I Am What I Am Not
Ramblings about Oppositional Self-definition as a Nonbinary Person
I know that I’m not a man. I know that I’m not a woman. But what am I?
This is the question that often plagues people who come out as NB (nonbinary) at one time or another. It can barge in forcefully, shaking all the pictures and dirtying the floor, rattling the foundations. Or, it can slide in sneakily, like an art thief in the night. When we go to see if something is wrong, it just looks like another mannequin in an exhibit. We know that something is off, but we can’t put our finger on it. Our gut screams at us to think about these questions, but when the alarm bells go off, it’s easier to tuck that shit away until we’re basically forced to think about it after being alone with our thoughts for a bit too long.
I think that nonbinary people have the most trouble rationalizing our identities to ourselves and to others because of how we’re kind of forced to identify. While others can use positive labels, building themselves up from scratch, we usually need to define ourselves oppositionally. We express ourselves by what we are not, denying or approximating labels that others wear to get as close to our true feelings as possible. A man or a woman is something that can be conceptualized, something easily digestible and categorizable. While many binary people, trans and cis, can understand what it might feel like to be a woman or a man and define themselves as such, “nonbinary” isn’t a specific label.
This isn’t the fault of either party, but rather the fault of a system of language and culture that doesn’t really accommodate nonbinary individuals. “Nonbinary” is becoming more of a monolithic third-gender term that implies “masculine-leaning AFAB individual who doesn’t feel like a woman.” It seems like nonbinary visibility has given us a means of defining ourselves agglutinatively instead of subtractionally, but in reality, the misconception of nonbinary being a separate, homogenous third gender has made it even harder to express and explain what being nonbinary is to a specific person.