Gender is – some personal reflections

By Emy:

It has been over a year now since I changed my name and asked those around me to refer to me in neutral terms. However this year of visibility is but a scratch of my experiences over the years. Gender in definition, much like my experience of it, is boundless, polymorphic.

Gender is power. This is what I have come to learn. It may enslave us or set us free. And though I have been publicly non-binary for a year now – still I swing between ensnarement and relief.

My perception of our world is grounded in its construction, or more precisely; in the knowledge of our construction of it. When I first read Judith Butler’s ideas on gender, they resonated deeply (gender is a social construction – not some imposed and objective truth). Yet I made no effort to share this truth with those around me, and certainly no effort to share the validation it provided my own identity. Around the same time, when the term non-binary entered my sphere, I was reluctant to validate it. Bitter with my own ineptitude to express myself, I instead convinced myself that this was just one more pre-constructed category to place oneself into.

I lingered in this space for years. Recognising my own rejection of gender but keeping totally silent. My own experience, I argued, was not validated by the language and perception of others. Of course, I believe this still, however after some time it became clear to me that I was using this argument to actually reject my own identity through fear of its external denial. (The potency of toxicity is surely linked to its capacity to masquerade as care). In time I saw that by hiding a core aspect of my identity, not only was I damaging myself, but I was succumbing to the weight of heteronormativity and neglecting the very existence of non-binary identities completely. I was, as we so often are, part of the problem.  

So, after years of hetero-pandering, I began to set myself free.

Gender is freedom

I began to consciously destabilise my heteronormativity and slowly lean into myself.

I shaved my head because I wanted to see if it would change the way I was perceived and treated. It did. I wear loose fitting clothes and with broad shoulders and a shaved head I could be male passing. The sexualisation of my body by men pretty much disappeared, I was suddenly being called mate by barmen and I didn’t feel the pressing of eyes on the street. It made me feel strong, and embodied the rejection of my conditioning. Every negative reaction made me surer of myself, and there were plenty.

These microaggressions I encountered from strangers and loved ones in backlash to the choices over my own hair were symbolic of a life time of gender oppression. I was pushed further into my own self-realisation and after some months of speaking with those with shared experiences and through reading and watching the stories of others, I made the decision to let my family and friends know the new boundaries I was setting.

The majority of responses I received were full of love and acceptance and made the whole affair much more emotional than I intended it to be. Others were less understanding.

Gender is violence

It is funny in a way, the ownership that others seem to claim over your body or experience in protection of their own world view.

I don’t want to express contempt here; I appreciate that this world view has been manufactured and perpetuated by governments and institutions for as long as they have existed; gender is a powerful narrative. Indeed, I feel lucky that my experience lies outside of the binary, as I have inherent proof of its falsity and my eyes are open to the true spectrum of things. However (without contempt) I must express that the protection and perpetuation of gender normativity is fundamentally oppressive and violent.

Sadly, those pitched in the binary corner will claim that the previous paragraph itself is oppressive, as is being asked to change the language you use. I guess the argument of who’s oppressing who could go on forever in that way, so I will instead focus on how the gender binary is actually harming people.

Male and female archetypes are harmful enough on cis-bodies (those whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth); expectations on the expression of emotion, beauty standards, toxic masculinity, the reliance on/exploitation of female care, the devaluing of female voices and achievements, the pressure placed on men to provide and achieve; these and many more facets of gender normativity have over time led to mental health disorders, suicides, violence and killings.

The trans community faces additional harm. On top of the headache of attempting to navigate the violence of gender norms, realise and express their own gender experience, they are discredited, disvalued, and face an increased vulnerability to violence. I am using the term ‘trans’ loosely here, as a person whose gender does not correspond with their gender assignment as birth.

This is how gender normativity has harmed me:

I’ve been gender dysphoric since I was about 3 years old. At primary school I had a buzzcut and was the first ‘girl’ to wear the boys’ uniform. Kids would come up to me asking if I was a boy or a girl, they would shout at or about me, substitute teachers would dismiss me as a clown or scold me, and I would correct adults when they misgendered me. All I knew was that I wasn’t a boy, but I also wasn’t a girl. From the age of 4 I came to understand that my existence was uncomfortable and even offensive to others. This is the age when you begin to form core beliefs about yourself and the world around you. Core beliefs teach you about your place in the world and how you should move through it, they are your roots. I developed the core belief that I am inherently wrong, uncomfortable, and that I need to hide.

And hide I did. As I grew into my teenage years my hair grew with me. I put on makeup and tried to be as normative as I could. I was ashamed of and rejected my younger years. I struggled with depression, social anxiety and crippling low self-esteem. And still I struggle. Negative core beliefs creep into every part of your existence, they are not limited to one facet of your identity. I had to hide my gender, yes, but also my opinions and thoughts, my art, my pain. While my gender experience has not been the only contributing factor to my mental health, in recent years I have understood the severity of these early childhood experiences.

And so, when I was finally strong enough to establish my boundaries, I was harsh in my approach. I was angry, and every aggression against me I somehow felt with the weight of having to protect my 4-year-old self. I felt violence inside.

I feel softer now.

Gender is truth(s)

With my truth exposed, the inner turmoil settled, and the external violence became less important.

I said that my perception of our world is grounded in the knowledge of its construction. If I am to maintain this, I must accept that truth, too, is also our construction. Some truths – those that can be quantified, calculated and predicted – lend themselves to being shared. This is the beauty of science. But others, such as aspects of our identity, cannot be measured so easily. They are a construction of inner and outer worlds so personal, so unique, and so delicate, that we can do nothing but to accept the truth of the other, to accept multiple experiences, multiple truths. If we accept these multiple truths as equal, we see not only that they do not invalidate one and other, but that inherently they are non-violent. It is the construction of a society which legitimizes one truth over the others that causes harm. A society that serves the heteronormative gender binary and delegitimizes the full spectrum of existence.

I am lucky enough now to have enough respect for myself to accept and share my own truth. (And guess what, my rejection of the gender-binary does not equate to a rejection of the cis identity).

Gender is self-love

Allowing myself to come out as non-binary was born of the unexpected time that covid gave us all. I was privileged enough for furlough and then redundancy to actually work well for me. Relieved of the pressure of going into work, fortunate enough to be able to move back to my mums, I suddenly had a lot of space and time for self-care and reflection. The more that I tapped into various forms of self-care – practices I might add had nothing to do with gender – the less comfortable I felt with identifying as a woman and being referred to as one.

Being your most authentic self is one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. However, like all self-care practices, it is easy to let slip.

Gender is relentless   

It took tremendous effort to come out at non-binary ‘the first time’. However, I don’t think I appreciated – or perhaps wanted to accept – how from this moment on I was bound to defining myself for others; a lifetime of repetitions. I wish I could reflect on the last year and acknowledge how my ability to present my gender and pronouns has smoothed into a cool and painless process. But in honesty I am struggling.

I currently live in Greece. Greek is a highly gendered language that I only speak in parts, and the majority of my friends speak English as a second, third or even fourth language. I have felt myself balancing the weight of gender validation with the imposition of culture/language on others.

At what point do you let someone know they are misgendering you?

Is it always worth the trouble?

When is it okay to feel hurt?

I fear I am off balance, in some way retreating back into myself. Sheets of self-respect replaced with guilty silence. Guilt towards my own loving self, and guilt towards those that unquestionably, consistently and respectfully acknowledge my gender.

But gender is not guilt, and if I am stuck it is because I have ensnared myself.

So now I write to myself, and perhaps to you, too, if it is of help in some way;

Your very essence defines and validifies your gender, nothing else. You may define and redefine it a limitless number of times. Nothing is constant and it is forever yours to move through. Not everyone is capable of understanding your reality – and let’s be honest, it’s clear who’s who. But allow those that are capable a chance. A chance for them to know and respect you, and perhaps to broaden their reality. Forget those that choose to cling to their limits. Focus on where you’re at. Gender is yours.

25 Nov, 2021

Emy, Greece

Author: Workers' Archive

Covering sensitivity at work and beyond on my website:

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