A young person, seen from behind, waving a non-binary pride flag on the air.
A young person, seen from behind, waving a non-binary pride flag on the air.
Image: 123rf.com

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been uncomfortable around other people. Not uncomfortable in the sense that I can’t be around other humans, but uncomfortable in the sense that, when I am around people, there’s always been this nagging feeling that I’m wearing a mask and someone — anyone — could, at any time, catch me out and expose me as a fraud.

I identify as non-binary. Essentially, even though I’m male, I’ve never felt quite at home identifying as a man. Neither do I feel particularly feminine. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard all the talk about “pronouns” and “gender identity” — things most people think of as trivial. If you’ve got a penis, that makes you a man, right? Not quite. Unlike a lot of people who identify as non-binary, gender nonconforming or agender, I don’t particularly take offence at people insisting that I am a man. Frankly, to me, how I identify is more about gaining a deeper understanding of myself. Making sense of who I am, as it were.

From as early as primary school, I’ve had trouble fitting in and often divided my time between playing with the boys and, sometimes, going off to play with the girls. I even have a memory of other boys staging an intervention once, where they came to yank me away from the girls because — as one of them put it — “If you keep playing with girls, you will be gay.” He wasn’t wrong about my queerness, but I doubt my queerness has anything to do with the biological makeup of whomever I spent time with. That moment did have a huge impact on me, though.

I moved around a lot as a kid, and every time I was in a new environment, it was an opportunity to put on a mask and reinvent myself. At the age of 12, when my mom and I moved to Alberton, in what was then Joburg’s East Rand, I was determined to be one of the boys. I would spend time with girls no more. I made friends with a popular bunch of boys who initiated me into the methods of “manhood” — never show weakness, date girls, lots of them, and think of yourself as inherently above females. The stuff you hear from “alpha-male” podcasts was a reality I saw in front of me and, for many years, I understood these things to be true.

In the absence of a fixed gender identity you have no socially acceptable way of being. You have to invent it. You have to start thinking beyond what your biological makeup prescribes and put your humanity above all. 

For example, as a man, you are allowed to date as many girls as you want, but those girls owe loyalty only to you. Many of my friends were not above physically abusing the girls they were with, either. It was normalised. You had to exert your masculinity in every way possible. Often, this meant violence against whoever brought your masculinity into question. It wasn’t until recently, around my mid-twenties, having been out as a gay man for a while, that I began to realise that a lot of my discomfort with masculinity had zero to do with my sexuality. In fact, I can say without a hint of doubt that a large number of gay men’s views on gender are no different from straight men’s. Hence you find that in gay communities, heteronormativity — where the more feminine among us are expected to take on roles traditionally assigned to women — is par for the course.

So, here I was, in a community where I thought it would be safe to discard the toxic behaviours that come with gender, only to find that they were thoroughly entrenched and predominantly inescapable. I was uncomfortable, still. The more I delved into the subject of gender identity, mostly through the internet, and discovered that many other people feel the same way I do, the more I came to understand that I don’t have to pick a side. I can simply exist. The more I grappled with the idea of gender, or at least how we perceive it, the more I came to see that what’s between my legs affords me privileges, yes, but I don’t have to act on them or use them to make others feel small.

In the absence of a fixed gender identity you have no socially acceptable way of being. You have to invent it. You have to start thinking beyond what your biological makeup prescribes and put your humanity above all. This is to say, my desire to be seen and accepted as simply human led me to relearn what it means to empathise with all experiences. I can safely say it has made me a better person. I still feel uncomfortable around other people, because I never know how anyone might react to my stating that, in spite of my physical appearance, I think of myself as beyond gender. Some receive this with surprise and an eagerness to understand where I am coming from; some find it laughable. I can’t control how they receive it, but I can control how I treat people — with respect, no matter what is in between their legs.

It’s all thanks to a lifetime of having to step outside of myself in order to gain a better understanding of who I am outside of established social norms. It has led me down a path to finding other ways of defining myself that are not tethered to the historical violence and toxicity that have, for a long time, defined how we relate to each other in a gendered reality. As opposed to fearing that I’m wearing a mask that can be removed, exposing who I truly am, I’m more interested in what lies beneath the veil of gender in my interactions with others.

For the most part, everyone is quite simply a human being as vulnerable as I am, often only driven to perform gender as expected of them, hence the toxicity that accompanies the behaviour that arises from a culturally entrenched masculine perception of superiority. 

 From the June edition of Wanted, 2022.

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