Gender forms a part of your identity before you’re even born. Expectant parents learn of their baby’s sex on a sonogram as early as 14 weeks. Babies are brought into the world with the words “it’s a girl!” or “it’s a boy!” Gender can be restraining even from your first day of life. Trying to fit into the cookie-cutter shape you are assigned, particularly when that’s not what you want to do, feels constraining. It’s like you’re stuck in a box that you don’t fit in.
Growing up, that feeling of disconnect with my gender, and occasionally my body, made me feel out of place. I’d ask myself questions:
Is it because you don’t hang out with the other girls enough?
Should you act more feminine?
Should you like more of what other girls like?
My idea of what gender and being female was was based on how my peers, as well as women on TV, presented themselves. I thought that, to exist as and be comfortable as a woman, I had to learn to dress and act feminine.
Before the start of eleventh grade, I cut my hair short. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision, but something that I’d wanted to do for a long time. Going from shoulder length hair to hair that was barely an inch off of my scalp made me feel like a different person. I felt a kind of relief, a feeling of elation. A little thing like a haircut unburdened me of some of the pressure I felt about gender, and I loved that feeling so much. I couldn’t stop running my hands over the shaved sides for a while. That moment was what I think of as the first piece of the puzzle clicking into place.
College was the first time that I got to both learn about and see gender identities outside of just male and female. I met many people who felt the same way I did, and who helped me get to know myself better. I met people who were out, who could experiment and express externally what they felt internally. They gave me more confidence to try and find that hidden puzzle piece I was looking for.
These people also gave me a name for that piece: nonbinary. For a long time, everyone described me as just being a tomboy, but in actuality, it was never about that. It was always about not being a girl or a boy because I didn’t feel like I was either.
I took Pratt’s Connections course twice by accident (I thought I signed up for Connections 2, but actually signed up for Part 1, and then got too nervous to tell anyone I’d done it before.) At Connections, there’s an exercise where we’re asked to think about and write down which aspects of our identity mean the most to us. Having done Connections twice means that I did this exercise twice.
The first time around, I struggled to put how I felt about my identity into words. I was hesitant to write anything down. The second time, I felt more confident because I finally understood myself in ways I didn’t before. I’d managed to accept a part of myself that I didn’t realize I was even afraid of.
I started using they/them pronouns last year, and every time someone uses my correct pronouns, that giddy feeling of relief comes surging back into me. It sounds weird to say that I get so happy when someone respects my pronouns. However, after spending so much time feeling like I didn’t fit into my assigned gender, or feeling like an imposter because I still responded to she/her as well, it now feels like an affirmation. It feels like an affirmation that I can be nonbinary, that I can be myself.
Gender means something different for everybody. It can be a big or a small piece of the puzzle of your identity, and there’s no singular correct way to “be” a gender. You don’t owe anyone masculinity, femininity or androgyny; being comfortable in your own body is what is more important. Hopefully, I will find that piece of my puzzle somewhere along the way too.
Art by Dev Kamath