PERSONAL ESSAY | Not what I seem: How I discovered I was non-binary
'When I am referred to as 'she,' I still feel excluded, invisible, misunderstood,' says R.C. Woodmass
"Good evening, ladies! Can I get you ladies a cocktail to start the evening?"
My mom and I were out to dinner celebrating the last evening of her vacation before she went back home to Winnipeg.
I was trying to stay relaxed and happy; trying to smile and move on. The server was being perfectly pleasant and polite, but she didn't realize that repeatedly calling me a lady made my stomach drop, my heart rate speed up, and a bit of the light leave my eyes.
I am decidedly not a lady — I am non-binary.
I identified as a cisgender woman for most of my life. Having been raised as an Evangelical Christian in and around Winnipeg, Man., I was taught to believe that people were assigned their gender by God, and that he made everyone perfectly, exactly as they were supposed to be.
Not accepting your assigned gender would have been considered an abomination according to my church, at least at that time — not that I was ever exposed to any transgender or non-binary people growing up, none that I knew of anyway.
I did not have the language, the understanding or the openness to consider that I may be neither heterosexual nor cisgender.
My first exposure to non-binary and genderqueer people was in Montreal, when I first came out as queer and started making friends with other queers — and dating them!
We would all meet up to play basketball once a week, drink beer, and talk about everything under the sun.
I had started to learn that the ways in which the strict gender binary — which is enforced by our legal systems, the media, and default ways of speaking and thinking — limits the ways that all people can express themselves fully.
"Gender binary" is the notion that all body shapes and behaviours fit into societal boxes of male or female. Non-binary people aren't trying to prevent people from living as men and women if that's what they feel they truly are; our existences do, however, intentionally challenge the common belief that gender is a binary.
I am so grateful to my partners, lovers and friends for their patience with me. I put my foot in my mouth quite often as I learned how to use the singular "they" pronoun, other "neo-pronouns" like zie/zir/zirs, and how to gracefully ask what someone's pronouns were.
My gender cherry had been popped.
It was a few years later, at age 31, when I first suspected I may not be a woman.
I had just gotten sober after a 12-step program. I felt awake to the world and to my own body and emotions like I had never felt before.
That word — lady — started to make me feel sick to my stomach when it was applied to me in public spaces.
Madame was also jarring. "Je ne suis PAS votre dame," I would think.
I started to request that people refer to me with the pronouns: they/them. The first time I heard someone refer to me as "they," I remember feeling elated, seen, and accepted.
When I am referred to as "she," I still feel excluded, invisible, misunderstood. This is a feeling that I do my best to transform into energy to educate would-be allies.
When I am misgendered more than a few times during the course of a day, sometimes it's just best if I meditate, go to bed early, or talk to people who understand my struggle.
The server came back to the table to take our orders. "Have we decided, ladies?"
I decided to speak up.
"Actually, I'm not a lady; I'm non-binary. It's totally understandable that you couldn't have known that by looking at me, but it is something to think about in the future," I blushed.
I had no idea how she'd react.
"Oh, my goodness, I'm so sorry," she said. "I really had no idea! I need to learn more about this. What could I say instead?"
"'Folks' always works well," I breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you so much for asking!"
Keep on speaking up
I don't always have the energy to speak up, but when I do, it's generally quite well-accepted.
So I, and so many other non-binary people I know, keep on teaching, keep on speaking up, keep on advocating for ourselves.
One person at a time, we are transforming the way our world thinks about gender. Even if you may not understand our identities, you can always respect and support us — and that will always be enough.
Close up on Gender is a CBC Montreal series for radio, web and television. You'll hear from Montrealers who are sharing their stories, or thinking and acting differently when it comes to gender in 2019.
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