Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Names, identities and hats

The eagle eyed of you who have followed me for some time may have noticed that while the blog name has stayed the same, my name has changed a couple of times. I guess name changes aren’t all that unusual on the internet but I think it’s time I told you why, and why it shouldn’t be changing again for a long while, if all goes to plan.

Hi, I’m Robin, I’m non-binary and agender.

So that line sums it up pretty well and I guess I could leave it there. But if I was in to perfunctory statements I wouldn’t have this blog.

First of all what does this mean. Let’s get some things about gender straight. Gender is a social construct. It is a method of labelling ourselves and others that was created within our culture and is shaped by our cultural norms and history. That’s why in different parts of the world the exact definitions of gender and the labels available can differ to our own. What we think of as masculine and feminine isn’t fixed from culture to culture.

But that also means that genders aren’t fixed definitions and it doesn’t have to be a binary state of male or female. There are many people who do not identify with either purely male or purely female and instead feel like they are something else. This is being nonbinary – existing outside of the commonly used binary system we have in Western culture. I should emphasize here that this isn’t just “not being like other girls” or “I’m not really one of the lads!”.  While those experiences can be a part of the nonbinary and trans experience they aren’t the whole deal and can and do form a part of the identities of people who have binary gender.

Pencil sketch of me by Jennie Gyllblad 

How do you know then that you are nonbinary? 

Honestly I can’t say. How you identify is personal to you. So let me tell you how I know and the process I went through.

This is a story of two halves and like the most edgy of modern fiction I will start with the latter half. Though I had heard the term nonbinary (NB) before and knew that there were people who were neither male or female, it was only a few years ago that it was a concept I really started engaging in and thinking about. I had a couple of friends who were nonbinary or who came out as NB and I found that it was entering into my sphere of awareness online more and more. It was the first time I really started to think about it. Listening to other people’s understanding and lived experience was key as there were a number of instances you could term “light bulb moments. Tiny light bulbs maybe but still, something in my brain was clicking in to place and saying “oh, that sounds familiar. Interesting”.

Additionally this exposure to conversations on gender encouraged me to consciously think about my own gender identity and what it meant to me. This is something I would encourage people to do, even if you are comfortably binary or cisgendered (or cis, means that you identify with the gender and sex assigned at birth).  Because we can only really know our own feelings about identity it is very easy to assume that what we feel is the default and that this is what everybody means when they say “I am female” or “I am male” or even “I am trans”. It can be a good exercise in self awareness to actually examine a little more closely what you mean when you think and feel these things and to consider them in comparison to other people’s experiences.

When I examined my own identity in this way I came to realise that actually I was nonbinary and it was a term I began to use to describe myself with close friends.

Now to go back in time to the first half of this process: this process of examining my own identity lead me to consider some of the experiences I had had since I was young. I reflected that I had always bristled at being described as a girl, female, lady or woman. It had been easy to dismiss this when I was a teenager: girl was too childish whereas woman felt too mature. “Female” can be oddly condescending and lady has implications of daintiness and certain feminine behaviour I didn’t embody. But I knew that while partially true, they had always been excuses, easy vocalisations of a deeper discomfort with being labelled as those terms.

I had, like many people my age, gone through a phrase of saying “I wasn’t like other girls” and “I was more one of the boys”. Now these phrases are trickier to unpack. There are definitely influences of patriarchy and internalised misogyny – when media shows women as weak, frivolous, vapid, dumb and generally lesser it’s not surprising that many young women (or people labelled as female) choose to push against this and distance themselves from the term. That was without a doubt part of my experience, but on reflection I was able to see that there were times I said “I’m not like other girls” because I wasn’t like other girls. I was struggling to identify with “girls” as a group and often felt like an outsider. I should note here that I went to an all girl school. There was a lot of opportunity for me to feel like an outsider and gender was only a part of it. But it was a part of it.

Let’s return to sexism and misogyny for a moment. Do you know how deeply frustrating it is to be the subject of mysoginistic slurs, or grouped in to statements like “well that’s what women are like” when there is a part of you, deep down and unvocalised, that knows you aren’t a part of that group? When I say “I’m not like that” it’s not just because I am rejecting the slur, the insult and the sexism, it’s because you’ve not seen who I am. You’ve grouped me in with a group you hate and I’m not even part of it.

There had been a little voice inside me, angrily shouting for decades, “that’s not me!” but never really understanding what that meant. If asked I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why I thought that but it didn’t make it any less present.

Associated with this was how I felt disconnected with various feminist movements. From Girl Power in the 90s to contemporary feminism I had often struggled to connect with it. While I could feel with a deep passion that they were needed and important, after all I had experienced first-hand many of the issues being dealt with, when people would put out a cal to women, or ask women to band together, I once again felt that vague sense of being an outsider. It wasn’t the naive “I’m not like other girls” any more but it was a “is this for me?”. The stronger the message of women banding together the more I felt excluded even though, to the best of my knowledge at that time, I was part of the target audience. Anything related to Breast Cancer Awareness was of particular discomfort and felt like a personal affront such was their all female message so strong.

Back to the present day, or at least those days a few years ago when I was exploring gender identity and a good friend said to me “When I get called girl or woman it feels like a cat having their fur stroked the wrong way.” . That was it, the final little light bulb in my head. That was the feeling. What I found interesting is that when I thought about being called male, boy, man or lad, it felt just as alien to me. Maybe not as aggravating because it didn’t have decades of lived experience and associated sexism attached, but still distinctly wrong. I was then fairly sure I was neither male nor female.

At first I started using the term nonbinary or NB, which can be a nonspecific umbrella term and genderqueer, which was a little more specific and is generally agreed to mean a nonbinary identity that mixes different aspects of feminine and masculine without being either male or female.  Bit by bit I started talking about this to different friends and using it as my identity and it felt good. I felt calmer and more sure of who I was than I ever had. I no longer had the feeling of being slightly out of synch with what people thought of me. Over time I have come to use the term agender as well. Agender essentially means “outside of gender” or to not have a gender as understood by our cultural definitions. I am still fairly flexible on which terms I use.

So what about the name changes?
Just as I had always had this vague feeling of being slightly out of synch with how people saw me, I had always felt somewhat that my name wasn’t quite right. The name I was given at birth was Sophie. It’s a lovely name, with a rich history. It is a name to be proud of and treasure associated with wisdom and inner strength. I honestly do think it’s a beautiful name.
But it was never my name.

Picture of me from 2011(ish) with cropped blonde hair and a vintage black hat

The hat analogy 

The analogy I use I use is hats that don’t fit.
Imagine you have been given a hat as a gift. It is beautiful, majestic, and handsome. But it doesn’t fit. Whenever you wear it it’s a little uncomfortable, maybe it doesn’t balance properly, always feels like it’s about to fall off, and maybe you worry it looks faintly ridiculous on you. It doesn’t stop it being a really nice hat, and one you are thankful for being given, but that doesn’t make it fit any better.
Now for some people you might be able to alter the hat, tighten the hat band and it fits better. That would be those of you who shorten your name or go by a nickname. The Robs and Steves, Kats and Dannis. You aren’t a Robert or a Bob, you are a Rob. You aren’t a Katherine, or a Cathy, you are a Kat.

But for some of us the hat can’t be comfortably adjusted or forced to fit. It still just balances awkwardly on your head making your faintly uncomfortable. Then one day you find another hat. You try it on just to see. It’s different to your first hat, but still pretty nice. But this one fits. This one is comfortable and stays on your head. You can wear it and not worry about it falling off or hurting. That’s what it was like when I started going by a new name. I originally chose Penn. It definitely fit me better than Sophie. It was easier to wear.
The thing was, though I used that online and amongst friends for over a year it still never felt quite right. I liked it but it wasn’t completely me. I knew I wouldn’t stick with it when I decided if I wanted to formally change my name. Even though I was increasingly irritated to have to use my original name in official places, I was reluctant to change to Penn.
I went looking for a new hat and I found it. Robin is the hat that has the right look. It suits me, it fits, it’s comfortable. Somebody else can wear Sophie and it will be the right hat for them. Bot for me, Robin is the hat that fits.

Now to clear up a few points 

Am I trans? Technically yes. Trans is the abbreviation of transgender which has the accepted definition of “a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.”. In our society we take the sex assigned at birth, male or female, as the assigned gender. If you identify as NB then you don’t identify as the sex assigned at birth since it’s not even an option. By that definition a person who is nonbinary is transgender or trans. A lot of nonbinary people choose not to call themselves trans as their experience is different to people who are transgender within the binary, that is to say male to female (mtf) or female to male (ftm) transgender. Because the common usage of trans generally refers to people who are mtf or ftm many NB people feel that the term doesn’t include them. Equally some people who are mtf or ftm prefer that NB people don’t use the term trans as it can confuse and complicate the issues they are dealing with.

Personally I fluctuate on whether I use it or not and it often comes down to context. In general conversation I tend not to use it because of the common usage described above. However in some conversations and spaces it is appropriate for me to use the term trans. For example in conversations that are about the experiences of people who are not cis it is appropriate to use the term trans. I also participate in a trans and nonbinary swimming club and am happy to use the term trans when there as everybody there understands the terminology as well as personal experiences.

What about tansitioning?
Understandably because the words have similarities people sometimes think trans means “transition”. What a lot of cis people mean when they say transition is medical or surgical transitioning – genital surgery, breast augmentation or reduction, and hormone therapy. While these are routes that many trans people take they aren’t universal experiences even among mtf and ftm people. It’s a very personal decision involving some pretty major medical intervention. Some people may take it up whilst others choose not to or are unable to due to other health issues. The issue is even more complicated with nonbinary people who (like binary trans people) may experience little or no body dysphoria and don’t necessarily want to change their body. Some people who are nonbinary do undergo some medical transitioning, whilst others don’t. However it is a very personal issue and one that nobody is obliged to disclose to anybody.

What about presentation, and do I still look “female”? Well that depends on what you think female looks like really. Generally I am read as female. My particular body and face shape is associated with “female” in our society. Because it is acceptable for women to wear more masculine clothes (jeans and a sweater for example) but not for men to wear women’s clothing (dresses and blouses) even if I dress in a “masculine” fashion I am often referred to as female. This is aggravating but there is little I can do about it without a concerted effort. Additionally because our culture has developed the attitude that “male is default” there is a tendency for people to conflate “androgenous” or neutral clothing with male clothing. As I said earlier, I don’t want to be male. I’m not male. I shouldn’t have to make myself look more male in order to be not read as female. It’s frustrating. Plus I like leggings and skirts. They are comfortable.

However, and I want to make this very clear: I am not presenting as female. You may read me as female, and our society may associate parts of my appearance with femininity but that is not deliberate on my part. I am presenting as me and as nonbinary.

What do I call you? Robin. Or another nickname I guess. My pronouns are they them by preference but I don’t mind she/her, especially if you are my grandfather. I am not a girl, woman, lady or female or other gendered terms (again unless you are my grandfather or we have talked about it). If for some reason you need to state my gender you can say NB, genderqueer or agender.

But what is my sex? Usually when people ask this what they really mean is "what are your genitals". Honestly that’s none of your business. You can probably work it out if you need to. But really you don’t need to.

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