Last night I was closing up shop with my coworker Darren at Bishops, the hair salon where I’ve been working for six months. We were chatting a bit, and he was telling me what a great job I’m doing and how I should feel free to ask him for help whenever I need it. Darren’s been a great resource for me in my new career, and I’ve learned a lot just by watching him cut hair. Then, seemingly out of nowhere he said, “Hey, I’ve actually never directly asked you what your pronouns are.”
Asking for someone’s pronouns is becoming more and more commonplace, and it’s a practice I’m on board with. I’ve come to realize over the last few years, as more and more of my friends come out as trans or nonbinary, that you really can’t know someone’s gender until they tell you how they identify. I love that idea, that you can’t assume to know a person’s gender by their outward appearance, and until you know, it’s best to refer to that person by the gender neutral pronoun “they.” Our family is friends with another family with two kids and the parents noticed that their younger child didn’t seem to be exhibiting any specific male or female characteristics so they decided to refer to that child as “they” until they were able to choose for themselves, the label they felt comfortable with.
How I answered Darren was this: “I like the term nonbinary because I like the fluidity of it, but I’m not sure if that’s the term I want to use for myself. I feel like I’ve fought so hard to be comfortable with being female.” After a moment I said, “I guess that’s not a very good answer.” A couple years ago at a Christmas party someone casually asked me, “What are your pronouns?” I froze for a second then said, “she/her, as far as I know.”
I’ve wondered, what is so hard for me about that question? Why can’t I clearly assert that I’m a woman? What is all this fumbling about? And I think what it is is that I feel like I already went through my gender reevaluation back in my teen years. When I was 15, 16, 17, I didn’t feel like a girl. I had a feminine body for sure- curvy, with hips and breasts much larger than I was comfortable with. I got a lot of unwanted attention for my breasts. I also had cropped hair and thick body hair and wore boyish clothes most of the time. I was envious of boys- their lean, muscled bodies, the way they could wear their facial hair without shame, the way they weren’t expected to do themselves up with makeup. I suffered from acne and hated the time I spent in the bathroom, cleansing and exfoliating and covering up my skin with products, not to mention all the time spent shaving, plucking, and primping. I was attracted to boys but I also wanted to be the boys I was attracted to. All my heroes were men. Honestly I was a little embarrassed for women and didn’t like being associated with them. I decided for a while that I was a gay boy. I didn’t know anyone who was transgender at the time, in my world or even on TV. Actually I knew of one transgender person, Kate Bornstein, who I learned about from reading her memoir, “Gender Outlaw” (borrowed from my wild, artist mother). This was in the mid 90’s. I think if I had known of the term nonbinary at the time I would’ve been thrilled and latched onto it like a life raft.
But what ended up happening was when I was 18 I was able to get a breast reduction. I went from a DDD to a C cup and felt truly liberated. Suddenly my gender crisis just didn’t seem relevant anymore. Instead of feeling like a gay boy I felt more like a boyish girl. Funny that the decrease in cup size helped me feel more like a girl but it was really that I wasn’t resisting femininity so hard anymore. It felt easier to be a girl, not such a burden. And that was the beginning of not only feeling ok about being female, but really sinking into it, embracing it with a fierce pride. In college I ended up spending a lot of my time with women because even though I have remained consistently attracted to men, most of my best friends are lesbians- it must be something about their blend of masculine and feminine that I relate to and feel comfortable around.
Even now, when filling out a new patient form for a doctor’s office or routine survey, I feel good about marking the female box, even if there’s a nonbinary option. And with that always comes a relief, that I identify with the gender that I was born with. I’m aware of what a privilege that is.
Ok but this nonbinary thing is still appealing to me. Because the truth is, no matter how proudly I can state “I am woman!!!” There’s a part of me that’s like, “Yes, and also I’m still such a flaming gay dude.” And I’m also neither of those things. But since I’ve already had my gender exploration I don’t particularly care much what my label is. I’m aware that I tend to be dudelier than most women, but I also understand that the term “woman” is a big enough category to include dudely women like me.
I think when someone inquires about my pronouns I’m hesitant to say “she/her” and leave it at that because that makes it sound like I haven’t done my homework and I’m just going the lazy route, taking what I’ve been given. I want them to know I’ve given it some serious thought, that I’ve considered other options and decided that women rock and I’m honored to share their title. But I also wonder if there’s a part of me that’s afraid to make the leap from “she” to “they”, not wanting to be dramatic or make people around me uncomfortable.
Really I would love it if we could all just be nonbinary- just people, without needing to specify further. If we could make choices about our hairstyle, wardrobe, career, body language, hobbies, based on our desires and not so influenced by how our gender is supposed to act and look. Maybe that’s why I like being female. I like to show that I can be a woman who’s not necessarily conforming to all the female stereotypes. I can choose what being a woman means to me.