The future is nonbinary... and so am I
August for me was a month of journeying, including my first intentionally facilitated experiences with psychedelic medicine (which I’ll share about in a future post). I’ve been enjoying creating and claiming space to process and integrate, and listening deeply to what wants to emerge.
Today I want to talk about my complicated relationship to gender, and to share out loud some of what I’m holding in trying to allow myself to feel into my own authentic truth. This feels vulnerable, risky, and necessary.
A friend of mine recently encouraged me to write from a more personal/embodied lens. I’m curious about that, and want to try: to share how something feels for me, not only how I think about it. I’ve become aware that I often obscure myself in my writing: I hide behind the wisdom of others. This feels both honorable—citing ideas where I first encountered them—and self-effacing, allowing others to say what I am feeling.
What if I wrote more in my own voice? Would people still listen? What if my gift is not only the act of curation… but in sharing how I am being transformed by that act?
I invite you to join me in this process of inquiry, and request the gift of you holding space for my emergence… and patience for my ongoing journey.
Seen and unseen
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a complicated relationship to gender. I’ve always felt comfort and congruence with/in my body, and discomfort/incongruence with how people read/react to my body.
I noticed at an early age that when people gendered me it usually meant an expectation or a restriction: something I was supposed to do, or wasn’t allowed to do. I experienced gender as limiting, and resisted. I later learned a term for this: what Paul Kivel and Tony Porter call the “Man Box.”
I rarely experienced—in my memory—what I would call oppression… but rather a constant state of surprise. People would make a set of assumptions based on my appearance and body, and be surprised when my behavior wouldn’t correspond with those assumptions (e.g. expressing deep emotion or empathy, or capacity for introspection and intimacy, or nurturance: traits not typically associated with someone moving through the world in a body like mine).
I didn’t quite know how to reconcile the tension between my individual and group identities. On the one hand, I felt fine playing on a male sports team and being one of the guys. On the other, I felt very clearly that when people referred to me as “one of the boys” they were making a set of assumptions about me and my fellow boys that didn’t feel true to me. Yes, I am “like” them, in some obvious way. And no, I am very unlike them in other ways that feel more important to me. And also: what does it mean to be a boy anyway?
One strong memory here: I was roaming the neighborhood on Halloween with several friends (all male) in probably 5th or 6th grade. One woman’s house had a particularly impressive Jack O’ Lantern, and as we left with our candy I called out a compliment on her artwork. She responded, with real heat in her voice: “Yeah, and you better not smash it!” It stung, and it took me a while to understand: where I saw humans connecting over a shared experience of beauty, she saw young gendered hooligans with a presumed appetite for destruction.
[EXPLANATORY SIDEBAR: A quick word on definitions and terms. It can be difficult to follow/untangle all the threads in current discourse; I want to share how I understand things. If you’re interested, here’s a helpful overview from NPR, and a more nuanced exploration of FAQs from the Human Rights Campaign.
There is a difference between biological sex (primarily a function of chromosomes, hormones, etc.) and gender (a social construct). Here is a deeper dive for folks interested, but what’s helpful for me is to think that sex is about our bodies, while gender is about the relationship between our bodies, our souls (our unique sense of self) and the culture in which we are raised.
Both sex and gender are nonbinary: there are intersex people who do not fit into the labels of female or male (one study found a wide variety of biological sexes that defy easy categorization), and there are people who live outside the socially constructed gender binary of man and woman.
Gender discourse distinguishes between cis- people (whose gender identity corresponds to their biological sex assigned at birth), and trans people (whose gender identity is different from their biological sex assigned at birth). We say “assigned” because that determination is made by a doctor primarily on the basis of external genitalia; actual biological sex may be more complicated/different than that initial assignment (see here e.g.).
Trans people can be either binary (assigned female at birth, identifies as a man, e.g.) or nonbinary (not identifying with either their assigned sex at birth, nor either of the gender binary options). There are also nonbinary people who do not identify as trans, but who do not identify with the gender binary.
There is a distinction between gender identity (how I feel myself to be) and gender expression (how I present to the world). Here’s a good explainer. For example a person assigned female at birth who identifies as a man (gender identity) may or may not choose to undergo top surgery to express his identity (gender expression) in a way more congruent with how he feels and wants to be perceived.
This is different from sexual orientation, which describes which people I am sexually and/or romantically attracted to (heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, etc). This is confusing because the terms refer to which sex we are attracted to, but in this case we often mean gender: who we are attracted to is a function both of biology and of culture. And of course this is also conflated with the act of sexual intercourse, which is a different type of sex than what we mean when we talk about orientation.
The “gender unicorn” is one primer that helps get at these distinctions:
Today I am talking primarily about gender identity: how I self-identify in the context of how society perceives me in my body.]
I am amphibious… and always have been
I initially attributed this trait to being born the middle-child, and gravitating toward the mediator/peacemaker role… one who feels comfortable in liminal space. I resonate deeply with the metaphor of the bridge, and the role of the bridger. But a more accurate statement is to say that I belong in both places: I need both land and water to be fully myself. I first encountered this amphibian metaphor in a way that really resonated for me in Shiree Teng and Sammy Nuñez’s gorgeous “brown paper” on Measuring Love in the Journey for Justice. In it they write:
Amphibians’ work is to integrate, as code switchers, to be bridge builders, translators, boundary crossers, mediums, and spiritual medics… They weave the connections and relationships for leverage, influence, and power in service of more justice… They integrate mind, heart, and spirit in our bodies.
Yes, that feels like my life, and the work I’ve gravitated toward. But: I don’t want to code switch anymore. Increasingly I find myself yearning to express my full authentic self in all spaces: for my kindred on land to see my land-self without being alienated by my water-self… and vice versa. To recognize that I belong here… AND there. And can’t stay in either, for I belong in both. And my life is not merely a life of service, of bridging land and water. But a life of thriving, of joy and revelry and fun… on the mountains and in the ocean. I reject the binary.
Reclaiming my fragmented selves: no parts left behind!
A big piece of this work for me has been reclaiming the alienated parts of myself: what I now in retrospect am understanding as an intentional 8-year journey (which of course will be lifelong) to return to right relationship with my brain, my body, my erotic self, and my heart… in ascending degree of difficulty, at least for me :-)
One mantra emerging from my first journey: no parts left behind! I’m feeling a deep yearning for wholeness, for integration, and for embodiment. Where I have tended to lead or be seen primarily for my brain (in professional contexts) or my body (athletic contexts; I’ve played competitive Ultimate frisbee for my entire adult life)… I now am intentionally welcoming my erotic self and my emotional self to the table.
This is about refusing to contort myself any longer into shapes that don’t serve me, that have never served me; the Man Box is one such shape. I winced when I first heard this line in Justin Natoli’s beautiful Queer Creation Story:
So the people gathered together according to their sameness. And because they needed to fit in, the humans squeezed themselves into boxes and clipped off the parts of themselves that didn’t fit.
To my great credit, I refused to clip off the parts of myself that didn’t fit; I just hid them. But I don’t want to hide any aspects of myself any longer: I want to unfurl. My parts all want to be expressed, and be seen. I want to be free, and whole. This is not about privileging one aspect of myself, or subjugating my big brain to other ways of knowing. Rather, I’ve resonated with the metaphor of geese flying in formation: they all take turns in the lead, but the flock stays together.
A yearning emerging from my second journey reminds me that my soul also wants to be seen. Kamala Devi (my outstanding facilitator at the ISTA workshop I attended last year) recently shared about their own ongoing journey exploring nonbinary identity, and offered this painful contradiction:
My sense of self resides in the soul… [but I live] in this very binary body.
How can my soul be seen… when our society conditions people to see my body but not me?
Letting go of the gender binary… and cis-ness
I have been on a deep journey into exploring my own gender identity in the last few weeks (read: my entire life).
What feels clear to me: the future must be nonbinary. This was the inescapable conclusion to my work understanding patriarchy, and how we can dismantle and transcend that toxic domination system. I would go farther, in agreeing with Claire Heuchan’s conclusion (if not all her premises):
Only through the abolition of gender can we achieve true liberation.
This sounds radical to say, and I invite you to take a moment and sit with the idea if it’s not something you’ve considered before: can you imagine life beyond gender? (To be clear: this is only possible beyond patriarchy, beyond the omni-present threat/reality of systemic violence and domination). In such a world, what if we simply didn’t gender activities, behaviors, traits, or each other? If we were just… our unique selves, individuals in common humanity?
So if this is my vision for the future I long for (it is!), if I genuinely believe that ultimately to dismantle patriarchy we need to abolish gender (I do!)… then what am I waiting for? If I have the rare luxury in our violent culture to enjoy relative physical safety in my large body—insulated by whiteness and other forms of privilege—why would I continue to hold on to an identity as “man” that I’ve never been able to define, and has never fully resonated with me anyway?
I’m still holding that inquiry. What feels clear: I will finally reject the cis- label; it’s always felt incongruous to me. I understand and even honor its intended purpose: to help people understand how gender operates inside of patriarchy, to help trans people be more legible and understood, without presenting transness as “other” but rather simply one of multiple ways of being. But I have always rejected the underlying logic: that there is some linear relationship between our genitals at birth and our gender. I don’t believe in that (il)logic, because I don’t believe in a gender binary that is connected to our biological sex. Gender is a social construct… so why tether it to genitals?
I feel like I’m back in the same bind/box of identifying as “man”: it presumes allegiance to a construct I explicitly reject. So if I’m not cisgender… what am I?
While I’ve always been attracted to nonbinary identity since I first learned about it, I’ve resisted claiming it as my own. For four reasons.
My attraction has been primarily about identity, not expression. My nonbinaryness is not about androgyny, or about straddling the gender spectrum between male and female. And I’m conscious that I present as very male… so it feels different in some important way to say I am nonbinary alongside someone who is read socially as nonbinary. They will necessarily experience more pressure/marginalization than me, because I can “pass” as cis-.
A part of me is very comfortable with he/him. I enjoy being in my body. Moving through the world as “man” (even if I can’t define it) does not feel entirely inauthentic.
I’ve been reluctant to leave my brethren behind. I don’t personally resonate with the idea of “gender non-conforming,” because I refuse to accept that there is a proper way to “be” a man. My understanding of what it means to be a man is capacious; there is no expression I can conceive of that isn’t “manly.” So why can’t I be fully me inside the container that is man?
It feels like a dodge, especially in the social justice spaces I frequent: I don’t want my right to speak—or be heard—to be predicated on claiming an identity that situates me inside of marginalization. I’ve long noticed the tendency of white men in social justice spaces to introduce themselves by leading with their marginalization: whether by class, sexual orientation, experience of incarceration, etc. It would absolutely make it easier for me to take up space in certain social justice contexts if I were to lead with my nonbinary identity… but I reject the corruption of standpoint epistemology into an identity politics that only recognizes my humanity inside of my oppression. As Jennifer Coates evocatively asked: “Do I have to out myself to be treated like a person worth listening to?” Or I could codeswitch: leading with my nonbinary identity where it advantages me (in social justice spaces) and reverting to my presumed cis-ness when moving through dominant culture spaces where that norm is privileged. I refuse.
But I’ve evolved on all of these fronts, thanks in significant part to an ongoing dialogue with ALOK Vaid-Menon, whose work I’ve been following for years, and who I had the privilege and joy of sharing space with in Colombia for a week in July (more on that in a pending post). ALOK, who identifies as nonbinary, reminded me that:
Nonbinary is not about what you look like, it’s about who you are.
While it remains true that I will be subjected to less social pressure than a nonbinary person who more visibly departs from gender norms (like ALOK), that reality should not interfere with my authentic identification and expression of what is true to me. More: it can be a way to address the dissonance I feel in being socially “read” as something other than how I understand myself.
In exploring this question I drew inspiration from this beautiful essay from Robin Dembroff, where they offer this invitation:
I consider nonbinary identity to be an unabashedly political identity. It is for anyone who wishes to wield self-understanding in service of dismantling a mandatory, self-reproducing gender system that strictly controls what we can do and be… To be nonbinary is to set one’s existence in opposition to this system at its conceptual core.
Um… yes please! The whole essay resonated deeply with me and my own motivations for leaning more fully into this aspect of myself, as both a personal expression of my authentic truth and a political commitment to the kind of world I want to bring into being. This:
Nonbinary identities force us to place binary gender categories under similar scrutiny, but with greater attention to moral and political considerations. We must ask not only what these categories are, but also why and whether we should continue to use them.
This is key: there are those who turn to gender identity and expression as an escape hatch from the pressures of patriarchy: adopting the trappings of counter-normativity without a commitment to changing the systems that necessitate this choice (as discussed here, e.g.). To me these can only go together: my commitment to changing systems is inextricably connected to my personal identity and embodiment.
Wrestling with queerness
I’ve never resonated with the label “queer.” For three reasons.
My introduction to it in the 1990s came in the context of sexuality, and I’ve always—and still—identify as heterosexual.
I am very aware that I am read as the opposite of queer: people see me as the paradigmatic example of the “norm:” the embodiment of those traits our society privileges.
As culture and my own understanding has involved to a more expansive definition of queerness—to include genderqueer, and even queer with respect to relationship structures like consensual nonmonogamy—I still find myself resisting the notion that those ways of being are “queer.” I don’t accept that. I understand that they are different from the norm, and that “queer” has been claimed as a badge of honor in the face of an oppressive system (as with “nasty woman,” e.g.).
But my resistance is worth interrogating. For example, I do deeply resonate with bell hooks’ definition:
“Queer” as not being about who you’re having sex with—that can be a dimension of it—but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it, and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.
Yes, that feels like my whole life: you think I fit in because of what I look like; you don’t know that I don’t belong because of how I feel. And: my gender identity or preferred relationship structure is not the most radical aspect of my existence. I am far more “queer” in society’s eyes for my convictions around capitalism, around patriarchy, and around the nation-state, for example.
In that same video/answer bell talks about the “essence of queer as not belonging.” I take her point, and yet feel in my body: fuck that. I belong. And so do you; we all do. This oppressive society is what’s unnatural: patriarchy and white supremacy don’t belong. The Man Box doesn’t belong. I refuse to be called queer when I know I’m the “normal” one… just not in the ways you think when you look at me. It’s the same reason I refuse to call my work “alternative”: to accept the label is to lend credence to the norm. I won’t do it.
I love queerness for community, for claiming belonging in an oppressive system… and I deeply respect and honor the choice of those who find comfort in queerness. And I love the invitation and the radical inclusivity of queerness at its best: from LGBT dance clubs to Pride parades. But I am choosing—at least for now—not to locate myself in queerness. I do feel in my body like I belong in queer space; I’ve always seen folks who identify as queer as “my people” in some way: my kindred intentionally carving out space to belong in a world that tells them they don’t. Though paradoxically I rarely feel like I am welcomed in those spaces, because my queer kin read me as decidedly not queer. And my truth is I don’t fully belong there: I’m still amphibious. Queerness is only part of my truth.
Beyond masculinity and femininity…
… is a field. I’ll meet you there (with apologies to Rumi). Here’s the hard part: the very strategies we need to survive the world as it is… prevent us from creating the world as we long for it to be. By clinging to masculinity and tethering it to manhood (or femininity and womanhood), we breathe life into the binary… and therefore the patriarchy.
In my life I have found comfort and safety inside of masculinity. I can walk the streets at night, comfortable in the knowledge that I will not be the first target. A part of me doesn’t want to let go of that.
Another part of me knows it’s a double-edged sword. The source of my safety is also the source of my disconnection: people (of all genders) read me as a threat. They see in my size and gender the potential for violence, and they give me a wide berth.
It’s a Sophie’s choice. And one we never got a chance to consent to: we were born into it (I discussed this more in the context of privilege in this reflection on power and belonging). I love this 60-second section of the beautiful documentary The Feminist in Cellblock Y, chronicling Richie Reseda’s work on deconstructing masculinity as an incarcerated person in a maximum security prison: it’s a moving meditation on the benefits and costs of trying to be man under patriarchy.
This is the tension. I want to withhold consent from patriarchy, with all of my being. And: I want to show up in solidarity for all those who are doing the best they can to survive inside a system that would destroy them. I understand why men cling to masculinity, even as it is destroying them. I understand why women take pride and comfort in femininity, even as they know it’s not their full truths. I deeply respect those who are working hard to reclaim their wholeness: men embracing traits traditionally deemed feminine; women working toward right relationship with the “masculine;” trans folks seeking integrity in their bodies and expression. And nonbinary folks most of all, especially those—like ALOK—who are rejecting the very idea of masculinity and femininity, and refusing to, as ALOK says, mistake the prison for a home.
I love this invitation from the folks at Rooted Global Village, reclaiming what we know is natural in the face of systems that would gaslight us:
We co-journey into the wilds that supremacy names as exile when in fact they are the pathways back home.
I want to come home
In so many ways that’s what this journey has been about, for me. The journeys of the last few weeks; the broader intentional journey I’ve been on over the last seven or eight years; and the journey I’ve been on my entire life. This is why I tear up listening to Show Yourself from Frozen 2 (seriously, I resonate so hard with the whole song):
I’m arriving, and it feels like I am home.
I’ve often used the metaphor of feeling like I’m on an island, separate from the rest of community. One of my epiphanies from my first psychedelic journey last month: I didn’t choose to go to that island. I was sent there, by those who could sense that I wasn’t like other kids (even when done with good intention, by putting me into “talented and gifted” programs, e.g.). But I never consented. My guide asked if I wanted to leave my island and return to community, and I took the question seriously.
The answer is no: I like my island. I don’t want to go back to a world that can’t see me, that systematically seeks to sever us from ourselves and each other. I want to build a world where everyone—including me—belongs. I’m finally claiming my island as my home: I want to come home to myself… and invite others to do the same. When we have all done that, I won’t need my island anymore.
I’m working hard in this post to refrain from my usual tendency to extrapolate to the world, to leap to implications and next steps. I’m trying to take ALOK’s advice to sit with my own process of self-emergence before I turn my attention to how it will impact others. This is not easy for me: as comfortable as I am with ambiguity, I’m deeply uncomfortable with feeling others’ discomfort. I feel a desire to give guidance, to be again the strong shoulder to lean on amid uncertainty. I’m resisting that desire.
Do I want new pronouns? Probably: “he/him” has always felt a little incomplete. And I love Kamala’s reframe of the common complaint about “they” as a plural pronoun: Kamala embraces the “they” as part of representing their plurality (we contain multitudes!)
Do I want/need to hold on to the identity of “man” alongside nonbinary? I think so… but I’ll sit with it. Maybe “nonbinary male” might be the most accurate way to capture my sense of self… though again it begs the question why my sex would be relevant (in the same way it drives me nuts when people want to know the gender of babies or my children… what difference does it make? Will it influence how you interact with them?)
Writing for me is a big part of how I process, and integrate, and think, and feel. It has been helpful to think aloud in this forum, to wrestle with subjects that I’ve held internally for my entire life. I’ve been enjoying sharing this process/journey with my family; I’m continuously amazed by how easily/naturally/rapidly kids understand. They have so much less unlearning to do; I envy that. My “the future is nonbinary” tanktop arrived last week, and I happily paraded around my house with my beautiful rainbow lettering. My daughter was inspired, and shared this with me:
She is going to host a gathering/workshop on it… I want to attend! I’d love to learn how to change the world (it’s a 30 minute gathering; gotta respect the kid’s optimism). She made a list of friends to invite, including a category for nonbinary… and invited a friend who identifies as “they.” Warms my heart.
I want to close here. More to say, and feel, and process, and integrate. And I will.
To my readers: thanks for listening. This is obviously a departure from my usual format; some of you may be relieved not to be bombarded with 50 links for once :-)
This post felt vulnerable to write, and feels vulnerable to share. I am practicing writing in a more embodied way, trying to center and stay with my own experience. This is incredibly hard for me. I also want to express so much honor and love and respect for all those who are on similar journeys, and reaching their own unique conclusions. I am worried about how this will be read/interpreted by others: those who love me; those who may share this journey but reach different conclusions; those who may feel too confronted to be able to hear me. It triggers my familiar fear of being “too much.”
And: I am practicing sitting with that discomfort, and sharing my truth anyway. Because that is how I aspire to live, and that is the world I want to belong to. As always, I welcome any thoughts and reactions—provided they pass through Rumi’s 3 gates :-) I’m happy to answer questions, including if my answer is to say I don’t yet know; if there’s interest, I’m willing to host an Ask Me Anything using the Substack chat/thread feature, for example.
p.s. And yes I know I promised Part 2 of Belonging @ Scale… that post is still in internal discussion with our team, and I hope to share in the future.