For years, I joked that I was ‘bad at being a woman’.
It was my excuse for the way I looked, the way I dressed, the things I liked, and my struggle to understand romance in the way others seemed to. Like that U2 album that for a few years came preloaded on every iPod, my gender was what it was because someone else had decided it should be there. And I just accepted its existence while focusing on losing it among so many other things that were much more ‘me.’
Now in my late twenties and comfortable identifying as non-binary — with a personal identity (and curated playlists) significantly more chaotic and representative of me — I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the ways I’ve searched for a place outside of that gender binary for most of my life. Even if I didn’t realize it at the time. ‘Girl’ was a label I didn’t ask for, understand, nor take much interest in. For as long as I’ve had a personality of my own, I’d been searching for better labels to explain who I am.
My story was less a tale of heroically breaking free from restrictive binary gender identities, and more of me finally just sort of laying down in the murky swamp of non-binary gender identity and going ‘actually, this is quite nice.’
As a child, my chosen identity was ‘smart and mature’. I made my grades — and my personal conviction that I was just a very small adult — the foundation of my identity. My hair cut was very short. I overachieved at every possible opportunity. I developed traditional ‘boy’ interests in knights and space and computers and chess club. Most of my female peers liked top-40 music and were learning to style their hair like the actresses in J-14 Magazine. I had zero context for these things. I was an academic, which was much more important than the fact I was a ‘girl’.
By high school, I had found comfort in the familiar pick-me refrain of the late ’00s: “I’m not like other girls!” I read Star Trek novels over lunch, had theatre practice after school, played role-playing games on forums in my computer programming class, and posted impossibly vague references to niche television shows as my Facebook statuses. I was a ‘girl’, fine, but I was quirky and nerdy first.
As a preacher’s kid, a lot of my time outside of school was spent in church spaces, which tended to be very binary places. Men attended Bible studies about being warriors of God, knights of the Kingdom. But as a girl, my place was in groups learning about purity and the development of godly gender roles in heterosexual relationships, through devotional books with pictures of purses on the front. Struggling to connect with those topics and expectations, my gender in churches became ‘tech booth kid’, sitting in the back of services, changing slides and working on the church website to avoid the ‘ladies’ ministry’
My interests and my hobbies very much became my identity. Something I realize now had less to do with, say, Doctor Who being my identity, and much more to do with the comfort I felt identifying as a nerd rather than as a woman. I didn’t have to worry about crushes or my presentation or expectations. Or if guys liked me (let alone if I even wanted them to). I was a geek, a sort of quirky third gender. A passionate group who weren’t afraid to be a little ridiculous and gushed over the stories they liked. Socially awkward people who just wanted to sit together and read silently, or wanted to beat-by-beat tell me about the seven hour video games session they had last night. I understood those people. Defining myself by my interests was also a way for me to try to control others’ expectations for how I should look, behave, and what interests I should have.
Looking back, I know a lot of this messiness isn’t unfamiliar to a lot of my age group. So much of growing up is about self-exploration; figuring out who you are, who you want to be, and how you want the world to see you. You’re trying to sort out fitting in versus standing out, which labels are yours, and who you are looking to for approval and acceptance. Most of us can look back and cringe at fashion choices or social media statuses we felt so perfectly exemplified us as kids. I am deeply envious of anyone who didn’t feel super awkward growing up.
But through the process of growing up, my being a ‘girl’ had become more and more important to people. More central to how people saw me, interacted with me, and asked questions of me. I wouldn’t start my journey through sexuality until the later years of college, eventually settling on the lesbian label. But I was already struggling to identify with a gender experience that seemed at times to be based mostly around heterosexual milestones, like dates and prom and the type of man you hoped to marry. This wasn’t so much about not feeling welcome in womanhood, or like I didn’t fit the criteria to be allowed to be a girl. I was tired of trying to figure it out, and trying to force myself into a box that looked different to a lot of people anyways, when instead I could focus on more important things that I did control.
I dug deep into stories because I didn’t know how I wanted to be seen or by who, but I did know the kind of person I wanted to be: loyal, friendly, hopeful, creative, and at least a little ridiculous. I was collecting the pieces to the puzzle of me, and was finding it more and more difficult to work around the large gender piece someone else had glued to the table before I started.
By the time I reached adulthood, I was attending a very small, faith-based university. It did not take me long to realize that I did not fit the mold of the type of woman the school wanted in its undergraduate program. I did my best to balance who I was with who I thought I needed to become: a feminine person of faith who embodied womanhood physically and through the behaviours, interests and relationship roles that entailed.
And so I ran a Bible study, went to worship sometimes up to four times a week, and tried to convince myself that I had a home somewhere in womanhood. The Christian version at the very least. If I had found comfort and identity in my interests and hobbies, surely by making womanhood my primary interest and hobby, I could finally feel comfortable in it. But in my core I knew that needing to fight that hard for peace and belonging meant I wouldn’t find either of those things there.
Through this time, I was extremely lucky to have incredibly brave, authentic friends both within and outside of that community. They showed me that there was absolutely space for me to flourish as me. Not as a version of myself constantly pruned to live inside of a bubble. By the time I graduated, I began fostering more friendships with queer folks, as well as others who put focus on being authentically themselves and constantly exploring what that meant for them.
I started to grow, started to heal from wounds I didn’t realize had counted as wounds. I began the slow process of getting to know who I was when I wasn’t on the defensive about it. What was my gender when I wasn’t trying to be the smartest, most pretentious 9-year-old in my elementary school? When I wasn’t being a cringey, quirky highschooler using pop culture as a shield? When I wasn’t fighting to hold onto the idea that maybe I was valid and worthy just for being me?
I was beginning to understand that my familiar refrain of “I’m just bad at being a woman” wasn’t quite true, but I was also anxious to step into what I perceived to be a part of queerness reserved for people with an absolutely iron-clad certainty of who they are. People who looked a certain way, had a certain amount of confidence, or who experienced an almost violent sense of dysphoria any time any gendered terms were used to refer to them. I was comfortable acknowledging that I wasn’t cisgendered, but was convinced I wasn’t non-binary enough to be allowed.
It was two non-binary friends who helped me finally fully accept that part of myself. The first,, stopped me mid stress-ramble to tell me “not non-binary enough is not a thing.” They firmly reminded me that feeling more comfortable not identifying with a binary gender is the only criteria for being non-binary. That friend’s confidence and clarity in sharing who they were, and in choosing a name and pronouns which reflected them better, was incredibly inspiring. They helped me to fully grasp that being who you are is not dependent on other people’s opinions. That it’s not an inconvenience to be yourself.
With their deeply relaxed approach to their own gender, it was my second non-binary friend who helped me to realize how much I had been overthinking everything. They had other things they’d rather do than to map and label every corner of their identity. They used the labels that felt right and went back to their life, without laying awake agonizing over if they were enough to be able to use them. They knew themselves, knew what made them happy, and that was more than enough for their comfort.
Getting to watch those two close friends navigate their non-binary identites encouraged me to take a look at the decisions I make and why I make them. It helped me to realize that no experience or identity, including a non-binary one, is a monolith, with each person’s needs, comfort, expression of self being their own.
One of my own favourite parts of my gender expression journey has been the freedom and chaos of playing with my appearance. Instead of dressing to either be a woman or to fight against the idea that I was a woman, I could spend time discovering what it meant to dress like me. As I’ve discovered the ways I find most comfortable presenting (a spectrum I like to joke moves from ‘cottagecore femme’ to ‘your most generic uncle at family Thanksgiving’), my closet became more and more an eclectic collection of inexplicable thrift store finds. Dresses and suits, chest binders and bras, and evening wear and oversized knits share the same space, and I get to wake up each morning and decide how I want to look that day, with the only limits being my budget and the weather. I no longer have to feel restricted to certain brands or styles or sides of a store; there are just things that I like and things that I don’t, and twice as many things to send frantic pictures of to my sister for advice on styling.
As I’ve accepted that I am not just ‘bad at being a woman’ but in fact not a woman at all, I have found a lot of freedom in exploring what and who I actually am, and the strangeness and messiness that entails. Though my gender and my identity as a whole do have a large impact in how I present, how I ask people to interact and talk about me, and how deeply I connect with others, letting myself explore my gender has also allowed me to know myself internally on a much deeper level. With fewer objective labels and without the need to meet anyone else’s criteria, I’ve been able to explore who I am in more personal, abstract, and often wonderfully bizarre ways.
I am thunderstorms and forest walks. I am Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean. I am an Oxford student in the early 1900s, reading in a dorm room by an open window. I am a hobbit and unruly hair and oversized sweaters. I am stories and lightly worn vinyl records and half-burnt candles. I am attention and iron deficient. I spend some weekend evenings reading Shakespeare with friends and discussing sci-fi with others. I always accidentally over steep my tea, and enjoy podcasts that make me laugh and cry in the same breath. I am a subpar gardener, but my houseplants seem to be surviving despite me, and I prefer McDonald’s fries but Wendy’s poutine.
I am so many things: some wonderful, some my therapist politely makes the focus of our sessions. I talk too much, I get too excited about things, and I go on one picnic and then make it my personality for a month. I’m still a geek, and still have too many feelings about stories. There are so many things I need to get better at, resolutions to make, hobbies to take up, self-care things to improve. I’m messy and chaotic and life is often just as overwhelming as it’s always been, and my gender journey hasn’t magically changed that. But what it has done is allowed me to be more genuine, more comfortable with myself, and more prepared to find the paths and adventures that are uniquely mine. Being non-binary means I can stop spending time thinking I’m bad at being a woman, and keep learning about myself, and how to be better at being me.
So, ‘are you a boy or a girl’?
I’m neither. And I’m more. And I’m growing. And I’m me.
Cassidy Rae Proctor (they/she) grew up in a small town in Ontario, before making the leap to a slightly less small town in Ontario, where they now reside with too many books and a number of struggling plants. They studied creative writing, and currently work in libraries, where they’ve made a career out of being overenthusiastic about all the things they love. You can find them wandering the woods in anachronistic dress, or on Twitter at @Cassidy_Rae.