What does it mean to present yourself to the world as non-binary? It’s a question I ask myself on a daily basis. My relationship with the mirror is complicated enough. Doing the homework on what it means to be genderqueer adds another huge layer of “complicated” to the mix.
I was assigned male at birth and came out as gay at 20 years old. I didn’t understand myself as non-binary until about two and a half years ago. There was a brief period where I permitted the use of “he” or “they”. It didn’t take long before I came to the realization that, the more that people used “he” to refer to me, the worse I felt.
So, I drew the line in the sand, abandoned male pronouns and embraced “they”, exclusively. I figured, if I’m going to be a part of the conversation about gender inclusivity, I’m not going to give people a way out. It was a radical choice. But, it was a choice that made me stronger and more confident in who I get to be.
It’s not a label. It’s a disclaimer.
Here is what I have come to understand: Non-binary isn’t a label as much as it is a disclaimer. There are no absolutes or rules when it comes to owning your identity. The only thing you can own is that “you are”.
You can be genderqueer, but not non-binary. You can be non-binary, but not gender non-conforming. You might be gender non-conforming but still, identify as a man or a woman. It’s a lot to unpack.
Non-Binary New Yorker
I’m male bodied and, to most people, present as male in my day-to-day life. My clean shaven face leaves the occasional citizen confused from time to time. I have long curly hair and an obsession with $5 sunglasses from street stands.
When it comes to my clothes, I often make trade-offs. Buying clothes is usually a matter of necessity. As an artist who freelances, I don’t often have room in my budget to buy the clothes that I want. But, growing up in New York City teaches you to get creative. I have found other ways to express myself that make me feel just as authentic.
New York City is littered with inexpensive costume jewellery shops. My close friends will tell you, I have zero shame about shopping in those stores. I’ll use necklaces, rings, and brooches I find to amp up what I’m wearing and make it feel like “me”. Sometimes, I’ll throw a little eyebrow gel on or some eyeliner.
As a performing artist, when I’m on stage, you better believe I dial it up. I’m known to sew paillette and chains onto my clothes. I once glued mirror tiles all over a pair of old high tops. I’ll pin my hair up on top of my head and then make sure my face is beat. Performing gives me a distinct platform and visibility. When people come to a show, they usually have an open mind and an open heart. It’s a great opportunity to create a dialogue because they’re listening.
None of this means that I don’t experience gender dysphoria. I sing in a gay men’s chorus. For many of our concerts, the requested attire is a full tuxedo. Who doesn’t look great in a full tuxedo? But, let me tell you… The moment I’m done putting on that suit, I am screaming on the inside. The same is true of the opposite extreme. I’ve done drag a couple of times for the fun of it. I enjoy the process and the performance of it up to a point. But, after a couple of hours, I am scrambling to get out.
But, does any of this define the experience of being non-binary?
Non-Binary in a Queer World
Most people exist in a reality of gender-normativity. Even in queer spaces, I’m often the first openly non-binary person to enter the reality of people I meet. I know plenty of folks who explicitly identify as men and present as femme; where I do neither. How they experience manhood is neither more or less valid than how I don’t experience it.
For me, the challenge of being non-binary has been less about appearance than it is about language. The gender binary structure exists inside of our thinking. It’s usually safe to assume that someone identifies as “he” or “she” based on appearances. Most of the time you won’t be guilty of misgendering someone. Most of the time.
I get misgendered every single day, no matter how androgynous I may or may not look. But, I don’t have the time or the energy to correct every person who calls me “he”, or “sir”, or “bruh”. It’s already tiresome dealing with many acquaintances.
The number of people I know who refuse to honour “they” as a pronoun, based on grammar, is mind-boggling. Some of those people are queer. To be frank, I don’t make room in my life for people who put the supposed laws of grammar ahead of treating people kindly.
It’s not about them. It’s about you.
Living in an internet culture comes with an expectation to live your life “out in the open”. Instagram is full of gender non-conforming fashion darlings. People who make daring style choices and live to defy all the haters. But, that can create a strange sense of obligation for you to play up and “perform” your identity.
At the end of the day, it’s important (even for me) to remember that being non-binary doesn’t mean looking non-binary. You may not have the means or a safe space to explore your relationship with gender through your clothes. You owe nothing about your journey to anyone but yourself.