I think I might have been cisgender when I was very young. I enjoyed wearing dresses (except for when the tights or the crinoline under the skirts itched). I watched Disney princess movies and played with Barbie dolls. I never minded using the girls’ bathroom, and it never felt wrong whenmy parents referred to my baby sister and I as “girls” or “[our] daughters.”
On the other hand, my girlhood was never particularly coercive. My mother kept our hair short and mostly dressed us in sneakers and pants or shorts because good and durable clothes were best for little children to run and play in. In addition to all the dolls and play kitchen we had, we also owned toy cars and trucks. We did not receive many messages about what girls could and could not do. Female was the default in our house – my father was the only man, and even our cats were female. It wasn’t hard to be a girl; it felt natural. It barely felt like being any gender at all. I still remember trying to film short stories on our old video camera with my sister in which Iplayed her older brother. No one tried to make us conform to gender roles, and very little was made of our assumed genders, period. Besides, other than either a boy or a girl, what else was there to be?
The first time I experienced body dysphoria, I believe I was nine, although I may have been even younger than that. I was an early bloomer as far as the physical signs of puberty, and generally, in true Judy Bloom fashion, I was very proud that I was already growing breasts. But I also got a thrill from buying clothes in the boys’ department, and one day I found a Darth Vader T-shirt I really loved. When I tried it on at home, it stretched tight across my chest and I found myself getting irritated. I didn’t just hate the way it fit me, I suddenly felt…wrong. I didn’t want to have breasts anymore; I didn’t want my long hair, either. Soon, I started to melt down without understanding why.
Despite my long history of enjoying so-called “cross”-dressing, I didn’t question my gender until my last year of high school and my first year of college, when I met a genderqueer person for the first time through Facebook’s autism self-advocacy community and began learning about nonbinary genders. I also began to learn about how gender identity development and gender performance could be affected by disability. Suddenly my feelings from adolescence were validated. I had never been able to “do” womanhood correctly. Thanks to my autism and mental health issues, I could not maintain enough of a similarity to what women popularly were and did to consider myself one.
The excitement I got from “performing” as female or male – a performance I could never maintain – made more sense. Today, I use several labels for my gender, including “gendervague” (my gender development was impacted by my neurodivergence), and “genderfluid” (I shift between several genders; none ever seem to stay). Even when I use multiple labels like this, I always feel as if I am clumsily trying to express an abstract concept through the medium of language; a medium that doesn’t really fit. Generally, I just call myself “nonbinary.”
After all this, it may not surprise you to learn that I am also not “straight.” I have childhood memories of being interested in male characters (if I got interested in anyone at all). In grade school, I convinced myself I had crushes on various boys in my classes, since TV told me that that was how girls and boys were supposed to interact. I did get a few genuine crushes on boys in middle and high school, and although I have not had a crush on anyone in years I do still feel attracted to men.
However, when I was eleven or twelve, I read Annie on my Mind, a novel about two young lesbians in love. It was as if someone had flipped a switch in my brain. I had simply never considered a romantic relationship with a woman as a possibility for me before, but now the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me; it also explained my strong feelings for a female friend of mine. Unlike with my gender, I came out as bisexual to my parents very quickly – and still identify that way to this day (much to their surprise).
Regardless of how I started out, I am now nonbinary trans, and I am bisexual. But what happens if I ‘become’ female permanently? What happens if I marry a man someday? Will it be as if I was never anything but cisgender or straight? And what if a man who identifies as gay, or a woman who identifies as a lesbian, gets involved with me? Are they still just as gay as before?
As we relinquish our cultural grip on the idea of the gender binary, an umbrella concept of “gay” or “queer” that depends upon desire – sexual or romantic – for those of the same gender becomes more and more dicey. After all, the number of possible nonbinary genders is close to infinite. It seems reductive to label someone “straight” because they are attracted to those of nonbinary genders – except for their own.
Please do not misunderstand me; the identities of “gay” and “lesbian” should still exist. There should of course still be a place in our community for men who are solely attracted to men, and for women who are solely attracted to women.
To help illustrate what I do mean, let me paraphrase an anonymous ask recently received by a bisexuality-focused Tumblr blog I follow. The anonymous commenter questioned whether the definition of “bisexual” as “attracted to two or more genders” (which is the definition I use) was valid, because according to this logic, a man attracted to women and nonbinary people, but not to other men, could be bisexual and welcome in the LGBTQIA+ community.
This message sticks in my mind, not because it brings anything new or insightful to bisexuality discourse (in fact, I would argue it is biphobic and reactionary) but because it highlights the pitfalls of defining LGBTQIA+-ness in relation to same-gender attraction only, especially when attraction (or lack thereof) to men gets added to the mix. Many of us are familiar with the ways in which male privilege touches the conception of bi/pansexuality – the stereotype that bisexual women are “actually” straight, and bisexual men are “actually” gay. Within this paradigm, bisexuality that does not involve attraction to men at all must be immediately suspect, and bisexuality that includes nonbinary genders must be even more so. This is damaging to bisexual people who are closed out of the LGBTQIA+ community and the support it can offer, despite the statistically increased risk of mental health problems and abuse bisexual people face. It is also harmful to nonbinary people who are implicitly misgendered under this idea of bisexuality. If bisexuality indicates gayness for men and straightness for women, then under biphobic logic, nonbinary people must be considered either “basically men” or “basically women” in order to paint their bisexual partner as “too straight” to be LGBTQIA+.
Forcing polysexual or nonbinary individuals to prove themselves as “non-straight” is not only dangerous, it is unfeasible. A paradigm of labeling that defines me according to who I am currently involved with, or to how my gender or sexuality appear to others, is simply ludicrous. At the moment, I am dating a woman. Lately, I have felt more male or masculine than female or feminine. Am I now equivalent to a straight man? If I start dating a man, will I be like a gay man? If I become more female-identified, will I then become “basically” a straight woman? In addition, it is easy to see how someone determined to invalidate my place in the LGBTQIA+ community could always find a way to claim I am too “straight” or “straight-passing” to ever be truly queer or trans enough to fit in. Will I experience certain benefits from being perceived a certain way by our heteronormative society? Of course I will. But erasure – being always thrown back into the closet by heteronormativity, misogyny, and cissexism, and having to constantly come out again – is not and will never be a privilege, and it will never invalidate my place within the LGBTQIA+ community, or anyone else’s.