The Double-Edged Sword of Being Both Androgynous and Nonbinary

So what’s it like to walk through the world as someone who gets “ma’am” half the time and “sir” the other half of the time?
Publish date:
April 4, 2016
gender, nonbinary, identity

As many of xoJane’s readers already know, I’m a nonbinary person. I don’t identify as male or female, and I’ve hormonally, surgically and cosmetically altered my body to be more comfortable and fit my gender identity. By most people’s standards, I’m “androgynous,” an admittedly male-leaning look (since masculine is considered the default in our society) but not obviously “male” or “female.”

I also identify as transgender, since my identity and lived gender (nonbinary) are different than my assigned-at-birth gender (female). Not all transgender people are nonbinary, and not all nonbinary people are transgender, but some of us fall into both groups.

When I’m with friends or in the comfort of my own home, I don’t have to worry much about my gender presentation. However, how I present my gender is closely related to how people perceive my gender. Many binary transgender people try to present in such a way that they “pass” as their gender; in other words, they want strangers to read their gender as matching their identity, rather than seeing what they were assigned at birth. The idea of passing does hold up some ideas about what men and women “should” look like, which is problematic, but passing can also provide a lot of safety and gender affirmation for people who want to and do pass.

Being androgynous is most comfortable for me, but most people out there are going to try to read me as a man or a woman. In most of society, we simply don’t have space for people who are neither men nor women. It’s something I’m aware of and have learned to manage, but when an aspect of your identity is so frequently denied, ignored, or erased — especially when it’s something so woven into our social fabric, like gender — it wears on you.

So what’s it like to walk through the world as someone who gets “ma’am” half the time and “sir” the other half of the time? There are a few advantages — and a lot of frustrations — to being someone of ambiguous gender presentation and neutral gender identity trying to function in a binary world. My gender gives me some unique flexibility, but it comes with a lot of challenges too. I’m happy in my own skin, but I feel frustrated, even exhausted, when I realize other people aren’t seeing me the same way I’m perceiving myself.

One of the transgender issues that gets the most publicity is gendered bathroom usage. I am lucky that I have never been harassed or yelled at in a bathroom based on my appearance or perceived gender, something which many transgender people, especially trans women, have unfortunately experienced. Still, it’s disconcerting to feel like I’m quietly deceiving people no matter which bathroom I use, and the unlikely-but-real fear of being “found out” and verbally bullied — or much worse — is ever-present.

Whenever I’m out in public, I have to make a conscious choice about which bathroom to use. I usually use the men’s room, and always do so at work since my work ID has a masculine name and I present as male there. However if I’m anywhere besides work and I’m presenting as even somewhat feminine, I’ll use the women’s room.

When going to new restaurants or concert venues, I always fret about the restroom situation, and often ask my cisgender friends to check them out before I do, or to go with me. When in the men’s room, I worry that by sitting down to pee, people will figure out that I’m not a cisgender man, so I often wait until no one else is in the restroom to exit the stall again.

My fear of bathroom harassment is sadly founded in an awful reality for transgender people. One study found that 68% percent of transgender folks had been harassed in gender-segregated bathrooms — and the percentage was even higher for nonbinary-identified people.

Personally I don’t care which bathroom I use; I just want to be able to use it without anyone thinking I’m in the wrong one. When my look is so ambiguous, it gives me a little more flexibility, but also makes the decision harder because I’m not sure exactly which way people will be reading me. And given how gender-segregated bathrooms are in my society, how people read me matters not just for my comfort but also for my safety.

Of course, my life doesn’t just revolve around bathrooms. There are countless little gendered things, like walking down the aisles in my local drugstore and debating whether to buy “men’s” or “women’s” shaving cream. I always feel a little bit of the same self-consciousness, that I’m supposed to fit into one or the other. Some days it’s entertaining to play with the silly expectations of gender in our society, like using my deepest, manliest voice when going to the bank where they see my feminine legal name, or casually mentioning my experience wearing high heels around acquaintances who don’t know I used to present as female.

Other days it’s just another reminder that most of our culture has no room for nonbinary identities.

Rapidly changing ideas about gender in our society are a lot to process too. There is more awareness of transgender and nonbinary people than there was even five or ten years ago, but along with that, there’s still a lot of misconceptions. I’ve been told by some people that I must be a trans man, because I physically transitioned away from female and I’m out at work as male. On the other hand, there are people who say I should identify as a gender non-conforming woman simply because I am female-assigned-at-birth. Neither is comfortable nor accurate, and both misconceptions ignore a huge part of not just my identity but my lived experience.

Even in the virtual world, there are precious few opportunities to present as nonbinary. The vast majority of video games, from massive online roleplaying games (such as World of Warcraft) to cute indie games like Stardew Valley (my current obsession), only have male or female as character creation options.

In an ideal world, I’d be able to come out at my day job as not just transgender but nonbinary, and ask that people use my preferred pronouns. Venues would have gender neutral bathrooms, and Target wouldn’t just remove “girls” and “boys” from the toy aisle labels, but from all the aisle labels — or at least have an explicitly gender neutral section too. Individually, each instance of establishing man and woman as separate, distinct categories that everyone must fall into, one way or the other, is something I can shrug at. But when I have to face them day in and day out, they add up to a constant struggle.

Still, despite the challenges of having an often-invisible identity, I’m much happier living as a nonbinary person than I was living as a woman. I’m able to present my authentic self to my friends and in safe spaces, and if I can’t get everyone to see me as neither male nor female, sparking some confusion about my gender is at least a step in the right direction.