I wore a tuxedo to my high school prom.
And I loved it.
Ten of ten, would do again.
See, I never really liked wearing dresses–or anything traditionally associated with “femininity,” really. Every Sunday, my parents would argue, threaten, and fight with me about wearing a dress to church, and every Sunday I argued, threatened, and fought back. In my opinion, neither side was right or wrong, but I also don’t feel like there was a good argument for forcing a female child into a dress to attend a religious gathering preaching love and acceptance for all. The only argument offered to me was based on “tradition.” To be fair, my only argument was that I hated dresses and anything considered “girly.” Back then, I didn’t have the ability to articulate exactly what it was about dresses and traditionally feminine accessories that made me so uncomfortable. It wasn’t just that dresses made me feel cold, or that they limited my ability to move and play with other children. It was more than shoes that pinched, delicate pantyhose that ripped and ran, or a total lack of pockets. I hated how wearing a dress made me feel about myself.
I felt weak.
Just…all around uncomfortable.
And those feelings were made worse by the realization that other girls and women didn’t feel the way I felt. Other women could look and feel empowered by dresses, high heels, polished nails, and artfully applied makeup. As far as I knew, I was the only one who felt different. I felt like I wasn’t meeting the expectation of my gender. I felt like I didn’t fit.
People kept telling me that feeling would go away someday. That I’d wake up and accept the identity that had been thrust upon me, and that I’d discover I enjoyed getting up early to style my hair, apply makeup, and carry a purse (because useful pockets are a ridiculous expectation in women’s clothing). I heard this refrain so often that I felt like I had to prove everyone wrong–that it wasn’t just a phase, and that looking like/acting like/being a woman simply wasn’t me.
So I rented a tuxedo to wear to prom.
And let me just say: Best. Decision. Ever!
I may not have been the most beautiful belle at the ball, but I was comfortable. Happy. Secure. I was me. The jacket kept me warm, but if I got too hot, I could take it off. That may not sound important, but at one point or another, most girls at the prom were wearing their dates’ jackets to keep from shivering. And I had pockets! Not just in my trousers, but inner-jacket pockets! (Just as a side note: why don’t women’s blazers and jackets have breast pockets?) The best thing about wearing a tux (this one’s weird, but stay with me) was that I didn’t need help using the restroom. Lots of the poofy dress-wearers needed help corralling their skirts inside the bathroom stalls, and I was grateful not to be one of them.
I was never much of a “girl” while I was growing up–which is to say, I didn’t have many “feminine” interests. I couldn’t relate to girls my own age, and most couldn’t relate to me, either. My interests were video games, anime, and card games, like Magic the Gathering, and where I grew up, those were considered “boy things.” So all my friends were boys. We laughed at crude jokes, consumed unsafe amounts of junk food, and even scuffled a few times. I was outspoken and opinionated, and I didn’t tolerate being bullied, much to the surprise of many adults who thought they could speak down to me. Unfortunately for them, I learned the art of the argument from my father the attorney, and I had a tongue as sharp as my mind. And almost every time I stymied someone older than myself, I’d get the same disapproving glare followed by a declaration that I’d never find a good husband if I didn’t learn to mind my manners.
But honestly? If my manners scared away any potential suitors–Good! They weren’t worth my energy, anyway.
My parents kept expecting me to grow out of that so-called “tomboy phase,” but I never really did. Sure, I grew up, but my interests never really changed. I continued to play video games and watch anime throughout college, wearing my old faded jeans and geeky t-shirts, with a Duo Maxwell braid that reached my belt. No makeup, no purse, just me living my truth. The only time my gender mattered at all was in choosing which public restroom to use. Even though my interests were loosely labeled as “masculine,” I never felt like or identified as a man–though I do recall that the few times I was misgendered and referred to as “he” or “him,” I always felt like I had to hide a little smile. It wasn’t so much that being called he/him felt right to me, but it felt better than she/her had ever felt. I think that, more than anything, helped me understand how my self-identity didn’t match my perceived-identity, but back then, I didn’t know there were options outside of “female” or “male.”
Imagine my euphoria when I discovered that there were genders beyond the binary! Understanding gender as a spectrum was a life-changing moment for me. My whole life, I just thought I was “weird” and that I didn’t really “fit.” Now, I not only have a label for my gender expression, but I know that there are thousands of people who feel like I do–and many more besides! And while these resources didn’t exist while I was growing up, it’s wonderful to know that they exist for young nonbinaries discovering their own identities. While the path of self discovery is often a difficult one, I hope that future enbies will face less gender-specific bias and discrimination, or feel pressured to mask their true selves, the way that many of us have. Myself included.
As enlightening as it was to learn about the gender spectrum and to finally find a label that represented how I felt about myself, I was still hesitant to claim it. I felt like I was too old to change the way people saw me, or ask people I knew to use a new set of pronouns. As long as I knew how I felt about myself, then it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thought of me. Right? Except… I really am nonbinary. And continuing to live my life under the label of “woman” felt wrong, like I was living a lie. I finally found the piece of myself that had been missing! Why should I hide it away?
Because, what if people don’t believe me? What if people argue with me about my own identity? What if they laugh? What if they ask me about all the times I did wear a dress, or put on makeup, or got my hair styled for an event? What if I’m actually an imposter? There’s no way to “prove” a nonbinary identity, it all comes down to a personal feeling, an internal knowledge of self. I had only just found this new identity, and I felt like I had to protect it.
For everyone who can relate to this self-doubt, these questions, and these fears, always remember that you never have to prove anything to anyone. Not your gender, not your sexuality, nothing. And you certainly don’t have to justify any of your past actions, whether they support your identity or not. Anyone who tells you that your gender expression isn’t “real” or accuses you of faking it, tell them to go jump in a lake. No one gets to dictate your truth to you.
But for anyone feeling anxious, depressed, or just afraid to challenge the gender binary out loud: I see you. I was scared at first, too. In fact, the first time I identified as nonbinary was online, on a social media account that wasn’t linked to me, nor followed by any of my friends and family. The first time someone referred to me as “they,” I felt my heart truly soar! That, more than anything, helped me discuss my gender identity with my family and close friends. And you know what? There were no questions, no demands for me to explain myself, no challenges to my new identity. And it feels good, knowing that the people closest to me know and accept me for how I truly see myself. But to anyone struggling about whether or not to come out as a nonbinary gender, agender, or any queer identity at all, my advice is to take your time and make sure you feel comfortable when (and if) you choose to talk about how you personally identify. Your journey is your own. You get to decide who walks with you, and who you leave behind.
Choose love. And always love yourself first.
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