Am I Non-Binary?

The question that bothered me for two years

Meg Mullens
Human Parts

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Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

When I came out as bisexual in 2016, I thought I’d finally solved the mystery of why I never fit in with other girls. A few years later, I started questioning if I was even a girl at all.

I grew up in a rural Atlantic Canadian province, the oldest of four siblings in a very religious family. Of course, this came with a hefty load of repression. It took ten years, moving halfway across the country and changing my political views between my first thoughts about girls and when I finally admitted I was attracted to women. About a year after I initially came out, I adopted the label “lesbian” since my attraction to men happened so rarely someone could name a comet after it.

Now I knew I was a lesbian, I could name the reason why I never connected with other girls. When my brother and I were little, we played with legos, trucks and dressed up in costumes together. We dug sandcastles, covered ourselves in mud and collected sea creatures during our summers at the beach. From the first day of kindergarten until the end of grade 8, my friends were the nerdy boys who liked video games and weird music. Then, I skipped a grade and had to make a whole new circle of friends. I was welcomed into the group of girls with whom I’d played basketball the year before, but I always felt like the tagalong friend who got invited out of obligation.

The same thing happened when I moved to Ontario for my undergrad. I lived with two social butterflies, so I was invited to most group events through them. Those invitations stopped — and were revoked — once I came out to one of my roommates, who promptly disseminated the news to the entire church. They uninvited me from the girls’ grad trip to Cuba and my roommate’s wedding.

So much for four years of friendship.

From then on, I began seeking out queer friends. I worked as a museum educator for several years, where at least a third of our staff were queer. It was amazing to be among peers who saw me, understood me, and lived like me. I learned more and more about the complexities and the joys of queerness, and met people living lives I didn’t know were possible.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t last. In 2019, I moved back East for teacher’s college, where I was once again the only out queer person in every room. I turned to online communities to find friends, one of which was Tumblr. I connected with six or seven other queer people in their twenties and early thirties, most of whom were trans or non-binary.

When they talked about their experiences with gender, I recognized many similar memories in their stories. Not knowing how to relate to girls, having an easier time forming friendships with guys but not feeling like I was one of them, hating gendered girly things, wearing the same baggy hoodies, jeans, sneaker and ponytail for my entire teenage years, etc. There were even a few key moments of my childhood when I remembered wishing I wasn’t a girl.

Was it possible I was non-binary?

Let’s be real, my fashion sense is too mediocre to hang out with this crowd! (Source: Pexels)

With my friends’ encouragement, I did a trial run. I chose the name Mav and asked them and a few of my offline friends to use they/them pronouns for me. It took a few weeks to get used to. It was like I was trying on a new skin. I could feel myself being perceived as something other than a girl for the first time in my life. And I liked it. They recognized me for me, rather than the girl façade I felt obligated to perform.

Other moments were much harder. Every time my parents referred to me as their daughter, I could hear the gears grinding in my head. But how could they know? It’s not like I’d told them, and I had no plans to do so anytime soon.

Another challenging aspect is that my first language is French, which is an extremely gendered language. The neutral pronoun “iel” is very recent and grammar experts still argue about how to properly conjugate it, so of course no one knows how to use it naturally in common speech. I made my peace with being called “madame” by my students, since there is no neutral option they could use instead.

Being non-binary felt right, but it still felt like something was off. I knew I wasn’t a trans man. Something was pulling me back toward the direction I came from: did I go too far past my actual gender by calling myself non-binary?

After about two years, I went back to my birth name and she/her pronouns. I had finally identified the central problem: my definition of what it means to be a woman was too narrow. So narrow that I ended up excluding myself.

When I thought about women, I pictured women who enjoyed femininity. They liked putting effort into their appearance with fashion and make-up, being a wife and a mother, going to brunch with their friends, and everything else I rejected. Surely if I couldn’t relate to this image of womanhood, I wasn’t a woman.

Connecting with the queer community showed me that multiple genders were possible, but I missed the biggest lesson that was under my nose the whole time: being a woman doesn’t have to look like anything.

Butch women don’t need to wear make-up and frilly clothes. Straight women don’t even have to be married with kids. Trans women can prefer gaming marathons to brunch.

And they’re all still women.

Looking back, during the first few years after I came out as bi, I viewed gender and sexuality labels as prescriptive rather than descriptive. A woman had to look like this, and a non-binary person had to be this. My friends and I would criticize non-binary fems who weren’t androgynous enough, and masc lesbians clearly just hadn’t realized yet that they were non-binary.

Now, I see that we use labels for several reasons. To put words to our feelings. To know ourselves better. To find strength in community. But not to force people into the boxes where we think they belong, and that goes for ourselves as well.

My retirement goal is to be a lesbian grandma sitting by the ocean with my wife. (Source: Pexels)

My limited definition of “woman” impacted the way I understood and treated others. I thought I was immune from being transphobic because I was non-binary. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. I had reduced the definition of a woman to a short list of feminine traits and in doing so, I did not treat many people with the kindness they deserved.

Returning to my identity as a woman opened my eyes to all the possibilities a woman can be. I am not alone in the way I am a woman. I have as much in common with other women as I am different from them. I like playing softball and cooking for my friends, I prefer jumpsuits instead of dresses, and I want a wife and kids someday. None of that prevents me from being a woman.

In the end, it’s up to everyone to decide for themselves what word(s) best describes their relationship to their gender. It’s because of this that I’m still glad I took the time to question my gender. I’m more secure in my gender and happier with my identity since I made the decision to embrace being a woman. It may not be the label that will best fit my gender forever, and I look forward to the rest of the journey ahead.

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Meg Mullens
Human Parts

With a curious heart and an open mind. My thoughts on navigating queerness, work, relationships and mental health.