What is it like to live every day outside the confines of “he” and “she”? Difficult, intimidating, powerful—and occasionally, funny.
This essay is about a feeling that’s hard to describe. No, feeling’s not right: Call it a state of being. Maybe by the end, I’ll have words for it. While we’re waiting, I can tell you stories—stories of how this state of being suffuses my body and confirms I’m not the man you might take me for.
* * *
The best term for me right now is gender nonbinary. Most people look at me and see man; that’s the gender I got at birth. Birth was 60-plus years ago, when we all thought gender came in two flavors, and that was that.
Slowly, we’re discovering that it’s not so simple. Gender doesn’t have to correspond to anatomy. It looks less like a binary and more like a spectrum of infinite nuance. There are people who blend the traditional genders in interesting ways, people whose gender fluctuates over time and even people who identify with no gender at all.
I explain my spot on the spectrum this way: When I look at all the elements of my life—my emotional makeup, my most intimate friendships, my attitudes and behaviors, the movies I watch, even my gestures—I cannot look at that whole package and meaningfully apply the word man.
It just doesn’t fit.
It never has. When I was 4, I went through this brief but ardent phase of wearing dresses. I was awkward in a culture where boys were athletic. I cried a lot in a neighborhood where boys don’t cry.
Today is no different gender-wise. All my closest friends are women. I act like many women act, prefer things many women prefer. At dinner parties, where the men head for the gas grill to discuss men things and the women work in the kitchen and discuss women things, I stick with the women.
So man doesn’t fit. Woman is closer, way closer, but it’s not perfect either. There are elements of male culture I move seamlessly through. I love talking sports. I find a weird joy in moving giant pieces of heavy furniture singlehandedly. These parts of me are, if nothing else, fun.
But for 60-plus years, this not-fitting-in has left me without a tribe. Most days that’s OK because I’m pretty solitary. But even solitaries need to know they’re not utterly alone.
* * *
Anyway, I promised you stories. Let’s start with my pronoun epiphany.
Pronouns really matter to those of us who are trans or nonbinary. Obviously, we can’t just look between our legs and boom, there’s our pronoun. We have to spend time sensing which pronouns reflect who we are. It takes a lot of time and energy and reflection, and it’s very, very personal, so honoring those pronouns is important.
That includes honoring our own pronouns, and I hadn’t reached that point when I joined the discussion group at a national conference. Most of the group members were young and earnest and balancing on an emotional high wire, ready to dive into the day’s topic, which happened to be gender identity. When we did introductions, including pronouns, I said what I usually said at the time: “I’m John, and everyone sees me as he, so he and him are OK.”
One young woman was having none of it. She locked eyes with me and asked, “But what do you want to be called?”
I don’t remember whether I knew the answer when she asked. But I did know the second after.
She. It had to be she.
* * *
I had just opened the car door at the airport curb when I realized I hadn’t put on socks.
If your first thought was, who cares; maybe you’re not nonbinary, or you don’t express it in certain ways. I’d started painting my toenails in 2011, a few years before the flight in question, and it hit me that everyone at TSA and in line for TSA would see my girly dark blue toenails exposed.
Worse, I couldn’t tell by the airport’s home city whether I’d be safe or not. That’s another thing about nonbinary; it’s not like you can go just anywhere and be who you are. Doing so will get you stares, at least, and sometimes worse.
So I slouched over to the checkpoint, got my boarding pass scanned, put my bags on the conveyor, took off my shoes, and something happened. That state of being I mentioned earlier took over. My spine straightened. My head came up. There was a glide in my walk and a small fire in my eyes. I was me—she—and my body vibrated with the power of it.
* * *
I live in the northeastern United States at a weird nexus of small cities, forests, sprawling farms and one-stoplight villages. So I’m always tiptoeing through pockets of progressive and traditional, trying to sidestep landmines. This has taught me one truth about my gender: People who don’t like it ghost me.
I can’t prove it, of course. And not everything I think is ghosting actually is. But ever since I grew out my slightly wavy hair, which resulted in an improbable luscious tangle of curls, I’ve seen less of certain people. Or I see them, but they don’t greet me, or their faces are expressionless. Or they act like this one client of mine: I wrote a lot for him over several years, and then I grew the hair out and I haven’t heard from him since.
You could say this is small potatoes in the suffering-for-gender department—and you’d be right. I haven’t lost out on housing or employment or been beaten up or killed. So maybe the ghosting shouldn’t bother me, but it does. Some of the ghosters were close to me, or so I thought.
Every now and then, the disapproval rises to the surface. At a dinner with friends (we share the same hobby), one of my beloved mentors started complaining about a mutual acquaintance who dresses in drag. “You can’t be both genders,” my mentor said. “Pick one.” I tried to explain, but the room was loud and he wasn’t listening.
* * *
Like I said, pronouns really matter to those of us who are trans or nonbinary. We also foul them up just like everybody else.
A group of us stood in the convention center lobby, loosely bunched together, deciding on a place for our trans/nonbinary dinner. We started with introductions and, of course, pronouns. For the second time in my life, I said, “Hi, my name is John, and my pronouns are she and her.” That state of being rose to the surface, and I was buoyant.
Not five minutes later, after making our dinner preferences known, someone asked, “What did she say she wanted again?” And all I could think was, “Who the hell are they talking about?”
Right. They were talking about me.
* * *
Many of us have changed not only our pronouns but also our names.
It makes sense if you think about it. All of us were born to parents who had no idea what gender we were. Most of us were born to parents who thought in terms of boy-girl-that’s-it. They gave us names accordingly. Then we grew up and found that the gender they assigned us didn’t fit, and therefore neither did the name.
So like I said, many of us choose new names. In my case (not to get all weird about it), my name chose me. The way I remember it, the name just popped up in the middle of journaling, and there wasn’t even a second thought. It was obvious.
Janelle, I typed. I am Janelle.
The words sent an electric current sizzling through me.
As it turned out, I didn’t change my name so much as add another one. Not everybody does this. I’ve had friends who made the switch, announced it to the world and (in some cases) insisted everyone use the new name. I’m different. Even now that the name Janelle overflows its banks—she is exuberant and vivacious and crackling with life—I am OK with John, too. Maybe that’s because I’m both, and I know it. Or maybe it’s because I’m old (or getting there).
* * *
About old: I don’t react to certain things the way some nonbinary people do. I laugh at forgetting my own gender. I let it go when people call me him (not that it feels good). That makes me a little weird, nonbinary-wise. I try to figure out why I act this way, and age keeps coming up.
This spring a local art gallery held an exhibit on queerness in portrait photography. I couldn’t wait to go; it felt like an invitation to mingle with my tribe, however virtually. As it turned out, there were lots of virtual people to mingle with—three whole walls plastered with Instagram photos of hundreds of queer folks. Name a race, a color, a dot on the gender spectrum, a gender expression (garters! Barbies! goddess makeup!), and it was there.
But I couldn’t find my way in. It reminded me of a cocktail party where you should be enjoying the people around you—they’re just like you, after all—except you’re standing alone.
Slowly, the why dawned on me. Many of the photos were erotic, mostly gay erotic, and I am straight, and erotic doesn’t grab me like it once did. Many photos depicted an approach to queerness that doesn’t resemble my life, where I wear glitter polish and grow my hair, but still have a wife and a cat and a lawn to mow.
Right around then, I noticed something. In those hundreds of photos, I saw one person over 50.
I couldn’t imagine these hundreds of folks laughing over pronoun blunders or being as quiet about gender as I am—not because I’m ashamed, but because I’m quiet about everything. I held no grudge against the electric beings depicted on the walls. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I wondered whether being old and nonbinary might be different somehow.
* * *
There’s one more wrinkle to this whole gender thing, and I should probably mention it, but it unnerves me a little.
A few years ago I started in with zazen—you know, the Zen sitting practice where that’s really all you do: sit and not-think. Occasional zazen turned into daily zazen turned into frequent epiphanies that things aren’t the way they seem, not even a little.
That goes for gender, in a way, because gender involves self. Zen is big on no-self: the idea that there’s no permanent self, but rather an ever-shifting assortment of causes and conditions that make up who we appear to be at a given moment. So now when I say things like “I am nonbinary” or “I am she,” a voice in my head pipes up: “Who is this I, anyway?” It’s hard to own my gender when there’s no me to do the owning.
* * *
This essay is about a state of being that’s hard to describe. But now we’ve got something to work with. We’ve seen words that brush up against the state of being—power and buoyant and electric and exuberant and sizzle and Janelle because, well, Janelle being Janelle is all those words. Words that arise when for decades I’ve been something other than myself, and then suddenly, I step into that self, and it releases the words.
I would wish this release on anybody, regardless of their gender. Because it’s not just Q people who haven’t stepped into themselves.