As I understand it, a binary gender identity is identifying as either 100% male or 100% female. A non-binary identity is where you identify outside of the male-female binary, as either somewhere “in between” (genderqueer), as alternating over time (gender fluid), perhaps being a mixture of both male and female or feeling both male and female (bigender), or feeling like one does not have a gender (agender). There are many possible ways to identify outside of the traditional gender binary.
Until about 5 months I identified as a straight cisgendered gender-nonconforming male. When I first realized I was trans I was reading the wikipedia on transgenderism and stumbled across the concept of “bigender”. Initially this really appealed to me. At the time I still felt partially male. Upon realizing I was trans I remember making a journal entry and describing myself as being a kind of “androgynous” butch type woman. Also I remember writing that I wanted to always be able to switch back into guy mode so I could visit my family for the holidays. I also saw myself as presenting male for my career as a academic philosopher – I saw myself teaching in guy mode.
Because I still wanted to be able to present male that ruled out HRT because I did not want breasts. My plan at the time was to just get laser hair removal on my face so I could pass as female better while wearing breast forms.
But my bigenderism was alas just a temporary way station. Eventually I realized that my desire to present male when visiting my family and when teaching was entirely a product of fear. I was scared of the negative reactions I might receive. I was scared of people laughing at me, or mocking me, or feeling downright uncomfortable in my presence.
But I got over those fears. I realized that I wanted to eventually work up to where I would never present male again. I wanted to present female all the time. I wanted breasts. I wanted a feminine body. I had some other issues to work through before I felt comfortable with the idea of taking HRT (infertility, sexual function, etc.) but eventually I got to a mental place where I accepted that this is what I truly wanted.
After abandoning bigenderism I started identifying as a trans woman with a binary female identity. It felt right to see myself as a woman. After all I really wanted to be a woman. As a side-note, some people distinguish between being a woman and wanting to be a woman. Some trans women say that they have always “felt like a woman” and they don’t want to be a woman they are women. But for me, the nature of my transness is probably more about wanting to be a woman then it is feeling like I really am a woman.
Which brings me to my recent realization that perhaps I was not totally off-track to identify as non-binary. I’m starting to appreciate that my feelings about my own gender are more complicated than simply saying “I am a woman”. I feel like in order to identify as a woman I need to know what it is like to feel like a woman. But I have no idea what that means. When I have a feeling I don’t know how to identify whether that is a male or female feeling. They just feel like feelings. I just feel like myself, like I have always felt. But I used to identify as a man. So does that make me have the feelings of a man? No I don’t think so. I categorically reject that idea. But neither do I have the feelings of a woman.
I suspect there is a continuum between binary and non-binary identities and I am somewhere in between a binary and non-binary identity. I don’t feel like a man (except in my appearance and voice) and I really, really don’t want to be a man. I don’t feel like a woman yet I would like to be a woman. But I know that wanting to be a woman and being a woman are two different things. So I am in some kind of middle-ground between binary and non-binary, of kinda-sorta-maybe feeling like a woman at times or feeling like I want to be a woman but never knowing exactly what that means. Sure I could resort to stereotypes in order to define myself as a woman but I am trying really hard to not be sexist in that respect. There are no necessary or sufficient conditions for being a woman. I am even starting to suspect that the very concept of sex/gender is incredibly problematic and only exists because of historical contingencies. Which is of course compatible with the idea that many people love and cherish their gender and see no problems with gender. But gender having deep conceptual problems does not entail that people are somehow confused in their own experience of gender. Gender is real. And I don’t think it is entirely a social construct either. But it is a problematic and confused notion that ultimately, I think, survives by piggy-backing on the stereotypes we all know so well.
Ultimately I think my experience of gender is too complicated to be boiled down to simple categories like “woman”. Trans woman is more accurate because it describes how I have rejected my birth assignment of male. Transfeminine is also accurate. I still think of myself as a “femme” because I have a feminine gender expression. I love makeup, long hair, dresses, jewelry, shoes, purses, etc. I take great joy in my gender expression – it brings me extreme happiness every day. But AMABs (assigned male at birth) can also identify as “femme”. Femme is a non-binary identity. So I am starting to think of myself as a non-binary femme of some kind.
However, for political and social purposes, I still feel most comfortable introducing myself to people as a binary trans woman. My identify as non-binary is for my own introspective clarification. It’s not for anyone else. It’s to figure myself out in as much concrete detail as I can. It’s for technical reasons. But for social purposes most people have a hard time understanding what it means to identify outside of the gender binary so I don’t necessarily want to have that conversation every time I attempt to explain to someone who I am in simple terms. “Trans woman” is fairly accurate although it does not capture the true underlying complexity of my identity. But for political purposes it works well enough.