. —RBrown, in Hendrie, p. 45
Gender is something no single word, list, or experience can fully articulate. On some level, I wish it were that easy….I could’ve saved myself a lot of angst and a lot of [time] spent watching “How to Know You’re Trans” videos on YouTube…. --Eliott Walsh, in Hendrie, p. 32
I had thought up the term “constellation” for the aspects of my experience that together, determine a sense of nonbinary identity. (Like vectors determining a resultant?) And then found another author referring to a “constellation” also. Everyone’s constellation is unique, and the individual, ultimately, is the only person with authority to make a judgement.
Me, Clio2: Part of my “constellation” consists of a long-standing affinity for certain symbols, emblems, myths, artistic and literary waymarks.
In one dream I’d just stepped out of the shower and thrown on a robe. At a downward glance, there was the familiar female chest. But below the hem of the robe emerged a pair of big-boned muscular legs, hairy, with large male feet. You’d think this would be sheer horror. Instead, with the shock, a glowy feeling.
Another shock, therefore, in Hendrie’s anthology, to encounter this parallel artistic image (description mine):
Underwater, the swimmer floats suspended. Small fish flicker past.
Above the waist the figure is long-haired, fine-featured, full-breasted in a glittery bikini top. Below the waist are knee-length swimming trunks, thick hairy legs, swim fins on large male feet.
--Illustration by Eirenni Moutoussi, in Hendrie, p. 124
For me, the dream of a hermaphrodite body was about the subjective sense of self, rather than wanting that literal body.
At the same time, it’s fairly common for nonbinary persons to experience body dysphoria. Not universal, not rare either.
With the onset of puberty, I had a hard time thinking or speaking of it as my body anymore. In my dreams I drove everywhere in a faulty vehicle with bad brakes and unresponsive steering. --Maxfield Sparrow, in Brown, 130
And that glowy feeling just mentioned, in connection with my dream? That has a name too, as it turns out: gender euphoria, the opposite of gender dysphoria, an instinctive joy when our actual sense of our gender is in some way reflected and affirmed.
Another feeling that is not “just a feeling” to be dismissed contemptuously, but a fact and a waymarker.
A couple of elements in my particular “constellation” turned out not to be often mirrored in these readings. Because I’m that odd? Because “awakening” narratives might at present be a little stereotyped? Because of an embarrassment factor?
Oh, to hell with embarrassment:
The Secret Life of Wanda Mitty
James Thurber has a lot to answer for IMO. His classic (and typically misogynistic) 1939 short story about a compulsive daydreamer both opened up and at the same time brutally shamed a universal, natural mental process that can be both adaptive and creative.
Positive aspects of daydreaming include freedom to experiment mentally, to take a break from stress, and to explore and release emotions.
Me, Clio2: Starting around the age of six, I developed a fantasy self who was a boy about my own age and had a different name. That may or may not be unusual in childhood, IDK. By the teen years, every night just before going to sleep I’d roll over, mentally morph into the male version of myself, and drift off in that state. I carried guilt over this mental habit, which at the same time felt supremely strengthening. It continued on into young adulthood, especially in times of stress. As a young person there was zero conceptual system in which to place this, except to feel that it was shameful and must never be mentioned. I’d now say it felt metaphorically like being conjoined twins: a female twin engaged with the daylight world and a male twin consigned, with Hypnos and Morpheus, to the dark.
In the readings, only the merest hints seemed to appear on the uses of fantasy.
An important part of my strategy to survive school was daydreaming. So many times I saw myself running down the steep hill the school buildings were scattered against, lifting off and just flying away.
—Jespa Jacob Smith, in Rajunov, p. 43
...and once perhaps a conjoined-twin aspect.
I am not a male, and I am not a female. I am Alanna. I am Levi. I am Me.
—Levi S. Govoni, in Rajunov, p. 13
Reflections In Reactions
Me, Clio2: I can’t tell you how many times in the last 50 years I’ve been Mistaken for Lesbian. (Though not by actual lesbians!) As such, I’ve been verbally and physically assaulted. Certain friends have challenged my “denial” of this non-fact. It’s not rare for new acquaintances to angle for hints about my sexuality; I try and make early mention of a boyfriend. It seems that a fair number of such people notice something, despite my efforts to conform so far as I can stand to conform, and despite their mistaking what it is they perceive.
Other comments have struck closer to the bone. For instance:
”We first saw you in the distance and couldn’t tell if you were a man or a woman!” --Giggling teens. (This is a big deal? Evidently.)
”I’ve often thought it was a pity you weren’t born a man.” --Female friend
”I’ve given it a lot of thought and reached the conclusion that you are neither a man nor a woman.” --Male officemate, out of the blue
”Sleeping with you is like being in bed with a Boy Scout.” --Former boyfriend (Er??!?)
”FAGGOT!” --Lunatic on a bicycle
Context! My physique is typical female. In adulthood I’ve tried to appear to the world as clearly such. Not hyper-girly, not model-manicured, nor Barbie, nor Kim Kardashian, true...yet surely not what you’d call “butch”?
Is there something instinctively recognizable about gender, at least to perceptive observers? A style of carrying oneself? Attitude? Pheromones, even? What?
IDK. But all these reactions from others, once just embarrassing, in light of new knowledge seem like a part of my “constellation”—indirect objective confirmations of subjective reality.
In the published narratives, at least hints of this kind of thing did appear.
I think I was still twelve when a friend told me I wasn’t “really” a girl, one summer day at a local lake. He didn’t know he was right. (He knows now.)
—Alyssa Hillary, in Brown, p. 77
My husband took the announcement in stride, saying that he wasn’t horribly surprised. —Lis Regula, in Brown, p. 125
Some Meticulous Choices of Nonbinary People
Words, words, words
Words do matter. Yet
There is no perfect language for us—right down to the fact that “nonbinary” describes what we’re not rather than what we are. --Hendrie, p. 10
An adequate language has to be built laboriously, by hand.
Nonbinary wiki lists some 30 terms that individuals have devised, with great care, to identify their particular sense of gender. Most of these terms, and more, appear somewhere in the four anthologies. Some terms overlap. There’s no Webster’s Unabridged Nonbinary or Fowler’s Nonbinary English Usage to set forth official, exact, agreed-upon meanings of such words. Metagender, agender, bi-gender, gendervague, demigirl, demiboy, genderfluid, gender neutral etc., etc.: nonbinary people choose their descriptors meticulously according to their sense of both denotation and connotation and may modify their choices from time to time.
Third-person singular pronouns in English are thorny.
What all [pronouns] fail to capture is the nuanced humanity of those whose gender ventures into the unknown. --Rajunov, p. xix
It’s thorny because the modern form of the language up till quite recently has forced a choice between male, female, and plural. Also because this is another area—like clothing—where an individual’s inner feeling can knock blatantly against ingrained convention on a daily basis. Also, IMO, because it requires something from the comfortably indoctrinated cis population, something more than just tolerance: effort, adjustment, active consideration for others. Resentment follows, from fear of making a gaffe, from upset at the challenge to nursery truths and daily habits, and the tacit implications for the ideological structure those habits reflect. Thus the particular mockery over pronouns, and especially over foreign-language imports and the novel pronouns that some nonbinary people have devised, such as “xe.” If pronouns are the first thing that a cis person hears about nonbinary people, it’s little wonder some are easily prompted to react with anger or mockery.
I was surprised to read from certain essay contributors that some are all right with “any pronouns.” Enjoy variety, in fact. That’s me also. My sense, however, is that in the long term, a singular “they” will tend to prevail. The Associated Press and other key style influencers have adopted it already.
Another open question: Do nonbinary people count as “trans”? The answer seems to depend on who you ask. Some nonbinary people identify that way. Some do not. Some trans men and trans women have a problem with it; but that attitude may be waning. At least one nonbinary essayist feels it is the wrong question.
I am plural, dynamic, wishy-washy. I’m not trans, but I’m not not-trans either. I exist in the liminal space, between, or even beyond these categories.
--H Howitt, in Twist, p. 210
And there are other questions of definition.
For instance, take the case of someone labeled female at birth who discovers their nonbinary identity well into adulthood. Can they ethically continue participating in women’s events, designed to give a voice to women as a marginalized subgroup within their professional field? They are not a woman—but if excluded from such groups, they are even more harshly marginalized.
Another: A nonbinary person can’t accurately be described as either gay or straight. What to do about that?
Choices of personal style, as with everything nonbinary, are all over the place. Many are compromises.
“Passing” is the default both for reasons of safety and because the general public is missing the mental model that represents your gender—you will never be truly seen. —Rajunov, p. xx
Some slightly misleading:
...I am neither exclusively male nor female, but somewhere in-between; a soft butch, presenting as a queer bear. --Edward Lord, in Twist, p.118
Some, deliberately contradictory:
I find such joy in purposely messing around with my presentation now. The very messiness, the changability, the contradiction, are a thing! --Lucy/Luc Nicholas, in Twist, p. 171
Yet the same author also confesses:
I worry that people will think I am a fake because I don’t quite fit the presentation mould of masc asigned female at birth (AFAB) or femme assigned male at birth (AMAB) that many nonbinary/genderqueer celebs present. --Lucy/Luc Nicholas, in Twist, p. 169
I especially enjoyed this riff:
I’ve started taking a kitchen sink approach to my gender. It all goes in, except the things that don’t. Motorcycles are, in fact, part of my gender. So are boots. Whiskey is still a part of my gender. Eyeshadow and blue lipstick have gotten mixed into it, but red lipstick and nailpolish feel like drag, and not the fun kind....Practicing martial arts has been a long and complicated part of my gender. The kind of shirts that your gay uncle wears on his annual visit to Key West? Definitely part of my gender. Cats are integral to my gender. The necklace my mother gave me. DIY haircuts. Calluses, scars, and tattoos. Gray dresses cut in the same style as a burlap bag. This one pair of high heels I bought last month. Baking, but not cooking, and definitely not reality TV shows about cooking….My gender...saw a pole-dancing class, and it said, yes, that. —Nino Cipri, in Rajunov, p. 207
For some, physical transition is part of the journey. A nonbinary person may begin experimentally:
I chose a topical gel so I could micromanage the dosing...[O]n the third day, I started to feel...a distinct warm and fuzzy feeling...I was walking on fluffy clouds. My clothes were suddenly all made of chenille and satin. These changes...gradually morphed into my new normal...[Eventually] I felt I was nearing my limit in terms of physical changes. Freak-out mode struck my consciousness...But my inner self was screaming, “Don’t stop it!”
—Kameron Ackerman, in Rajunov, p. 69
A person may choose to transition “partly”:
I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. But I need a flatter chest and a deeper voice to feel more comfortable in this body….I actually identify as female to epicene…. --Maxfield Sparrow, in Brown, pp. 134 f.
The person I have always been is emerging. My second pimply puberty at sixty. I still have a long way to go and I will never ‘pass’ as or be male.
--Gyps Curmy, in Brown, p. 101
Or they may choose to transition as comprehensively as any trans man or woman.
I relish the rituals of traditional feminity….And the transformation of my physical body through hormones and surgery feels miraculous, but at the same time deliciously subversive. I have a satisfied sense of having “gotten away with something,” of persuading the medical community to allow me my dream body despite a gender identity that might seem disqualifying.
—Suzi Chase, in Rajunov, p. 154
And of course, for those who transition, or present themselves in an ambiguous style, bathrooms (groan) become every bit as much of a personal and political issue as they are for trans women and men.
To my surprise, certain essays in these collections dealt with childbearing while nonbinary.
(Surprise because part of my own “constellation,” since at least age six, has been a certainty that motherhood was nothing I ever, ever wanted for myself. Not hyperbole, I would rather be taken out and shot.)
But of course, nonbinary gender is extremely diverse. No real reason for surprise that others feel quite differently about this.
It wasn’t until I was 24 and pregnant with my son [before discovering their trans masculine gender identity] that my body felt vaguely like my own. Maybe not that I belonged in this body entirely, but at least I was putting these corporeal parts to good use...A couple years later...I thought about surrogacy….I matched with a same-sex couple….Another couple of years went by, and I started on another surrogacy...and less than a year later there was an amazing little human who embodied her dads’ desire to be dads.
--Lis Regula, in Brown, pp. 123 ff.
Before being pregnant I desired a more gender-neutral body. I wanted a flatter chest and more masculine body shape...My body intrigued me as it morphed and expanded into a home for my growing baby….My body transformed and societal ideas about me transformed….
--Eli, in Twist, pp. 182 f.
(Another story of nonbinary parenthood ran recently on DK.)
Finally, many of the essayists in these four volumes described their evolution as still continuing. Just like a road trip, it seems you can never be 100% sure what’s around the next bend of a gender journey, until you actually make the turn.
We all carry visible and invisible identities….Most of them are accompanied by an inherited or chosen community….The solidarity that arises provides support, but also demarcates us from them. When it’s unclear whether a stranger is an “us” or a “them,” outsiders tend to react unpredictably—with confusion, curiosity, desire, ridicule, anger, or even violence.
--Rajunov, p. xix
Nonbinary persons deal with these reactions all the time. Even sometimes (as I’ve experienced) when trying our best to hide who we are. Disclosure can be still more unsafe.
People also threaten to kill you on the Internet sometimes….All kinds of people with all kinds of motivations have all kinds of opinions about you….And my first death threat, that description of being shot, was a true turning point for me. —Jeffrey Marsh, in Rajunov, p. 74
Politically, along with trans men and women we’re under vicious attack by RWers like Stephen Miller. (An honor of sorts, I suppose.)
Even where institutions are supposed to be decent, it’s a mixed bag at best.
Edward Lord describes a frustrating history of refusal of recognition and continual re-erasure by colleagues in the political establishment (in Twist, 111-18). Therapist Sand C. Chang, an advocate for trans and nonbinary youth, in a corporate setting feels “like a broken record player” and finds it simpler to wear “drag” to work (in Rajunov, pp. 50-57).
A Black Ph.D. candidate in Health Psychology writes:
Those like me do not have the luxury of simply living. We are forced to conform and crumple under the weight of transphobia, homophobia, and racism...We form ourselves into something palatable for academic, White, cis-heteronormative consumption in fear of being labeled “too Black,” “too queer,” or “a problem.” Even in some social justice activism spaces, non-binary people are viewed as illegitimate. —Calvin Hall, in Twist, p. 109
In an elementary school,
Educational policies are intended to manage rather than protect those students not conforming to norms. I was repeatedly thrown down and punched for as little as trying to talk to classmates on the playground….[T]he teachers denied they could do anything about it.
—Eli Erlick, in Rajunov, p. 232.
As well as physical harm, career impediments, and general stress, it may be worth mentioning here that the effects of emotional assault, rejection and mistreatment have been found to activate much the same brain regions as physical pain. If a comment or a dismissal feels like a slap in the face, that’s why. Once again, words (as well as actions) matter.
Unfortunately, some writers describe meeting even with psychological and medical specialists who have rejected the validity of nonbinary gender and tried to push them into other categories.
Even genderqueer communities do not necessarily feel fully welcoming to everyone.
During this time of moral panic, so many of us are in fragile places, confronting our trauma, sadly bashing up against and bruising ourselves and each other…. --MJ, in Twist, p. 12
...I reject the term “nonbinary” due to its role in maintaining the dominance of metropolitan individuals assigned female within the trans community.
--Eli Erlick, in Rajunov, p. 235
Yet many have found a home in local gatherings, as well as role models and refuges, some in unlikely places.
Social media was indeed a bliss and it opened to me the doors to the distant horizon. --Aitijhya Kar, in Brown, 70
Friends and fellow students. Dances. Conferences. Teachers. Netflix. A writing workshop. Anime. Even a Quaker congregation.
If you know that it is possible for someone born with a vagina to be a man, and for someone born with a penis to be a woman it should not be hard for you to understand that someone born with a vagina or a penis can be somewhere in between or somewhere outside of man or woman.
--Hendrie, p. 10
I have zero doubt that science eventually will be able to shed more light on this. But as of now, we don’t even know why some people are gay. Our own closely examined feelings about gender are our best, indeed only, guide.
We don’t know why there seem to be more AFAB people than AMAB people identifying as nonbinary. Suggestions I don’t happen to buy have included relative social status and peer pressure. But we also know some genetic traits in fact show up more often in women than men. And that women (AFAB) are more often likely to have their perceptions discounted. Our own closely examined feelings are the best, and only, guide.
One essayist reports,
...[W]hen human beings are divergent in one way, this increases the statistical odds of them being divergent in other ways. A whole bunch of divergent traits cluster together in the population….non-heterosexuality, left-handedness, being “double-jointed”…, being a genius, synesthesia, ...fibromyalgia, ...dyslexia, ADHD, high sensitivity, autism, dyspraxia and other body and brain quirks. In other words, gay people are more likely to be left-handed, autistic people are more likely to be trans, neurodivergent and/or queer people are more likely to have joint hypermobility and so on…. --Sam Hope, in Twist, p. 219
If true, that’s potentially interesting, provided it doesn’t lead to interpreting nonbinary gender as some kind of illness or defect, like being gay in the 20th century. (Coincidentally or no, some of these other traits seem to run in my own family. And a few of them are known to turn up more frequently in women.)
Meanwhile, we don’t have or need any scientific tests. Our own closely examined feelings are the best guide.
And what nonbinary people want and need is also fairly simple, when you get down to it. Just not simple to achieve. But we could get a lot closer without harming anyone.
I long for a world where my actions weren’t gendered and I could just interact as a human, where people, trans and cisgender alike, didn’t have to carry around the constant pressure of gender roles thrust upon them.
--Haven Wilvich, in Rajunov, p. 61
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
Rio didn’t answer.
“Why do you want to know that?” I asked.
The person replied, “We have gifts for kids: football cards for boys and stickers for girls.”
“Why can’t the child decide for themelves what they want?” I continued, and the person seemed to get the point…
On the way out of the store Rio said, “The person thought that only boys can like football and that only girls can like butterflies. That is not true.”
...It made me smile…. --Cal Orre, in Twist, p. 187
What would happen if one
woman ^ ”woman” told the truth about her ^their life? The world would split open.
--Apologies to Muriel Rukeyser for the play on “Kathe Kollwitz”
I really feared it would.
And maybe, in time, it will.
Thanks to: all of the LGBTQIA+ people who have courageously come forth with their truth. To all the trans women and men, including here on DK, whose stories built a bridge though at first they seemed irrelevant to me personally: most notably DK’s rserven (especially for opening up in detail about her transition), and Jan Morris (especially for her near-last book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere). To all the DK members who’ve encouraged my writing over the years, and were kind when I finally dared to mention being nonbinary. Many thanks to Chrislove for this series, for his own illuminating diaries, and for letting me participate.
Thanks not least (as a Roman Catholic might thank St. Michael and All Angels) to all the visionaries, artists, poets, philosophers, and storytellers who have brought new meanings out of chaos, enriching our background, both outer and inner, so that we may understand each other better and appreciate more fully the mystery of this world and human life. And who on this long journey, I now see, led me blindfolded half the way.
….looking forth by light
Of moon or favoring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism...
...Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.
--William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 3
Homo sum, humani nihil mei alienum puto. (I am a human being; I call nothing that is human, alien to me.)
--Terence (Roman playwright, 2nd century C.E.)
We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.
--James Tiptree, Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See”
She would not say of anyone in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She….would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.
--Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Know the strength of man,
But keep a woman’s care.
--Tao Te Ching, Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Non-binary identity for cats
1Kate Bornstein‘s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, published by Routledge in 1995, is cited in Rajunov as the first book dealing with nonbinary gender. Assigned male at birth, Bornstein had reassignment surgery in 1986 and subsequently identified as “gender-nonconforming”—later using the term “nonbinary.” (I haven’t read Bornstein’s work.)
2The oldest contributor was 69.
LGBTQ Literature Schedule (2021):
If you are interested in taking any of the following dates, please comment below or send a message to Chrislove. We’re always looking for new writers, and anything related to LGBTQ literature is welcome!
January 31: Chrislove
February 28: Chrislove
March 28 April 4: Chrislove
April 25: rserven
May 30: Chrislove
June 27: Chrislove
July 25: Clio2
August 29: Chitown Kev
September 26: OPEN
October 31: OPEN
November 28: OPEN
December 26: OPEN
READERS & BOOK LOVERS SERIES SCHEDULE
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