I’m non-binary/genderfluid. For me, that means that my gender expression tends to have a fluidity to it; I may present as either male, female, but most frequently, something in between. I consider myself trans.
It’s widely accepted that by the age of three, a person’s core gender identity is already set. This core identity doesn’t change, save for a few exceptions, whose identity may change due to trauma or exterior forces. For me, I’ve always known I didn’t fit into the gender binary. I was assigned female at birth (AFAB), but didn’t present as female until I hit puberty.
Growing up, I preferred to keep my hair short, and dressed in baggy “boy” clothes. I played sports and liked to get into fights. I was a pretty tough kid and thought of myself as a roguish scoundrel, like Han Solo. I had a father who treated me like the son he never had, who always spat upon femininity, which also affected me deeply. I wanted to be strong but I had been shown and told that only men could do that, so secretly, I coveted my masculinity and all of the privileges that came with it: I could wander off to play in parks by myself and nobody would bother me, I didn’t have to wear pink (I truly hated pink), I didn’t have to play with dolls (which I thought were beneath me once I hit kindergarten), and I didn’t have to look “pretty”, something I only dared to dream of being when I was alone. I thought back then that I couldn’t be both handsome and beautiful, even though I wanted both so desperately, so I chose the easier path at the time: present as male to fit my athletic body. Less questions that way. In kindergarten I once snuck into the boys bathroom, needing to see for myself what the big difference was. It was huge compared to the girls’, and had a couple of urinals that mystified me tucked off into one corner. I heard the door open behind me and quickly ducked into a stall, slamming it shut. A boy had come in to pee. I hid with my head in my hands until he left, and quickly followed suit when I deemed it safe, feeling changed by the experience. There was no difference. It was all so arbitrary to me.
Every day for me held the stressful promise of another stranger musing about my gender out loud. I would sit in parks and smaller children would ask their mothers, is that a boy or a girl? And the mothers, tactful yet clueless, would shush them and give me looks of pity. What an ugly girl, I imagined them thinking. I would lower my eyes and cry silently, or numbly wander off to hide myself in the bushes somewhere. Boys would play with me until they learned my name, Chelsey, then tell me off because they didn’t play with girls. I wanted to scream, “I’M NOT A GIRL!”, but then that would mean I was a boy, and that never felt right to me either. I didn’t even know about trans people back then, never mind non-binary people, so to me, I was just a fraud in boys clothes. How could I possibly explain what I was feeling to a bunch of dumb kids if I didn’t know what was wrong with me to begin with? I learned that I could never belong to the “boys club”.
I remember cross-dressing and gelling my hair down to go to the mall with my dad, and feeling betrayed when he corrected people that his “handsome son” was actually his daughter. I remember endless taunts of “Boy-girl!! He-she!!” from my classmates at school and wondering why it mattered if I was a boy or a girl. I would cry in frustration at Christmas parties after opening yet another girly pink nail polish set or knockoff Barbie doll, and being admonished by my aunt for being ungrateful. I remember wondering why nobody understood that I didn’t like those things, that I’m not like that, and praying to god in silent moments, sitting in my bedroom closet where I went to hide and cry, that he would change me and make me a boy so I wouldn’t have to hear anyone talk or ask about my gender anymore. Out of necessity. I fell in love with a show called Cybersix; the hero of which was a woman who cross-dressed by day as a quiet male high school teacher, and fought crime by night as a sexy, powerful female caped crusader. I wanted to be her. I obsessed over my appearance every waking moment and always felt eyes on me in public, real or imagined. Sometimes I would change outfits multiple times a day because I was afraid of my femininity, because any display of it immediately meant that I would be suspect, and I truly just wanted to go about unnoticed. For that reason, public washrooms were an absolute nightmare.
The elementary school I went to was big on sports, and I found myself constantly involved in them, so I spent a lot of time hanging around the building after class let out. I’d have to change in the girl’s washroom near the gym, which I learned to dread deeply because the stalls were sized perfectly for a first-grader like me, but when the older girls had events at the same time, they’d use that washroom to change as well. One day in particular I remember clutching my bundle of Birch Cliff athletic attire and pushing into the bathroom, to be greeted by a small group of tall, older girls. I tried not to make eye contact, but I knew I had of course been spotted, so I hurried to lock myself in a stall. They called after me, insisting I was in the wrong bathroom. I stayed quiet and began changing, hoping they would leave me alone. One of the girls walked right up to my stall and craned her neck over the door, being two full heads taller than it, and looked me in the eye, telling me I was in the wrong room. Horrified and ashamed, I quickly mumbled that I was a girl. She laughed and went back to her friends, who immediately began gossiping about the “boy-girl” as hot, humiliated tears rolled down my cheeks. I learned then that I would never belong in the “girls club” either. I was a freak. A curiosity for other people to wonder why I even existed. For them to deny my existence.
I spent a lot of time at the local swimming pool with my sisters. Sometimes we went up to three times a week, depending on what our extracurricular schedules looked like. When we were very small we would use the “Family”-designated dressing room so our dad could help us get ready to swim, but we quickly began going into the “Female”-designated one once we were old enough to figure things out for ourselves. I would step into the dressing room and immediately make a beeline for the most isolated spot. Often I would be intercepted by some well-meaning woman who would pipe up that I was in the wrong room. Sometimes there would be teenagers who would scream at me until I could stammer out that I was a girl too, that I was in the right place. I would get looked up and down my body as these women mentally removed my clothing and judged whether I had a penis or a vagina. I felt violated and foreign. I just wanted to get my bathing suit on and swim with my sisters, but I faced constant scrutiny and frequently locked myself into toilet stalls so I could weep silently as I pulled on my one-piece. I hated it because it forced me to cover myself in a way that I’d never felt was necessary. When I looked at my pre-pubescent body in the mirror, I saw no reason to cover my small nipples. When I was wearing nothing but shorts, I was perfectly androgynous. I was perfect as could be to myself. Nobody else believed it that way though, and when I asked why I had to cover myself while the boys could run free, adults would simply tell me that I was a girl and that girls had to do that. I would argue that it made no sense and was promptly shut up. Nobody had the patience for a loud-mouthed little girl and her disregard for social order.
Like just about everyone, I had to go through puberty. Growing breasts was alarming to me because I was quickly on my way to becoming A Woman, something I feared and hated. I remember getting my period felt sick and wrong. I remember growing body hair and quickly shaving it off, hoping that if I just removed it I would go back in time somehow, to when I felt I could control how strangers perceived me. Through the collapse of my nuclear family due to my father’s constant alcoholism, drinking and driving with my sisters and I in the car, and verbally/physically abusive behaviour, the intense bullying I received at school, and the spite of the girls on my competitive sports teams, I eventually broke. I caved and grew my hair out, and started wearing tighter clothing and sports bras. I became the girl that everyone told me I had been all along, in order to simplify my chaotic life. Another concession made out of necessity. At 12 or 13 men started to honk their horns at me as I walked along the side of the road, or called out to me at the mall, and I took this objectification as praise: finally I was pretty and worth something. I wasn’t like other girls, I was sure of it, but I figured that this acceptance of my femininity was the validation I needed. I no longer had to hide in public or answer questions about my gender. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was shoving myself further and further back into the closet.
Throughout high school I became obsessed with cross-dressing in secret, and gravitated toward gender-bending media. I loved drag queens and became involved with Pride. I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show and any John Waters film I could get my hands on, and I fantasized about being able to morph between genders. In my early twenties, I cross-dressed at night, explaining to friends that I lived in a crime-ridden area (I did) and that it wasn’t the safest out there for a woman at night (it wasn’t). I wondered if I was a trans man, but that didn’t feel right. I somehow became familiar with the idea of non-binary genders, and everything slowly began clicking in my mind. I came out to a few close friends and my boyfriend at the time. I didn’t know much about pronouns and didn’t take it very seriously because I was afraid that if I expressed who I was I wouldn’t be pretty all the time, and therefore, I’d become unlovable.
It wasn’t until I met my housemate that everything really changed. We had just moved in together but I had previously known them by a different name. I noticed that they were presenting differently than I was used to seeing them, so once we had some private time, I excitedly asked them about their gender, and they patiently explained that they were currently transitioning, and that they preferred they/them pronouns. I came out to them that night, and the following month I came out to the world. If it wasn’t for their support, things might have gone differently for me.
Today, I am still sorting through a lifetime of trauma and internalized misogyny. I’m nowhere near perfect yet, but I am happier with myself than I have ever been, and I am able to express my gender fluidity safely and without any doubts. I am lucky in that in today’s society, at worst someone assumes I am a butch lesbian in the women’s washroom, and nobody yells at me anymore or invades my space. I don’t use male washrooms for fear of being assaulted or called out, but I hope that soon that will no longer be an issue either, as society learns to accept trans and non-binary people like myself. Gender-neutral bathrooms are starting to pop up more frequently and I always sigh in relief when I see them. Still, though, I will walk into a crowded changeroom or washroom and feel like that tiny kid again, all eyes on me, eyes prying beneath my pants and shirt, into my body which is nobody’s business but my own, crying weakly, “I belong here“. I know this fear intimately, like a ghostly appendage, and I bear it with me wherever I go. This is a reality for hundreds of thousands of trans and non-binary children and adults every day, and if you feel like this, you are not alone. You belong here, not just in some narrow-minded sorting of gendered rooms, but on this planet, with everyone else. Because this was never just about bathrooms in the first place.