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I’m a queer, nonbinary (neither male nor female) transgender person. My experiences as such are an integral part of my life and identity. However, if I had been born in a different time or a different place, or even just had a different set of circumstances growing up, I might have identified as a straight girl instead. While my current gender is an authentic and integral part of myself, the simplistic “born this way” narrative doesn’t accurately reflect my relationship with my own gender throughout my life.
LGBTQ people are becoming more and more visible in the media, and a clear narrative for our lives has emerged. In response to the misleading “Being gay or transgender is a choice!” anti-LGBTQ propaganda, the new narrative instead says we’re “born this way,” as exemplified by the popular Lady Gaga song.
The “born this way” narrative says that we’ve always been queer, we’ve always known it on some level (even if we were in active denial for a while), and we will be queer in the same way for the rest of our lives. This narrative was especially prevalent during the fight for marriage equality; according to the pro-equality rhetoric, we deserve equal rights because we were born gay, because it’s not a choice.
For transgender people, we can also see this idea in the common but misleading phrase “born in the wrong body.” This terminology has fallen out of favor with many trans people, but it still has a strong hold in the media. The phrase suggests that we have always identified as one gender in clear opposition to our body and its assigned gender. In addition to sending some damaging, normative messages about what “male” and “female” bodies should look like, it assumes a simple, binary, and unchanging gender identity.
For many LGBTQ people, this type of narrative fits - but not for all of us.
The "born this way" narrative ignores the role that circumstances, experiences, culture, and privilege have on our identity. My gender and sexual orientation are absolutely a part of me, but if I had grown up and lived in radically different circumstances, I probably wouldn’t understand or express them in the same way.
I never chose to be nonbinary, transgender, or queer, but I don’t think it’s as simple as something in my DNA either. My relationship with my gender has changed over time, but that fluidity doesn’t make my current understanding of it invalid.
I always had some inklings of a non-conforming gender identity, but as I got older, those grew and became more important to me, and I had the freedom to explore those in a supportive environment. I realized that I was much more comfortable as a nonbinary transgender person, even with the discrimination I faced, than I was as a cisgender woman. Living as a nonbinary transgender person is most authentic for me.
However, if I had grown up in very different circumstances, I would likely be a very different person, and I don’t doubt my identified gender could have been different as well.
Unfortunately, the “born this way” narrative has had a negative impact both on me coming to terms with my identity and on my family’s ability to understand and accept my gender.
When I came out to my parents as transgender, my father said to me, “You don’t know what transgender is. Transgender kids know when they’re very young; it’s a very sad thing and you didn’t act like a boy growing up, so you’re not trans.”
His words hurt, even though I wasn’t surprised. That view is narrow and inaccurate, but unfortunately, it’s not hard to see where he got that idea. The narratives of transgender people in popular culture revolve around the idea that they have always known that they’re transgender, at least on some level. Some trans people clearly assert their gender identity as kindergartners and others may not fully come out until they’re middle-aged or older, but the idea remains that you knew your gender from the moment you were conscious of gender, regardless of the age you came out.
For many transgender people, that narrative fits. There are some people, both those who came out young and those who came out many decades into their life, who knew by the time they were five years old. However, many of us, especially nonbinary folks, didn’t assert or even realize our gender identity until we were much older.
I had no idea I wasn’t a girl until I entered college. I was a socially awkward kid, and while I knew I never fit in and femininity always felt like a performance, I wasn’t aware that changing my gender was an option. It simply didn’t occur to me that my discomfort and how I related to myself was tied to gender. Our society’s view of gender is so binary that it’s hard to imagine anyone not being a man or a woman. This makes it extremely hard for nonbinary people to come out, since up until recently many of us didn’t even have the language to examine our internal relationship with our body and gender outside of cisgender and heterosexual norms.
Looking back, there were some signs that I might not have been a cisgender woman. I was fascinated by the idea of third genders in other cultures and researched them endlessly, though I couldn’t explain why I was so drawn to the idea of people who were neither male nor female. I felt more comfortable stealing my boyfriend’s clothes than wearing my own, and I consciously put on make-up and girly clothing to attract men, not because it was my preferred style.
But people told me I was pretty when I dressed like a girl and looked at me funny when I wore masculine clothes, and when you desperately want friends and you’re already considered kind of weird, you do what you can to try to blend in. For me, that meant continuing to live as a girl. If I had continued to face that kind of pressure, without any exposure to the concept of nonbinary gender, I might have kept identifying as female for the rest of my life and molded myself to be more feminine.
I ended up in Boston after college, and finally learned that yes, nonbinary people exist here, even though they aren’t very visible in our culture. Fortunately, I had the money, social support, and health resources to come out and transition.
However, if my circumstances and exposure to ideas about gender had been different, I might never have come out as nonbinary, or even as not-straight. I might not have even known, and continued to identify internally as a straight girl, ignoring and burying all the hints to the contrary.
This isn’t to say that in an alternate reality, my authentic self would truly be a straight girl. But my understanding of my authentic self is absolutely shaped by the world around me, and it’s important for me to acknowledge that in my relationship with my identity.
Other queer folks have been speaking up about their experiences outside the “born this way” narrative, and I’m glad it’s slowly starting to gain traction. There is no single narrative that fits all LGBTQ people, and we shouldn’t have to revise our histories or deny that for some of us, our gender or orientation might change over the course of our lives.
The idea that everyone must make a hard choice between “knew I was gay/bisexual/transgender since I was four years old” and “must be cisgender and heterosexual” is still too prevalent and still too strong.
Ultimately, no one should have to justify or defend their sexual orientation or gender. While people may have different experiences based on when they realized their current orientation or gender, or when they came out, our experiences are shaped by myriad other factors as well: family background, race, culture, social networks, work environment, and so much more.
We all have some choices about how we live our lives, though those choices may be largely shaped by factors beyond our control. For me, I know that living as a queer, nonbinary transgender person is far more comfortable, authentic, and satisfying than living as a straight woman would be. I want everyone I know to have that opportunity as well, even if their experiences don’t fit the narrow narrative of “born this way.”