Life has its rhythms and the rhythm of the year might be the most important. I love observing what the changing of the seasons does to nature, and what it does to me. For instance, I usually have more energy to do things in spring and summer, whereas winter is a time of recharging and reflection.
As I’m writing this, more than a year has passed since I realised I was non-binary. And even though my gender identity bears no direct relationship to the cycle of nature, I do find myself reflecting on that year, trying to see its patterns and rhythms.
Realising I was non-binary felt like escaping confinement, like when the moving walls close in on an adventurer, threatening to crush em, before ey manage to escape at the last moment. I was preparing a submission to an anthology aiming to consider alternative visions of masculinity and I wanted to give it a shot. I thought I was well-suited to the task: I barely felt like a man at all and whenever I was called one or associated with the traits typically deemed masculine, I usually felt my skin crawl and my insides grow cold. I thought it would be good to try and envision something more bearable, or even positive, but the more I thought about the matter, the more unhappy I felt. Each direction I took, I was encountering a dead end – another wall pushing in, until there was nowhere left to turn. “I can’t do it!” I thought. “What’s the point of coming up with alternative masculinities if manhood itself is a prison and a trap and I’d rather not be a man at all?!
Throughout my life I felt a certain affinity towards things associated with femininity, but rarely allowed myself to explore them – either for fear of being found out and ostracised, or because I felt I would be usurping something that belonged to women, cis and trans alike. I felt confident I was not a woman. Maybe my affinity was just a strange facet of my attraction towards fem-oriented people? And after all, if I was not a woman, I had to be a man.
Making my escape would open a whole new territory for me – if I gave myself permission to explore it. Being able to say “I’m non-binary” turned out to not be quite enough to do that – I had to reckon with outside factors as well: questions about what my loved ones would say and how they’d react when I came out to them; and how they’d react later on, if or when I decided to change things about how I looked, what I wore, how I talked about myself. The fear of judgement and of losing people who were important to me was like a sudden coming of frost, smothering the sprouts of liberation and curiosity. Some of the reactions I encountered made me shrink back into myself, maintaining that yes, a part of me would always remain a man, even though I was quickly realising that was untrue.
But eventually I pushed on, though for very complicated and not entirely healthy reasons.
I bought a skirt – which I wanted to do long before my realisation – covertly, in a city where no one knew me, in a country more LGBT-friendly than my own. I even went out in it in public, once, although I was too stressed to enjoy it properly, constantly wondering whether people were staring at me, constantly imagining the worst.
When I got back home, the skirt went to the back of the closet, only taken out occasionally when I was alone. That summer was a time of dysphoria and painful longing; every time I walked down the street I was reminded of things I could not have because of fear, shame, stigma. I wanted a bright, flowery dress. I wanted that lightness. I wanted prettiness.
I was also trying to chart the precise territory of my gender. If I mostly felt not like a man or a woman, but neutral, was I agender? If I was usually mostly okay with my presentation, was I demigender maybe? And demi- what, exactly? The label “non-binary” didn’t seem like enough. I wanted another term, a secret password that would unlock the way to be myself. The way for me to show how much not-a-man I was – particularly since some traits commonly deemed masculine were still a part of my expression. I felt like there was a set of scales before me and I had to put at least as much on the Not Masculine side as there was on Masculine.
I was not exploring. I was still escaping.
I experimented further: bought jewellery, tried on other pronouns and grammatical forms. My native Polish is less friendly and more demanding than English: verbs tend to have gendered forms in a lot of tenses, most prominently when referring to the past. Every time I was telling people about a thing I did that morning, or the day before, or the previous weekend, I also, through the forms I was using, had to look back to the time I thought I was a man. I felt like an impostor.
My wonderfully supportive and accommodating friends started mixing up the forms used in reference to me, to let me see how I felt about each of them. But how did I feel about them? And which one should I choose? Because I did feel that in the end, I had to make a choice. Feminine? It did give me a thrill of excitement every time it was used, but on some level I was still convinced it was not for me, because I was not a woman. Neutral? Some non-binary people in Poland do use it, but it’s far from uncontentious, since it’s most commonly used in reference to inanimate objects. So maybe a neopronoun, coined by a Polish SF writer Jacek Dukaj to refer to strange post-Singularity organisms, but subsequently repurposed by the queer community? One of my closest friends was using it, but I wasn’t sure it was right for me. In the end, for written conversations held online, I adopted an underscore (“_”) in place of the suffixes denoting gender – to symbolise the lack of the right option and my inability to make a choice.
Throughout it all, I was determined not to use the masculine forms, even when they felt natural. Was I boxing myself into the thing that was supposed to give me more freedom? Choosing the particulars of my expression was getting more and more confusing – how do I differentiate things I don’t want from things a binarist society tells me I shouldn’t want, from things I am telling myself I shouldn’t want? – which in turn was further confusing my identity. It was like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: I could not know my placement on the map as long as I was focused on running. Constantly running…
… until I wasn’t.
When I realised I was non-binary I thought that was it. I had gained the knowledge I had to gain and all that remained was finding out the precise parameters of my non-binariness – a set of coordinates on a map.
That in itself would have been quite a task, but then the ground beneath me shifted. Maybe it had never been firm ground at all. Because as time passed and the seasons changed, I felt more at peace. Like I was an island floating across a vast and deep ocean. I no longer felt the need to distance myself from my masculine aspects so badly. I was no longer so desperate to find the one right set of pronouns. I was not a man and felt that knowledge deep inside myself. I was who I was and if my pronouns would change and shift… so what?
I wish I could say it was a conscious realisation, but it wasn’t. I was just lucky: something in the seasons changed and allowed me to tune out society’s bullshit and my own, to break that vicious circle and to actually listen to myself.
I still have questions. I wonder if that change was a linear process or part of a cycle. I wonder whether summer will once again bring longing and dysphoria. But I try not to worry about it too much. I try not to push my gender into a shape I think it should have. It’s a strange, wondrous beast carrying me on its back across an ocean of possibilities. Even if, like an iceberg, it’s largely hidden underwater, I know it’s there. And I trust it knows where it’s going.
About the author
A Frey (pronouns: ey/em) is a non-binary writer, poet, and translator from Poland.
The quotation in the title of this piece comes from: Peake, Mervyn, Mr Pye (Vintage, 1999).