Not a girl: Exploring my gender identity

There isn’t one way to be genderqueer, nonbinary, or trans

Michelle reflects on her journey questioning her gender and claiming the label ‘genderqueer.’

Back in twelfth grade, I wrote a panicked journal entry beginning with the line, “I don’t think I’m a girl.”

It’s difficult to question something you’ve accepted as a straightforward truth all your life. It wasn’t like I was deeply unhappy being perceived as a girl—it was just something I grew up with.

My gender was a truth I’d never thought to question, along with my birth name and she/her pronouns. It didn’t not fit, so I never once considered there could be an identity that fit me even better in ways I’d never imagined. 

Even before I questioned my gender, I knew I was queer. My biromanticism and asexuality were, by that point, labels I’d worn proudly and comfortably for years. But questioning my gender felt like a whole different ballpark from questioning my sexuality.

I’d never been the ‘girliest’ of girls, and I always had an aversion to hyperfeminine clothing, but those facts by themselves didn’t necessarily indicate I wasn’t a girl. My confusion was compounded by the fact that I didn’t experience any body dysmorphia and had no desire to transition physically. 

In hindsight, there were other signs I’d overlooked throughout the years—my strange elation when others mistook me for a boy or the inexplicable jealousy I felt when I saw my nonbinary friends living as themselves.

A part of me longed for androgyny, too, but then I would feel guilty. How dare I, a cisgender person, want to appropriate a nonbinary identity for myself? I felt like I was spitting in the face of all the trans and non-cis people who dealt with transphobia and bigotry on a daily basis.

I was afraid to take up space in the trans and nonbinary community, but I failed to realize a spot had already been reserved for me as a gender-questioning person. The truth was I wasn’t intruding anywhere by wanting to experiment with my gender and pronouns. If anything, questioning my gender made me realize how many of my perceptions of my gender were tied to what society told me I should be doing.

From my parents to my driver’s license, everyone and everything around me told me I was female. I accepted this because I never thought my gender could be questioned. And yet there I was, questioning it.

As I examined myself, I gradually concluded that some part of me did feel like a girl. But there was also a distinct part of me that felt like something else. 

The realization was frightening, in some deep and inexplicable way. I didn’t know what to do with this information once I’d discovered it, but there was a growing part of me that also felt relief.

All my life, my gender felt like wearing a jacket that was slightly too small. I kept wearing it because it technically still fit me, despite the parts that chafed or didn’t sit right, no matter how hard I tried to grow or shrink to match it.

Now I’d finally found the courage to put away the jacket entirely.

The first time I wore a suit, it was like I finally saw myself for who I really am. I’d passed the suit off as a costume for a fan convention to mollify my parents, but it was anything but a costume to me. Seeing myself in the mirror, my dress shirt slightly too big yet fitting perfectly in ways that went beyond the physical, I learned what it was like to experience gender euphoria. 

I would continue to experience gender euphoria as I discovered more about myself. Although I was still comfortable with she/her pronouns, experimenting with neopronouns such as ze/zem/zir soothed a deep, innate part of me I didn’t even know existed. Cutting my hair short and playing with other aspects of gender presentation, like my clothing, was both thrilling and freeing. 

Up until that point, I hadn’t seriously considered changing my birth name. I knew I didn’t need to if I was still comfortable with it, and to some extent, I was. I didn’t feel strongly one way or another. But a part of me couldn’t help but wonder if there was a name out there that fit me even better than my current one. 

This led me down the path of exploring Chinese names in an effort to strengthen my connection to my heritage. I was given a Chinese name at birth, but I ended up sharing a name with my grandfather through a series of events, which is considered taboo in Chinese culture. Besides, I was tired of my identity constantly being predefined by the people around me. Choosing my own name was a way to regain control over my sense of self.

When I saw the name Li—written with the character 立, meaning “to stand” or “to establish”— something clicked into place. This was my name: common yet strong and standing up for itself with a resilience I’d always striven to embody. I still liked my birth name and had no problems using it, but it was comforting to know I also had this new part of me, chosen by myself and for myself. 

Through this all, I was searching for a label to put to my newly-realized gender identity. Labels aren’t for everyone, but I was, and still am, someone who likes putting names to my experiences. I hoped to find a word that could encapsulate at least some of the nebulous feelings I felt.

I knew I could fit under the nonbinary umbrella since I identified neither as male nor entirely female, but the word ‘nonbinary’ itself didn’t grasp what I was looking for. Other words, like demigirl or agender, also seemed to capture parts of how I felt, but never the whole.

Then I considered the word ‘genderqueer.’ Even before questioning my gender, I’d always identified as queer—being both bi and ace meant there were many times when I was made to feel like I didn’t belong, whether it be in heteronormative spaces or even within the LGBTQ+ community itself.

‘Queer,’ on the other hand, was a word that had always embraced me. “You belong here,” it seemed to say, “even if you don’t belong anywhere else.” It felt only natural that the word that described my orientation would so accurately sum up my gender, too. 

To some, I might not fit the definition of what you’d expect a genderqueer person to look like. I’m not a white, fully androgynous person. I still identify partially with womanhood. I like dressing masc, but it’s not like I don’t wear or enjoy feminine clothing, too.

I’m often perceived as female, and that, coupled with my Asianness, means I experience gendered and racialized assumptions being made about myself, my body, and my sexuality. 

But none of this detracts from the fact that I am genderqueer. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my experiences, it’s that there’s no one way to be genderqueer or nonbinary or trans.

The only person who can determine your gender identity is you alone.

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