by Nico Wilkinson, Photo illustration by amelia eskenazi
I had a beard for the first time at the National Poetry Slam in Oakland.
Theater-grade. It perfectly matched my eyebrows. With a bit of finesse and spirit gum, it looked like it had always been there, right on my face.
Let me tell you, I looked damn fine in it.
But I didn’t look like a man.
I wore eyeliner. My tits were not the least bit disguised. I had my usual bad case of baby face. My hips were not lying. Without my beard and moustache, I would have been easily read as a woman. With the beard and moustache, things were a little more complicated.
No, I didn’t look like a man. I looked how I felt I ought to.
The first time I felt the deep inklings of my gender stir was in my LGBT Literature class sophomore year when we watched “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a movie that centers on a character named Hedwig who exists in a space of complex identity and gender illustrated through kick-ass music. One of these songs is “The Origin of Love” – a retelling of the Aristophanes Myth from Plato’s Symposium – a myth about the origin of humanity. It states that humans used to have two heads, four arms, four legs. They looked like two humans sewn up back to back. They came in three categories.
Now there was three sexes then
One that looked like two men glued up
back to back
they were the children of the sun.
And similar in shape and girth
were the children of the Earth
They looked like two girls
rolled up in one.
And the children of the moon
was like a fork shoved on a spoon
they was part son, part, earth,
part daughter, part son.
The Gods split us way back when, and this is the source of human attraction – a literal search for one’s other half. Of course, this myth can be applied to an understanding of sexual attraction, either to the same or opposite sex. However, it resonated with me as an example of beings that are neither just male or female, but both. I felt it stir the rough edges in me. In my case, this aching separation was not from another person, but a separation from myself.
What I mean is: every day, we are trying to look like how we feel. Life is about finding a way to close the gap between who we feel we are and how the rest of the world reads us. That night in Oakland, facial hair and eyeliner felt like me. Truthfully, facial hair feels right to me most days, but the itchiness and stiffness of spirit gum does not, so I save it for special occasions. Yet, when I see someone with an admirable face of hair, I get a little pang, as though my brain is saying, “yes, that is right, that is what I should look like,” and I don’t. I don’t. I don’t.
I identify as non-binary, maybe genderqueer, but I’m still figuring it out. I use they/them/theirs pronouns. However, I probably won’t correct you when you misgender me. This isn’t out of any sort of patience. It isn’t because I don’t care. It’s because I am too nervous to correct people, because a part of my brain has internalized that this shouldn’t be a big deal. That my needs as a non-binary person are not like the needs of other trans folks.
I worry that people will think I’m a “transtrender” – that people will think my identity is a matter of seeking attention, of trying to seem different.
I worry that they’ll start to argue with me about the grammatical use of “they them theirs” pronouns as singular.
I worry people will ask questions I’m not prepared to answer, like “How do you know?” “Prove that this is real” and “Why does it matter what pronoun I use?”
It matters because I am not the only genderqueer person at Colorado College. I am not the only one misgendered on a daily basis by classmates, professors and other colleagues. I am not the only one hoping and praying that professors, RAs and facilitators might actually ask for people’s pronouns on the first day of the year or the block. I am not the only one inwardly cringing every time someone uses the wrong name, gender, pronoun.
It would still matter, even if I were the only one.
For a long while, to avoid this reaction, I identified with how I was read. A butch lesbian. I wore this label with pride because it was as close as I thought I could get to myself, the closest I could get to shoving myself together. Until I learned that there were more options out there, and this is in part thanks to the Internet, and thanks to people in my own life who were already identifying as non-binary.
That is when I started identifying as non-binary. There was a period of adjustment. At first, they/them/theirs felt strange. Going by Nico felt strange. Changing the sort of mediocrity through which I had lived in hopes for something better felt strange. Especially in situations where being non-binary wasn’t understood. The constant explanations made me feel that ache again. The aching void between who I am and how the world saw me.
It’s hard to explain outside of the vulnerability of writing the way my breath catches in my throat when someone calls me “she, miss, girl.” Suddenly, I’m outside of my body and looking at myself from their eyes. I’m aware of that gap between how I feel and how I am read by the world. I think about how, if I told them the truth, they might make that usual expression at me: squinting, tilting their head, like I am an indecipherable thing.
So I turned to history. I figured there must be some level of universality to this experience, perhaps a connection not just based in the present culture and moment, but rather one that exists in our makeup as human beings.
Progress is not linear. The world isn’t getting better, more liberal, more progressive as time goes on. It’s been a series of dips and rises. The experience of gender is like this, though more complicated, as its myriad forms have shifted differently over time for different cultures.
I started with Greek mythology, especially since the Aristophanes myth lit the flame. I learned about the God(dess) Hermaphroditus, a deity born a boy until their union with a water nymph. Dionysus is also described with genderqueer tendencies.
Aside from deities, there are other ancient instances of gender that weren’t so simply binary. A 5,000-year-old caveperson from the Copper Age was unearthed that seemed physiologically male, but was buried with female burial rites, an anomaly that anthropologists attributed to a possible instance of gender nonconformity.
It is through stories of those like me that I become more confident in the validity of my identity, and it’s not just because it has ancient roots in history, culture and the human psyche. It’s also because I am learning to trust in my experiences of myself. I become more confident when I close the gap between how I feel and how I am read. I become more confident when people use my correct pronouns. I’m learning to feel confident when they don’t.
In the Aristophanes myth, sex is interpreted as people making a futile attempt at reconnection, to return to the wholeness before the split.
Maybe it’s not about sex though. Maybe it’s not just about love for others, but love for ourselves. To fight the way we are forcibly split apart by our birth certificates. Maybe it’s about finding ourselves, stitching ourselves back together in the face of the Gods, the society that tries to tear us into pieces.
By wearing my beard, I make a stitch. By asserting my gender, another stitch. By getting to be around other non-binary people, more stitches. Still, there are holes where the cold gets in, chilling moments of self-separation. I’m not positive yet on how to close them all. Sometimes I wonder if hormones would help. Sometimes, binding my chest. Sometimes, eyeliner. Sometimes, dresses and flowers in my hair. I don’t fully know myself yet.
I do know that taking ownership of the language surrounding me to fit the purpose of my identity is a way for me to keep my seams from coming apart. When I correct you on my pronouns, it is an act of rebellion. It is also the decision to stay whole.
Throughout time, throughout society, there have been folks who do not simply identify as male or female. Folks that prove, again and again, the complexity of humankind. While they did not identify as non-binary or genderqueer, as these are relatively new terms, they existed.
Just like how we exist now, and in that right to exist, we have the right to take charge of language around us to acknowledge and validate our existence. Which is why we have pronouns like, they, xe, ze, etc. It’s why we have terms like genderqueer, agender, neutrois, and the like. We all are on a constant search to get closer to the truth of who we are, and what better medium is there than through language, a way to externalize the internal, to voice the sensation of existing in a body, especially a body that is neither, that is both, that is nothing, that is everything.