I was watching an episode of Bones, oddly enough, when I first realized that I might be transgender.
No, I’m not kidding. I wish it were a more exciting story, but I have to be honest. I was just sitting on my couch, watching television, when the light bulb began to flicker.
In this particular episode, there was a distinguished anthropologist who had joined the team temporarily to help solve a case. I remember, vividly, the first moment that I saw this anthropologist on screen. They were androgynous — visibly outside the binary, sending the other characters into a complete panic as they tripped over pronouns and social conventions.
My heart raced throughout the entire episode. I don’t remember the murder, much less who the culprit was, but I do recall how captivated I felt by this character and their androgyny.
And then there was a thought that bubbled to the surface, one that changed my life.
“I want to be them.”
I wanted to be this person. Desperately. No, not an accomplished scientist, though that would be cool. I wanted to be androgynous and have everything that I imagined went with it.
I thought about how I might achieve that androgynous look, to confuse others and exist beyond categorization. But more than that, I wanted the freedom I felt they had — the freedom to be who they were without others forcing a label onto them.
Maybe I felt this way because, for a long time, I could feel so many gendered assumptions being forced onto me.
“Woman” had always felt like a filter that reduced me somehow, like it diluted me or masked me. I felt like an outsider to it, like it was a story I was told but never believed with any certainty. I had been wrestling with my gender, trying to fit in or at least coexist with it, but instead I came up empty and I didn’t know why.
I didn’t know at that time who or what I was. But I had a sense of what I was not. And I had known, for a long time, that I was not what people told me I was. I felt lonely and misunderstood without the words to express why. There was something about being perceived as a girl, and then as a woman, that made me feel alienated.
I took baby steps at first. I cut off my hair and immediately felt a weight lifted. I stopped wearing makeup. And I started reading up about androgyny, contemplating my next move. And then something amazing happened — I met someone like me.
I met Ray, a genderqueer classmate who, much like the character in Bones, was spectacularly androgynous. And again, I could feel my heart bursting at the seams. I was envious, too, of how they seemed to blur so many boundaries. I thought of how liberating it must feel. I thought of how much I wanted to be rid of the labels that made me feel so uncomfortable.
Ray gave me resources, guidance, support, and yes, the language that I needed to begin to describe how I felt. I finally understood. I was drawn to androgyny — people like the doctor on Bones, Ray, and other queer people that I met not long after — not because of how they looked, but because my assigned gender itself was making me unhappy.
I realized that I wasn’t a woman because I knew, on an intrinsic level, that this did not align with how I experienced my gender and myself.
The discomfort with parts of my body and how I was seen, the deep longing for escape, the sense that I didn’t belong, the inexplicable sense that I was misunderstood, the painful desire to be “something else” but not knowing what that was, and finally, the uncontainable excitement that I felt each time I met someone who was visibly androgynous made me realize that I felt this way because my gender was something other than what I had been told.
Maybe I had other options. Maybe, instead of calling myself a woman, I could embrace this androgynous space that I felt so at home in.
I was transgender, and at age 19, I finally understood.
I knew that this angst around being seen as a woman, and my fantasies about “escaping” my assigned gender, meant that something was not aligning with how others saw me and how I really saw myself.
It’s hard to explain how we know our own gender. It’s often just a sense of who we are, filtered through culture and the words we have available to us. We know, with tragic cases like that of David Reimer, the existence of third and even fourth genders around the world, and the countless stories and experiences of transgender people, that gender is more than just anatomy.
But with something so intangible, it can be difficult to express who we are. When the language around gender is still evolving, we are limited in what we can say. It’s approximations, it’s our best guess, it’s prodding at the unknown.
So here’s what I know: Each step I took towards the gray — the in-between, the neither here nor there — made me feel more comfortable, more at home, more whole. And calling myself genderqueer has been perhaps the most honest thing I’ve ever said.
Identifying as non-binary was my way of saying to the world, “I know what I am not. And I am on a journey to discover what I am.”
I am still on that journey. And the excitement I felt when I saw that androgynous scientist for the first time is now the excitement I get to feel each day, when I get closer and closer to articulating what it is I feel and who it is I want to be.
There is a conviction I cannot shake, one that urges me forward, a certainty in my bones that tells me that who I am exists beyond this binary. A binary that, no, cannot contain me and no, was never meant to.
Sam Dylan Finch is a queer activist and feminist writer, based in the SF Bay. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably eating takeout and dancing to Taylor Swift.