I’ve recently quarreled with my own perception of myself in the mirror (quarantine hasn’t done me any favors). My haggard, uncut hair, my evasion of shaving, my overtly dark metal band t-shirt, all of this contributed to a wave of dysphoria running over me again. The wave wanted me to say, “Who is that? Are they actually a he?”
Despite my anxiety (and having been isolated for who knows how long now), I’ve been moved by the ways my body, clothing, and voice present themselves. As a nonbinary person (using they/them/theirs pronouns), I find myself ensconced among my multitudes, the ways I challenge and reject the gender binary. I fully invoke Walt Whitman when I say this—I often feel like I’m meandering between worlds. My longer hair, though, feels more womanly, and once I shave my face, it will be doubly accentuated. I might put on a woman’s cardigan (my salmon pink one is my favorite), wash my pair of leggings, and feel comfortable as myself. No one needs to see me to prove how I am.
A good friend of mine, another nonbinary individual, has worn a beard for as long as I’ve known them, going on four or five years now. Of course, without prior knowledge, most people will denote us as male, using he/him/his pronouns, and think nothing of it. Of course, it’s not all the people’s fault, and of course it’s not ours, either.
Nonbinary people thrive in this genderless expanse for a reason; our visual and unseen presentation of being nonbinary can be anything we want, even if it’s nothing at all. We are included under the transgender umbrella, and can express ourselves however we see fit that embodies who we are. To be clear: nonbinary isn’t to say we exist in a gray area of gender. Nor are we lost in ambiguity. My friend can have a beard and is still nonbinary. Another friend might really love wearing dresses, but they aren’t a woman: they’re nonbinary.
No matter how much I repeat myself, the pressing conundrum is how to know a nonbinary person when a person sees one. The answer is that they’re all around us. Some might not even know they are. A man doesn’t have to wear women’s clothing to earn the title of nonbinary, just as much as a man doesn’t have to wear pants, a tie, or have male genitalia to be a man.
Clothing is an imperfect form of expression, especially if it anticipates only two genders. I’m constantly debating with my closet on what to adorn, of how I might obscure the assumption of gender. I spend so much time before I go to bed deliberating what sweater would look most effeminate with my tighter red pants. I usually shave so regularly that one would swear I’ve never hit puberty. I try to be out as much as possible at work, where I’m most comfortable.
When I visit my parents, however, I put on a pair of relaxed fit jeans, hiking boots, and a hoodie. Not exactly flattering, not exactly demonstrative of who I am, but a middle-ground, nonetheless. I find pullover hoodies are perfectly neutral, befitting for me. Most cishet people have difficulty thinking outside of the gender binary to begin with, let alone acknowledging that other genders exist and are valid.
What I want to say is that there’s no right way to be nonbinary. There’s no right way to be a man, no right way to be a woman. Gender identity is fluid—as are all intersections of identity—so it ought to be normalized that anyone can blur the definitions of what gender (or non-gender) means to them. There’s no defined way to act or look to be nonbinary—that’s the point. We are not what is perceived of us. If identity is a glacier, most of it is unseen beneath the surface of water.
Should we craft our own aesthetic, should we have our own accents, in ways that others of our queer friends and allies have evolved, to not only identify but to emote? Should these accents and aesthetics be far away from the “traditional” touchstones and landmarks of gender identity? Should they be made or found in things that are innocent, currently, of gender signaling, so as to allow us to have our breasts and beards and dresses and burly jackets if we want them, as we want them?
There’s a lot of things I don’t do. One being that I don’t correct people when they don’t say my preferred pronouns. In my head, the blue squiggly underlines of autocorrect grow right beneath someone saying “he,” but I don’t make any physical reaction to it. When a friend says the right pronoun to me, though, it feels seamless. It doesn’t just “click” or feel “right.” As if a hug was had between us, there’s a kind of welcoming embrace that only occurs when I hear my pronouns, and it’s as normal as any other bit of language. It’s like finally hearing one’s own name.