The first time I had ever been asked if I was male or female was in my sophomore year of college.
Since childhood, I lived in the shadows of the binary, struggling to come to terms with elements of femininity and how often the fluidity of my gender presentation made the world uncomfortable. This question of being male or female, then asked by a child, was the first time I had ever really given thought to the idea that there was, in fact, a spectrum to gender presentation and identity.
For years the question would make me angry because I had been taught from a young age that in order to “be a man,” I had to prove my masculinity and maleness. In my thirties, coming to terms with masculinity and maleness as a concept never really fit the way I presented, I decided to identify as non-binary as a way to give myself the freedom to redefine my identity. While thinking that moving away from the “he/him” textbook definition would make my life a bit easier, I quickly learned that even in deciding to identify as non-binary, I would feel the same way I did even when I identified as male. This feeling became even more real for me recently when I was asked to speak on a panel and someone asked what my pronouns were.
When I shared with them that I identified as non-binary, they quickly responded with, “Oh, I would have never guessed.” The feeling of not being “non-binary enough” quickly began to mirror the same feelings I had in not being “male enough,” drawing me right back to the feelings I had prior to identifying as they/them.
So what does “enough” truly mean in the context of one’s identity anyway? Well, if you find yourself wondering what it means to present “enough” in your identity and you’re worried like me that you aren’t, remember there is no clear-cut definition of what it means to be anything, really.
When challenged, you have to consider the source. Many of the constructs around gender, looks, and presentation are rooted in elitism, self-entitlement, and patriarchy. Society likes to perpetuate a fallacy of what it means to be queer, or non-binary, leading to folks believing that in order to be “enough” of anything, you must fall into the stereotypes of said identity.
It should go without saying that much of what it means to “present” in a certain fashion is rooted in current western perceptions stemming from a long history of European colonization in which presentation is correlated to one’s worth. The concept of gender has never been meant to add value to those who are marginalized because “looks” are often based on value, a symptom of white supremacy.
The reality for many of us, regardless of how we were raised, is that we have been taught to see things as binary. Simply put: male or female. The pressure to always over-present your identity has always been a factor in society because so much of your value as a person is tied to the persona of being male or female. Comments like “be a man” or “act like a lady” are heavily coded with how you present to the world because comfort is rooted in things making sense. Identity, looks, and presentation are all rooted in the system of the binary.
What people often fail to discuss is how the binary of being “male” or “female” is often riddled with expectations of presentation. When one chooses to identify as non-binary, it means that you have chosen to move away from these systems and are opting to live up to your own standards of presentation, not those that have been pre-set for you. It means you understand where this notion comes from and the work it is going to take to unlearn it.
To limit your identity to how you present is, in fact, a part of a much greater systematic function in the gender binary. To limit yourself to the idea of how you present takes away from the depths of who you are and the full possibilities you have to define your identity.
The reality is that your identity and your presentation doesn’t have to make sense to anyone, period. While gender is not easy to conceptualize and the definition is changing daily, if we continue to spend our time trying to be enough to those who aren’t committed to understanding our struggle and lived experience, we will never be enough.
So the next time someone challenges you on your identity and your presentation, take this as reminder that you are enough and the only thing you have to prove in relation to your identity and presentation is fact, nothing.
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