Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik (http://www.jessicakrcmarik.com)

How Did You Know You Were Non-Binary?

Header illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

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.

The image features the author, Sam, looking down contemplatively. I often wished that these labels didn’t exist at all; being called a woman was like being backed into a corner I couldn’t get out of, and the sense that I was trapped was, at times, suffocating.

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.

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10 thoughts on “How Did You Know You Were Non-Binary?

  1. Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA says:

    Love this post! I have been working on a cartoon for exactly this, and will post it on my blog once I get it off the half-a-paper napkin I originally drew it on.

    I have always felt that I was born into the wrong body, and for years I worked at trying to get it to look androgynous, but since I have this very feminine body, and I feel awful when I’m overweight, and am five feet tall, and feel very comfortable crawling on my back under cars anyway, I just gradually stopped working about the body image problem. Now I seem to just live, and it doesn’t bother me except for sometimes when I feel like a fake. Then I remind myself that it’s all a masquerade anyway, that nothing is what it seems, and then I’m back to lying on my belly photographing mosses in the local Alpine cloud forest.

    I think it might be an age thing, in my own case. When I was younger, I was in the grip of existential angst all the time. I was a painter. My paintings were mostly portraits. I made all the people androgynous. I ached for a long, slim body, a tiny butt, to go along with my already gamin face and usually stylish skull-short hair. But I am not built that way. I even considered “body contouring” surgery, but pit that one to rest after treating some people who had had it done, and the areas were hard as rocks and devoid of sensation. Nope, not for me.

    I feel incredibly fortunate that I don’t feel pressured at this point, especially since I’ve recently made some large changes in my life that remove the necessity to have an assigned gender (giving up an Orthodox form of religion that has very defined gender roles), so I’m truly free to be just me.

    Thanks again for this marvelous post. Looking forward to more.
    XXX Laura

    Liked by 2 people

      • Sam Dylan Finch says:

        I hate writing on my phone! I’m the absolute worst at it, so I totally feel your pain here.

        Thanks so much for sharing your story! I’m so happy to hear that you’re at a place where you’re more free to be who you are. It’s a wonderful feeling. I’m glad that the post resonated with you and that we could connect here. 🙂

        I think, at the end of the day, being non-binary has been about liberating myself. And I think, regardless of how you identify, it’s something we can all relate to because those pressures exist for everyone.

        Like

      • Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA says:

        They do, but I think being gender-confused as a young person is one of the most difficult things to get through. The statistics on suicide in gender-confused youth are staggering. I happen to live in a community that is tremendously transgender friendly. There is even a directory of businesses that have gender-neutral bathroom facilities! The public schools are entirely LGBT friendly, and have LGBT groups just like they have chess groups etc. I wish I’d grown up in that kind of environment, but in the ’60’s that was just too over the top. It’s great that there is more and more normalization, in pockets depending where you live. I think it’s worth moving if one’s community isn’t open. BTW, what do you do about pronouns?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sam Dylan Finch says:

        I totally agree, it’s a difficult place to be, especially when you have limited to no access to resources and support. There’s an abundance of literature that testifies to how much of a struggle it really is. I know that living with and being in community with trans folks has even further solidified what I already knew from my own experience — being trans or gender non-conforming in this society can be painful, sometimes more pain than many of us can withstand.

        I ended up moving to find more support, which was certainly a difficult thing to do but I’m glad that I had the ability to do it.

        I use he/him/his pronouns — for whatever reason, they’re the pronouns I like the best. I’ve used a whole variety of pronouns, but “he” worked best for me!

        Like

  2. silentlyqueer says:

    I remember that episode of Bones, and I remember feeling similarly excited! Just the thought that someone could pull off a look that looked so uniquely -them- that people couldn’t easily place them in a box made me feel so strongly hopeful.
    I knew from a young age that I wasn’t really female – it just didn’t feel right, and didn’t describe me accurately at all. Of course, as a kid, you only really know about male and female genders, so I was convinced that I was a boy and that everyone telling me otherwise was just wrong. When I realised that I wasn’t going to magically become a boy one day, I grudgingly started to accept that I was born a girl and started to learn how to be a girl.
    Then I saw that episode of Bones and I wanted to be like -that-. Neither male nor female, but somewhere in between. I wanted to just be me. A difficult thing to accomplish when my parents wouldn’t let me cut my hair and I have this perfectly feminine figure, but I finally cut my hair and moved out of home recently so I’ll finally get to see what I can do!

    Thanks for sharing this story! It really helps to know that I’m not alone, even when it comes to something like which characters from a TV show inspire me.
    Looking forward to reading more of your posts 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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