My best friend, Emily, is a woman and has never doubted that she was one.
“What’s it like to have a gender?” I have asked her multiple times.
“What’s it like to feel sexual attraction?” she has asked me.
I am nonbinary. I have never felt comfortable calling myself a woman or a man. A more specific label I identify with is ‘agender,’ which describes a person who utterly lacks a gender. My gender is not a rejection of my body or biology. I know what my body looks like and I know its attributes. I just don’t think my hormone levels, chromosomes, or body parts define me. My brain is the only organ that has a gender. My brain is nonbinary; therefore, I am.
Emily is asexual.
“I honestly don’t know what sexual attraction is,” she said.
“It’s like a person’s body is pizza and you’re hungry,” I reply. Food metaphors seem accurate enough to me.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation that denotes a lack of sexual attraction towards any kind of person. Some asexual people do, however, have a libido and a desire to participate in romantic and sexual relationships. The comfort level with sexual activities varies from person to person.
People who are nonbinary and asexual go through similar struggles. They are often misunderstood, they typically ‘come out’ at some point, they often endure personal questions from strangers, and to some, they are thought to be mentally disordered.
The first time I learned about asexuality, I understood what it was. It was a matter of word comprehension. I knew what sexual attraction was, so I could imagine a lack of it. When I first read about genders outside the male/female binary, I thought they sounded gimmicky as hell. I didn’t understand. I still can’t understand what I am just by reading definitions. I only knew I was nonbinary when I read about how other nonbinary people felt.
My identity is like an invisible wall—I became familiar with its properties when I walked right into it. When I look too feminine, I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. When someone calls me ‘she,’ it either stings, or takes me a moment to realize who they’re talking about (I prefer being referred to with singular ‘they’ pronouns).
Emily has also experienced gender dysphoria—the feeling of discomfort when perceived as the wrong gender. Although playing as a male character in a video game is pretty trivial, it makes her uncomfortable.
I’ve asked Emily what she thinks gender is.
“It’s how I’m perceived. It’s being comfortable that people look at me and think, ‘she’s a woman.’ It’s believing, from a place that’s too deep to question, that I am something.”
I’ve cobbled together a vague description of this nebulous thing called gender. It is an aesthetic, a role in society, a performance, a set of physical and intellectual ideals that an individual is measured against. I will also state emphatically that gender is a spectrum, a rainbow that many people claim is made up of only two colours.
I try not to see appearances and behaviours as gendered. I tell myself I can look and act any which way and still be valid as a nonbinary person. I know this is true. Sometimes, however, I panic — I see everything as either pink or blue, and I tell myself I will be purple no matter what, so no one can mistake me for another hue.
In dealing with negative reactions after coming out, I’ve had to keep in mind that I’m not at fault for being hurt, nor is the offender necessarily at fault for hurting me. I’m a human being who deserves respect, yes, but I have a baffling gender identity and confusing pronouns that require time and patience to learn. All I can do is explain what my identity is and what it means to me. If the person doesn’t make an effort to understand, I let it go, as frustrating as it is.
There are days when I feel futile in my goal to spread awareness and acceptance. I wonder how I believed I could ever make a dent in the population’s consciousness. Occasionally I’ll even think about giving up and going back in the closet. Then I remind myself I’m not just doing this for me, I’m doing this for everyone who has ever been afraid to show their true colours. No one should be afraid to be themselves, and everyone should be proud of the particular hue they bring to the spectrum of identity. We should do more than just acknowledge there is more to gender than pink and blue—we ought to celebrate the rainbow.