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Gender Is About More Than Bodies

Giving someone trouble for being or not being cis passing, for taking or not taking hormones, for altering their body or not, takes away their autonomy and their right to decide what's best for them.
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Transgender Sign, Gray and White Sign with a woman, male and transgender symbol
Transgender Sign, Gray and White Sign with a woman, male and transgender symbol

"Excuse me, sir."

The words came from somewhere behind me as I stood in line at the grocery store on a frigid New York afternoon. No one around me reacted, so I gathered the statement was referring to me. The person who'd spoken leaned on their cart, looking right at me as I turned to face them. After getting a glimpse of my face, they corrected themself. "Sorry," they said. "Ma'am."

It was the first time since I'd welcomed the word "non-binary" into my identity only months before that a stranger used something other than a traditionally "feminine" word to refer to me. I'd spent most of my time since coming into my non-binary identity puzzling over whether it was possible to get people to stop automatically using she/her pronouns. I realized as I stood in that grocery store line that it was possible. All I had to do was bundle my body in a heavy coat and scarf so people couldn't tell whether my chest was flat or not. Which wasn't going to cut it when the weather warmed up in the spring.

Given the parameters of the traditional Western gender binary, it's easy enough to understand why people see me and immediately think "she." I don't "look" non-binary. I read as a cis woman. I have a body that doctors and biology textbooks traditionally label "female," and I currently have no intention of changing it. I've listened to friends' accounts of body dysphoria and given them hugs with every bit of positive surgery-related news, and that's all helped me realize one very important thing -- I don't experience that dysphoria. That doesn't make my non-binary gender identity any more or less valid, however.

I exist in a strange in-between place, not quite comfortable in either cis or trans/gender nonconforming spaces. Sometimes, I find this form of going solo empowering, but it's also often painful and invalidating. Cis folks find my gender identity and use of they/them pronouns confusing and uncomfortable. The last time I workshopped an essay that mentioned my gender identity, I listened as the entire class twisted their sentences in every way possible to avoid using any pronouns at all to refer to me. Other folks outright refuse to use anything but she/her pronouns. Some care, and want to respect my gender identity, but can't break the habit of assigning people a "she" or "he" based on what their body looks like. The amount of she/her pronouns I hear coming from cis folks who can't be bothered to be conscious of their language becomes draining quickly.

But I'm often no more comfortable in dedicated trans/gender nonconforming spaces. "People in my trans support group talk crap about genderqueer folks," a friend once confessed to me. Their support group members claim that genderqueer people are hurting the larger trans movement. They feel genderqueer folks are ruining the movement's credibility and making it seem like someone's gender can change at the drop of a hat, or giving society the message that trans folks don't actually need things like hormones or surgery. I avoid many dedicated trans spaces, and avoid even using the word "trans" to refer to myself, for that very reason: because there are trans folks who think I don't have a right to leave my body as it is and still consider myself gender nonconforming.

It's a lack of acceptance I've become very conscious of. Thanks to high-profile MTF (male-to-female) and FTM (female-to-male) celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono, physical gender transition has a traditional narrative. That narrative frames things like hormones and surgeries as inherent parts of trans and gender nonconforming experience, as if anyone else isn't doing trans or gender nonconforming right (read: isn't trying hard enough to be "cis passing").

Holding that narrative up as the narrative is complicated when people like me who don't experience body dysphoria exist. It becomes even more complicated for folks whose gender identities intersect with other marginalized identities -- like people of color, physically disabled folks, folks from lower socioeconomic classes, incarcerated folks, folks with mental illnesses, and folks with any combination of those experiences -- because those identities often make gender affirmative body alterations inaccessible. And it becomes more complicated when there are people who fit only part of that narrative. Maybe they take hormones, but don't want surgery, or want surgery but don't want to take hormones, or want top surgery but not bottom surgery, or vice versa. Trans and gender nonconforming people have diverse relationships to their bodies, and to reduce trans and gender nonconforming bodily experience to just one narrative is counterproductive. It hurts everyone, stripping folks who don't fit that narrative of the right to self-determination that trans and gender nonconforming people are all fighting for.

Gender affirmative body alterations are a major part of trans and gender nonconforming experience for many people, and I do want to hold space for that. I want to hold space for that struggle, and acknowledge the lack of struggle I experience as someone who is cis passing. The last time I went apartment hunting on Craigslist, I chose not to disclose my gender identity to potential roommates, and benefited from how many options my cis passing appearance kept open. I am less likely to get attacked in a public place than many trans folks -- especially trans women of color -- simply for "looking" trans, because I don't "look" trans. Because I feel no need to change my body, I benefit from the safety and security of passing as cis. There is simply no getting around that.

But that doesn't take away my right to experience my gender identity as I do, because what my body looks like does not dictate my gender identity. The very existence of trans, gender nonconforming, and intersex folks is a testament to the notion that gender is not grounded in bodies. A vagina does not automatically make someone a woman, a penis does not automatically make someone a man, and being intersex does not deny a person the right to identify as a woman or man or both or neither. Bodies do not dictate gender. Period.

Policing how others experience their gender identities and bodies still grounds gender in bodies. Giving someone trouble for being or not being cis passing, for taking or not taking hormones, for altering their body or not, takes away their autonomy and their right to decide what's best for them. It upholds and perpetuates the idea that biology and genitals are the main determinants of gender, which hurts everyone -- trans folks, genderqueer folks, intersex folks, and even cisgender folks who feel pressure to do things they don't want to do, like shave their legs or play football, simply because their genitals look one way or another.

In this time of high trans visibility and high violence as a fallout from that visibility, we all -- trans folks and gender nonconforming folks and cis allies alike -- need to be lifting each other up, not tearing each other down. We need each other's support. Because that's the only chance we have of creating a future that's free of the violence the queer community has witnessed in Orlando and countless times before. That's the only way we're going to deconstruct the larger institutions and power structures that make the world as unsafe as it is for trans and gender nonconforming folks and other marginalized folks. We owe it to ourselves to take better care of each other. We owe it to ourselves, at the very least, to create a culture of respect for everyone's autonomy and experiences.

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This post is part of HuffPost's Journey Beyond the Binary blog series, an editorial effort to bring diverse trans and gender non-conforming voices to the HuffPost Blog during and after Pride month. As the LGBTQIA community celebrates great strides forward this June, it's important to acknowledge the struggles still pertinent to trans and gender variant members of the community. Please email any pitches to beyondbinary@huffingtonpost.com

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