Before I dive deeper into what this means, I have a couple of things to say. First, a disclaimer. I only speak for myself, not anyone else in the queer community. I am not confused or misled, I am relaying my own experiences. I didn’t know many of the words I use today for myself until after I understood myself in a way that fit them. I barely knew any other gay and lesbian people back then, let alone trans and non-binary folks (I was not manipulated or persuaded by anyone, a favorite way for people who don’t understand to dismiss people like me). Please respect me enough to see me as a trustworthy narrator of my own experiences. After all, who would know how I feel better than myself? If you find a problem with something I’ve written here, come to me directly with it. Social media makes it far too easy to turn honest curiosity or criticism into a public spectacle, encouraging showmanship over a genuine effort towards change. I would love to answer questions asked respectfully. I won’t debate the use of singular they pronouns or the use of new terms. Language changes (I doubt any of us are speaking old English in our everyday lives). Far too often “debates” over the existence of non-binary people become only about this. It becomes a debate over linguistics instead of a debate over identity and being. I’m not making a statement of biology. People often assume trans and non-binary folks are confused about their chromosomes, hormones, or organs. In reality, trans folks are almost always very aware of their own biology out of necessity. When we use the word “man”, we are rarely only referring to chromosomes or organs. This word carries with it assumptions of how to dress, how to speak, who to relate to, how you can relate to different types of people, how to see yourself in relation to your environment, what you are capable of, what types of entertainment you like, the kinds of food and drinks you consume, where and how you use the bathroom, how long it takes to get ready in the morning, and many more unrelated things. “Man” is more than a simple statement of biology, it is a statement of person-hood and embodiment.
Why am I writing this? I want to be able to express myself without having to avoid the subject. Binary gender is enshrined in every aspect of our culture; everything is gendered. I want to be able to speak out on things which are important to me without having to tiptoe around the origin of my own viewpoint. I want to be a part of my community, and not just in private. I’ve always valued honesty with myself and with the world. This is how I think of myself in relation to my environment; it’s the filter through which I contextualize and make sense of the world around me. It gives me a different perspective than most, and I think this can be a helpful tool to bring to many conversations. This is a topic on which many are misunderstood, so I want to make myself clear. People often take the most abrasive, ham-fisted, and inarticulate queer folks to prove how overly sensitive and confused the whole community is. I hope I can be a little better than they are at communicating my thoughts. Many queer folks also don’t want to educate people; they feel like they shouldn’t have to overcome the general public’s lack of knowledge by sacrificing their privacy and time. This is their choice to make, but I think we can’t expect change without acting. We can’t expect people to learn uncomfortable or challenging things (which, on the surface, don’t seem to affect them) on their own. I hope to be a patient, understanding voice for education. I want to help people learn. For many people, acceptance comes in the form of someone they already knew. I want to be that person for someone, if I can. I want to be the real, tangible person with a face and a name and a backstory to say “This is me,” and hopefully instill at least a little compassion for people like me.
What does non-binary mean? Trans Student Educational Resources defines non-binary as “Preferred umbrella term for all genders other than female/male or woman/man, used as an adjective (e.g. Jesse is a non-binary person). Not all non-binary people identify as trans and not all trans people identify as non-binary.” Language is messy, with denotations (strict definitions of words) and connotations (the feelings and ideas that are implied by a word). Gender is something very personal to many people, so (of course) people will use different terms based on connotation. So, the definition I used is not the only way to understand this term, but it does a pretty good job. I think it can be useful to put it into political terms (gender is almost always made political, but that’s a discussion for a different time). In the US, we have a two party system: Democrats and Republicans. However, some people don’t feel like these describe them accurately. Some people see both sides as extremes on a spectrum and see themselves as somewhere in between them (usually going by centrist). Some people think the ideas these parties espouse are not mutually exclusive, it isn’t a spectrum from left to right but an amorphous blob of different ideas and beliefs (usually fitting into a third party like the Libertarian party or the Green party). Some people think politics suck and don’t want to limit themselves to a party. All of these people are outside the American political party binary (not a Republican or a Democrat). Similarly, non-binary folks don’t feel represented in the terms “man” or “woman” or the cultural baggage that comes along with either one.
How did I come into this understanding of myself? High school was a very isolating experience for me. I was surrounded by people with the same name as me, but pretty much on my own in my gay visibility. I became Gay Jacob. What should only have been a small part of my sense of self was overemphasized until it overshadowed anything else I could be. I was called names, I had friends who only spoke to me when there was an audience, banking off my shock value, and I was always the puzzle piece that wouldn’t quite fit on my gender-segregated athletic teams. The hardest part was the people like me who kept their distance. I chose to stay out of the closet when I moved for high school out of a sense of pride and a hope that I could show others that it was possible to thrive while gay in rural West Virginia. Instead, it made associating with me too risky for the others like me; community was just out of reach. I don’t say this for pity, it forced me to grow a thick skin and learn to be independent; things I love about myself. I say this to give some context to the timing of my evolving identity. As a gay man, the gay part was underlined, italicized, and emboldened by my environment. The word gay was all I was given to stand on. Questioning how that word fit me surely would have been too much to handle at the time; my identity would crumble beneath me. I also didn’t have much of an understanding about other forms of queerness. I knew about binary trans folks (trans men and trans women), but next to nothing about the endless other possibilities of existing in this world. In a sort of 1984-esque way, I was limited by the Newspeak of my environment. In other words, it was incredibly difficult to imagine myself as something I didn’t have a word for. Language is our tool for making sense of the world, and the possibilities I could imagine were limited by the words with which I could express them.
My freshman year of college, I had to live in a gender-segregated dorm. I was surrounded by men (who I couldn’t really relate to) while all of my friends were across campus in a women’s dorm (where I was seen as a potential threat, someone who had to be supervised). Travelling back and forth between these places gave the gendered expectations I experienced such clear boundaries. In my dorm, I had to butch it up! I had to be so careful not to walk effeminately, speak with a “gay voice”, watch anything queer on my laptop, hang up any paintings which were too expressive or colorful. Taking a shower was quite terrifying. Guys kept getting drunk and pulling off the shower curtains in our community bathrooms, leaving only a couple stalls with any sense of privacy. I always tried to take showers at times when I knew I could be alone, but that wasn’t always an option. When other people were in the showers, I had to be so painfully aware of any situation in which someone could think I was being sexual. I couldn’t look anywhere near them, I couldn’t leave my curtain open for a second, I had to make sure the entire opening to my stall was covered. I had to hope my colorful towel and my choice of shampoo and conditioner didn’t put me at risk of harassment. Tearing apart my mind in an effort to avoid attention was not enough, I was still harassed and, in a more general sense, I was still an outsider. I wasn’t “one of them”, I was an uncomfortable anomaly trying to avoid the place where I had to sleep. When I was in the dorm where my friends lived, I still had to pass through a filter (though it wasn’t nearly as bad). Here, I had to be louder, more boisterous, more visibly effeminate. Men were seen as a threat, as a mischievous bunch who needed to be monitored. My friends had to walk me through the courtyard to the bathroom, I had to leave by a certain time, and I always felt like I was being watched. I dug into the archives of my high school experiences with women urging me to be their “gay best friend” (most of which I wasn’t very close with). They expected me give them fashion advice, talk about their horrible boyfriends, and answer their very intrusive and personal questions. I had to let them live vicariously through me, fulfill their fantasies of being a sassy, fashionable, bold, and sexual person, all the things they thought I should be. But, I also had to turn the other cheek when they said something insensitive, divulge every private detail of my life for them to gawk at, and play the third wheel once their boyfriends (who they just ranted to me about) would show up. When I was seen as a threat in my friends’ dorm, there were boundaries put in place with straight couples in mind, keeping me away from the people who kept me sane. I felt like I had to make a show of being the “gay best friend” to be seen as trustworthy to the building authorities.
I was being pulled in opposite directions with the full force of gendered society. I had to ask myself “am I a man?”, then “what is a man?”. I didn’t find an answer to that. Manhood looked different to different people and cultures, and had different criteria. Though this messed with my head and my sense of self, the clarity to the geographic boundaries these experiences operated in made them much more visible! Like a science experiment, I could make my dorm and my friends’ dorm treatment groups, with my classrooms and time alone in the library as a control. I was able to isolate the ways I was expected to perform “gay” and “man” and better understand how they affected me. I realized I wasn’t being myself, I was letting old survival mechanisms ruin my relationship with myself and keep a performative wall up between myself and my friends. I decided to take a week to experiment. Every time I caught myself stepping into one of these roles, I would mentally slap my hand away. I would be myself, free from presumptions and stereotypes. After that week, I didn’t go back! It felt like I could finally get out of my own head and start connecting with the world around me. My friendships grew much deeper, I didn’t have to keep expectations and roles in mind all of the time. I felt great!
Since then (over two years), I’ve grown in my understanding of myself quite a bit! I had to do quite a bit of research into queerness, learning what words fit and what didn’t along the way. At first I used genderqueer, then agender, and now the umbrella term non-binary. I’ve come to love umbrella terms (those which refer to a lot of things as opposed to one, specific thing). They are accurate enough to serve the purposes of a label (expressing a general idea, providing community, etc.), but not so specific that they feel reductive. I like non-binary because it honors my complexity, my humanity. Humans are messy, complex, ever-changing, and unknowable. I am oh so human. My identity is an always updating relationship between my past experiences and my current reality. I exist as I am, not in the many contradicting and reductive ways in which others want me to be respectable and easy to understand. I like art, space, science, video games, sci-fi, old forts, Starbucks Double Shot espresso, horror movies and games, photography, and rearranging my bedroom every couple of months. I like French shows on Netflix, modifying every tiny thing I can on my phone, obsessively reading tech news, learning about obscure religions, trying every vegetarian option on Taco Bell’s menu with my boyfriend, and eating those mini M&Ms with a spoon (it’s an experience). All of these things say so much more about who I am than what I have between my legs. I don’t want to become a “strong man”, I want to be vulnerable, patient, understanding, loving, and so many more things which that term so often excludes. I want to be Jacob the product designer, the artist, the writer, the person who gets halfway through video games and always says they’ll finish them sometime but really only plays a handful of games over and over. I won’t limit my own possibility by the ways other people understand a messy, subjective, and limiting word. For many, that word has a personal weight, it feels right. For me, it’s impersonal and feel constricting.
What does this mean for me and my friends and family? Honestly, not much! I don’t feel a need to change my body through hormones or surgery (some trans folks do, and that is ok). Many (if not most) non-binary folks use the singular they pronoun. For example, you would say “They almost fell asleep in class.” I understand pronouns as a linguistic tool to refer to someone without having to constantly repeat their name. My name doesn’t make some deep, profound statement about who I am or how I understand myself in relation to others; my pronouns don’t have to either. ‘They’ definitely doesn’t, but I don’t feel like ‘he’ or ‘she’ do either. I think gender is shoved into so many places where it really doesn’t have to be. Respect the preferred pronouns of other people, but you can use whichever ones you want for me. As the wonderful and inspirational model Rain Dove says, “Use she, he, it, one, they. You could call me mow mow and I honestly don’t care. A pronoun is just a sound. All I’m listening for in that sound is positivity.” I also don’t really care if you still see me as a man. Every day, each of us has to understand the relationship between ourselves and the world in hundreds of different ways. Most of these experiences are impossible to communicate, impossible for us to understand in one another. Nobody will ever see me exactly the same way I do (which is evolving all the time anyway). I have spent years cultivating a healthy relationship with myself, and you’re disagreement does not change that. I’d rather be misunderstood and able to talk about it than let that misunderstanding represent me. However you choose to see me, I only ask that you treat me with respect. This means not getting upset when I move outside of the label you understood me as. We are all complex people with different experiences of a complex world. Respect my complexity and autonomy. See me as a person, not as a culturally approved cliche.