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Beyond the Binary – Struggling for Affirmation as Gender Expansive Folk

Although I came out only a year ago, my journey as a gender expansive person started well before adulthood.

As an Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) child, I had a complex relationship with my gender and sexuality, appreciating facets of both girlhood and boyhood. In particular, I found solace in anime and cartoons. Sailor Moon’s Sailor Uranus, her power and her ability to flawlessly embody masculinity and femininity regardless of the perceptions of others, inspired me. I also greatly adored her relationship with Sailor Neptune, which was one of the first examples of queerness I had seen. Mulan was an influential part of my childhood as well. Seeing her transform into a man to save her family left me feeling empowered.

Despite my uncertainty about my place in the gender identities presented to me in childhood, I learned early on that I had to conform to being a cishet girl. I have come to know that as a child I was experiencing gender dysphoria as a genderqueer person. Now, I openly identify outside of the binary. Coming out and embracing my gender expansiveness has come with a lot of freedom, but I would be remiss if I were not honest about the times in which it’s been limiting.

As a fat, enby person who is genderfluid but mostly skews femme, I’ve felt a lot of insecurity and anxiety around how I show up in the world and how I am perceived and treated. When it comes to cishet folks, especially men, they often default to using she/her pronouns and referring to me as a woman, lady and other gendered terms, despite having information available to them that says otherwise.

According to sex worker and educator Mistress Mai, when it comes to societal expectations, there is an oppressive push to confine ourselves to fit the mold of gender norms and expressions – not only in cishet communities but queer and trans spaces as well.

“I feel like there was a lot of pressure from my community to come out when I wasn’t ready, and I ended up getting pushed into coming out in certain spaces,” Mai said. “Online I present very feminine, but IRL I have a very androgynous look. I’ve worn shirts with my pronouns and still get sir or ma’am. I used to use multiple pronouns but noticed everyone, even other queer people, would defer to a gendered pronoun.”

I’d reached out to Mistress Mai and other enby, gender expansive and BIPOC folks to see whether being misgendered or trying to prove I was “non-binary enough” were unique to my experience. I learned I was not alone.

“Just as I’ve felt supported in my personhood as a Black non-binary person and have found community, I’ve often had people express that I wasn’t legitimate in my existence because I was Black, and/or fat, or didn’t present in a certain way that appealed to them,” said Nikkole R., an esthetician and influencer.

Having to shrink ourselves to be societally palatable is directly linked to a lack of proper representation of all gender expansive folk in media. The representation of non-binary folk, already so rare, is mostly by people who are white, or light skinned, thin, androgynous. These characters primarily use they/them pronouns and have traits that have been designated as desirable.

Solana, an artist, writer, and content creator, points out how this limited representation exacerbates transphobia, fatphobia, antiblackness and other intersectional oppressions, removing access to equitable experiences from further marginalized enby folk.

“A lot of people forget that having things like gender affirming medical care, procedures, clothing, etc. is affected by fatphobia. It’s hard as a fat person to get medical care in general let alone having to navigate transphobic doctors for gender affirming surgeries,” Solana says. “This is also true with being able to find clothing that fits to make me feel affirmed in my identity. These clothing companies hardly make clothing for people above a 3XL, and every day the market is constantly changing as people refuse to provide fat people the basic personal right to be clothed.”

Non-binary identities go far beyond whiteness and thinness. We exist in fat, Black, disabled, neurodivergent, dark-skinned bodies. We have a right to exist in the ways that affirm us.

Content creator and spiritualist Brandon Jerrod argues that embracing gender expansive identities will require people to first unpack the ways in which they have looked at the world through a one-dimensional lens.

In a conversation with me, Jerrod beautifully summarized what must be accomplished to embrace gender expansive identities: “We must challenge ourselves to forego binary thinking in order to see the world for all of its true color, beauty and nuance.”

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