It’s a face made of sharp angles: a square, cleft chin and long, pronounced nose, thick, bushy eyebrows that lack shape or uniformity. “Who’s that guy?” my daughter asked, cocking her head at an angle as though that would help her make sense of the photo she knew she should recognize but didn’t.
She’d looked through this album before, many times. It’s always been one of her favorite things to do: page through my old, tattered photo albums and ask questions about the people and places within. This time, it was this photo that caught her attention: a scrawny, pimple-faced boy dressed in karate gee.
Except that wasn’t a boy.
“That’s me.” I laughed to let her know it was okay. I looked like a boy, she was right, with my short, green hair and menacing scowl.
She looked from the photo to me and back to the photo. “It is?”
“It’s okay,” I told her, because I knew she didn’t know what to say next. “I did look like a boy, didn’t I?”
She let out a relieved breath. “Why did you look like that?”
“I don’t know. I just did.”
“You don’t look like a boy anymore,” she said, to resolve the tension she probably thought was hanging in the air between us.
I hugged her. "It's okay," I said again. "You didn't hurt my feelings.
Merriam-Webster defines nonbinary first as an adjective that means “not restricted to two things or parts.” The second definition is math-based: “of, relating to, or being a system of numbers that does not use 2 as its base.” You have to read to the third definition to get to gender identity: “relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female.”
To make sense of myself when I was little, I made up the term girlboy. I didn’t tell anybody else that I was a girlboy, but I had myself convinced that I was born with a penis and a vagina, that when I was a baby, my parents had made the call to surgically remove the penis and make me a girl. I believed that in an attempt to protect my feelings, avoid confusing me, they withheld these facts from me.
It wasn’t just that I looked like a boy. There was something about me, some ineffable part of what made me Me that defied gender definition. I hated sports, but I didn’t like makeup or doing my hair either. I liked to sew and adored fashion, but I liked to be included as “one of the guys.” I loved horror movies, but I also liked painting my nails. It was all of that and none of that; it was so much more. I thought about it all the time: being both genders, and neither. Somehow existing as everything and nothing at once.
As far as the world was concerned, I had a vagina, so I was a she. But I didn’t feel like a she. I didn’t feel like a he, either. I was something different. Something society had not yet gotten around to recognizing with a label. This was the eighties and nineties, and “nonbinary” wasn’t yet a term you could apply to a person’s gender. There were hes and there were shes, and “they” was reserved for use as a plural pronoun. If you wrote “they” and meant it as singular in school, you’d lose points because it was “incorrect.” Wrong.
The pronoun “they” became accepted as a singular pronoun to characterize a person of nonbinary gender only recently. I remember a few years ago, suddenly people were putting their pronouns on their Twitter profiles, and at a conference where I was presenting, I was asked to include my pronouns on my name tag. “They” was the Merriam-Webster word of the year for 2019.
But for me, it felt too late.
In my Twitter profile, I typed she/her, and I decided that this was true and right and me. Women are marginalized, judged primarily based on their appearance. If a woman is smart, speaks her mind, gets shit done, she is “nasty.” It is unlikely that a woman will be president anytime soon. I didn’t want to be a man in this man’s world. I decided I was proud to be a woman.
Hear me roar, and all of that.
But then, the other day, my brother told me about a guy whose pronouns are he/him and they/their, and all at once it hit me that binary/nonbinary doesn’t have to be either/or any more than gender has to be male or female. Life is complex, and definitions aren’t prescriptive. They are descriptive. They describe the world in all of its glorious messiness.
I’ve lived forty years in the body of a woman, experiencing all of the sexism that entails. When I am treated as less than, left out of the conversation, I am angry on behalf of all women. Womankind is a community that I am happy to be part of. It has become part of my identity.
But so is being a girlboy.
So here I am today, my cursor hovering over my Twitter profile, where I’ve included my pronouns in lower case: she/her. I type another slash, and add they/their, then delete it, then type it again. It isn’t until I click “save” that I realize I’ve been holding my breath. But the world doesn’t come crashing down around me. Fireworks don’t explode outside, either. It is just another moment in a life full of moments. Just two words added to many, two more words that help define me.
Ashley Cowger is the author of the short story collection Peter Never Came, which was awarded the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. Cowger’s stories and essays have appeared in several literary journals. They hold an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and work as an Assistant Teaching Professor at Penn State Harrisburg. Learn more at www.ashleycowger.com.