A constant negotiation and re-negotiation of identity. That’s what being nonbinary means to me. I’ve been sitting with this thought for a while now, reflecting on gender and how I navigate the perceptions and realities of my presentation and being. As this undoubtedly is a vast and expansive topic, I will not be able to fit this into just one article – even if I tried, it wouldn’t do it justice and you, dear reader, would probably get bored halfway through. Therefore, I have decided to make this a series – particularly during pride month – each week dissecting aspects of masculinity and genderqueerness, moving through the world as an AMAB (assigned male at birth) nonbinary person. My gender presentation has drastically varied through the years, from high femme to butch, to ambiguous in-betweens, undetermined. With that I have moved through various spaces in my time of exploring gender, with its meanings and constraints. This series shall then serve as a (more or less) thorough exploration of all that, grasping masculinity in all its shapes and contexts – from my upbringing, over queerness, Blackness, presentation, performance, to spaces.
Note: While I will be dissecting different aspects of masculinity, it is by no means to be understood that masculinity exists as a separate identity to be influenced by other factors. Masculinity, much like other social constructs, is inherently tied to its context and cannot be separated from it. There is no understanding of masculinity without an understanding of race, sexuality, class, ability, power – and beyond identity lines, without an understanding of performance, presentation, space, and their mutability.
Becoming nonbinary, like all gender identities, is probably best understood as a relational social process. In a society where gender is so deeply embedded into the social fabric of understanding and legibility, one never simply is – as much as I would like to be. So, to become nonbinary – not simply as an internally understood identity, but also a socially recognised one – my relations had to change. I still remember the day I first asked to be referred to by they/them pronouns. First semester. I was late to class, stumbled into the lecture hall with an apologetic “Sorry” and climbed the stairs to sit in the back, not wanting to disturb the ongoing tutorial. Since I had been late, not much time went by until we had a break, upon which a bubbly young woman with a beaming smile turned around and introduced herself. “What pronouns do you use?”. A bit stunned I sat there, still processing the question and how I related to it. “They/them?”, more a question than an answer. But these were the beginnings, and the start of such explorations is not exactly easy, since you are going off the beaten path and suddenly find yourself having to redefine an array of meanings. So, they/them it was. Pronouns, of course, do not make gender – but language plays such an important part in social processes of recognition, that pretending like it didn’t or doesn’t play a role in the understanding of it, would be a tad disingenuous. I will take this chance to establish some common ground in this exploration of the seven seas of masculinity.
In 1990, Butler coined the term gender performativity in their book Gender Trouble: Feminisim and the Subversion of Identity. It proposes that gender is to be understood as performative – not as a performance, as it goes beyond simply taking up a scripted role that isn’t internalised – but as an incessant activity of doing, that constantly constitutes and reinforces what gender is meant to be and understood as. Gender exists simultaneously within oneself as a felt sense of gender and outside of oneself as the social reality that gives and determines the parameters for the expression of it. At that, gender strives for recognition. This becomes important as gender often is a metric by which personhood and humanness is conferred upon others, and since certain gender identities and expressions are privileged over others with regard to authenticity and humanity, sometimes it becomes preferable not to seek recognition, as this could lead to an unravelling of personhood. The notion of “passing” becomes interesting here for nonbinary and trans people:
There’s no foolproof way to present as nonbinary because you can’t pass as something that people don’t recognize. The closest you can come to passing is making people unable to classify you. Indirectly, it means making people uncomfortable. But that comes with the territory. (Barbee, Schrock, 2019, p. 7)
As so much of gender is dependent upon recognition, lying outside of the bounds of what people can or want to recognise, it can quickly become a question of your own safety and humanity:
If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the “human” expand to include me in its reach? (Butler, 2004, p.2)
Accordingly, my performance of masculinity, while at times being an act of self-expression, oftentimes can also be read as an attempt to preserve my own humanity in the eyes of cishet society, something I’ve noticed I am not required to do (or at the very least not as much) in queer spaces. As recognition isn’t made conditional by some of the inherent deviance within these spaces, to be gazed upon and perceived loses its violence, as I am no longer required to perform my personhood. These rare contexts (which I have particularly found in queer communities of colour) are where I can speak of gender as a social construct in the truest sense, as not determined by the legibility of the body. You see, while gender remains a social construct in Western culture, the way it’s constructed takes the body and the biological as the fundamental building blocks of what constitutes the social – what comes to be seen as biological is in turn socially informed as certain bodies are naturalised while others conceived as deviant. Gender then becomes inscribed upon the body, which serves as a legible representation of social institutions (Oyewumi, 1997). So, while the mere existence of my body seems to predetermine my expression as masculine (or worse, a man doing femininity), there are certain moments of reprieve, where my expression can take forms beyond the feminine and masculine.
What is masculinity, anyways? A question with more facets than I dare to answer at this moment, but we can start with looking at some attributes culturally ascribed to (Western) masculinity. Physicality is a central one, with value being placed on toughness and competitiveness – physical strength and muscles are central to that. If this is not the case, the lack of physicality will be expressed in other ways, involving behaviours of competitiveness and domination. Heterosexuality serves as a further tenet of masculinity, relationally defined in opposition and contradiction to homosexuality. Masculinity, at least in its hegemonic form, often coincides with power and implications of it. I have taken these attributes from a study on the negotiation of masculinity amongst “Straight-Acting” gay men (Eguchi, 2009). In the coming weeks I will explore how these ideals differ from those in the cultural context of my life, but as a lot of media is heavily influenced by U.S.-American depictions of masculinity, I believe this to be a good starting point. Most of these points ring true for most of my upbringing. Male socialisation has emphasised physical strength and muscularity for me, not achieving that placed the prize of masculinity a bit further out of reach, not to mention behaviours of competitiveness and domination, which I engaged in more out of a desire to fit in during my teenage years, where so much of your social world and the positions you take within it become contested. Yet from sexuality arose the first big split between my identity and manhood. Heterosexuality is so very often taken as a pre-condition of masculinity (and femininity for women for that matter), that not fulfilling that requirement forges a shift in how you relate to gender in the first place. If men are supposed to be attracted to women, what does that make you? The answer to that can be manifold, but at the very least a reconsideration takes place. Having never fully fit the masculine idea, the rift that is gender became almost inevitable, especially as it was underlined by years of deconstructing gender from theoretical and personal standpoints. “Being a man”, whatever this means, has now become a distant construct that I more often than not fail to grasp in its fullness. Queerness has introduced a vastly different relationality to my moving through the world, a relationality where the significance of gender can – under certain circumstances – become negligible. While an awareness of The MasculineTM still exists, it has shifted from being performative and instead become performance to me, an elaborate drag show, malleable and ever-changing.
This embedded relationality, with its variance between contexts and performances, is what I want to explore with this series, questioning my positionality and going wherever this takes me. A deconstruction of the masculine, beneath thunderstorms and tempests.
Barbee, H., & Schrock, D. (2019). Un/gendering Social Selves: How Nonbinary People Navigate and Experience a Binarily Gendered World. Sociological Forum, 34(3), 572–593. https://doi.org/10.1111/socf.12517
Brickell, C. (2005). Masculinities, Performativity, and Subversion. Men and Masculinities, 8(1), 24–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184x03257515
Butler, J. (1990/2022). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity .1st Edition. Routledge.
Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. Routledge.
Eguchi, S. (2009). Negotiating Hegemonic Masculinity: The Rhetorical Strategy of “Straight-Acting” among Gay Men. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 38(3), 193–209. https://doi.org/10.1080/17475759.2009.508892
Oyewumi, O. (1997). The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (First edition). University of Minnesota Press.
Stachowiak, D. M. (2016). Queering it up, strutting our threads, and baring our souls: genderqueer individuals negotiating social and felt sense of gender. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(5), 532–543. https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2016.1150817