My non-binary gender identity was a cope
I do not think everyone else’s is. But it was a convenient way for me to find a simulation of empowerment in a bleak world and broken mind.
In 2017, I came out as non-binary. It was quite sudden and followed a slew of other changes in my life. I got a new tattoo, an ode to my experience with depersonalization disorder; a kind of sigil of protection that I may find magic in my dissociation rather than mere suffering. I got a new haircut that felt extra queer. I decided to quit my job and pursue self-employment as an internet witch reading tarot and eventually practicing astrology. Life was evolving and so was I, into my Truest Self.
I announced my New Gender by posting a poem titled “when did you know?” and other things I won’t want to answer to my Facebook friends declaring that I was Not a Girl, had always experienced alienation from girlhood and a confusing fear of women, and asserted that I was a non-binary person whose soul could not be contained within the confines of binary gender categories. It all felt so rich with meaning, and was met with such resounding applause! I don’t think I’d ever gotten that many likes on a Facebook post! How affirming. People from high school, college, family who otherwise had seemingly forgotten I existed all joined forces to signify with the click of a button that they were happy for me. I was seen. I was celebrated. I was valid. What a gift.
The only person whose eyebrow raised was an extended family member who messaged my mom and asked if I was ok. I laughed, my mom laughed, and my friends laughed too. Too bad about the dismissive laughter, because it was a really good question, and the answer was unequivocally No, Molly is not ok.
I once saw @he_valencia on Instagram make a post that said white women come out as non-binary as a career move and laughed my ass off. There’s truth to it. I believe people are lying to themselves if they think identifying as non-binary doesn’t give you a particular type of social capital in the “queer community” (read: a seat at the table of social etiquette dictators and scrap-begging among other disenfranchised, alienated people). You slap a they after the front slash following she and you’ve got a discursive power only a moment ago you lacked. Omit the she altogether and enjoy your new rung on the ladder of voices that matter. At least that was true back in the mid 2010s; I think the response to “theyfab” tenderqueers is less…warm nowadays.
Being non-binary is ingratiating to a certain crowd of people, among them are queer identitarians and overeager liberal normies desperate for an opportunity to flex their Blind Side-flavored savior complex muscles. “They” grants a unique type of power as an in-group skeleton key that being a run-of-the-mill cis woman simply does not in many places where so-called marginalized bodies exist in so-called spaces. It opens doors, even if where those doors lead ultimately kind of sucks and may leave you cancelled by the people you thought were your friends and supporters, like some nightmarish sorority. It’s still a place to land in an otherwise lonely world that’s often difficult for young people to navigate and self-actualize in.
I felt this. I feel my being non-binary lent me legitimacy in my context that being simply a cis woman may not have. I didn’t consciously come out as a career move, as the post I mentioned suggests, but I did so as a move towards certainty in my life. I believed claiming this identity would grant me some sense of security in a material world I felt so alienated from in every form: physical, mental, spiritual. I needed a foundation of self I still had not rebuilt at age 23 after losing it to 5 years of improperly diagnosed illness, and the psychological breakdown that comes from scrupulously embracing whatever weird endgame version of applied postmodernism we’ve arrived at as a framework for understanding everything. It was not a career move, but it was certainly a taking-back-my-power move. It was a a grasp at external stability for my unraveling mind. It did not work and it sunk me further into confusion.
At this point in my life, I was in a brand new phase of being an adult. I had finished college in October 2015 when I handed in my final essay to Universität Heidelberg on Gender and Linguistics. I started a job as an administrative assistant at a local college. I was $40,000 in debt for a degree that was not a boon for my employability, and regardless I had no clue what I wanted to do and doubted my capacity to do anything at all given my illness. Many of my friends from college moved away and I stayed behind. In December 2016 had a painful falling out with my two roommates. I moved in with my boyfriend. I stopped sleeping well. I was having constant panic attacks. I was extremely depressed. By the fall of 2017 I had ballooned up in weight very rapidly and could no longer recognize myself in my reflection. I was unhappy, lonely, aimless and sick.
I thought identifying as non-binary was a liberating, almost spiritual answer to my suffering. I found it playful. I delighted in the inherent liminality. I linked my gender with my spiritual beliefs at the time, my beliefs about my own past lives and the anguish carried over from them regarding exile and fear of my own potential for violence. I felt my soul was that of a tortured man enlisted in wars he never wanted to fight dropped into a confused young woman’s body. I felt my dissociation, that had me constantly moving in and out of time and consciousness, was well-encapsulated by the concept of being non-binary and walking between and outside of worlds. It felt like, with this concrete label, so much of these painful abstract feelings, so much of this self-loathing, so much of the relentless self-pathologizing my therapist told me I did, it could be transformed into something ethereal and magical, yet tangible enough for me to hold and others to affirm. I was expansive and alien and this would be worthy of embrace with a they pronoun.
But what about gender? one might ask. Like physical presentation and all that? Well, through various points in my life I legitimately felt more male than female. I often didn’t like my body and felt it wasn’t feminine enough. With the exception of a few years of my teenage life, I thought I looked like a strange alien among girls. I couldn’t identify myself in women, though honestly gender didn’t cross my mind much. I used to want my hair cut like Link from Legend of Zelda as a little kid. I once in adolescence stuffed socks down my pants to pretend I had a dick (in private, not like, at school). I sometimes imagined myself fucking women as a man. I always felt awkward around girls in locker rooms and sometimes at sleepovers, like I was violating them just by being there. Through college I would tell my friend that I felt like a boy wearing his sister’s clothes. I felt powerful and hot after I cut off all my hair in senior year and got that classic 2010s queer-coded-but-also-Hitler-Youth-how-the-fuck-did-that-crossover-happen haircut (which I had done in Germany, no less, and later realized that may have explained the barber’s dismay and attempt to talk me out of the haircut more than what I originally assumed, which was his “obvious sexism”). I took all of this to be evidence of gender dysphoria. I was indeed non-binary.
I found a fairly easy and socially celebrated (in my context) explanation for so much of my confusion in life. People reached out to me I hadn’t heard from in a long time. I was put in touch with someone who would be happy to offer a mentor-like relationship to me as a newly out person. I took this on with a hollow sense of relief. In reality, I did not find any true freedom. My situation did not change. I did not find self-love or stability. I simply became more confused, but with a little more interconnectedness to an amorphous blob network of people who I guess I shared a social category with, like an untapped alumni network of they/thems.
However, this was the bare naked truth: I was sick and I hated my life. I hated how I looked. Puberty didn’t give me the Jessica Rabbit figure I daydreamed about, and now I’d gained so much weight I was deformed from any indicator of female-ness. I didn’t want to look like I looked, morbidly obese looking completely unrecognizable from the mostly average somewhat chubby young woman shape I was before. I could tell myself that my self-hatred was internalized fatphobia until I was blue in the face, but I didn’t want nor deserve to live in such a body. I wanted a snatched waist, doe eyes and soft skin. I didn’t ever want a dick, even though fucking girls as a man was an extremely hot thought. I was also sexually stunted and unsure how to grow into adult sexuality; my primary sense of an erotic self came from imagining myself as a teen whose power came from being forbidden to men, and now I was a full fledged adult and I couldn’t comprehend myself sexually at all. I certainly had not found a comfortable way to understand myself sexually in relation to women.
I didn’t want to feel dissociated all the time. I wanted to feel alive and happy like I had as a kid and teen before my illness took over. Depersonalization wasn’t magical in any way, it was miserable and stole my soul. I didn’t want to be an internet witch, I wanted to be in grad school on my way to a successful job with a stable paycheck. I wanted to return to my mental acuity and sharp wit instead of being barely conscious during the day because I was asphyxiating myself with my own neck fat at night. I didn’t want to be alone and friend-less, I wanted to be embedded in a social group and laughing with people I loved, moving together towards a common goal, like I had done in every other phase of my life without effort. With my weight gain, my period was completely out of whack. All through my life prior it was 28 days like clockwork. Now I had gone up to 2.5 months without bleeding and I felt completely, fundamentally broken but I tried not to think about it, and my doctor offered no solutions. I was emotionally unstable because I had an undiagnosed sleep disorder (obstructive sleep apnea) and undiagnosed bipolar disorder. I was very sick. I was in need of so much social and professional support I did not have, not new pronouns and a gay haircut.
None of this anguish would be solved, none of this suffering would be magically transmuted into something powerful and meaningful, by declaring myself a special liminal being outside the constraints of gender, bodies, or time. My spiritual conundrums would not be solved with some arbitrary identity signifiers. My mental illness needed a fucking mood stabilizer. And my despair at my physical form could not be solved by anything other than getting my body back from habitual overeating and addictive reliance on fast food. And maybe one day I’ll have enough money to get a boob job or something (subscribe to my Substack to contribute to my boob job fund).
Gradually, I moved away from identifying as non-binary. A big part of this followed my experience being harassed online by a woman for reasons related to my being non-binary, which admittedly stunted much of my exploration of it. Once I fully divorced myself from left-wing identitarianism, my non-binary identity looked like a flimsy cope for the suffering of being human. Whatever poetry or magic I thought I’d found in it now looked nauseatingly empty and disconnected from reality.
I see my traipse through non-binary identity in retrospect as a sad, embarrassing fetishization of my own disarray in a last-ditch effort to find stability in an alienated world. The world is bleak. It always has been, but right now it has a particular strain of surreal, disjointed bleakness that has lent itself to obsessive self-fixation in a scrambled search for security in words that perfectly capture some essence of ourselves. One avenue for this is in gender, something so individual yet so compulsorily social; it’s private enough to suit an alienated world, but public enough to solicit connection and mirroring even from strangers.
In the last few stanzas of my coming out poem, it is clear what challenges I am trying to solve with my new identity:
it is gray space where I am.
soul out of body looking in mirrors
whose reflection is always just slightly
soul hanging quietly above
the scene of a now young
dressed in coral and royal blue garb,
the image of the 21st century secretary.
I am 12th house fire, and
cannot express the infinity of what I am.
not this time around,
With this identity, I am trying to find a linguistic way to affirm and embody a fundamental experience of disembodiment; I am trying to embrace and normalize a fundamentally pathological experience of dissociation. I am trying to find power and meaning in the alienation I feel from my bullshit job as an admin assistant, and the suffocating presentation and expectations I felt were foisted upon me by this position. I am, somewhat narcissistically, declaring special status for fighting the universal battle of human nature: we are all consciousness bound up by the constraints of an animal body, constantly in a battle between our impulses and our ideals. We are virtually all restrained in our self-expression by social expectations and barriers to resources or opportunity. This is what it is to be alive and human, tragic as it is. Pronouns could not reflect this nor alleviate the pain of it. It was a vacant, hubristic dead end.
I do not believe by any means that everyone who is non-binary is engaging in a flimsy cope. Being non-binary is legitimate and often materially significant, and discrimination on the basis of gender is abhorrent and must be eradicated. I do not see non-binary identity as something inherently pathological and therefore worthy of violence (I also don’t see pathology as worthy of violence anyway, rather of boundaries and support). I don’t think gender needs to be compulsorily restricted by or reflective of biological sex. I guess what I’m saying is ~non-binary people are valid~ and I mean it.
My story is my story and I’m not editing it for anyone.
I have been reckoning with the bare truth of the situation that led to my identifying as non-binary, and the conditions, both external and internal, that created it. I actually do identify with my female-ness quite strongly, and believe my experience of hormonal fluctuations is extremely relevant to literally everything about my life. I feel trapped by my hormones but I see that as the human condition of being in animal bodies with human brains that think too much. I feel like my experience with dysphoria was about not looking woman enough rather than dysphoria as erroneously being in a female body. As for feeling restricted by expectations on women, I mean, gender norms are restrictive universally, this is not news. But I value the historical work of women and I’m coming into an appreciation for my reproductive power.
(That’s one thing about me, when I first found out around age 5 that being a girl meant I could have babies one day, I balked and cried and said I never want to do that. I felt a visceral sense of restriction and fear about it and wished I was born a boy. Indeed if I could choose, I would be born male, but here we are.)
I value my own femininity but also am comfortable with how masculine I can be. I’m also very gay (well, bisexual, but attracted more so to women) which explains the whole “I’m uncomfortable in locker rooms” thing. I find androgyny extremely hot and fun to play with, but I aspire (aspire) to high femininity. And Jesus fucking Christ, I’m losing weight. Because at the end of the day, so much of my feeling of alienation from female-ness was because I’ve been obese on and off since I was a kid, and I carry my weight in a more traditionally male way on my stomach rather than hips. Looking back, the years of my life I felt most girl, most confident and sexually empowered, were the years I was at a healthy weight. As my waist gets smaller I truly feel so much more at home in myself.
(As I write I hear the scoffing and scornful accusations of fatphobia. Save it. I don’t care about that short-sighted ideological drivel or displaced expectation for me as an individual to make others feel happy about themselves by concealing the truth about my own experience. Further, and most importantly, I believe it is an extreme form of corporate and governmental oppression that so many Americans are increasingly obese—and I see fat acceptance as a depressing mass delusion to cope with the horrible, seemingly inescapable state of public health. And that is one cope that I do not believe should be accepted as its consequences are so dire. I see my gender confusion and related fear of being fatphobic for contending with my organic disgust of my body as an ideological obfuscation of not only my own reality, but of the egregious material reality of human oppression at the hands of the food industry and our government who is in bed with it. There are many many things I could write on my criticism of fat acceptance as an alleged anti-capitalist movement, but “that’s beyond the scope of this article” as they say. I’ll save it for another day and move on, though it is truly intertwined with my gender experience as my fat alienated me from my own femininity. No affirmations or conversion-therapy-level-tactics to change my perspective of beauty and eroticism could change that.)
I tried extending the gender identity framework to so much more than it is capable of. I recognize my story is not necessarily a common one, and I fully affirm that trans people deserve access to a life free from hatred and discriminatory barriers to material security and medical care. And I also know based on being told so that my story is one others relate to, and it is with that in mind that I share it so candidly. I have no interest in making outlandish claims that experiences like mine are some social epidemic, because I don’t believe that to be true. My story is not at all universal, and should not be used to legitimize bigotry or dismissiveness of non-binary people or delegitimize their material needs. I’m not a victim of “gender ideology” or “trans activists,” spare me that bullshit. It is merely my hope that my story can help sharpen the vision of what the gender identity framework can and cannot do for those contending with their pain and alienation. And honestly it feels good to get this shit off my chest.
"it is gray space where I am.
soul out of body looking in mirrors
whose reflection is always just slightly
That actually resonated with me a lot. I spent a lot of my childhood/adolescence/early adulthood feeling like that. Though I always thought of it more like I was an amorphous brain sort of floating in a vat, piloting a meat robot, awkwardly pulling levers to move it about, never quite able to bridge the gap between my ectoplasm and those others who appeared to actually *be* their meatsuits.
As for feeling uncomfortable in locker rooms, for me it was a combination of being embarrassed about being chubby while the other boys were rocking those washboard abs that they seemed to just automatically have, and what I later identified as bisexuality. Same mirror fantasies as you about being a woman and having sex with men. I am a couple years older than you, so there really wasn't any discourse around gender that was popular enough for me to find myself in.
It's interesting to see how just a couple years difference can lead to such differences in how we cope, for you it ended up being gender, and for me I ended up thinking I needed to explode my brain with hallucinogens to figure out 'what was really going on' or 'who I really was'. Instead I ended up with something like mild Cotard's.