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Now For Something Different: Gender Nonconformity

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A couple of weeks ago, I was in the car with my husband, on our way to run an errand. He was listening to NPR, as he often does in the car, and a story happened to come on that caught my attention. It was an interview about transgender issues with the editors of a new book, “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves”, which is a collection of stories by and for transgender people about their experiences as transgender people in today’s world. Two of the three people being interviewed were transgender, one male to female, the other female to male. I was captivated and fascinated by the stories they shared on the air, and some of the things they brought up made me look at my own gender experience in a different light. I should clarify before I go on that I am not transgender, nor do I claim to be any kind of expert on the transgender experience or trans issues. I have known several transgender people in various capacities in my life, and that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge on the subject. So what I have to say here is simply my reactions to the stories I heard these people telling, and maybe a lesson for all of us (myself included) about being open and able to learn about ourselves from sources we wouldn’t normally expect or even consider.

While it was really interesting to hear these two transgender people talk about their experiences of transition, and how they realized they were transgender during their childhood, what really jumped out and spoke to me was something much more simple: language. During the interview, they introduced two terms relating to gender identity (specifically in the context of children, but I assume these terms can apply to people of all ages): “transgender”, and “gender nonconforming”. They defined “gender nonconforming” as a term meaning that the expression of that person’s gender is different than what society would stereotypically expect. They stressed that there is a distinction between transgender and gender nonconforming, as many people could identify as gender nonconforming who are not transgender. As I thought about this, I began to realize that a lot of my own self-identity and expression, especially once I hit puberty, could be considered gender nonconforming.

Both of the trans people being interviewed mentioned that the moment they realized they were transgender came when they were young, when they realized that there was an expectation that they would grow up to be a mother (for the female-to-male individual) or a father (for the male-to-female), and they realized that a) they didn’t want to be that parent, but rather the one of the opposite gender, and b) this was something they would never tell anyone. Hearing that really solidified my own sense of gender identity, because as a cis-female, I have wanted to be a mom since I was old enough to know what a mom was (documented as young as age 3, but probably the desire was there since even younger).

All of this made me stop and seriously think about my own gender identity, and my experience as gender nonconforming, but not transgender. I was always kind of a tomboy in some ways. I loved sports from an early age, hated skirts (haven’t worn one since I was probably 5 years old and still refuse to this day), wasn’t a huge fan of dresses (I was when I was really little, but once I hit puberty, I couldn’t stand them and still can’t), and was never into stereotypical “girly” things like makeup or fashion. I always made comments about how guys have it so much easier (and I do actually believe that still, in many ways, the one exception – ironically – being expression of gender nonconformity!), and that I hate being a girl sometimes. Despite all of this, however, I do identify as female, and I’ve never felt that I was in the wrong body, or any of the other telltale signs that transgender people often mention.

I do think that in our society, it is much easier for gender nonconforming females than males. Especially in childhood, girls who like “boy things” are generally socially accepted as “tomboys”, but boys who like “girl things” are ostracized as “sissies” or “overly sensitive” or other nonsensical labels. To be honest, I think we try too hard to pigeonhole people into labels, as I’ve mentioned before, because it makes it easier for us to understand people if we can categorize them in our minds. However, I think this actually inhibits our ability to truly understand each other. We are all individuals, and every person is different. By trying to force people into labels that may or may not actually fit them, we are de-valuing the unique qualities that each person can bring to the table. Labels also tend to make people feel like they don’t belong, if they don’t easily fit into any of the existing categories. The one good thing that labels can do, though, is if you happen to find one that does describe you, it can help you feel like you’re not alone, and like there is a place where you fit in and belong. That was the feeling I got when this interview introduced me to the term “gender nonconforming”. I don’t know that I’ll adopt the label for myself, but it is nice to know that enough people out there are naturally different from the stereotypes associated with gender that this new label has been created.
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