By Amber Turner-Brightman
Photography by Jake Rowbotham of Pugwash Magazine
Conceptualising gender outside of its traditionally sex-based, binary boundaries is becoming more common as visibility of gender non-conforming individuals increases. Whilst gender is something which feels very real, Western societal standards often lead us to believe ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are fixed, immutable categories when this is not the case. A lot of people do fit into these identities comfortably, which is wonderful, but there are people who may fall anywhere along or outside of this gender spectrum.
As one of these people, I thought it might be productive to share my own experience. I identify as non-binary, which for me, means that I don’t feel connected to the categories of ‘man’ or ‘woman’. I probably fall somewhere between the two- my inclinations towards masculinity and femininity change quite often, but I don’t find these impact my gender identity at all. No matter how I present, the things I wear, or the behaviours I exhibit, I find comfort in identifying neutrally. For myself, this mainly just involves using gender-neutral (they/them) pronouns, but others may have different preferences.
I’ve felt disconnected to the idea of womanhood since I was young, but it wasn’t something I shared with others until the first lockdown. Being at home relieved any pressure to perform femininity, something which has always felt unnatural for me, and I was able to fully explore what my gender identity meant to me. People often ask if being non-binary is the same as just being tomboyish, but for me it isn’t that I feel like a masculine girl, it’s that I just don’t feel like a girl. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain, but the difference is much more profound.
People also doubt whether being non-binary is ‘real’ or not, but that’s just because we aren’t exposed to this idea in the West very often. It’s fairly common to find gender diversity in non-Western cultures; you may have heard of Two Spirit, a modern term for gender non-conforming members of Native American communities, The Māhū community in Hawaii who identify with both femininity and masculinity, or Muxe individuals in Juchitán who champion self-identity over prescribing to binary labels or practices. This gender variance has existed all throughout history (India’s Hijras are acknowledged in literature as ancient as the Kama Sutra) and have only been suppressed by colonial rule and the imposition of Western standards.
Transgression from traditional boundaries of gender is often met with intervention or violence in societies which feel threatened by it, including here in the UK. I think an important step in combatting this is the resistance of oppressive gender standards. This doesn’t mean you should change if expressing yourself in typically masculine or feminine ways is what makes you comfortable, it just means you should accept, encourage, and protect those who may choose to push these boundaries.