“Hey baby, did you miss my phone call?”
Seeing as how I didn’t know the guy following me down the street from Adam, no, I hadn’t gotten his call. It wasn’t wanted, either. He called out to me again, and I wasn’t sure if he was drunk or hitting on me or both.
So I did what all women do when they’re being followed by strangers and catcalled. I started mitigating risk. Was it more dangerous to smile, which could lead him to think I’m interested? Or was it more dangerous to tell him to fuck off?
I opted to cross the street sans crosswalk. He followed me. I touched my hand briefly to my hip, which I hope indicated to him that I had something on me. He didn’t need to know it was only a knife. Whether he saw it or simply lost interest in me, he stopped following and I walked on. Even though this kind of thing happens all the time, I still thought about it during the rest of my walk home and over the next hour I played over in my head what I would’ve said or done if the situation had escalated.
In one of those hypothetical scenarios, I yelled at the man, “I’m not even a girl!” and I imagined him yelling homophobic slurs back at me. And why not? If my own mother could say I’m an abomination, and if evangelicals can show up to a Pride parade to scream in my face that I’m deviant, why wouldn’t a stranger who’d just harassed me do the same?
That was something I didn’t expect about being openly nonbinary: Every reason that someone, like the catcalling man I just encountered, might be turned off by learning my identity ― from homophobic rage to confusion about my gender to just plain not being as attracted to me because I’m not a woman ― feels bad.
Nonbinary is an umbrella term for people who don’t identify with the gender binary or the gender they were assigned at birth. It includes people who are agender, or genderless, people who are genderfluid, people who identify with both genders, people who are genderqueer and so much more. There are as many unique labels as there are people who fall outside the binary. I probably fall into that agender category, although I still look pretty feminine most of the time. Luckily, nonbinary people aren’t required to be androgynous — makeup, hair and clothes are just products and choices, often based on financial means. They don’t constitute gender.
Still, in a room full of women I often feel othered, out of place. I don’t identify with feminine qualities, traits or characteristics. While it’s often hard to place exactly what I do identify with — we live in a culture that erases LGBTQ people and robs us of even basic language to help us define ourselves — simply put, I don’t feel like a girl. I don’t feel like a boy, either. I’m neither.
Because we’re just rediscovering the right words to describe nonbinary genders little things hurt, and we’re often dehumanized in such simple, succinct ways. Death by a thousand cuts, if you will. Just a few days after that man harassed me on the street, a former client sent me a DM on Instagram, opening with a “hey lady!” My pronouns ― they/them ― are in my bio and have been for weeks on multiple platforms. They’re even in my email signature. A few days prior, a close friend who knows I identify as nonbinary gave me a “hey, girl!” and our conversations about sexism centered heavily around women and girls’ struggles.
That’s another thing I didn’t expect about being nonbinary: Sometimes even queer allies — even your friends — get it wrong. And as someone who hates conflict, I ask myself if I’ve done enough to inform and educate the people I know about who I am. I wonder if my posts about being nonbinary have been enough. If having my pronouns visible on my social media accounts, which all of my friends can see, has been enough. If I have brought up being nonbinary in conversations enough.
But where do you draw the line between the personal responsibility of the queer person and the responsibility of others to do their part in pushing back against the overwhelming influence and effects of compulsive heterosexuality, of thinking of the gender binary as default? And who gets to say with any degree of certainty where someone’s responsibility begins and another person’s ends?
I knew I was nonbinary in childhood, although it took more than two decades to understand and define what it means for me, and I’m still not done learning. I remember being in the car with my grandmother when I was a kindergartner and declaring I wish I’d been born a boy. I got in trouble for saying it. It probably had more to do with the fact that I couldn’t play how I wanted and I was already feeling held back, but cisgender people (or those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) generally don’t wish they are another gender.
Shortly after moving to Nashville in 2017, I became deathly afraid I was a boy. What would it mean to transition, to tell my family they had a son? I cried while looking at dresses hanging in my closet I didn’t want to wear anymore. I still don’t wear dresses much, but I also know I’m not a boy.
Then, after encountering new and more places to talk about, learn about and engage with nonbinary people ― even if it was just via Twitter discussions or when Public Universal Friend went viral ― and after doing a lot of thinking and feeling, I was able to publicly declare myself nonbinary in 2019. Still, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to continually inform people of who I am and how I fit into the world. Most queer people have to come out many times to many different people. It’s not a one-and-done kind of thing.
“While it’s often hard to place exactly what I do identify with — we live in a culture that erases LGBTQ people and robs us of even basic language to help us define ourselves — simply put, I don’t feel like a girl. I don’t feel like a boy, either. I’m neither.”
It’s also important to remember that a person can be nonbinary and not heterosexual, too. Gender is different than sexual orientation; you can be trans and straight or trans and gay. Gender is how you perceive your gender identity, and it doesn’t have much to do with who you are attracted to. I’m bisexual, so I’m queer in both aspects, but that isn’t always true for everyone, so it’s best to just ask people what pronouns they use and not make assumptions about their sexual orientation.
Thankfully, things continue to evolve and nonbinary people are enjoying increased representation in the media, even if it’s still marginal. One of my favorite animated shows, Steven Universe, features multiple genderfluid and nonbinary characters. I’m an avid fan of autonomous sensory meridian response videos (ASMR) and love creators who use gender neutral pronouns. Pronouns in Twitter bios are more common than ever (and many cis people are listing theirs there as well) and we’ve even passed gender-neutral legislation here in Nashville. The advances are nice because you can’t be what you can’t see, but we still have a long way to go and I still often feel out of place.
Being nonbinary feels a bit like being a piece of a train jigsaw puzzle when everyone else around you is putting together a kitten puzzle ― you don’t always feel like you fit. But it wasn’t always this way. Native American and other indigenous cultures have long recognized multiple genders and the spectrum of possibilities. Though I am white and not a part of those communities, I can still learn from them and point to them as further evidence that the gender binary is counterfeit and a colonial invention.
The social construct of gender has different effects on everyone and it depends on your family whether you’re AFAB (assigned female at birth) or AMAB (assigned male at birth). It also depends on how much, or how far, you deviate from the binary. Some people identify with their genders more or less strongly. Some of us are still questioning, trying to figure out what it all means and why we feel like foreigners in our own bodies.
For me, an AFAB nonbinary person, the consequences are simple: I get the worst of both worlds. I get to enjoy all the sexism, misogyny and catcalling cis women do. I’m terrified to walk alone at night. I can’t afford birth control. Men hop in my DMs with unsolicited pics and my male friends have all tried to sleep with me at some point — a couple of them succeeded, and it was mostly never very good. And it’s not that I’m special, or look like a supermodel. That’s just what being a woman is like.
I also get to enjoy being targeted with homophobia and transphobia because some non-queer people hate the LGBTQ community; they hate gays and queers and they especially hate folks like me that don’t fit neatly into their notions of how gender works or what it looks like. They’ve called me “it” and “a sin.”
Even within the queer community things can be ugly for those of us who exist outside the lines of specific, often surprisingly rigid subgroups of identity like Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. As disappointing as it may be to admit it, sometimes the people who should understand what being different is like the best do the worst job at being supportive.
And then there’s the battle I constantly have with myself and my daily struggle with the mirror. It’s everything from feeling that women’s jeans fit too tightly but hating to not show off what curves I do have in baggier options to knowing a top knot feels too feminine but a realizing a short cut makes my face look as round as a dinner plate. It’s things that many people take for granted and might not be able to understand how important they are to having a healthy sense of yourself. And when dating is added to the mix, it gets even harder and I constantly worry that being nonbinary is the reason I get ghosted.
In short, being nonbinary can really suck. Or, perhaps more precisely, being nonbinary in a binary world can really suck.
But there are things we can do. I’m starting by writing about my experience. I also explore my gender identity with my therapist, and we talk about how childhood experiences and growing up in a conservative family have influenced me. I educate myself, reading things like the “Am I a Lesbian? Masterdoc” which covers compulsive heterosexuality and exploring cultures that honor the multiple genders. I journal almost every day, which allows me to vent and explore what bothers me in a safe space. I have found it’s so important to get the negativity out of my body and mind. And last, I’m working on building better relationships. I want to talk with my friends about what hurts, and why, and set boundaries. I want to have them on this journey with me.
Because that’s what being nonbinary is — a journey. I didn’t wake up one day and have all the answers, especially not in a culture that insists on seeing things as black or white, blue or pink. I may change my mind or change how I see myself as I continue to learn more about myself, and I believe that growth will serve me as I continue to figure out who I truly am. Ultimately, I’ve realized it’s not about finding other people who are putting together exactly the same puzzle as me ― or that if I don’t, that I have to pack up my toys and go home. I’m determined to keep carefully assembling my own puzzle over time and invite others to have a look at it and share in what I’ve discovered if they like ― and if I like ― in hopes of creating new and better ways of seeing and being seen by the world around us.
Abby Lee Hood is a Nashville-based freelance writer covering politics, violence, justice and games. They live with their three-legged cat and albino hedgehog and enjoy riding motorcycles and roller skating. They also write poetry and fiction.