Content: Discussions of trans and nonbinary identity, coming out, slut-shaming, and claiming identity as a radical act of love.
One thing I’ve noticed, as a therapist and human, is that we don’t often talk about how terrifying freedom feels. Claiming the power to define your identity is a radical act of love. When we discuss living authentically, being seen, we leave out the overwhelming weight of other people’s gazes.
I came out as genderqueer and nonbinary when I was forty-nine. Some folks might say I’m a little long in the tooth for big revelations, but it’s not like my awareness of my gender was new.
The identity of girl and then woman were like an ill-fitting pair of shoes, pinching and aching. But those were the only words I had. Discovering language to describe the experience I have of my gender was exhilarating, but it also left me vulnerable.
I struggle with a nagging suspicion that I’m not nonbinary enough to merit using the word.
And, I pick at that idea like I’m fiddling with a loose scab. No matter how right it feels or how supportive my family and friends are, the trans-trender chatter upsets the internal armistice I’ve stuck with my identity.
So, I re-open the cut, wincing at the rip and pull, but ultimately going through my personal “am I nonbinary enough” checklist yet again.
Does the gender I was assigned at birth match how I feel in my own skin?
Does the binary of woman or man fit how I experience my gender?
Is my gender nonbinary?
What descriptors best express my experience of my gender?
Genderqueer. Femme. Nonbinary.
You’d think it would be a self-validating exercise.
I do so love a checklist. Most days, it’s okay, but I worry about how I move, speak, dress, and wear my hair on the off days. There’s the agony of my names, legal and pen. Should I change them? I like them both, and I don’t want to change them because it’s neither of my names that trigger squirming dysphoric nausea.
The too much or not enough of my junk does that just fine. Still, there’s this little voice in the back of my head whispering: is that enough to call yourself nonbinary? It’s absurd.
Intellectually, I know there’s no right way to be trans or nonbinary or even human. But I’m a fierce critic of myself, and I want my truth to be enough for the people who see me.
Cue the flashback.
Twenty years ago, my partner at the time and I were visiting my hometown. We went out for drinks with a few of my high school friends. My partner asked how we’d all met, and the person who answered, one of my closest friends in high school, blurted out: “You know, if [they] hadn’t been such a slut, none of us would have met.”
See, for teenaged me, sex was both a means of self-harm and a weapon for protection. At the time of that visit, I hadn’t figured that out yet, let alone shared it with anyone. It also hadn’t occurred to me the folks I was visiting weren’t having drinks with me, as I was, they were having drinks with a memory. There was no way they could have known the present-tense me when I hadn’t been in regular contact with anyone since I’d left 15 years earlier?
I’d sat there breaking apart with the humid breath of a New England dusk hanging around my shoulders. Forcing a smile, I’d laughed at the joke, joining in with my own stories, even though the person they thought they knew hadn’t ever been me.
Hey, remember the time I fucked what’s-his-name in a snowbank in January? Cold weather sex is the worst.
Or when I went to bed with so-and-so because they said it was what friends did together, like going to the movies, but naked and without snowcaps?
Christ, my guidance counselor’s high school graduation gift to me had been a t-shirt that read “So many boys so little time.”
But the slut-shaming wasn’t the worst part.
What crushed me was the idea that my presence in this person’s life was reduced to my teenage sexploits. They hadn’t talked about drama club (where we’d first met), or how we’d cried together over broken hearts and the casual cruelty dealt out to queer kids. They had started our story by naming the persona I’d used as a shield.
I told myself it was to be expected. My entire life was a performance, crafted to beat back the feeling of not enough. How could I blame people for seeing what I showed them?
Two years after that faithful visit, relationship in shambles, house on the market, I’d planted myself on my therapist’s couch and worked to ring down the curtain on all those performances.
Once I was able to be unapologetically me, my self-exploration began.
There hadn’t been time to understand my gender while folding myself into the shape other people had made for me. After all, it’s near impossible to make sense of your life when authenticity is terrifying.
What does this have to do with being nonbinary or trans or queer enough or radical acts of love?
Spend more than a minute on the inter-webs, and you’ll see that many people have a lot of rules for what constitutes enough. It’s enough to scare even the bravest most grounded person. For someone aware of their history of performative behavior, reading about what makes someone valid (i.e., enough) inspires circular, torturous self-doubt. The ouroboros has nothing on me, folks.
If nonbinary is a new term for you, check out this great article from the National Center for Transgender Equality: Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive.
But then I get a text like this from one of the people who has known me longest and best:
I realized that allowing myself to be seen and seeing myself is an act of love. Reclaiming the power to define enough, to love enough is radical, when we are so often told directly and indirectly that we aren’t ever going to achieve what culture considers enough.
My point: Making room for myself is the act of accepting that enough is mine to define.
Be well, be wonderful, and above all, be you.