Non-Binary: Beyond a Label
an op-ed by Suman Ray
TW // Discussion of gender dysphoria and transphobia/transmisia.
Dear Asian Youth,
My mother raised me in a household where my dreams had no limits and praying to Hindu deities was the norm. These deities had many forms and could present themselves in different ways; they could look like women, men, both or neither. I remember thinking at a young age, “I wish I could do that.” I promise, I don’t have a god complex. I’m just genderqueer.
I was assigned female at birth, but this year, I have started to come out to my friends and members of my family about my gender identity: I am non-binary, and my pronouns are they/them and she/her. I was thirteen the first time I told a friend that I had a crush on a girl, and I’ve come out numerous times since then, but opening up about my gender identity has been an entirely new experience.
For most of my life, I accepted that I was a girl. I was definitely not a boy, so girl was the only other option for me. When I was fourteen, however, I learnt that gender identity and sex are not the same thing. Sex refers to the biological features of a person, such as their reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics, while gender identity is a personal perception of your identity and “a social construction relating to behaviours [...] based on labels of masculinity and femininity.”1 My initial reaction was confusion. If gender wasn’t the same thing as sex, what made me a girl? Was it people’s expectations of me, or shared experiences with girls and women? It felt like I didn’t have control over either of those things; they were thrust upon me by other people. I knew that womanhood wasn’t defined by conforming to stereotypes about femininity either. I spoke to some of the women I know, and they said that calling themselves women made them feel comfortable. Some of them wanted to change parts of their body, but they always wanted female anatomy. I couldn’t relate.
I recall feeling like my body wasn’t always the right fit. Whenever anyone asked me, “If you could have a superpower, what would it be?” I would instantly respond, “Shape-shifting.” Gender, for me, is fluid, so I knew that my assigned sex could not match my gender identity, even though I didn’t have the words to express myself at the time. It is important to note that transgender and non-binary people don’t all deal with the same severity of dysphoria and the severity can fluctuate. Some trans people don’t experience dysphoria at all, and some use a different term for what they experience.
When I first heard of the term “non-binary,” I felt instant relief. I didn’t have to call myself a “man” or a “woman”, whatever those words meant. There were other people whom I could relate to, and they were living full, happy lives. Initially, I only used the term “non-binary” because I thought that the term “transgender” referred specifically to trans men and trans women. However, “transgender” is an umbrella term that does include non-binary and genderqueer identities, but not all non-binary and genderqueer people identify with it. Ultimately, these words are here for us if we want to use them, and if we don’t, that’s fine too.
My mental health improved significantly as I began to figure out how I really experience gender. At fifteen, I tried to come out to someone I trusted. I explained what gender dysphoria was to the best of my ability, and that I was still the same person I always was. They told me that I merely had a self-esteem problem and that I was self-absorbed for thinking about myself so much, along with other hurtful things. It was crushing.
Afterwards, I tried to numb myself to all the sadness I was feeling. I thought, “I just won’t think about my gender anymore.” In my mind, it was right for other people to be non-binary, but I wasn’t allowed. It took me three years to work through my internalised transphobia. I was fortunate enough to access therapy, and even though I didn’t speak about gender often, just being able to rebuild my self-worth helped me accept my own identity.
There are stereotypes about non-binary people that I seem to break by simply existing. For a start, I am not white. Among some (usually older) members of the British Asian community, there is a belief that queerness is reserved for white people. In reality, there are vibrant queer Asian communities across Britain and all over the world. Furthermore, queer people have existed all around the world for millennia. Ancient civilisations of India, Egypt, the Americas, Rome and many more regions did not conform to a rigid gender binary. Another stereotype about non-binary people that I don’t conform to is that I am not strictly androgynous. I like wearing “feminine” clothing, and she/her pronouns are familiar and comfortable for me. A white queer person told me that I shouldn't grow out my short hair because it would make me “look straight.” The truth is that “non-binary” does not have just one look. Now, I am confident enough to say that, regardless of my gender presentation, no one could convince me that I’m a woman and not non-binary.
Unfortunately, there are certain times when I think that telling people that I’m non-binary will put me in a disadvantaged or dangerous position. In sixth form, I was part of the Debating Society. On three separate occasions, members of the society attempted to debate the existence of transgender and non-binary people. They said threatening and violent things, and I didn’t report them because I was scared that it would lead to even more harassment.
According to Stonewall UK, “More than four in five (83 per cent) trans young people have experienced name-calling or verbal abuse; three in five (60 per cent) have experienced threats and intimidation; and more than a third (35 per cent) [...] have experienced physical assault.”2 I cannot make projections but, based on personal experience and listening to the experiences of others, schools in the UK are not safe spaces for transgender and non-binary students yet. Young trans people need more support. Specifically, we need the government to support legislation that protects trans lives.
If someone you know comes out as transgender or non-binary to you, it’s likely that they have mustered up a lot of courage to do so. Empathy is key. Saying, “It’s not a big deal to me!” might come from a place of kindness, but you run the risk of trivialising the anxiety that the person may have felt or disregarding the conversation they’re having with you. Saying, “I could have guessed,” isn’t helpful either. I’ve made similar mistakes in the past, but now I know that it’s important to focus solely on the person who’s speaking to you and not on your own perceptions and feelings. You can congratulate them, thank them for trusting you, and listen. You should consider whether this is a good time to ask them if there is a name and pronouns they would like you to use, and also what situations you can use them in.
To anyone questioning their gender: hello there, I’m just here to give you some quick reminders! It’s great that you’re taking time to figure this out, and whatever happens—whether you realise that you’re cisgender or transgender—it will be okay. There is no rush to pick a label. You never have to pick one if you don’t want to, and it’s okay if you change the labels you use. Likewise, it’s completely up to you when, where, and how you come out. You choose who you come out to as well. In fact, you never have to “come out” in the conventional sense unless you want to. The most important thing to keep in mind is to prioritise your health and safety, and I hope you’re taking care of yourself. If you’re a young person in the UK questioning your gender and you need to speak to someone, Mermaids UK is a great place to start. They have a forum and a chatline, and can direct you to support.3 It may not feel like it, but you are not alone.
Another piece of advice that could have saved me a lot of pain: try your best to avoid transphobic rabbit holes on the internet. All of us have probably stumbled upon some pretty horrendous comment sections, and sometimes I find myself scrolling through transphobic vitriol, stuck in a whirlpool of anonymous hatred. Please, if you find such comments, turn off your phone. Once again, looking after your mental and physical wellbeing is one of the most important things you can do.
I have weighed the pros and cons of writing this piece. With every word I typed, my mind was running back and forth between, “What will happen if my extended family sees this?” to “I’m so happy that I can finally talk about my gender identity.” I think about those protagonists in the mainstream queer films we have, who shout something like, “I’m not just who you think I am! I’m tired of hiding the real me!” Maybe I’m actually just thinking of Troy Bolton from “High School Musical.”
- Suman Ray
Cover Photo Source: https://greatist.com/health/nonbinary