Living As Non-Binary

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“You may think I will burn in hell, but I will not get back into an M/F box.”

by Neal Leemput

M, F or X. These are the choices on my job application form when I’m asked for not only name, last name and e-mail address, but also gender identity. I can also tick non-binary, genderqueer or gender fluid. As a matter of fact, Facebook offers more than 56 options.

Why this really needs to be defined is a mystery to me. It just seems so trivial and unimportant. But I guess I need to tick something. So I have a think about it and tick, fairly confidently, non-binary.

A lot of people think this is nitpicking. They say: “you look like a man, you dress like a man, you are a man.” However, I think the truth is a bit less black-and-white.

A king doesn’t cross his legs

I’m an actor. Sometimes I teach theatre to kids. I try to educate them in the basics of acting: emotions, characters, speech. Recently, we set up a play for parents. A modern version of the Nativity play, if you will.

In scene 5, we see the king in the palace. He sits, omnipotent, on his throne and watches the spectacle that unfolds before him. The king is played by an 8-year-old boy. His throne, way too high. His feet don’t reach the floor, his back bent. Not very royal and omnipotent, more so uncomfortable and awkward.

I offered a simple solution. “Just put your back against the chair and cross your legs.” But this didn’t seem to sit right because “my mum says only girls are allowed to sit like that.” “What?” I asked, rather defensively. So he repeated his reply. “My mum says only girls cross their legs, and that I’m not allowed to do that.”

I’m catapulted back to 20 years ago. To my personal fear to cross my legs because “that’s for girls,” although I always found it terribly comfortable.

And I thought of the business man that I saw on the train, a man who crossed his legs. I remember thinking, as an 8-year-old, “See? This man is a man. A successful man. And his legs are crossed. It’s not just for girls.” And yet, I spread my legs as wide as I could.

The circus of abnormalities

I was very young when I discovered I liked boys more than girls. But the village I grew up in was small, conservative. “Where men are men,” “Where everyone is normal,” or “What will people say?”. I thought of dozens of tag lines for the place I grew up.

My dad owned the local pub. A brown lair with football on the screens, roaring at the bar, “beer and tits.” Here, the roles and rules were clear. Men like football. Boys don’t cry. Girls play with dolls and women need to be protected. I grew up the village where clichés were made and enforced.

Every now and again, the Freak Show came to town. The “only” homosexual in the village performed in drag. Hilarity ensued. I sat and watched.

I wasn’t like the other boys. I was afraid of everything. I wasn’t strong. I wasn’t tough. I didn’t sneakily look at pictures of naked ladies and I definitely didn’t like football.

But I also didn’t want to be a girl, so I sat down, legs wide, and joined the other boys. I didn’t want to be pointed at or made fun of. And I definitely didn’t want to be gay. Because gay was an insult.

The gender stereotypes that controlled my childhood were so enforced that to this day, I shutter when I have to go back to my home town to visit my family. I walk more manly, I don’t talk as properly and I act a bit tougher when I run into people I used to know.

Faggots, wimps and pansies

“Male” and “female” are typically adjectives. This means they describe a noun. They reflect the characteristics of something.

“Male” or “manly” could easily mean “owner of a penis”. But this is not true, it goes so far beyond that. If a man is manly, it means he’s tough, fearless, not a pansy, strong, dominant. We use these strict definitions, but what about everyone who doesn’t fit that definition? For the men in my old village, the answer to that is very simple: “Then they’re faggots.” Wimps. Pansies. And that makes the door of the proverbial closet very heavy.

What if we started looking at gender as a spectrum. A scale of 1 to 5 maybe. If 1 is manly and 5 is girly, I’m presumably a 3. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I suffer from Daltonism. It’s a form of colour blindness. I see the world in colour, except sometimes I confuse the colours. Sometimes I can’t name them or tell them apart. That means my “red” is different from everybody else’s.

When I was a child and I coloured the trunk of the tree red and the leaves blue, no one asked me to just be normal. Because it didn’t harm anyone, it didn’t bother anyone. Maybe “male” and “female” or “manly” or “girly” can just be colours from now on?

More nuance

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a plea for complete gender neutrality. Most boys just happen to like football, and most girls like to play with dolls. But that’s not always the case for everyone. Which is why this a plea for more nuance, more empathy and less moulds.

It’s easy to get excited on social media about transgender people, gay people or to class the movement against the classic male/female division as trivial. It’s easy to forget what a huge impact holding onto such a conservative thinking pattern can have on the lives of others. Others that maybe don’t feel like they belong in either box.

Today, I’m a proud homosexual man and I celebrate my female identity in my art. Others aren’t as lucky and will still be confronted with rigidity and principles on a day-to-day basis.

Which is why I believe we need to start looking differently at gender identity. That we need a new definition for gender. A more nuanced definition. More free, more understanding, more flexible. That gender stereotypes are actually a thing of the past and that we’re evolving towards a gender spectrum without judgement, a spectrum that everyone can find themselves on.

You don’t have to agree with me. You can be undeniably convinced that you are, without any doubt, either male or female. You can even believe that homosexuality or gender dysphoria are “psychiatric illnesses”, for which we will burn in hell. Do as you please, just don’t expect me to get back into that M/F box.

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