Neither man nor woman: life as a non-binary student

On the bottom of my column, I use the pronoun “they.” This isn’t a typo, despite what many writers at The Guardian and Telegraph assumed as they reported on my Trigger Warning activism. Indeed, I do not identify as a man, the gender I was assigned at birth. I identify as a non-binary student.

I have always been non-binary, and, as far as I know, always will be.

I knew when I was growing up that I didn’t feel like a boy. The definition never fit me, and felt too burdensome over the years.

From a young age, I was attracted to femininity in ways that others never understood. I admired dolls and other feminine gendered toys as a child. I would sashay my pajama tops back and forth, pretending I was a beautiful woman curtseying her dress. And I would position my feet on tip toes, arching my heels, as if I was a businesswoman shuffling in the busy streets of New York.

Something about the feminine was engaging to me. For all my life, it eluded me. I was forced to repress it, erase it inside of me. I was told by the society around me that it was not okay to enjoy feminine gender expressions. That to be feminine was, in essence, to be inferior; to be an object.

I shied away from my gender; I praised the masculine, and hid my subconscious desires to perform my gender.

It has taken 20 years to break down the internal barriers I have created for myself.

I began to realize in high school that my inner desire for gender nonconformity was expressing itself in odd ways. Since I was 13, I began wearing my blond hair long and wavy. I began spending less and less time with men in high school, instead often confiding in women and non-binary people instead. And I began to fantasize about changing the entire shape and anatomy of my growing body, as if I could alter myself into a female form with one deft movement. Subtly, my gender identity began to expose itself in secret ways, known only to myself.

Perhaps, to the cisgender reader, this might seem completely natural for an adolescent boy – however, for a transgender person, these were more than moments of self-experimentation. It was a questioning of who I was on the gender spectrum, shaking the foundations of masculinity that I had internalized and regurgitated from a young age.

It wasn’t until college – and the Internet – that I began to realize that I was not the male I thought I was. A voice spoke inside of me, denying the masculine gender role that was thrust onto me.

I would look at myself in the morning, with my blond bed head shuffled in dainty locks, and see neither a man nor a woman, but something else altogether.

I would see my reflection at night in the EE’s windows, and I would see a gender and body which clashed with my male form.

I would attend class, hearing students and professors wrongly refer to me as “he.” I would feel alienated and confused, reinforcing my masculinity. But I would secretly savor the moment a pronoun slipped up – and someone referred to me by that hidden faux pax, “she.”

It wasn’t until I had turned 19 that I realized, perhaps, there was an alternative to being male. Through my own independent research on the Internet, I began understanding transgender identities more. I slowly realized that my own gender expression was stuck in a period of fluidity between being both male and female. I was, in other words, neither, and yet both: stuck in constant flux within the gender binary.

It was then that I finally realized: I am a non-binary person.

Perhaps some of my readers won’t understand. They might deny the very existence of non-binary identification. They might ask silly questions –

“How can you identify as non-binary, if you still use the name Phil?”

Or perhaps, “Why would someone appear so masculine, while identifying outside of the gender binary?”

Or, a personal favorite of mine, once asked at a party, “Do you feel weird about your genitals?”

I’ve experienced a cocktail of emotions from these kinds of invasive and personal questions. I’ve felt fear. I’ve felt stress. I’ve felt anger, confusion, isolation. I’ve felt depression. I’ve felt attacked, as if I had an obligation to prove myself to cisgender students. And I’ve felt like an outlier, forced to hide themselves away from students, professors, and staff members.

Yet, over time, I’ve learned to deal with all of this – not through self-growth, but through the sheer need to survive and keep moving on. After all, life is too short to care what narrow-minded people think, and my mental and physical safety is too dear to surround myself with hostile people with invasive demands. In the end, I’ve found severing ties is often the better solution over attempting to repair unsalvageable relationships.

Over time, I realized something important when I came out of the closet: I am my own person, with my own ability to understand my gender identity. I need no 3rd party to “verify” my experiences. I am myself, a non-binary, transgender, assigned male at birth student. And that is something no one can take away from me – no matter how hard they try.

Philip Wythe is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English with a minor in political science. Their column, “Nothing, If Not Critical,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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