November 23, 2020 7 min read personal

You’ve probably seen one. It’s an insidious beast, hiding in plain sight. Only the keenest of eyes among you will notice its silent and venomous attack.

It is the “male or female” gender checkbox.

Over the past few months, I have been slowly coming to terms with my own gender identity. It started with a realization that I didn’t like when my then-significant other said I was a “good man.” I felt awkward being called a man. At first, I told myself that it’s okay to not like a specific word like “man”; part of growing up is learning to use new language. But once I noticed, I couldn’t stop noticing other things. If I just wasn’t used to being called a man, why do I not really like being called a guy either? What about discomfort at being called a boy?

Now, and I think for a long time subconsciously, being referred to with these male terms made me feel like I was being forced to wear someone else’s clothes. Like I was being forced into a container that wasn’t shaped like me.

Realizing I didn’t want to be called a man or a guy was hard. Accepting that it’s okay to not want these labels used for me was even harder. But the labelling game wasn’t over yet. Am I just a male with inconvenient language preferences? Am I a female? Has my manhood been stolen by the radical left to be replaced by anarcho-communist Marxism? None of these options sounded right.

On the internet, of course, all questions have answers. Down the rabbit hole I went, crawling past stories of trans woman after trans woman and how they recognized their own gender identity, but nothing resonated with me. Stuck between the choice of staying a man and becoming a woman, the fear of societal hatred scared me into a corner.

Then I found stories of something different, something unapologetically sticking it to the system. Non-binary identity, being not a man or a woman but something else. Something between, beyond, and exciting. I wasn’t sure in the first hour or the first day, but once I had seen it, once I had heard of others who felt like I did, I started feeling more in control of myself, more confident, and happier.

I’ve started experimenting with new clothes, new looks, and I feel better about my body than I have since elementary school. I feel more open to express my feelings without the heavy blanket of masculinity choking me.

I am a non-binary person.

Incidentally, with a deadly infectious disease out of control, it’s been easier to discover these things for myself. In the before times, being around so many people who saw me as a male made it hard for me to recognize that I might not be a male after all. Now, staying at home with only my thoughts, genderless internet identity, and grudging occasional contact with other human beings has helped me explore what I want to be, independent of what society wants or believes about me.

I also turned 20 in the past few months, which, other than sounding cool and finally giving me an excuse not to associate myself with teenagers, was honestly entirely uninteresting. But it did lead me to some questions, like: how are there 15-year-olds that started successful businesses when I’m still struggling to get out of bed and do my schoolwork? But more importantly, how could I have hidden this divergent identity from even myself for two decades now?

These two observations (about the coronavirus and my long-held secret identity, not about wildly more successful high schoolers) are deeply related to socialization. Almost everyone, and literally everyone my age or older, was raised within the gender binary. I didn’t understand the term “non-binary” until after high school, and by then, the idea of being a man as opposed to a woman was ingrained into me.

When addressed as part of a crowd, I was part of the gentlemen, and not part of the ladies. When in P.E. class I went to the boys’ locker-room and not the girls’ locker-room, and I was on the boys’ side in team sports instead of the girls’ side. I went to the boys’ bathroom instead of the girls’ bathroom. I came when my mom called “BOYS!” and smiled when she called me her handsome son (and grimaced in embarrassment as a teenager, I’m sure). I followed my dad’s interests in cars and computers, and while I regret neither, I wonder what I might have sewn had I followed my mother’s quilting hobby.

These small, uncomfortable categorizations I—and many others—experience are just the tip of the iceberg. For one, there is practically zero non-binary representation in popular culture. Unless you go out of your way to look for them, non-binary people are almost completely absent in politics and the media. In the United States, the 2020 election marks the first time a non-binary person took state legislative office. Of every regular or recurring character in broadcast, cable, or streaming TV released in the last year, five are non-binary.

Society itself has broad, deep, and long-lasting impacts on gender identity and expression.

The near-complete absence of non-binary identity in the public consciousness is not caused by a lack of non-binary people. The apparent lack of non-binary people is caused by a lack of representation. I certainly believe that if I had seen other non-binary people, I would have recognized my gender identity sooner. I lost years of my life to an imitation of a male, using my name. The only reason I found my truth was that I’m in circles with transgender people, and I could see people transition away from the gender they were assigned at birth. With more visibility and education of non-binary identity, I believe I and many others could have recognized ourselves in these examples sooner. With less, as many people throughout society experience, the truth of gender identity can remain out of conscious knowledge for a lifetime.

Even now, after having acknowledged that I am not male like I thought I was, I find it hard to accept, appreciate, and express the more feminine aspects of my personality. I suspect it will be hard for a long time. With everyone around me categorized into male and female boxes, it’s incredibly difficult to build an idea of how I want to act, how I want to live.

For non-binary people, the gender binary is oppressive. The gender binary is a cage keeping us from our true selves, our most authentic lives. There is a large pool of research finding that transgender people are happier, less depressed, and less anxious after transitioning to their true gender. The gender binary makes it hard to imagine transitioning to a non-binary gender and makes it hard for others to recognize non-binary people’s gender once they do transition.

Small acts on everyone’s part can help. Share your pronouns to make it easier for transgender people to offer theirs. Encourage and practice acts of individuality over gender role conformance. Use language that includes everyone without taking male as the default gender (like ‘fam’!). Always treat others with respect and awareness that their life is unique and their experience different from yours. And always include an “other” gender checkbox! These are not always easy—I struggle with them often—but they are important building blocks in making a better community for everyone.

A brief glossary, of the way I use these terms, and not necessarily the way everyone may use them: