Sometime last June, I wrote the following words in my notebook: I am gender nonconforming.
That is to say: I am someone whose behavior or appearance doesn’t conform to prevailing cultural and social expectations about what is appropriate to their gender.
I had had thoughts along these lines for longer, maybe forever — I remember tucking my penis and wearing traditional girls’ clothes as a child in secret.
But that was the first time that I found belonging within that term.
During a particularly anxious day of wrangling loose threads that felt like life or death struggles, I managed to lay down and slow down. Breathe. Allowed thoughts and feelings to come in and out rather than seizing upon every single one of them, trying to suffocate them into some sort of artistic reality that validated my existence for the day.
I don’t remember what triggered me to get up, get dressed and go to Once Upon a Time, the oldest running children’s bookstore in the country, which happens to be a five minute walk from my apartment. Its fateful existence as the bookshop next door fortifies me in times of doubt on my fledgling path in the picture book space.
That afternoon I did have a mission. Instead of wondering if/could/should, I decided I was going to go buy Beyond the Gender Binary, a 66-page pocket manifesto by Alok Vaid-Menon with illustrations by Ashley Lukashevsky.
I made sure Once Upon a Time had it in stock before I left and despite it being a small tome, I spotted its purple cover immediately, snagged it, then wandered the bookstore for a while, because that’s one of the greatest things to do in the world.
Then I bought the book, got home and read the whole thing.
That afternoon, it felt like I planted a seed. Or, actually, that Alok had reminded me to water a seed that had long been planted inside me.
I feverishly wrote down notes as I read, uploaded them into a Google doc where they germinate, my own gardening process. Coming back to them now, I am struck by so many powerful statements Alok makes, but there’s only one that I bolded and underlined:
What part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?
Growing up, I wasn’t taught the difference between sex and gender. I wasn’t taught that gender was a construct, that binary understandings of sex didn’t come until the 1700s. That gender, like race, was used to create and maintain hierarchies, to indoctrinate inequality in order to uphold and legitimize the systems of power and exploitation we still live in today.
All my life, something has felt off, or wrong about everything. Because nobody else talked about it, and when I struggled to share my feelings about this ethereal “it” and those feelings were minimized, misunderstood, or I was looked at like I was crazy, I assumed it was me. But it’s not me.
For a long time, probably longer than I remember or even consciously know, my mind has been stuck on maleness, on masculinity, on my place in a world that has operated for so long as if my place (as a cisgender straight white man) was all that mattered.
But the places that were most MALE have always scared the shit out of me. The boys’ locker room. The team dugout. Men’s bathrooms are weird and gross, piss everywhere. Even in a pandemic, it’s a 50/50 shot if someone washes their hands after they pee.
I was always afraid of sleepovers because there was no escape, no safety, but I think that’s because I knew far too well what peer pressure and groupthink does to boys, even/especially under the auspices of friendship. I knew what I would do to survive, to not be the runt of the litter.
Almost every moment I’ve been hurt or that I’ve hurt others in this hard life of ours is when I was trying to act like a man, how I thought a man “should” act, or was supposed to act, or when I was acting differently than a man “should.” When I didn’t play the role I was dealt properly. When I was struggling to conform, I was hurt. When I had best learned to conform, I hurt others. In spheres where I did feel powerful, or when I had enough alcohol to feel that way, to my great regret, I often was no different from the prevailing social order of toxic masculinity.
At an underground rave somewhere in Seattle more than a decade ago, I was drunk and high on molly, feeling powerful. I encountered a young man who was also feeling those things. He introduced himself to our group as King David.
He meant nothing by it. He was just having a good time and liking himself, he was a boy playing, he was Max in Where the Wild Things Are. But wait a minute. I’m Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Who the hell is this guy to call himself King? I didn’t vote for you.
Royalty pissed me off then and it pisses me off now. And if you want to say this King David wasn’t real royalty, I’d argue that there is no such thing. Why does someone, when they feel powerful, need a crown? Need a title? Need to put themselves above everyone else?
Almost immediately, I challenged King David’s right to the throne. Within moments of this happy teenager having the misfortune of stumbling upon me and my friends, I had challenged him to a drinking contest, declaring that the winner would truly be the One True King of the Rave.
And I destroyed him. It was all make-believe, but make-believe is powerful — that’s how “real” kings are made after all.
And I usurped his throne then and there. My righteous indignation at authority, at power, corrupted me. I sensed the child underneath the crown; I sensed weakness, facade, and I wanted blood. I took over David’s lordship and left him there, emasculated, proving my mastery over him to look like a big man in front of my friends. All I proved was that I was a binge-drinking bully. Repressing ourselves represses others.
This would go on to become one of many humorous anecdotes that my friends still bring up, but like so many of them, it fills me with shame, because it illustrates exactly the person I don’t want to be.
One of my favorite traditions every Christmas is when my partner opens all of the presents she receives from her students and their parents. It’s a treasure trove — a White Elephant in the purest sense because nobody’s trying to be funny.
This past year, from one wondrous parent, Lili received a bunch of cheap, bejeweled religious bracelets, featuring crosses, fish and shiny baubles on a fake gold, plastic band. Everyone in our family took turns putting one on and modeling them to much fanfare.
Everyone, in a fit of giggles, made a big deal about how good the bracelets looked on my wrist, on my brother-in-law’s wrist, on my dad’s wrist. And they did look good.
There was something about it that was a joke — or that it felt like it had to be a joke. Haha, men wearing bracelets! Even when it was true, they looked good on our hairy wrists.
And I liked the way this garish, silly feminine bracelet looked and felt on my wrist. The one I had chosen featured a simple star instead of any obvious religious iconography.
Everyone else quickly returned their bracelets to Lili and she eventually tossed them during the inevitable New Year cleaning spree to come.
But I’m wearing my bracelet now. Because I like it. Because it makes me smile. Because it reminds me that I can wear whatever I want and be whomever I want. Because like that Killers song, it reminds me, “Andy, you’re a star.”
In middle school and most of high school, I refused to choose a circle, a space to belong in, a clique. Even though I desperately wanted one. I used to think I was being a coward, but I was being truthful. I didn’t want to settle on one identity in which to define myself. I didn’t want to be Full Nerd, but I also didn’t want to be Full Jock; I judged both camps harshly, and myself even harsher. I didn’t know how to balance all the parts of me in a world that seeks and promotes easy categorization.
I didn’t know who I was, or who I wanted to be, but I knew I didn’t want to be hated or judged. I’d rather float by, survive, live on the margins. I was terrified of attention, knowing attention meant pressure, meant greater scrutiny, meant that my many secrets would be at stake, ammo for bullying. They would find out I read comic books. They would find out I couldn’t ride a bike. They would find out I’d never kissed a girl. They would find out I had foreskin. I could live with sitting alone at lunch to keep those secrets hidden.
My whole life I’ve been obsessed with finding answers where none are. I’ve convinced myself over and over that there must be ONE way to be, ONE thing to do, must be a solution to the equation of unhappiness and unfulfillment. But there isn’t ONE answer. There is an infinite number. I don’t have to choose one way of being.
I’ve long been a lover of sampler trays. I used to see it as indecision, but it’s actually curiosity, evidence of passion, a gift. I realize now that I AM the sampler tray. A lover of trying new things to better find out who I am and who I want to be.
It was last June when I first wrote down the words, “I am gender nonconforming,” but it isn’t until today that I’m willing to say them out loud.
And that’s for many reasons. Most of them are shame-based, involving my privilege, the very gender I’m rejecting.
The flimsiest reason for why I couldn’t be who I wanted to be was because of the name of this podcast. I am the creator and host of The Naked MAN Podcast. How could the host of The Naked Man podcast be gender nonconforming? Does that make me a liar? Is the podcast outdated? Canceled? Do I have to change the name? No. It’s actually exactly what this show is about. It’s about sharing who I’m becoming and the people along the way I’m learning from and inspired by.
Most of the fear, for me, doesn’t come from what my friends or family or colleagues will think. In all honesty, it’d be wonderful to know who would think less of me for this, because then I can release that toxicity from my life.
The fear instead comes from a fear of judgment from the nonconformists out there that would see me and see a liar, an opportunist, a fraud. “You’re not nonconformist enough.”
And maybe they’re right. The awful self-tearing-down voice inside is there now, the devil on my shoulder: Am I just changing my gender identity to NOT be a cisgender man? To be “diverse” and boost my career? Is this all just performative?
It’s far easier for me to declare nonconformity when I look the way I do. Nobody would look at me and think I’m gender nonconforming. People see my beard, my whiteness and see CIS white male. But that in itself doesn’t feel accurate to me anymore.
That is what hurts me so much about the CIS white male label. I didn’t choose it for myself, I didn’t recognize myself in it, or certainly didn’t want to. That label represents so much of what is wrong in the world, and it applied to me. I’ve carried it like a burden, like a necessary punishment, a penance for all the wrongs men have perpetrated, and the wrongs that I’ve perpetrated, the ignorances I’ve had.
It was and has been the most incendiary fuel to the never-ending fire of self-hatred. In times of great anxiety and depression, it has only succeeded in being self-enacting, only ensuring that I am stuck being the insecure, angry, white bro that I have been for parts of my life.
But that shame, that self-hatred, that “men are awful” oversimplification doesn’t help anyone, least of all myself. It stops any form of healing, or any way forward because I am defining myself by external, outdated rubrics of society. I am defining myself by the past, stuck unable to find forgiveness for myself.
So I kept quiet and kept hidden this desire, this state of being because I was waiting for Clarity, waiting for an easy way to explain that would not be followed by uncomfortable questions. Again, I was searching for an ANSWER, THE answer, a visit from Olivia Newton-John telling me: this is who you are, Andy.
I was also stuck worrying what other people would think.
I felt like I had to reach some perfect mindset and KNOW for certain this is who I was before I could speak up or start living that way. That there was a universal way to think and feel about all this, that even in something like gender nonconformity, there was ONE WAY and if I didn’t know the language that I was not only full of shit, but a piece of shit.
But there isn’t one way or two ways of being, and everyone’s definition of themselves is right and powerful.
I’ve spent my whole life trying to explain myself to people because I always felt misunderstood, and because I misunderstood myself. In those times, I compromised myself, defaulted back to easy ways of being — sarcasm, deflection, apologies, anger.
As Alok put it, “we’re so used to making other people comfortable that we don’t know what makes us happy.”
I don’t want to explain myself to other people anymore, and I don’t have to. This isn’t about other people, it’s about me. I don’t owe anyone anything in regards to how I look or who I am.
I don’t have to be stuck being someone I’m not. I can choose my own label, be who I want to be. We all can. Gender nonconformity isn’t just about how I look, it’s also about how I behave, and that’s the only metric I care about going forward.
My definition of who I am is all that matters. I don’t feel like a man, or a woman, or even Andrew, my given name. I’m Andy. And life is a journey of figuring out what that means, and what gender nonconforming means to me right now is that I’m going to try my best to act in response to my gut, my truth, not the immense social programming that I’ve absorbed across my nearly 35 years.
By saying “I am gender nonconforming” out loud, by living in this new, more flexible definition of Andy, I feel like I’m removing a Jenga piece from the precarious, unsustainable Tower of Self that has been built for me to live in, with rent I can’t afford.
I know I haven’t toppled over the tower yet. There are so many more blocks to remove, so much unlearning to do. It’s going to be hard and I’m going to fuck up a lot along the way. But I am open to how all the pieces fall, nervous and excited to see how I rebuild myself.