Words have power. Both in their presence and in their absence. Whether it is because they were sharp and hurtful or just ill-fitting, most of the words I have been assigned in my life fit me like a pantsuit on a salmon. It took me nearly 40 years to find words that validated rather than erased me.
When I was a child, I was told repeatedly and emphatically (mostly by my teachers) that there were only two genders. I had to be either a boy or a girl. That was it. No other choices.
It was an argument that I couldn’t seem to win, so, in grade 1, I decided if I had to choose I would be a boy. It wasn’t the perfect answer, but it fit better than being a girl and boys could do way more stuff.
I remember announcing my decision at school to very mixed reviews. Overall, the kids didn’t care that much. The boys I wanted to play with made me go through a test to prove I was a boy and the girls thought this explained my messy writing and complete lack of interest in dolls or playing house.
The teachers were not so kind. They continued to explain emphatically (and often with the careful use of humiliation) that there were only two genders and that I had chosen the wrong one. I made a number of trips to the principal’s office in grade one (for play fighting, for going to the boys’ bathroom, for taking my shirt off with the other boys), all these trips I made alone while my friends were allowed to play.
Society kept reinforcing that I was not a boy (which was something I already knew). The problem for me was that I also knew that I was not a girl.
There was no word for me. I just didn’t exist.
By grade 6, I’d given up on trying to be a boy and had decided to just let the world declare me a girl. Maybe I would get used to it. Maybe it would get easier.
In a way, I guess both of these things happened.
I played the game the best I could, and I was pretty successful. I learned to make friends, I discovered Ani DiFranco, married my best friend, and got en route to becoming a teacher in the hopes of having someone in the education world that would be more understanding of kids like me. I pushed aside not feeling female and accepted that I was just weird.
Then, I fell in love with a woman.
This is it I thought. All my gender confusion wasn’t gender confusion at all. It was about my sexuality. I was gay and that was why I had never felt like I could fit.
This was a good theory, but it unfortunately didn’t really work. I met lots of people in the gay community who had been bullied and ostracised like I had been, but when I asked them about not feeling like their assigned gender, mostly they drew a blank.
It was still just me.
Or was it? I did make friends who had been born into a body where they didn’t fit. The world considered them something that they knew they weren’t. The world saw male while they were female or vice versa. Could it be that these were my people?
I wondered for a few years if I was transgender, but the problem was that I didn’t feel like a man or a woman. Changing the gender of my body wasn’t the answer because I didn’t know what changes I would make.
If the only two choices were male or female then there just wasn’t a choice for me.
The first time I had a hint that maybe I wasn’t alone in the world was when I started singing with the Rainbow Harmony Project. It was at a practice for this all inclusive community choir that I first heard the term non-binary.
Non-binary? I didn’t know what it meant. I knew computers operated on a binary system using only ones and zeros. What did it mean for a person? Could it be something to do with me?
I felt a glimmer of hope and then carefully put it aside. After almost 40 years I didn’t want to chase anymore answers. I was ready to accept that there was just something wrong with me. I was a mom and a teacher, surely I was too old to bother with worrying about my gender.
Then I read a book called The Symptoms of Being Human and for the first time in my life I saw myself truly reflected in a character. The main character in the story was gender-fluid.
I was gender-fluid!
Now, you might be thinking Wait a minute, I thought you were non-binary? What’s this gender-fluid thing?
I am non-binary because I don’t fit into the accepted gender binary system. Binary means composed of two things, when we talk about this in terms of gender, we mean male or female. I am neither.
Non-binary is a term that tells you what I’m not. Gender-fluid is a term that tells you what I am. I have moments where I feel quite male and I have moments where I feel quite female and at least half of the time I feel something that is not defined by either of those two words. My gender changes, it’s fluid.
I am not wrong or broken because I don’t fit into the system that society has decided to embrace.
I also want kids growing up non-binary now to know that they are not wrong or broken either. Non-binary people need room to exist. We need you to stop saying boys and girls, women and men, gentlemen and ladies because when you say these things you erase us completely.
We are here. Please make room for us in the language you use. My pronouns are they or them, my gender is fluid. I am non-binary and I exist.