This is the first of a few posts on gender that I will be publishing over the next few months (or year…who knows! Gender is a deeply layered thing, and a difficult subject to encompass in one post, one interview, or even one book). Part of this gender project is to interview people of all genders to get a sense of how we, as individuals, perceive gender, especially our own gender.
This is my first interview of my gender series, and it’s with my friend kat, who identifies as non-binary. This means that they identify as neither male nor female, and use the pronouns they/them/theirs.
kat has done some wonderful work of their own in the realm of sex-and-gender education. When they started taking testosterone, they created a Tumblr that followed the first six months of their transition. You can find it here (note that if you want to find the videos they made specifically about their transition, you have to go back to page seven or so. The first video is also their first post, currently (today being March 3, 2016) on page 10). While in college, they designed a fabulous seminar on negotiation and consent; we once created and presented a seminar on alcohol and consent for undergraduate students.
What follows is an edited* transcription of our hour-long conversation about kat’s gender identity, their feelings about gender in general, and how they came out as non-binary.
[*When I say “edited” I mean that I have taken a transcription and taken out many pauses and unnecessary words (words like “like,” and “um,” for example). In certain instances, I have added words to make meaning more clear or combined sentences that essentially say the same thing in slightly different ways. If I have made a dramatic change (inserted words that were never in the interview, for example), I include brackets to show that change.]
Positively Sex Ed: What is your definition of gender?
kat: So I have no idea how to actually define gender. I know how to talk around gender. Like, I’ll use [the term] gender identity, which is to say I feel like this particular gender, and that might be feminine or masculine or neither or both or different things on different days. There’s gender expression, which is how people present themselves to the world, and people have ideas about which gender these characteristics belong to, whether that’s a t-shirt or a dress or jewelry or facial hair or muscles or the sort of voice that you speak with. There’s biological sex, which has to do with bodies and those are sometimes male and sometimes female. Sometimes, especially for trans people, [bodies and biological sex] don’t conform to exactly what we tend to think of as male or female bodies. Mine is definitely somewhere in-between and that’s the way I like it.
As to what gender is, I honestly have no idea what it feels like to feel a particular gender. Like, I don’t know what it feels like to say, ‘Ah, yes, I’m a woman and this is the right thing for me and being a man would be totally different and totally weird.’ Most people see me as and know me as a guy now. Especially people on the street. I pass. I have a beard because I’ve been on testosterone. But I identify as non-binary. So not male, not female, something between, neither, whatever. And my gender expression will go everywhere from loose-fitting tank tops and ankle-length skirts with jewelry and a beanie hat to your J-Crew catalogue: plaid-button-down and jeans and loafers. (Pause). That still doesn’t answer your question; I’m not going to answer that question. But that’s my best shot.
PSE: Okay, I like that. I think that works. I also have a really hard time defining gender. There was this time in college when we were taking about gender in a history class and the teacher asked, ‘Who can define gender?’ and [my friend] just stared and me, expecting me to answer, and I said, ‘I don’t know. I study this shit, but I don’t know.’
k: I actually found a fantastic post on Tumblr yesterday that was someone saying, ‘Imagine an alternate universe where there are two genders and everyone is arbitrarily assigned to one at birth. And technology is so advanced that you can assign the gender before birth and have gender-reveal parties to ensure that, even before they’re born, people are being funneled into these distinct sets of behaviors. And if you don’t conform to the behaviors of your assigned gender, you can be beaten by authorities, you can be disowned by your family, you can be killed. All of these things that sound really creepy when you put it that way, but actually, that’s how gender works in our society.
PSE: What does the word ‘trans’ mean to you? To clarify, I think that some people will identify as genderqueer, but not trans. And you are non-binary, which doesn’t necessarily mean trans, and you use the term ‘trans with an asterisk’ [trans*], which is kind of more inclusive.
k: Actually, I do use trans, no asterisk, as a label to describe myself. Generally, trans with the asterisk is like a big umbrella term that’s used to refer to people whose gender identities aren’t cis, cis being someone who is male-identified at birth who identifies as male, or a female-identified at birth who identifies as female. Any other gender identity falls under the trans* umbrella. That can include things like genderqueer, bigender, androgynous, two-spirit, people who have eight different genders on different days…that sounds like an exaggeration, but whatever, there are some people who do. Trans without the asterisk is a label that, as far as I’ve gotten to know and understand it, generally refers to people who see their gender as having to do with transitioning from the gender that they were assigned at birth to something else. Often that will come with changing presentation to the quote-unquote ‘opposite gender’ or something like that. Oftentimes, it will involve medical transition.
Medical transition is not required for trans people, except for some legal stuff. You can be a trans guy and never go on hormones and never have any kind of surgery and that’s fine. You can never bind your breasts and that’s fine. But I think that people who use the label ‘trans’ tend to be people who do go through some sort of transition process like that. I didn’t start using the label until I decided that I wanted to go on hormone-replacement-therapy and get top surgery. So even thought I didn’t straight-up identify as a trans guy – [the term ‘trans guy’] is a useful shorthand, but that’s not exactly how I see and think about myself – I have transitioned in terms of presentation and behavior. I have had to come out to family, and I have medically transitioned in multiple different ways, so that was what made me feel like a quote-unquote part of the ‘real trans community’ or something.
PSE: Can you talk about your transition a little? I know that you have a lot of resources on your Tumblr, which is amazing. But I wonder if your viewpoint has changed since then, [since the last video update on your Tumblr was over a year ago].
k: Transition for anyone is a really long process. I was Catholic for a while, and they say that you’re never really a Catholic, you’re always becoming a Catholic, always striving toward this kind of impossible ideal. And that’s what transition feels like for me a lot of the time. As a non-binary person, there’s no way to be ‘stealth.’ ‘Stealth’ is when, say, you’re a trans guy and no one knows that you’re trans; they just think you’re a cis guy. You can’t be stealth and non-binary because people are going to look at you and inevitably assume that you’re some gender.
For me, that coming-out process and changing the way that I presented started around the beginning of my sophomore year of college. It’s now a little over three years later, almost three-and-a-half. I went through a bunch of different steps; they’re pretty similar to what a lot of people go through, especially if they’re in high school or college. I started out with really basic things. I bound my chest – I had a really small chest to begin with. I didn’t always [bind my breasts], but I did a lot, and that got more and more comfortable as I went on. Not physically. Physically it sucks.
PSE: Did you use binders, or were you using something else?
k: I used binders. I used Ace Bandages once and after a 20-minute bike ride I felt like I was dying. Ace Bandages are horrible. There are lots of alternatives to Ace Bandages. There are some websites that will give you binders if you’re in a tough place and can’t afford to buy them because they’re pretty expensive and most of them have to ship from places like Taiwan. But binders are great and really important, especially for people with bigger chests. Some people will just layers sports bras, especially if you have a smaller chest, and if that works that’s great; it’s a lot cheaper. It’s not as comfortable, but it will get the job done. But binders have special materials – oftentimes they have felt in the front panel, which means that they’re stretchy on the sides and on the back, so you can move and breathe and stuff, but they’ll keep the front flat.
But anyway, I started binding, I bought a pair of men’s jeans. And of course everyone said, ‘Oh, those jeans look so good on you!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, gee, thanks, um, you don’t know I’m trans…’
I started wearing different stuff. I asked different friends to use different pronouns for me. I had a friend who would call me ‘he’ most of the time. I had most people default to ‘she’ and I wasn’t really out to anyone aside from close friends for probably about six months. No, that’s a lie – probably about nine or ten months.
Over the summer, I got into a relationship with a guy. It started out as a straight relationship. I came out to him and said that I presented as male sometimes. He asked if we could go out that way and I said okay. And that ended up becoming a really huge part of our relationship. We defined ourselves as a gay couple, he referred to me as ‘he’ and as his boyfriend. And it was during that relationship that I got to ‘try on’ a lot of things, including things about language. For example, for bodies, for introductions to new people – stuff like that. I bought more clothes. I bought a couple more binders that worked better and fit me better.
That was the summer after my sophomore year. Once I got back to school, I realized that trying to maintain an identity that was male in a relationship, but non-binary with other people, but also female with people I was stealth with (including most of my family), was really overwhelming. And so I came out to more and more people as non-binary at school and kind of retreated from the male-presenting identity. It was a confusing time – I guess it’s confusing to explain because it was confusing to go through.
I came out to a couple of professors that fall. They were super supportive, actually. One of them even invited me to speak on a panel. He was like, ‘Great! I’m genderqueer too, come to this thing with me; it’ll be awesome!’ And I thought, ‘Okay, cool, not the response that I expected from a Professor.’
That was really about it for a long time. I worked on plays and my production staff was really good about making sure that actors knew my preferred gender pronouns (PGPs) and stuff like that. But then, near the end of my junior year, I decided to start medically transitioning. I had been hanging out with a friend – we were taking photos and I had my shirt off. He pulled up this one photo of me that I actually really like, and he said, ‘What do you see when you look at yourself like this?’ and I said, without thinking, ‘A pre-op patient.’ And I realized, ‘Oh. Oh, that’s what I’ve been thinking all this time.’ It just clicked. So I made an appointment the next day to go and talk to my doctor about getting top surgery and going on hormones. I didn’t expect to be on hormones for more than three to six months. I just wanted to get a more androgynous appearance and let my voice drop a little bit.
So I started taking hormones. About two months after that first doctor’s appointment, I felt really good. I was on a super low dose; I’m still on a super low dose. Most people who have been on hormones as long as I have, which is about a year-and-a-half, are on two-to-four-times as much as I’m taking. I went through the normal changes of hormones. I got top surgery in January. And since then I haven’t taken any more steps, but I’ve grown into it a lot. My body has changed. I replaced literally my entire wardrobe, which was expensive and annoying, but I feel a hell-of-a-lot better in it. I got to a point where I can pass, like I said. I became stealth at work. My workplace cycles through new employees about every year, so no one who had joined up by the summer knew that I was trans. Not that I had much of a problem with people knowing that I was non-binary or anything, but I was working in a service industry job, and it was just a lot easier both with clients and coworkers to not say anything about it.
And that’s about where I am. There have been normal struggles with parents that everyone goes through, and less normal struggles with getting [legal] forms changed. By now I expect I’m at a place where that will stop, because my ID says male, I look like a guy, and people just assume. And I’m in contact with very, very few people who knew me before I started transitioning. So from this point on I have the choice whether to disclose or not, and I get to deal with that on my own terms, which is really nice and really relaxing.
PSE: How long would you say that took, to be able to deal with this on your own terms, as opposed to those of other people? Or would you look at it that way? Is it maybe more nuanced than that?
k: I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. It really depended on the circle of people that I was with. This is the first time in my life that no one’s going to say much about my gender [when they look at my ID]. I got my Driver’s License changed this morning – my name is kat, which is still something that people will read on a page and assume female, but I look like a guy, [the name is] androgynous enough, and the gender-marker on my license says ‘male.’ So I’m guessing no one’s going to say anything about it. I’m at the point where I don’t have to come out or explain things to employers. People on the street don’t know I’m trans; if I have a beard they’re not going to take a while to try and figure out what gender I am. I can come out if and when I want to. It feels really safe.
Before this, it was all just different degrees. I’ve been able to pass as stealth pretty effortlessly for about five or six months, I would say. Maybe a little bit before that. But really, it was when my facial hair had filled out. I look a lot more masculine when I haven’t shaved. But for a while my beard was super patchy. I basically went through the same kind of puberty that boys do when they’re 13, including the awkward voice-drops and stuff. A lot of people will still assume that my voice is female over the phone; a lot of them won’t. I guess for about six or seven months I’ve been able to choose when I want to disclose. I can still pass as female whenever I want. If I shave and dress more femininely no one has any idea. I have a really flat chest, but there are some cis women who have really flat chests and no one questions it. And I wear looser-fitting clothing so it doesn’t show as much.
Before that, there was the really awkward period, especially before testosterone, when I would go out presenting as male and people wouldn’t be quite sure [about my gender]. Or if people thought I was a guy, they thought I was 12 when I was 20. You know, maybe because I was pretty small, and had no beard and a higher voice and more soft, feminine-looking features, like a pre-pubescent boy does. That was always pretty uncomfortable. Especially with professors who I wasn’t out to, and didn’t feel the need to come out to. But I would still kind of bristle when they referred to me as a female student. I had a couple awkward interactions before I gave presentations where I had to explain, ‘Actually don’t refer to me as Ms. _____ when you’re introducing me.’ I guess it’s a really weird uphill struggle. It feels a lot like [the story of] Sisyphus, coming up against more and more endless people that you’re going to be introduced to who are going to look at you and assume that you are female and that’s how they’re supposed to address you and assume that it’s how they’re supposed to think of you. Untraining [those assumptions] is really difficult. So even if I go into a new room of people and I’m presenting and passing (maybe I look super young, but like a guy), if anyone who knew me before comes up and introduces me as a girl or uses a female name or female pronouns for me, everyone who’s standing around there is going to pick up on that instantly and think, ‘OH, okay, this is actually a female person.’ And it’s really rough to have to continuously fight against that and remind people of the right pronouns or go out of your way to pass or to try and be stealth.
That said, there are a lot of trans people who choose not to be stealth, and there are a lot of trans people who don’t pass and don’t particularly care that they don’t pass. A lot of that just depends on the settings that you’re in. How safe it is, for instance. In New Orleans, which is where I’m from, it would be a lot more difficult and a lot more dangerous for me to move around if I didn’t pass. In places like Boston or New York City, it’s a lot safer. People kind of don’t care and are a lot more familiar with that kind of thing.
PSE: What are some privileges that come with the way that you gender identify? If you can think of any.
k: Oh boy. Non-binary privileges. Um…. Legally, there are none. Compared to a cis person, there are very, very few. As a non-binary person specifically, as opposed to a binary trans person or a trans guy or trans woman, one of the anti-privileges is that you have to come out all the time. There’s not the option of being stealth, like I said. You have to lie or be vague on a lot of documentation to get stuff. So for surgeries, for getting money [for those surgeries], for getting your Driver’s License changed and stuff, I’ve had to basically say straight-up, or get doctors to say, ‘He has successfully transitioned to his desired gender, which is male!’ Which is not true. There’s no non-binary option on legal documents in those places. There are some countries in Europe now that have legalized gender neutral pronouns and gender-neutral markers on birth certificates and driver’s licenses, so that’s cool. But they don’t do that here, and I don’t expect that to be a thing for quite a while.
Some perks of being non-binary! At least at this point in my transition, I can pass as whatever I want, which is kind of liberating and nice. Like, I can still go out and be a hot girl, or I can go out and be a hot guy, and that’s great. I think I feel a lot more relaxed knowing that there’s not a particular set of standards or codes that I have to adhere to. I do quite often go with the J-crew, masculine, clean-cut [look] because it’s easier, because people perceive that as professional. But it’s nice being able to swing between that and androgynous-punk-hipster-whatever. I don’t quite have the guts to go out with a substantial beard and a long skirt, but that’s something that I aspire to, and there are people who do it; that’s great. I think you’re subject to more stigma if you identify as trans and also can’t fit in with whatever your gender is supposed to ‘be,’ [or look like or act or talk]. Because there isn’t a ‘supposed to be’ for non-binary people, there’s no guide, and that can be scary sometimes. It can be dangerous sometimes if you choose to go out presenting in a way that people are going to spot as non-conforming. [But] it can also be fun. For example, I, with the same partner, have had straight sex and gay sex and topped and bottomed and used lots of different [gendered] words and that’s been really fun. It’s been really fun getting to explore, it’s been really fun having that versatility. And I think, as a non-binary person, I have a lot less dysphoria than most of the trans people that I know. Not all trans people have dysphoria; not all trans people have the same types of dysphoria. I’ve never been particularly bothered by my genitals, I never cared all that much about body hair. The things that I was uncomfortable with were things that marked me as distinctly female, and now that I don’t have those anymore – I mean, I have a vagina, but who’s going to see? – I feel like I’m a lot more comfortable in my body and not pressured to keep it up or maintain it in any particular way. There’s no one telling me, ‘You need to work out and be buff’ or ‘You need to shave and wear make-up every day.’ I can do both of those things or I can do neither of those things, and that’s great.
PSE: How does your gender identity influence your relationships with other people? This can apply to romantic relationships, to friendships…what have you.
k: It has made some things a lot more difficult and it’s made some things a lot more fun and it’s made some things a lot more interesting. Difficulties have primarily come from my family and from administrative stuff or institutions. [My University] very recently added gender neutral options to their registration system, but that wasn’t an option when I was there, so I was kind of one of the first out non-binary people having to deal with teaching professors how to use pronouns that didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. I had one professor who insisted on calling all of his students [by their last name], like ‘Mr. So-and-so, Ms. So-and-so.” And I said, ‘Great. Neither of those work for me.’ And he was really great about it. He just told me, ‘I feel uncomfortable using your first name, so give me a title and I’ll use it.’ I ended up just settling for ‘M,’ which felt fun and was nice. There are a lot of different random gender-neutral titles out there.
So there’s that. There’s legal stuff. There’s going to the bank and someone saying, ‘This is your name? That’s a woman’s name, isn’t it?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m trans, it’s cool.’ Which won’t happen anymore because I have a new Driver’s License!
With my family, it was pretty rough for a long time. It’s gotten a lot better now and things are pretty great. When I first came out, there was the initial reaction that a lot of parents have to their kids coming out as trans. This can range from just being uncomfortable with it because they’re uncomfortable with trans things, to feeling afraid that they’re going to lose qualities in their kid that they really value or find important to their relationship. Since my parents are lesbians, being a female was kind of a prominent feature of my upbringing. The tough thing with non-binary stuff was my parents were pretty familiar with ‘typical’ binary trans issues. They knew trans men and they knew trans women and they knew how they ‘worked,’ [and knew their personal stories]. But I didn’t fit the criteria [they were familiar with]. I hadn’t been saying since I was four, ‘I want to be a boy!’ Because I don’t. I think that made it a lot harder for them to swallow and it took them a lot longer to come around to using the pronouns and sort of just accepting…this. And like I said, things are chill now, but it took a lot of work and a lot of long conversations on everyone’s part.
The other place where being non-binary has been really difficult is dating. There are a lot of people who are totally into non-binary folks, and that’s great, especially on OK Cupid. There are a lot of people who will say that they are fine with it and actually not be because they don’t really get what it means. Like, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, labels don’t matter to me, I’m attracted to you either way.’ But later they might say, ‘So, were you planning on shaving your face?’ or, ‘You’re not going to dress that way when you meet my parents, are you?’ I had one guy who saw this as just an alternative thing that was kind of cool, but still expected it to work as a straight relationship and would make fun [of me] or make nasty comments when I corrected him on my pronouns and stuff. And this was someone who knew that I was non-binary going into the relationship, before we even met. So that’s been annoying and unpleasant. Luckily, I’m now in a relationship with a person who’s absolutely wonderful about it, who’s dated both trans guys and non-binary people before, and women and whatever.
So within that relationship it’s been really relaxed and chill. I haven’t had to educate my partner about my issues. We switch around a lot. I’ll use different pronouns on different days. I use two different names interchangeably – I go by kat, I also go by noah. And that’s been a really great part of our relationship, but it’s something that I think allows for a lot more room in terms of what our sex is like and what our day-to-day interactions are like. It can be really fun going to a movie and having people see us as a straight couple and being cute and heteronormative and stuff and it can also be fun going out and looking super queer together and having someone stop us on the street, yell, ‘Rainbow Power!’ and punch her fist in the air. Which actually happened.
PSE: Really! How did you feel? Was it empowering? Or did you feel like it was super weird?
k: Kind of both. It was fun. I was glad it happened. I wasn’t quite prepared for it.
PSE: [I suppose the way I think about it is you’re being pointed out as ‘other,’ even if it’s in a positive, supportive way.]
k: I mean, it’s something that we chose. And I think that’s one thing that makes it so nice is choosing to say, ‘Yeah, could opt for everyone to see me and my partner as a straight couple and just not mind, but no, we’re going to go out and be super queer,’ and being validated in that is really great. It was also my first relationship where we would go out and people would greet us as a gay couple and that process was exciting on its own.
PSE: Yeah, I see that. I’m glad that the shouts are generally…or at least in that instance it was positive. As opposed to being hate speech, which use to be the norm.
k: Right, yeah. No, I’ve never gotten slurs in public, which I’m really surprised by…no, that’s a lie. But very rarely have I gotten slurs in public. And more often than not, they’ve actually been people who mistake me and one my straight friends as being in a relationship.
PSE: I’m sorry that happens.
k: Yeah, I mean, it happens.
PSE: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that I should have asked you? Any question that you wish I would have asked you?
k: I think that a question you should consider while you’re editing-slash-compiling for your blog is, ‘How has, or how does being trans or being non-binary change your sex life and the way that you have sex?’ There’s little about that on the internet for trans guys, there’s a bit for non-binary people. Probably less than for trans guys. There’s quite a lot I’ve read for trans women. That’s just based on my own experience, that might be totally wrong based on what’s actually there.
PSE: Well, we don’t exactly talk about sex in super straightforward ways to begin with, when it’s cis-hetero people. We talk about it in weird roundabout ways in super popular magazines that aren’t really pertinent to having sex in general, [or at least good sex]. So I don’t think you’re wrong about that.
k: The Cosmo lesbian sex tips* are really quite something…They’re fantastic.
[*full disclaimer – these are ‘tips’ that literally any couple, regardless of anatomy or gender, could use. I saw only one position, out of 26, that specifically mentioned both partners having vulvas. Please, please, please don’t think that these sex-suggestions exclude you if you don’t identify as lesbian.]
PSE: That sounds really entertaining. I’ll take a look at those. Thank you so much for your time and for being so open.
k: Yeah, absolutely. I’m really glad I got to help.
As always, please comment below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions. I’m still looking for people to interview, so let me know if you would like that! It can be a written interview, verbal or both.
kat mentioned binders in this interview. The binder company that I am most familiar with is Underworks, which sells all sorts of body-wear. You can find a link to their binder selection(Underworks refers to them as “men’s compression shirts”) here. There are other companies that sell binders, and a few shops scattered around the U.S. that sell binders in-shop so that you can try one on first before buying one. If you can’t find a shop that has binders in-stock, it’s important to measure before you buy one, as binders are fairly size-specific. Make sure that the company you buy from provides a sizing chart, and that you measure over the widest part of the chest (usually around the nipple area) when taking your measurements. You can also email or comment if you have more specific questions about binders or other gender-expression products (e.g. packers, gaffs, etc).