The first time I read ‘Gender Trouble’ by Judith Butler, what troubled me most was not the ‘question’ of my gender identity but the dense unparsable language of the text. I wish I could still say the same. Gender for me posed a trouble that I honestly didn’t want to deal with unless I had to. For the longest time, I ignored and avoided any thoughts about my gender with a steadfast determination. The thing with queerness, I feel, is that once you see it, you can’t un-see it. The aftermath of the acceptance of my sexuality has been full of such disabling grief that the prospect of delving more into my queerness scared me; it still does sometimes.
My journey with my gender has been like a closed gated labyrinth. It has been tiring and exhausting. I’ve lost ways, I’ve found parts of myself, and a part of me knows it’s never going to end. But at the end of the day, I have to in some way or other keep it contained within my mind and body depending on the space I inhabit.
I did not grow up with dysphoria except with some struggles to perfectly fit the stereotypical feminine mould of a ‘woman’. This was mostly attributed to my gangly height, dusky colouring and often short hair. This also, I noticed only in hindsight. But then I grew into my looks, my complexion turned more towards fair and the world felt like a different place. So, I can safely say, beyond the usual frustration that comes with being the ‘second sex’ as Beauvoir called it, I never hated being a woman. I knew I’d never choose to swap to being a ‘man’ even if I got all the privileges it comes with.
Gender became my Achilles heel the day I realized it can be more; more than ‘man’ and/or ‘woman’. I never thought I could be anything but a woman. The moment I realised I can be, I wanted to be everything AND a woman. I felt too infinite to be contained in one definite category of one particular label. With this reckoning came the struggle of acceptance and dissonance. And all the ‘anti-queer’ discourses I’d come across, all the transphobic things I’d read, would make me want to crawl back further inside my shell and never come out.
This was followed by an onslaught of self-doubt and shame. Could I be really non-binary and more, if I didn’t feel dysphoria? Am I really struggling with something or, am I just seeking attention? This also makes me really sad how universally integral feelings of oppression, pain and grief have become to the queer experience that, the occasional absence of it really makes one question their queerness and its authenticity. But obviously, one only has to wait, for sooner or later, the trauma does follow.
I had my first run in with dysphoria when I was presented with a dress-code at an informal university party. The implication was dress shirts for men and saree for women. I ended up not attending the event but I remember feeling sudden panic and a deep repulsion at the idea of having to wear a saree. This was a shock because, usually I enjoyed wearing a saree but now the idea of it made my skin crawl. The association of a particular gender with it made me hate something I used to love.
However, for the most part, I have felt my genderqueerness through the moments of euphoria it brings me. I still remember that one time a person addressed me with a gender neutral pronoun in a very cis-het space. They did not know me, my name or my gender and they didn’t presume it. I don’t even remember what the conversation was but that moment filled me with such joy and elation, I knew it was going to stay with me forever.
Believing in my own joy and reality was a hard learnt experience; it took me one year of trying to finally say it loud to someone,”I am genderqueer.”. I felt very fragile and nervous in my confidence about who I was. I feared being questioned about my assertions. So for the longest time, I avoided putting myself in the position of having to defend my claim to my gender identity. I remained closeted.
This is why I hate any sort of ‘gate-keeping’ to the community. One has to overcome so much of insecurity and self-doubt to develop the courage to even accept to themselves that they are someone; and having that meet with anything but genuine acceptance and belief can do incomprehensible damage to one’s psyche and their sense of self worth and identity.
I struggled with my gender presentation and it also made me very acutely aware of the lines between society and me i.e. where it begins, where it ends and all the spaces it blurs. The intricacies of perception and existence. How real and valid can I be if I’m not seen and acknowledged? Invisibility does not mean non-existence. Later, I’d be shocked by the trials and tribulations of hypervisibility. I’d learn visibility can also be suffocating, especially in cis-het spaces where you’re only one of you around. It would be a process to shake off the not so subtle expectations and curiosities to perform your gender, or more precisely androgyny.
Eventually I did grow more confident in myself and was able to come out to friends and other people. And I was indeed faced with responses like, “How do you know?”, “I would have never guessed, you always seem so intrinsically ‘woman’” and so on. But by that time, I was expecting it and was ready for it.
Another thing I’ve noticed is the unintentional self-censoring at the extent of my gender presentation. This obviously feeds into the responses of those around me. For instance, I’ve had responses like, “But, you’re not a man, right?’ and I would elusively reply, “Not exactly.” and would avoid exploring that side of me in that particular relationship.
But as I grew more and more confident in my own identity, the perceptions started to matter less and less. Exposure to other non-binary folks and literature on the same was also very helpful. I learnt that I was not alone. There are many of us. There always have been. And we don’t owe anyone androgyny. Knowing all this has been a really empowering experience. It has also brought a lot of peace in me.
I’ve learnt to take joy in my femininity. I feel most comfortable with they/them pronouns, but I feel no shame in going by she/they in many places because I understand the limitations of spaces I live in and it at least gives me an allusion of agency. I do not feel like an imposter to people I have not come out to and I feel no pressure of having to ‘come out’ as such. I know I’m never going to come out to very many people in my life and I know it does not make me less of a queer person. I am learning to pick my battles.
It’s my gender and I get to decide how I perform it or if I want to perform it at all. I still feel the walls of the labyrinth that is gender around me, especially in public spaces but they feel permeable now. I’ve seen it, accepted it and found that belief in me. I am who I say I am and no invisibility can erase that existence.