I am dating somebody who does not identify as a boy or a girl. In terms of their gender identity they are non-binary. They use they (singular) pronouns and the gender neutral name Soren. In an attempt to portray the world through their eyes, I interviewed them on their interpretation of gender. I hope their words will impact you as much as they have impacted me.
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Me: If you were explaining gender to me, if you believed I was misinformed what would you explain to me?
Soren: I would explain that gender is not binary; there’s a difference between gender and sex. Sex is one’s anatomy, whereas gender is how one identifies internally and...even though in popular society most people believe that your sex defines your gender, they’re not the same thing. One can have male anatomy and identify as female, or the other way around. Or one can have male or female anatomy and not define as either gender, hence non-binary. It’s an idea that’s being more widely spread now, that not everyone fits into this binary of male and female, that we have to respect it, and that putting these gender norms on people just makes them feel uncomfortable and isn’t fair. People understand as a concept binary trans people a little more. Anyway, it’s most important to just enforce that you have to respect people and their identities, whether [you] understand them or not...it’s something they need to respect because this is how a person feels, and it’s not that radical because I also mentioned how gender is often defined by stereotypes and gender roles and it’s not fair or right to enforce those on people.
Me: Could you speak to the fluidity of gender, what are your beliefs on how gender norms influence or dictate our lives. What are your views on how the world views gender and how else do you think we should view gender?
Soren: We view gender as very static...the genitals you’re born with [supposedly] define your gender and what activities and clothing you like, how you act, etc.. And I think most of society has gotten past “boys are supposed to act like this, girls are supposed to act like this.” But, there are a lot of those gender stereotypes and gender roles still worked into society. And then seeing gender as sex. I don’t even really know what gender is - we seem to define gender as a combination of stereotypes and gender roles. I don’t know what gender inherently is; it’s very confusing and ambiguous. I mean gender kind of can change over time - it’s not a choice like somebody can decide “I want to be transgender, I want to be non-binary so that’s now what I’ll say I am.”...Non-binary and gender-queer are used as umbrella terms for those who don’t fit within the binary of male or female and I like to use them because I don’t have an exact word to describe how I feel. And how I feel might change, at this point I’ve stopped paying attention because there are better things worth my time. For example, my schoolwork and my friends and everything. Some people identify as agender which [means one doesn’t] have a gender and sometimes I feel like that. But I’m often just so myself and I feel confident and cute. Gender is just rarely even a part of my mind anymore. I only think about it when I’m forced to pick a bathroom to go to, or am addressed by certain pronouns that makes me aware of gender. But when I’m with people who accept me for who I am, whether it’s a classroom environment or with friends or whatever, I just feel so myself and accepted for who I am that I don’t even need to think about gender.
Me: Could you speak to the ideas you brought up in your senior speech?
Soren: I wrote my senior speech on how gender’s not an inherent part of human nature. I argued that because our concept of gender is so defined by gender stereotypes and gender roles, we don’t actually have any hard concept of gender and thus we don’t have an inherent gender that’s a part of us. That goes along with my struggle to define what gender really is - if it’s so defined by stereotypes and roles, I don’t really know what it is as a concept on its own.
Me: Could you discuss the conversation you had with our friend Amy about gender a few months ago?
Soren: Amy was providing me with some examples that seem to indicate that from an early age, gender is some inherent thing. For example: how do trans people know that they identify with a certain gender if gender is not an inherent concept? One could argue that they feel like they fit the other stereotype or role better. I remember reading research that something in the embryo secretes specific hormones, whether estrogen or testosterone into the brain, which can and probably does affect brain development and function. This could support a physiological difference in the way the brain works, which may be somehow linked to gender. I refuse to believe that because it makes me feel so limited and just makes me feel uncomfortable so I don’t want to think of that as my reality. Basically, she was arguing that gender does exist as an inherent concept and I was arguing that it does not. I don’t know if either of us was right or if we have enough evidence to support it either way.
Me: How would you describe dysphoria to a person who doesn’t experience it? Can you compare it to other sensations?
Soren: I don’t really know what to compare it to...First of all, different trans people (trans being another umbrella term for binary and non-binary trans people), or anyone who’s gender does not match what body they were assigned at birth have a wide variety of experiences. Some trans people don’t experience dysphoria, and others experience varying kinds of dysphoria. Everyone’s experience is different, and an individual’s experience can change a lot over time. I see that a lot because in high school and over the summer - basically until I got to college - I felt a lot more dysphoric. I think it was just because I was placed more into gender roles and stereotypes and I was around people who were less open-minded and knowledgeable. But now in college, I’m at a very liberal and open-minded school and people are more knowledgeable and accepting and I’m seen so much as who I am so I just feel so much more comfortable embracing all parts of my identity and personality and so I feel a lot less dysphoric…. There’s physical dysphoria about your actual body, and then there’s social dysphoria - how you’re viewed by other people. If I’m viewed as female (I’m anatomically female), it can make me very uncomfortable. So that’s led me to present more masculinely for the past couple of years, because that was just more comfortable for me. And now I feel more comfortable presenting both femininely and masculinely because I’m just viewed as myself. That’s more the social dysphoria, just [being] so uncomfortable when people view me as a specific gender. For physical dysphoria, there’s one example I like to use: I’ll be getting undressed in front of the mirror in the bathroom to take a shower and I’ll be facing away for whatever reason, and then I’ll turn around and for a split second, I’m surprised when I see my boobs on my chest. I’ve determined that this might be dysphoria because my brain doesn’t know that it’s supposed to be there, or my brain thinks it’s not supposed to be there. So it’s less of not being confident with one’s body, such as how some people are not confident with their weight or other parts of their body, as it is this weird confusion of why it’s there even though part of me knows it’s there because that’s what I’ve been living with for many years. I’m also dysphoric about my hips sometimes and how wide they are because they look very feminine and it’s just frustrating to feel so limited by my body.
Me: Do you feel that your identity is accepted?
Soren: Yeah, I feel like it depends on the community. The community I surround myself with at Skidmore, and even in high school, is comprised of those who do accept me because I don’t have patience for those who don’t, unless to educate them. But people in other communities around the world, other parts of the country, other generations, more closed-minded backgrounds wouldn’t accept my identity. So I like to educate people because the lack of acceptance stems mostly from a lack of education and it’s no one’s fault really, so I try to educate them. But in general, I like to surround myself with those who accept me and my identity.
Me: Are there any environments you don’t feel accepted in?
Soren: Well, environments that foster close-mindedness. I suppose that the time I felt least comfortable was in the weight room at my high school during gym class. The kinds of people in there were generally more close-minded and of a certain other mindset than those who are typically more accepting. I didn’t necessarily feel unaccepted because most people mind their own business. And they are still of a generation that’s been exposed to identities like mine. But among certain people, usually of older generations, or probably if I went down south, I’m aware that my identity really wouldn’t be accepted.
Me: How do you feel when somebody doesn’t accept your identity?
Soren: It feels pretty shitty to be blunt. It’s just frustrating because it’s something that’s sometimes not well accepted in society. It’s a kind of new concept for many people and it’s a little hard at first to understand and wrap one’s brain around because we grow up hearing and believing something very different. I sometimes really pity the ignorant person. I don’t get too mad because I just know that it’s out of a lack of knowledge, and in that case I try to educate the person. I just get frustrated at society and the fact that society is that way more than I get mad at the individual. But it’s tough to feel invalidated.
Me: Do you feel that your family accepts your identity?
Soren: I do think that they accept it, or at least they’ve grown a bit to accept it. I don’t think they fully understand it or even when they do understand, they’re not willing to put in the effort for some variety of reasons, whether it’s laziness or some other reason, to make me feel comfortable. But I think they do accept, and to enough of a degree understand my identity, even if they’re not willing to put in the work to really respect it.
Me: You keep talking about educating people. What specifically would you say to somebody to educate them about non-binary identities or the fluidity of gender?
Soren: I’ve explained it to many people while coming out, as well as to classes when it came up because I happen to have knowledge on that topic, so I willingly shared my knowledge for the betterment of other people. I generally just try to make people realize what the new concepts are so that they can begin to understand them and thus accept them. I try to make more educated people in the word, who are more likely to accept others who identify as such and maybe eventually begin to not place as much importance on gender in society.
Me: You were talking about the older generations not really getting it, I don’t know if you think the older generations will ever really get it, but do you think there’s hope for the future? Is it possible to change some people’s minds if they’re being close-minded?
Soren: I know we once talked about this back in Montréal - even as a nonbinary person, when I see an androgynous person, my mind wants to figure out their gender. Even though the conscious part of my brain knows that it really doesn’t matter and that they’re a person, I subconsciously am trying to fit them into a category that my brain easily understands. For however many years - 16, 17 years of my life and that’s when I was most influenced - I firmly believed that there are two genders and that they are based on sex because that’s what I was taught socialized to understand so that’s what I still see. Although I make a verbal and conscious effort to act upon what I believe to be true, which is the contrary - one’s sex doesn’t define their gender and not everybody needs to fit into male or female, physically or mentally. When certain circles of people of that frame of mind raise kids in however many years, and are externally producing an environment in which gender is treated as fluid and not the same as sex, the children might not be socialized to inherently look for one’s gender or sex. If enough people can help them to not see gender in that binary way, then those kids have a chance of really living without these limitations of gender in their consciousness. In many ways, it’s somewhat of an unrealistic goal to think that by my kid’s lifetime, this might truly be a reality. But I project that in whatever number of years or generations, as it becomes more of a subconscious act, (not viewing gender in the way we’ve grown up to view gender) then there’s hope for it to eventually get better.
Me: Do you think that you being non-binary affects you dating me, other than the fact that we have to come up with different words to describe you in relation to me (i.e. we don’t want use “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”)?Soren: It’s just a little tricky because, again, gender is so rigid in society that people view relationships rigidly as well. A heterosexual relationship is a man and a woman and a homosexual relationship is two people of the same sex. In media and daily life, we’re so used to seeing people in relationships as a single gender, so even for myself, just picturing myself in a relationship can be really confusing because it’s not really clear, it’s not black and white, it’s this big gray area. I still consider myself gay because that’s what I came out as first before I discovered that I identify as non-binary. And I do sometimes feel more feminine in a relationship. I don’t have that much experience with relationships but I sometimes feel more comfortable with my femininity, maybe because I steer so much away from the archetype of being a straight male. I know you see me as me and I feel very much myself in the relationship, even more so than outside the relationship. So I still do things that I’d normally do and my gender isn’t necessarily a factor. My gender sometimes is brought up when people see us as a relationship and they see gender roles. I like the dynamic of our relationship - we’re both very good at taking turns with different things and we’re very even in some things that are very gendered in other relationships. I really, really like that about our relationship and how it doesn’t feel like there are any gender roles being placed on the relationship like dominance, or stupid things like paying. It’s very even, so gender is really not a factor. We’re just two individuals on the same wavelength about that stuff.