When one is describing non-binary things, explanations have to be creative. As my therapist says, I express myself kinetically, so I drag my hands into my explanation. “So like male’s here.” One hand up. “And female’s here.” Other hand up. “And they meet up here in androgynous, genderfluid, etc.” Point them together into a mountain. “I’m the inverse of that.” Point hands together and down, make a pit. “I want to be neither.” I’m trans, female to neutral. I identify as neutrois, which is agender with the specification of affected physical appearance.
I will argue that you cannot find a more viciously inclusive breed than that which springs from no-man’s--and no-woman’s--land. Non-binary voices on social media are determinedly pushing forwards visibility and awareness for an identity that might otherwise feel invisible (I point anybody towards Alok Vaid-Menon and their gorgeous personal website). Very often, we are first able to recognize hidden parts of ourselves when we see it in others. However, there is a story I want to discuss as part of a trans and/or GNC (Gender Non Conforming) narrative. The LGBTQIA+ lexicon is understandably sex-saturated and there is a prominent trend of queer people discovering sexuality before gender. What I’m curious about is, among other TGNC folks who struggle with body dysphoria, did anyone else’s ignorance of their gender identity act as an obstacle to exploring their sexuality?
I currently identify as demisexual and pan. I am attracted first to a personality, then the body follows, no matter the individual’s gender or anatomy. However, that realization is new. For two and a half years, I thought I was asexual. No matter how beautiful I thought any specific person to be, and no matter how attracted I was to them, I did not want anybody to touch me.
I have had sex before. He was a cishet male and, at the time, I identified as a cishet female. The experience was seamless. He was obsessed with consent, safety, and me enjoying myself. Our arrangement was casual, lasted a summer, and then it was done. When he left my dorm room the last time, I expected to be relieved at the return of my open schedule. Instead, I felt nauseous. Memories of our contact began to feel aggressively wrong, to the point that I had to lay down for the rest of the day.
From that point on, when I thought about anyone touching me, my thighs did that thing, that comedic thing where they snapped together to keep ghost penises out. I could not for the life of me figure out how I had ever wanted that, no matter that I had enjoyed it while it was happening. Of course, I still had a sex drive. The practice of sex was still attractive to me, but only after I put myself in someone else’s shoes—anyone, any gender and with any sexual partner. It all made utter sense to me. It was when sex involved me explicitly that it was repulsive.
I knew that others were attracted to me, and that my female body was not difficult to like. Whenever I viciously disliked my body, I assumed that it was because I was overweight. The push of thicc beauty into the mainstream, however, didn’t help me to feel any form of self-love. It lent me a detached aesthetic appreciation of my own form, but I took no joy in it and so it was no relief. My body never felt like my form. “I” was always just a mind. There was vast psychological distance between that mind and that body. I didn’t understand how me loving or being attracted to someone could translate to me wanting them to touch that, that thing which is technically mine.
Asexuality was the only way I could find to explain everything. I read up on asexuality, and, with satisfaction, checked off all the boxes. The ace communities I engaged with were welcoming and gave me a sort of healing I couldn’t find elsewhere; validation was everywhere, and I didn’t have to confront that nauseous feeling anymore. I identified as sex repulsed on the asexual spectrum. I do not mean to characterize asexuality or any subset of it as invalid or transitory. Asexuality is a beautiful identity. However, it is not what I was. The actual driving force was integrated to the point that I genuinely thought of it as a natural part of me: I hated that my body was my body. The fact that it looked like that, and meant that I had to equal Woman, made me feel small and corrupted. It repulsed me to the point that it felt selfish, manipulative, and abusive to ask someone I cared about to touch me. However, none of these feelings had words yet. I did not realize it was possible to feel any other way. The identifier of asexual is innocent here, and I don’t want my words construed otherwise—it is the thinking hiding behind that identifier that was poisonous, made doubly poisonous by its subtlety.
Self-hatred should not have the power to isolate someone from physical connection if they desire it.
Two things happened to help me recognize it for what it was. One: I went on a study abroad in Singapore. There, completely isolated from my historical context, I got to act, more or less, in a vacuum. I experimented, recognized flaws, cut off the excess and chose what to take with me back to Athens. What I took back was an agender identity--not a trans one, but the roots of understanding. Then, on a whim, a little over a half a year ago, I decided to look up the specifics of top surgery. The website I looked on had an explanation of the fish mouth incision, with the acronym FTN. Female to Neutral, transgender.
I’ve gone over that moment multiple times to cis individuals. I have tried to describe what it felt like to suddenly have a body after believing that to not have one was normalcy. I could feel the extent of what had trapped me by virtue of its absence: 75% of the self-hatred, and the struggle against it, that had defined me since puberty absolutely disappeared. Like hallucinations do. I had always thought that a flat chest was Man territory. I never wanted to be a Man, so obviously I must want and love my breasts. FTN meant that I could make my body look like how I felt, even though that wasn’t female or male. While medical intervention is by no means always a requirement to reclaim one’s body from one’s assigned gender, for me, the possibility of physical change was the game changer. FTN, and the top surgery it was tied to, meant that I could make my body look like how I felt. Even better, other people had done it already. That realization was like being given a love letter. Inside of it, I understood myself, my body, and how thoroughly it was possible to be who I was. I understood how other people could want me. I understood sex.
I am not (and I mean it) criticizing or diminishing asexuality. Ace people and the ace identity all deserve recognition and respect. What I experienced was not asexuality. It was repressed and even eradicated sexuality as a side effect of oppressive binary structures, disguised as an unrelated sexual identity. It is something I am still healing from, and the thought of others experiencing it terrifies me to death. Self-hatred should not have the power to isolate someone from physical connection if they desire it. For those who don’t identify within an absolute physical binary, the path to discovering that we can build our own bodies--physically, or in our perception--is murky. We can accrue collateral damage. Non-binary visibility and storytelling is the best way to build bridges over ditches like this one, where members of the community can get trapped. I am so thankful that I was able to climb out. I am more grateful still to now be in a concert hall of people, all of us waiting to listen.
Penske McCormack is a writer and art historian living in Athens, Georgia, where they have been studying for the past three years. Their studies are focused on art conservation, art writing, and performance studies. In their own art, they experiment with movement as an intuitive form of meaning-making and communication, and use performance as a route to create, articulate, and experience genderless identity.