by Keiran Elden
When I was a child, I took it for granted that I was a girl. But that seemed to mean a lot more to other people than it did to me.
My parents tried their best to avoid pushing gender stereotypes on me. I was young when I made it abundantly clear that I wanted nothing to do with the expectations of girlhood. I only enjoyed the dress-up parties with wigs and frilly skirts for so long. They became infinitely less fun when I realized they did not stand alone, but were in fact a part of an all-encompassing set of “acceptable behaviors.” My parents listened to my arguments against this, but my more distant relatives had no idea of the way I felt, and so the assumptions persisted.
Dolls with miniature hairbrushes packaged in dented plastic. Birthday cards embellished by a border of dainty flowers. Pastel dresses adorned with cute little ribbons. Everything dyed pink.
I watched the princess movies and knew what this meant. They wanted me to be one of those girls. Delicate and pretty, not made for ambition, not made to fight. Forever waiting for the valiant prince to come save her. Well, that wasn’t me, and it never had been. I knew what I wanted—and it wasn’t just the action figures, the Pokémon cards, everything dyed blue. I wanted to be strong.
My cheeks were all baby fat and my smile was baby-toothed. At that age, the conclusion seemed obvious. Femininity meant weakness. Femininity was my enemy.
When I started elementary school, my best friend and I considered ourselves rebels against the very concept of girliness. We embraced the label given to us by adults who couldn’t truly understand how we felt—“tomboy.” We weren’t athletic, but that was fine. Almost everything else seemed to fit. There was no other word to embrace, because we weren’t boys, so that would have to do.
We chose t-shirts and shorts over dresses and skirts, much to the chagrin of our family members. We did this not only because it was comfortable, but because we were making a statement—as much of a statement as one can make at five or six years old. We were not Disney princesses. We were not weak. We could damn well save ourselves.
Unfortunately, it didn’t matter how viciously we rejected the jewelry, the hair bows. It didn’t matter how many abstract characters we created to represent ourselves, and it didn’t matter if every single one of those characters was male. In real life, God had conjured us using a different recipe. The universe had granted us inflexible bodies, and all of the preconceptions that came with them.
When I was in middle school, I knew what it meant to be transgender, but only in the broadest sense. As time passed and I came into contact with more LGBTQ+ individuals, I slowly grew more educated. I learned first about gender dysphoria–an experience people seemed very fond of explaining through the phrase “born in the wrong body.” I had struggled with body image issues from a young age, but that feeling was easily distinguishable from gender dysphoria. I knew it wasn’t me the moment I read the definition. The problem wasn’t my gender, the problem was how I perceived my appearance as a whole.
My own lack of knowledge made me susceptible to generalized ideas about transgender people–ideas that only validated one narrative. For example: “trans people always long to look like their cisgender counterparts.” And also, “trans people always understand their gender identity from a young age.” It was painfully clear that none of these statements reflected my own experience, and so the verdict was always the same: I was not transgender. If I suspected that I might be, I was (at best) misunderstanding and (at worst) fetishizing.
But middle school was a complicated time for me. My gender was a conglomeration of jumbled-up emotions that contradicted each other with ease; I didn’t see my experience reflected anywhere else. I had learned that girls didn’t need to be “feminine”; in fact, girls didn’t need to be anything. They could dress the way they wanted and act the way they wanted, regardless of what that entailed, and still be girls. I think that revelation was supposed to make me feel empowered, but instead, I sunk further into neutrality. And when relatives gifted me books about “strong women in history,” I still couldn’t comprehend what in the world that had to do with me.
That being said, my feelings about gender presentation were shifting. When I was younger, I dressed in masculine clothing as a symbol of power. Now I thought I might actually feel prettier in feminine clothing, but I clung to the graphic tees and baggy sweatpants because I feared my own body, reviled my shape. Besides, I wasn’t very happy; the internal problems overcame all else. I didn’t have the time to worry about what seemed like something extraordinarily shallow.
I accepted the fact that I was a girl. I accepted it even though it didn’t completely make sense to me. There was dissonance everywhere, but it was subtle enough so that I could rationalize it—especially since there was a part of me that did have some attachment to that aspect of my gender. I had been shoved into all-female spaces throughout my life; I was sensitive to misogyny because it would inevitably end up targeted at me; almost all of my friends at the time were girls. I don’t think I hated being a girl, but I hated how that was the only thing I could be.
Near the end of middle school, I started considering that femininity might not be my enemy after all. I experimented with wearing dresses and discovered that I actually did feel more attractive that way. I visited my relatives in California that year, only for one of them to thoughtlessly comment, “You’re finally wearing pretty clothes!” I didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted.
By the time I started high school, I was wearing makeup and revamping my wardrobe with a collection of altogether more feminine clothes. They told me my tastes would “evolve” to become more feminine as I got older—they told me it was simply a part of womanhood. I found myself simultaneously happy and resentful that I was supposedly becoming what everyone else said I would become.
However, the reality of the situation was more complicated than anyone but myself could know. It may have appeared to everyone else that I was transforming into the woman they knew I would be. It seemed, to them, that I was at last emerging from my tomboyish cocoon to become a delicate butterfly.
But I had just grown to like dresses. Skirts. Jewelry. It was all cosmetic. I couldn’t shake the feeling that while my tastes were genuine, they had absolutely nothing to do with my identity as a “woman”—or my gender in general.
Still an underclassman in high school, I joined an online fan community based on a book series I adored. The series itself had virtually nothing to do with the LGBTQ+ community and included next to no explicit queer representation, but for whatever reason, it had garnered a very prominent LGBTQ+ fanbase. It was within this setting that I came into contact with a variety of non-binary people for the first time.
For most of my life, I had understood “non-binary” as a rather rigid set of traits: a desire to be seen as neither male nor female, androgynous gender presentation, pronouns they/them. It was strange and made me vaguely uncomfortable for a reason I couldn’t discern. I would never disrespect a non-binary person outwardly, but I couldn’t stop the thoughts from coming. Silently, I judged. I couldn’t help but see this whole thing as a fad, a way to make oneself a kind of fashionable outsider, a performative “gender rebellion.”
I knew I shouldn’t think that way. I knew it was somewhat discriminatory, regardless of how it was invisible to pretty much everybody I knew. Despite this, the standards of society were embedded in my brain. It’s not easy to rewrite patterns that have already been etched into your being repeatedly, year upon year.
I didn’t know what to think. I spent a long time observing and interacting from within that online community. I felt a twinge of uneasiness when I was asked to specify my pronouns: she/her, at the time. There were so many people who used they/them or multiple pronouns. I wasn’t used to being in a space where it almost seemed like the majority of people weren’t cisgender.
As the weeks turned into months, though, it became harder and harder to retain my initial views. My consternation slowly melted away alongside my baseless assumptions. Most of the media clearly had no idea what they were talking about, for these people were not the raving caricatures I had been taught to expect. I enjoyed speaking to most of them. I made friends with several of them. They were not limited to any particular background, appearance, or personality.
They were people.
I gradually learned to accept non-binary individuals and the diversity of their experiences. But my discomfort didn’t go away overnight, and I still found it exceedingly difficult to apply these newfound ideas to myself. I didn’t have dysphoria; I now dressed in a manner considered typical for my biological sex; I even wrote an essay for my English class about coming to terms with being a “strong girl.” For quite a long time, I maintained that while I respected non-binary identities, such identities had nothing to do with me.
Sometimes, people from the online community would teasingly ask if I was sure I wasn’t transgender.
“I’m a cis girl with gender problems,” I replied.
People in the transgender community like to joke about their “gender awakening” and the circumstances leading up to it. I wish I could say definitively what caused mine, but it feels more like a culmination of events and revelations than a single incident.
What I can say is that most of the conscious occurrences happened during my junior year of high school. The fight with my dad about using people’s correct pronouns, in which I called his refusal “disgusting.” The way I sat with a blank stare afterwards, wondering why I cared so much. The thrill I felt when someone heard my voice on the phone and couldn’t tell if I was male or female. The slight internal freakout after discovering that I enjoyed being referred to with they/them pronouns. The bigger internal freakout after discovering that I enjoyed he/him as well. The realization that maybe I didn’t just like pretty boys—sometimes I wanted to be seen as a pretty boy.
All of these thoughts and countless more brought me to research identities that fell under the non-binary umbrella. The abundance of new terms was overwhelming. I had to fight a new wave of critical discomfort in order to make my way through. I read articles describing words like agender, bigender, pangender. There were more obscure ones, too, which I think would barely be recognized if I mentioned them.
In the end, I returned to genderfluid—a term I had actually heard of years ago. An identity I was afraid of. There were vivid memories of being a preteen and seeing the memes making fun of these people, the comments on YouTube videos, the forum posts. For whatever reason, “genderfluid” in particular was an identity utterly despised and dismissed—perhaps because, by definition, it stubbornly rejected being reduced to almost all other labels.
Cruelty was commonplace, even expected, even celebrated. I knew because I had adapted to embody the attitude towards gender fluidity that would render me “normal,” and that attitude was mocking revulsion. People who sincerely identified that way became laughing stocks. Insults were hurled. Sick. Idiot. Mentally ill. Attention whore.
Opening my arms to this term was scary and painful. I judged myself, I doubted myself, I asked myself whether I was truly ready to confront a world that didn’t understand people like me. I could only hope that my family and friends loved me more than they loved their preconceived ideas about gender. But it was the term that felt closest to my heart. The more I thought, the more I realized that most experiences of gender resonated with me in some way. Genderfluid allowed me to be myself, in all my complexity; genderfluid gave me room to define myself and room to breathe.
There are probably people who would disparage me. How can anyone see themselves as an embodiment of multiple genders? I dress so feminine; how can I also see myself as a man? I haven’t known I was transgender for my whole life, so who’s to say this isn’t an experimental phase? If it hurts so much to be transgender in this society, why can’t I just accept myself as a nontraditional woman?
So many questions. So many questions that, to my ears, simply sound like: Why am I me?
The answer to all of those questions is the same. I see myself a certain way because it feels true; I dress a certain way because it makes me feel good; I identify a certain way because it accurately reflects who I am. And so what if it changes? The people who hound us with invasive questions are not really concerned for us—they’re afraid that we will exist proudly as something they don’t understand.
Life is full of ups and downs. Sometimes the downs feel more like valleys. It won’t be easy to live this way; it isn’t easy now, as the bitter words continue to fly. Both the world and ourselves will keep changing, whether we like it or not. But I am open to learning. I believe in my journey towards a truth that belongs to me, and me alone. In the end, I’m the only one who can determine my identity. I am who I decide I am.
July 14 is International Non Binary Day. The LOFT is having its 3rd annual celebration, to learn more, click here.
Keiran Elden (he/she/they) has been passionate about writing since childhood, and he strives to create pieces that are as emotionally sincere as possible. This is his first time publishing anything nonfiction; however, his works of fiction and poetry have been recognized by Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine, the Austin International Poetry Foundation, and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.