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In my second year of high school I had shoulder length hair. Some thought I liked metal music, others thought I wanted to be a girl. More than anything it was an act of defiance against my mum, who’d orchestrated the same short hairstyle, with just enough length for a spot of gel, throughout primary school. I loathed it then and I loath it now, and while I agree the long hair may also have been a mistake, I’m happy that I took charge of my appearance.
What astounds me, however, is the meaning people assigned to the length of my hair. He doesn’t like metal? Oh, he must want to be a girl. Obviously that’s an extreme example, but I got asked both by two complete strangers on separate occasions. A third stranger once said, “Morning girls… Boys… Whatever” to my (short-haired) sister and I when we were walking to school.
Now my hair is the shortest it’s been since I started growing it out when I was eleven. I often paint my nails either black or lilac. Very occasionally I wear lipstick, but I find the hairs of my beard get stuck to it if they’re too long. A lot of people don’t know what to make of it. A little gender deviance and they’re thrown off. Am I just a flamboyant gay man, or am I more complex than that?
It seems that in our society so much is placed upon the way you look, the way you present your gender. Your appearance defines who you are, even if you “make no effort”. It’s a cocktail of assumptions and stereotypes, because even though it’s a personal affair, your gender is apparently everyone’s business.
Male never fit me quite right. I woke up one day and the realisation hit me with full-fledged panic, racing through my body and alerting me to everything about my physical self that was wrong. In that moment I wanted to take drastic action for this entirely new urge that was all-consuming. Most of it was fear, both of myself and the hurt that could accompany this experience.
There was very little I knew about what I was experiencing. The pressure of society limits how you can openly identify and where these things can be discussed. I knew that people assigned one gender at birth sometimes grew up identifying as another, and I knew the differences between sex and gender (your biology and your brain). I had no idea where to look for more information, and only a handful of friends I thought safe enough to talk to this about. Eventually, thanks to the internet, I discovered the term Non-binary. I found the vagueness of this comforting, because I felt that my gender was just as vague and broad. For the first time I felt okay about my gender being separate from my sex, my biology.
The beauty of gender is that it can be anything you want it to be. It’s an individual experience constructed by how you feel.
I found there were still gaps in my knowledge about gender. I kept discovering new terms belong under the umbrella term “Non-binary”, some of which I tried on for myself: Agender, Genderqueer, Genderfluid, Demiboy, and Demigirl among some. I found that Demiboy fit me the best personally, and have since made friends who identify with other terms. The beauty of gender is that it can be anything you want it to be. It’s an individual experience constructed by how you feel. It seems a lot more complicated than it is, but in reality I’m just a bit more queer than I thought I was five years ago.
The concept of Non-binary gender isn’t even recent. It dates back centuries, and in other cultures is accepted the way our Western society would rarely ever. In Māori culture the terms Whakawahine, meaning “to become a woman”, and Whakatāne, meaning “to act like a man”, exist. Whakawahine are assigned male at birth but act and dress feminine, while Whakatāne are the polar opposite. In Samoan culture there is the term Fa’afafine, the Samoan equivalent of Whakawahine. Fa’afafine are more culturally accepted in Samoa than in New Zealand, because of the expectations in our society in regard to gender. However, it must be noted that these terms encompass more than just gender in a way that can be hard to comprehend from Western views. They are words unique to their cultures and would be better explained by someone from their respective cultures. These are only a handful of terms from some cultures close to home, but cultures all over the world have their own terms and the people who identify in this way are integrated into their societies.
There are also many celebrities in our modern day that also identify within the Non-binary community. Rapper Angel Haze, real name Raeen Roes, identifies as Agender using the gender neutral pronouns they/them to refer to themself. Elly Jackson, singer of Synthpop act La Roux, has said, “I don’t feel like I’m female or male.” Jackson also has an androgynous appearance, often wearing suits, which are considered more masculine, with make up and jewellery, which are considered more feminine. Shamir, singer of “On The Regular”, famously tweeted that he has “No gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give”. However, he still uses male pronouns because they feel the most comfortable to him. Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, has said in his book Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? A Rock ’n’ Roll Memoir that his gender is “half and half”, meaning half female and half male.
My gender identity is not something I talk about often outside of queer circles. While I’d like for it not to be a big deal, for some it’s a concept people can’t easily understand. I often brush away probing questions, which are often far more personal than I would ever be comfortable answering, or tell people to turn to Google. I’m a queer person, but I’m not a queer dictionary. The internet is full of resources if you’re curious or questioning. Maybe you’ll see me around uni making a mess of my nails and swearing under my breath. If I’m in a good mood I’ll answer some questions in exchange for nail painting tips. Seriously. That shit’s harder than it looks.