When I say I’m trans and non-binary, what does that actually mean?Personal · · 21 minutes
It’s International Non-Binary People’s Day and to celebrate this year I thought I’d write a blog post for my cis (i.e. non-trans) friends and family about my own personal experiences of being trans and non-binary.
When I say I am transgender and I am non-binary, what do those words actually mean? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out how to express this in terms that make sense. I’ll have a go at arranging them in the form of a “frequently asked questions”. This is a deep dive but hopefully an interesting read!
I should also stress that this is my personal experience and applies only to me. Every trans person has their own story so please take this only as my own perspective, and a story that is still very much in progress. I’d imagine it’ll be a much more interesting read to people who know me personally!
What even is gender?
There are whole degrees on this subject but I’ll try to share my perspective on it in a few paragraphs!
“Gender” just means “category”. We use the French equivalent, “genre” when talking about movies, for example. A movie can be in the genre “horror”, or “comedy”, for example.
But with personal gender, we try to boil the whole of human experience into just two genders: the gender binary. Going back to the film example, imagine if there were only “horror” and “comedy”. Where would you put Star Wars? Where would you put The Evil Dead?
Once humans have been assigned a gender, there are numerous expectations attached to it – both legal (for example, when you start a new job, HMRC ask you if you’re male or female – why do they even care?) and cultural (such as which clothes you wear, which toilets you use, who people expect you to be attracted to, even what your interests should be).
Some of these expectations are especially insidious in that they treat “male” as the default gender and define “femaleness” only by reference to maleness. This is the essence of patriarchy, which results in all kinds of horrible things from the gender pay gap to the high rates of violence against women to Hollywood sexism.
Many feminists have made it their goal to gradually remove the legal and cultural distinctions between these two genders, aiming for a world where gender is irrelevant or doesn’t exist at all, where everyone is free to be themselves. This is a noble goal and a world I would dearly love to live in! But right now we live in a gendered world and we have to find a way to live comfortably within it until that glorious day.
Was I “born male”?
Short answer: no.
When people are born, they are assigned a gender based on the available information at the time (usually a quick look between the legs).
I was assigned “male” at birth, but I was not “born male” – the only thing that has changed is my assignment… I’m still the same person I always was: I just understand more about myself than I did before.
When someone rejects their birth assignment and begins to ask people to treat them as the gender they truly are, this is often called transition. The law in the UK refers to it as gender reassignment (a term which is quite unfashionable because it gets confused with a similarly named medical intervention) and it is a protected characteristic just like race or sexual orientation.
It’s not correct to say I “used to be male” either. Publicly rejecting my birth assignment is an announcement that the assignment is – and always was – a mistake, an error on my birth certificate that took me some years to get my head round and correct.
But my biological sex?
The gender someone is assigned at birth is different from “biological sex”: a very complex interaction of a number of factors including physical characteristics, chromosomes, hormone profile, upbringing, psychological profile and more.
Unless you’re a biologist, there really isn’t a lot of good reason to talk about biological sex, instead of talking about the specific biological thing in question for a given use case: e.g. can a person become pregnant? Do they menstruate? Do they have to sit to use the toilet? In all three of these examples, there are people who have been assigned male at birth who are “yes” answers to this question, as well as – of course – trans men who are male in every way but were assigned female at birth.
I myself, for example, have been a sitting toilet user since an operation in 2005 long before I identified as trans and I had always been alienated by “gents” toilets that prioritized the needs of standing users.
I’d encourage all allies to do away with thinking about / asking about people’s biological sex altogether. It’s a harmful concept to treat as a binary and doesn’t reflect people’s lived experiences at all, even if some aspects of it are partly to blame for the messy gendered society we live in.
What does it mean to be transgender?
This is speaking only from my personal perspective, but for me it is all to do with gender dysphoria.
This is – in my case – a feeling of alienation when conversations about me allude to me being male, or when I try too hard to conform to what society expects of men.
If someone refers to a group of people as “dudes”, for example, I always felt like they were explicitly excluding me from the group even if it was really obvious they didn’t intend to.
When someone talks about me and uses he/him pronouns, or someone calls me “Sir” or “fella” in a shop I feel a kind of hurt that’s hard to describe – it’s a similar feeling to the pain I feel when I realize I’ve said something offensive or embarrassing, if that gives you a touchstone for what it feels like. It’s not a pleasant feeling and it happens multiple times a day whether I try to avoid it or not.
Gender dysphoria was always there, in the background, throughout my whole life, but until I started the process of transitioning I didn’t know what life felt like without it. It was easy to mistake for other mental health issues such as anxiety (which I do have) or a lack of confidence in myself and my abilities. Now I know how everyone who doesn’t have gender dysphoria feels, I never want to go back to that constant pressure.
Science still doesn’t fully understand what causes gender dysphoria, although it’s getting closer – it’s likely tied up in the interplay between the complex mess that is biological sex and the gendered world that tries to treat it as less complex than it is. One thing science is certain of is that gender dysphoria exists, despite what some newspapers would have you believe.
There were a number of hints over the years that helped me realize that I was trans. Other trans people sometimes call this “hatching”, like your true gender has been inside an egg all this time that just didn’t hatch at birth the way it did for cis people.
One hatching event I remember really strongly is when I started learning to sew and people would sometimes say to me “that’s a funny hobby for a man”. Any self-respecting male feminist would have said “hobbies shouldn’t be gendered; just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy this hobby!” but that’s not what came to mind. Instead, my brain went straight to “but am I a man?”
How does it differ from being gender non-conforming and/or crossdressing?
If someone is gender non-conforming, they identify with a specific gender but not with the “rules” society puts in place for that gender, or stereotypes of that gender. Really contrived examples might be a man who is comfortable expressing his emotions or a woman with a shaved head.
Put simply, being transgender is not the same as being a gender non-conforming man, because I’m not a man. A gender non-conforming man might be comfortable being addressed with he/him pronouns, or using a gents’ toilet, for example, because those things line up with his gender identity even though many of society’s stereotypes don’t. (People can be transgender and gender non-conforming; in fact this is very common, since trans people are often more aware of the failings of gender stereotypes than most!)
Crossdressing is dressing in clothes that are considered by society to be incorrect or taboo for your gender. I couldn’t really be a crossdresser with my gender identity because there are no pre-existing societal expectations of what non-binary people should wear.
Gender non-conforming people and crossdressers are usually welcome under the trans umbrella too, even if their birth assignment lines up with their gender identity, because many of our struggles are the same. Attacks on trans rights usually harm cis and intersex people on the fringes even if they weren’t the intended targets.
Am I trans just because I don’t like “boy things”?
A common misconception about trans people is that we work out we’re trans because we don’t like the same things as other people who were assigned the same gender as us at birth.
Am I trans because I don’t like sports? Because I like sewing and clothes?
No, of course not. It’s perfectly possible for people to be cis and gender non-conforming. I’m trans because I am not the gender people thought I was when I was born. Even if all my interests lined up with those expected of men I would still not be a man.
How did I manage 35 years living as male?
Basically, I bluffed it. Other people had created a character, a role I needed to play and I played it.
But I was never happy with who I was. Those who knew me before and know me now will know that I was reserved, withdrawn and keen to blend into the background before I got a grip on my gender, and now look at me!
I was trying really hard to be the person I thought other people wanted me to be, instead of letting go of that and becoming the person that I knew I was inside!
What does non-binary mean?
Non-binary means I am neither male, nor female.
It means I have freed myself of one box but I’m not comfortable being in the other box either.
I’ve noticed that I don’t feel the same pain or discomfort when people refer to me as a woman or female, so I’m not ruling out the possibility that I might come to identify with those terms. But I don’t right now.
Non-binary is a way of describing what I am not, but it doesn’t say what gender I am.
So is it like somewhere between male & female?
Not for me.
The term non-binary encompasses so many different ways of identifying with gender. Some people are bigender or androgynous meaning they identify with aspects of both binary genders. Some people are genderfluid, meaning their gender changes depending on the situation. Some are agender, meaning they don’t identify with gender at all. And many more!
If I’m not binary, what am I?
The trans and non-binary community has only recently been organized enough to start coming up with words to describe all the different ways people can experience gender.
At the moment, within the trans community, I most identify with the term aporagender. It means I feel a strong sense of gender identity, that I have a gender but that gender isn’t aligned to either male or female or any combination of those genders. It’s really difficult to explain but I feel comfort and the least dysphoria when I think of my gender this way.
Some non-binary people use a system called Galactian alignment to help relate different non-binary genders to each other and away from the binary at the same time. This might seem technical and nerdy, and it is, but it has a real practical use when your community is held together by what people are not. Within this system I identify most with stellarian.
If I’m not a man or a woman, what is my sexual orientation?
Good question. The terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” don’t really work for non-binary people. I am attracted to people of many genders but “pansexual” doesn’t fit either. I usually use the term queer, because I’ve never found a word that fits better.
If I’m not a woman, why do I want to wear women’s clothes / makeup?
One of the nice surprises about being out as non-binary is that society no longer has any expectations about what clothes are the “right clothes” for my gender.
I’ve always found more appeal in brightly coloured clothes and jewellery and clothes with more shape to them.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned patriarchy has decided that such clothes are meant only for women, and labels them “womenswear”. I would love to live in a world where clothes were arranged by body shape instead of by gender and people would stop thinking of my clothing preferences as “women’s” clothes.
I also have to think about the compromise between safety and comfort. When I go outside, I tend to dress in bright colours but in a slightly more reserved and stereotypically masculine way, in order to avoid bringing the wrong kind of attention to myself. Small experiments have suggested my fears may be mostly unfounded, so I’m gradually getting braver at dressing the way I want to dress outside of the house.
Is this a preference / a choice?
No, it’s not. Being non-binary is something that is simply true about me.
It is definitely not a political statement or a fad or something I’m doing just to be cool or up-to-date or better than cis people. I’m non-binary because I’m non-binary.
I can only explain this in terms of what it feels like to live with no (or less) gender dysphoria (as I do above), but it’s more complex than that. A lot of trans people say “you just know” and that is pretty accurate!
Is it really hard to live with?
The stereotypical cis view of trans people is that of trans pathos, that life must be so hard for us and what a shame that we were “born into the wrong body”.
I’m going to be honest, some aspects of being trans absolutely suck. The biggest is the ongoing attack on our rights since 2017 from a small, well funded group, aided by some of the biggest newspapers (most notably the Telegraph).
But most of the time it is incredibly joyful. The experience of living without gender dysphoria, discovering what it’s like to love who looks back at me in the mirror and the continued journey of discovery are just amazing. I often say there is literally nothing about my life I would change – I am as happy as I have ever been and no one is ever going to put me back into that box!
What about medical transition?
When cis people think about medical transition, they usually immediately jump to genital surgery(!) which is something that some trans people do but it’s usually at the end of, or a long way into, a more complex medical pathway.
I don’t know what kinds of physical interventions I want. The waiting lists for NHS treatment are so staggering that it’ll probably be at least a decade before I even get to speak to someone.
There are things I’m not comfortable with about my appearance, but most of them are “society’s problem” rather than mine: for example, I don’t know yet if I want treatment to stop hair growth on my face, because I think the only reason I’m so averse to it is because people mistake me for a man when I have stubble or a beard.
Basically, the answer is I’m not in any rush for medical treatment. I just want people to stop mistaking me for a man even if I don’t have any!
As a cis friend or family member, how can you be a better ally?
I’m glad you asked! Here are my requests:
- Try to stop thinking of me as a man. You’ll never get rid of the gender-coded language if you keep thinking of me as a man – it will always feel awkward and forced. And it defeats the point of removing that language anyway, if you don’t really believe I am who I say I am!
- Realize that it hurts when you use he/him pronouns for me or talk about me using male-coded language. My pronouns are not a preference or a talking point – they’re a key part of how I live my life without being hurt by people around me. Imagine how it would be if 10-20 people used the wrong pronouns for you every day and then you found yourself around people you thought were safe and they do it too!
- Celebrate my journey with me! Changing things about my appearance is a slow process and every little thing feels like a massive accomplishment to me. It might feel like I’m being self-obsessed on Instagram but it’s an important part of my transition process. Thank you to the literally dozens of friends who join in with my journey, especially on Instagram; I am so grateful to have you in my life!
- If you find things about my gender journey embarrassing or uncomfortable, try to recognize that discomfort comes from within you and is not my fault. Please don’t try to change me or convince me to be “less trans” for your own comfort!
- Please don’t take at face value what you read in the Telegraph/Times/Mail/Sun or any other newspaper. Do look for second opinions from the NHS, LGBTQ+ charities and human rights organizations, who are almost universally in favour of trans rights.
- And finally, please realize that as a cis person you will never fully understand what it means to be trans, and that’s OK. I would love for you to be at peace with the idea that sometimes you can accept something about me without “getting” it.
Or you think you might be trans or non-binary too; what’s next?
Come join us in trans spaces! Most trans people don’t gatekeep our spaces, because we all remember when we didn’t think we were “trans enough” either!
Someone wise once said to me, “but if you’re questioning your gender, you’re almost certainly not 100% cis… cis people don’t question their gender” and that has really stuck with me.
If you want pointers to people and places who can support you in your own hatching (or not, as the case may be!) please do get in touch.
Thank you for reading this screed, everyone. I love you all! 💛🤍💜🖤