This article deals with the sensitive topics of gender identity and sexuality and may be uncomfortable for some readers.
This is part two of a two-part series. You can find the preceding article by clicking or tapping here.
Last time I talked about asexuality and my long journey to understanding what it is and what it means for me. I’ve been at a point in my life where in my own mind I’ve become settled or comfortable with my asexuality – despite the difficult road to get there – but my gender identity is a different story.
The concept of multiple gender identities beyond the male-female binary is still relatively new to me. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve seen it discussed in a major way, and perhaps for that reason it’s something I haven’t explored in as much depth as I would have liked to. Even though I’ve been on this planet for a long time, I still have no idea where I fit.
If gender is a spectrum, with 100% male at one end and 100% female at the other, I guess I’m somewhere in between. Some moments I feel very feminine, whereas at others I’m at least tolerant of the fact that I was assigned male at birth. Does that make me genderfluid, genderqueer, non-binary, or some combination of those neologisms? I guess so. But I don’t know which to associate with, nor what it really means for me at a fundamental level.
I’ve always used male pronouns in “real life” simply by default – though online I have, occasionally, asked someone I was talking with to refer to me as female. The anonymity of the internet allows for this sometimes, and as with my sexuality it really is thanks to the rise of the internet that I’m able to even consider some of these different feelings instead of continuing to suppress them. I’m certainly nowhere near 100% male in terms of the way I feel – though I am, as noted last time, physiologically male.
But at the same time, the thought of fully transitioning and living as a woman full-time is something I’m not sure I’m ready for. It’s possible that, at some future date and time, I will make that decision; I don’t want to entirely rule it out. But right now, as I write this, I’m not ready to make that commitment.
This isn’t something new, and as I look back on my life and reflect, it seems in retrospect that these are feelings and sensations that have been present for as long as I can remember. As with my asexuality, though, I tried to keep them hidden – even from myself. Denial is something I’ve heard a lot of trans and non-binary folks went through, not wanting to admit the truth to themselves, and I fall into that category too. I grew up in a society where boys and girls were separate – boys played with toy guns and girls with dolls, to put a stereotype on it. The fact that I always wanted a doll or long hair was something I learned incredibly early on to keep to myself.
When I was younger, being labelled a “poof” – a slur for gay men here in the UK – was about as bad as it got. Along with being called a “sissy” or “wuss,” every attack that my peers at school had centred around emasculating their target; calling them homosexual and un-manly was the standard insult. So I, like many people of my generation, grew up denying those feelings and supressing that expression of gender.
Society plays a big role in how all of us identify ourselves. We do not exist in a vacuum, able to say “I’m just me.” We grow up with all of the trappings of whatever culture and society we inhabit, and around the world even today, practically every culture insists on a gender binary that uses biological sex as a basis. And for many people, perhaps that’s okay. A lot of folks assigned male at birth would consider themselves 100% male, and many people assigned female at birth would likewise consider themselves 100% female. If they consider gender identity at all it merely reaffirms their sex assigned at birth. Perhaps in that sense, gender nonconformity, transgender, and non-binary genders will always be outside of the mainstream.
But that doesn’t help someone in my situation. Better education certainly can, as can fair depictions of non-binary and transgender folks in all forms of media. When I was at school, I don’t recall transgender or non-binary issues ever being discussed in a serious educational context; during sex education, citizenship classes, and so on. The only time anyone ever brought up the idea of gender nonconformity it was always an attack or insult – calling a girl “butch” or a “tomboy,” or calling a boy a “sissy” or a “poof.”
This sentiment carried over into entertainment and pop culture as well. When I think back on television shows and films of the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, gender expression was viewed negatively – even becoming the butt of jokes in comedies like Little Britain.
When anything other than strict adherence to one’s assigned sex is viewed so negatively and used so hurtfully as an attack, it seems obvious that someone in my position would struggle to acknowledge the truth. These feelings and this way of living had been so thoroughly dismissed, attacked, and insulted by practically everyone I met for decades that the idea I might recognise any aspect of it in myself was incredibly difficult to come to terms with – and I’m still coming to terms with it today.
About five years ago, I began changing the way I dress – at least in private. Rather than jeans, shirts, polos, and the like, I tried out dresses and skirts for the first time. I’ve tried makeup, I’ve tried wearing a wig. All of these things helped me feel a little closer to “me” – the version of me that I am on the inside and want to be.
I’ve been “out” with some friends, too. Trying hard to explain – as I am here – the complexities of the situation. Some were helpful and supportive, others less so. Perhaps because I don’t have a definite answer myself to some of these questions, that makes it harder to explain the way I feel to others. Most of my close friends and all of my family members still don’t know these things about me. The fact that I live alone and only see most of these people rarely means that putting on what I refer to as “the mask” is easier. It would certainly be far harder to be my true self if I were living under the same roof as someone else.
It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that getting divorced was the beginning of my exploration of this side of myself. When I moved out of my parents’ home I went first to university, where I shared a house or flat with several different people. After university I remained in shared accommodation, and then subsequently moved in with my girlfriend who later became my wife. So I had never really been alone – certainly not alone enough to be open about this side of myself.
For the longest time I kept all of these feelings pushed down as deep as I could. I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was in any way “different” or “abnormal,” because doing so would seem to confirm what those school bullies said years previously. I mentioned last time that the first I ever heard of “asexuality” was in the form of an attack; being anything other than 100% male, masculine, and manly was likewise something I found difficult to countenance because it had always been used in that way.
Regardless, when I was alone these thoughts and feelings, which I had kept hidden for so long, came to the fore. Gradually I began to explore this aspect of my personality for really the first time – trying on new clothes, trying out makeup, revelling in activities that people consider “feminine.” I would meet people online while all dressed up and, thanks to the anonymity of text-based communication, in those moments I could be completely female. I didn’t need to be this fully male character that I had tried to be for so long – and it was liberating.
We’ll talk one day about my mental health, because this expression could apply there too. But when it comes to my gender identity, I don’t know where the “mask” ends and the real me begins. Because I’d gotten so used to pretending to be someone I’m not, parts of that mask are embedded in the way I think. I’m still trying to pick at the pieces – to figure out what is really me and what is the pretend version of me; the character I played all those years.
I call it the “mask” because for the longest time that’s how interacting with people felt. That I had to put on a mask, a pretend version of me. To act out a character. That mask was a manly man, all male, loved sex, liked doing manly things. I’d go to the pub with people I knew and drink beer, talk about sexual conquests, football teams, and the like. I kept this up for years, even allowing my now-ex-wife to fall for the “mask.” This was just the way life would have to be, I told myself. Because the alternative was unthinkable.
There are a lot of people I can still never admit this to in my personal life. I know a lot of people, even friends and family, who’ve expressed the attitude that sex is assigned at birth and that’s final. Trans men are not men, they say, nor are trans women really women. And non-binary genders are “made up” or “nonsense.” Having this conversation with any of them would be too difficult, and would result in too much hurt, even more so because I can’t fully explain myself, nor identify precisely where I sit on the spectrum of gender identities.
I was not ready to get married when I did, nor for a relationship on that level. I’m probably still not ready – if I ever will be. But I saw it as one item on the “checklist” – I had an imaginary checklist in my mind of things that “normal” people did, and if I could only check off enough then maybe I could be normal, too. Get through higher education was one. Get a job was another. Then find a place to live. Finally, get a relationship and get married. That was how I saw myself move through the world – check off these items and convince everyone I was normal, just like them.
Gradually those things fell apart. And when I found myself truly alone for the first time, I was able to begin exploring these supressed facets of my personality. I’m close to finally meeting the real me – it just took forty years to get here.
Where exactly I fit is still not clear. Somewhere in between male and female, I guess. Call that genderqueer, call it non-binary, call it genderfluid, or any of the associated terms that people use. I haven’t decided which I like best yet, or which seems to be the best fit.
As I said last time, two very important things could help someone in my situation in future: education and representation. By better explaining the gender spectrum, more people will realise that it’s okay to be themselves, that the way they feel is valid. More representation in media will show that transgender and non-binary people are just regular folks, the same as everyone else. That there’s nothing wrong with being this way. It will take time for that message to get across to everybody – generations, in fact. And for people of my parents’ generation, perhaps they will never truly understand. Perhaps there are people who are too attached to that way of thinking. All I can really say about that is that I hope those people will at least be respectful in the way they talk and behave.
This article doesn’t yet have an ending. But my website is really the only place I feel comfortable discussing these topics, so I truly appreciate you taking the time to read these words and listen. I hope you can accept me for who I am.
If you are struggling with your gender identity, help may be a phone call or Google search away. Don’t give up! This article only looks at the broad subject of gender and gender identity from one person’s perspective, and is not representative of the subject as a whole. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.