CW: mention of BDSM roles/identities as well as gendered ones, gender-related bullying. NSFW photo of a chest and body (no genitals) included in this article.
I know now that I am a Male-Assigned-At-Birth genderfluid nonbinary bisexual switchy BDSM Dominant sadomasochist.
I did not always know this. The language even to express what I am was not easy to find and the concepts to interpret what I felt and explored were not always available to me when I needed them. I only got to a place where I could start to feel comfortable, and know that it was an actual place that I could be, through exhausting and challenging searches that I could only do because the alternative was even harder.
On the other hand there remain so many ways in which I am not yet comfortable even though I am confident of those identities. Fitting them into the world at large is still awkward and frustrating.
Which challenges do I start with? Do I talk about the things that still don’t fit? Do I try to tell (yet again) the whole narrative of my gender nonconformity and at once not fitting and the desperate struggle to conform and never managing it properly? Do I talk about finding the concepts and then the language? Each overlaps with the others and finding a place to start seems as hard as asking where the winds begin. So I shall try instead to follow those winds, start in a place and let the threads of thought weave as they may, between the three concepts.
I’m MAAB and my body won’t let me forget it. I have no idea what my chromosomes look like, I don’t even know what more hormonal balance is like as regards testosterone. (There’s a personality test that tries to base personality in terms of the predominance of four different hormones, of which testosterone is one. Typically, my results come out as indistinct between all four!)
I do know that I have a hairy body, persistent facial hair, and in my late 30s have observed my hairline receding for several years (and in one picture, a bald patch developing which, when I let my hair grow out at all is very obvious). I have large hands (although my long fingers offset that somewhat) and feet. Even my facial shape seems masculine to me. I feel as if no one will ever see the dykey butch or tomboy nonbinary identities I see as my natural “feminine” point of my fluidity. Even these identities are compromises: I used to grow my hair long. It used to be an important part of my identity – important enough when I was a child to put up with teasing, bullying, abusive comments; to fight my parents and other grown-ups to insist upon it; important enough at those early ages to cling to despite being misgendered as a girl (misgendered because I never felt myself to be “a girl”; I didn’t have the concepts, let alone the language, to know if I identified as “in between” back then). As I grew older, I did embrace it as a sign of my feminine expression but when the hairline started receding that became less and less useful as a way of being accepted that way (and I never was brave enough to actually try going out in public, it just made me happier when I dressed femme).
So there came a point where the most feminine I could be with my hair was to remove the guard from the clippers and cut off the lot, embrace the butchness that I felt anyway! So a new self-expression was forged.
I’ve spent over £1,000 on laser facial hair removal – a treatment I can no longer afford, and which has been only marginally successful. My facial hair remains my greatest curse (though I do shave smoother now, and I can see some patches where it really tells), and my body hair is an extension of that. If I could have just one wish for how my body could be different, I would wish away all of it (except maybe pubes!) – smooth cheeks and chin, smooth chest, smooth belly, smooth back, smooth limbs. So that maybe I could wear my favourite dress and people wouldn’t automatically think “guy in a dress”. So that I could feel more like my body matched my soul. I shave my arms and legs and front (everywhere I can reach) at least once a year – it takes hours because there’s a lot of body to shave and because there’s so much hair. The time it takes discourages me from keeping it up, I’m often too busy and can’t spare the time, but every time I expose the skin underneath it feels fresh and rejuvenated, like I’ve rediscovered and reconnected body and soul.
Back when I had long hair and used that to connect to my feminine self, I lacked words like “genderqueer”, “nonbinary, “genderfluid”. As a child, I fought hard to reject femininity while still rejecting the male standard of short hair or of sports and competition. But as I grew I found that I was never ever going to be a man. Masculinity was a mystery to me, a code or production standard that I would never match and increasingly, didn’t want to. Even the broadest and most “feminist” attempts to define masculinity still felt like I didn’t belong there (though they were closer). I saw “New Man”, and “New Lad”, I saw “Metrosexual” and I saw myself in none of them. I saw eventually that my “Nice Guy” stance was rubbish and self-defeating, and I walked away from them all. “If those are what a man is, then I am not a man.” And I already knew I wanted to inhabit feminine identities as well as masculine ones. I just didn’t have a word for what I was. I wasn’t a “crossdresser”, I didn’t want to “become a woman” (the only language I had back then for what “trans” meant). I wanted to be, or switch between, both. (I still thought in binary terms back then.) The closest term I knew was “androgyne”, which didn’t feel quite right but was the best I could do, and when I wrote about my identities back then that’s the word I tried.
I remember when I was a young teen, the school (a very trendy place, trying to promote the good qualities of both genders and discourage extremes) asked my year group to stand on a line between “male” and “female” where we felt we fit on that line. I remember feeling I belonged at “both ends” because one location in the middle wasn’t right, I wasn’t half-and-half, I wasn’t a “little bit of each”. I was strongly both! I didn’t have the language better than that to say I didn’t fit in one place. I didn’t have the vocabulary to express the strength of my sense of self. The words I have now – genderqueer, nonbinary, genderfluid – would have been so valuable if I had them back then. I could at least have said where I was. I am always bemused by conservative commentators who bemoan how confusing all these new words around gender are, talking as if they have just been invented out of nothing and there’s no need for them. My life has been lived with the need of them, and lack of them.
Having words for myself helped me understand what I wished of my body more clearly and to frame my choices; to determine what solutions were realistic and in my scope. I could say why my body hair so frustrated me. It also let me mark out this place of comfort, to recognise myself and pin down why some things were strongly not comfortable.
For instance, I can state now with clarity that one big reason I dislike dressing smartly (as a man) is because it feels like dragging up and being something that I generally don’t feel myself to be – a Man. I yearn for a feminine-style trouser suit and blouse that’s cut for a “male” body so I could dress up as Fastidious Grown-Up Tomboy and look natural. I could dress that way for those occasions when a suit is required.
One bit of language I feel I lack is a word for all the ways in which my body frustrates me in terms of being gendered. The term that seems to fit is “male-bodied”, because that does encapsulate all the ways in which my body gets coded “wrongly” by others. They see my facial hair (and, possibly, my body hair); they see my receded hairline, and bald patch; they interpret my body shape; and combine these into the assumption “man”. But I feel concerned because a lot of activists reject this terminology, though possibly in other contexts. So the language is a question I worry about.
So much of my identity seems to be invested in my hair: body hair, head hair, facial hair. Both as an expression of identity and a challenge to it. I’d like bigger boobs (as a self-identified tubby bitch, I have a nice handful as it is) but I have strap-on breasts so it doesn’t feel so essential. I can squeeze my torso into a corset to give myself the curves I desire. I have a wonderful picture of my big, round, arse that looks so sexy and feminine (wearing that first ever dress).
I suppose my face could be more feminine in shape and underlying bone structure but nothing about it makes me feel tied to one perceived gender.
But the hair my body grows is a reality that others can see and that forms perceptions. It’s something that shapes how I have to interact with the world and more importantly, how the world interacts with me.
Words by Valery North
Valery blogs at valerynorth.wordpress.com