Nonbinary Notebook: A Starting Place

I am 45 years old. A first-generation immigrant. A person with chronic and sometimes disabling illnesses. I am non-binary gender and queer.

Nonbinary Notes is my attempt to share my experiences with my internal, social, legal, and medical transitions.

I’ll say upfront: this is one person’s experience. I don’t speak for all nonbinary people, certainly not for all transgender people. How anyone transitions or lives as a nonbinary person is theirs, not mine to decide or judge if it’s right or enough. Definitely not yours.

My older bio son has a good friend with same-sex parents and, when he was younger and I’d take him over to the friend’s house to play, sometimes I’d stick around to chat with the parents. I remember wanting to ask them so badly how they knew they were gay. How they knew for sure. How they were brave enough to come out. I was still trying to figure out some things about myself then, and how much of myself I could show openly in my life.

I learned the word “nonbinary” in May 2017, when I was 40, and realized it’s the gender descriptor that best applied to me. But I knew this about myself long before that. Here’s a bit of the timeline I know to be true about me and my gender journey.

Age 6 or 7

Learning how to pee standing up, like my older brother. Not understanding why I wasn’t allowed to also pee that way, as I was good at it. My stepmother found us peeing and laughing in the bathroom and forbid me from doing it again. I’m still great at peeing outside and missing my shoes.

Around the same age, I accidentally got a pair of my brother’s hand-me-down underwear. They were dark brown and soft, with a Y-front. I adored wearing them, no longer stuck in the pink, white and blue girl’s flannel underwear assigned to me. My stepmother realized I’d been wearing them and took them away. I mourned those underwear. I loved them so.

Age 10

Getting a short haircut, despite my mother’s desire for me to have long hair always. When I was 7, right before taking me on a holiday, my dad had taken me for a haircut and instructed the hairdresser to give me bangs. Mum was angry at how he’d “ruined” my hair.

I don’t remember exactly why I decided to get it cut short, but I know I wanted to look spunky, not girly. I didn’t have much ability to express myself then, and my haircut was one small way I had some power.

Unfortunately, no one gave me any styling products, so my hair just fell flat and I ended up growing it out again.

Age 16

Watching Yentl with my mum and experiencing what I now know is gender dysphoria as Barbara Streisand bound her chest to be able to disguise herself as a boy. I was fascinated by stories with female characters able to camouflage themselves as males (the only two gender options I was given). I was also deeply jealous, as my chest was too large to be able to do that myself.

Age 17

I asked a female friend in my choir class to Junior prom. She had masses of curly red hair and freckles. She wanted to get glammed up in a dress, I’d rent a tux. Then people started whispering that we were lesbians and she stopped talking to me. I was sad — I missed her friendship. And relieved — I was worried how my chest would fit in a man’s shirt and tux. And I knew it wasn’t safe to come out in high school (as bisexual, the word I knew for my sexuality then).

Age 19

My first husband (yes first of several, and, yes, at 19) was Sioux. We talked about a lot of things, gender and sexuality included. He told me that in his culture I would be called Two Spirit. I’d have a place, even be honored.

I felt seen and known for the first time. There were a lot of very bad things about that relationship, but he saw parts of me I’d had to keep hidden.

When we separated, though, he took that with him. His culture wasn’t mine to keep, so I lost that language and way of explaining my gender to others.

My 20s

I attempted to explain my gender to my partners in terms like, “I’m as much man as woman,” and “I’m both and neither.”

We’d have conversations about “who wears the pants” in the relationship and I’d insist that it was me as much as anyone. I resisted societal gender roles as much as I could.

If I wanted to go somewhere and no one wanted to go with me, I went alone. At events, if the women’s bathroom had a line and the men’s was empty, I’d use the men’s and invite everyone else to join me. “They both work the same, come on!”

And yet, the cultural programming is strong and embedded with everything. It’s in our media, education, how we’re raised, how we speak and respond to each other. I was socialized female and the expectations placed on me were of someone filling a female role.

Combined with the desire for belonging and children, that programming and socialization is tenacious.

Age 27 to 32

I made two people with my own body, then fed them from my mammary glands. My own spiritual beliefs and experiences lead me to believe I chose a body with these reproductive parts so I could create my children in this lifetime.

Through pregnancy and chestfeeding, I was finally getting to use those parts of myself that caused me so much pain and anguish for the biological function they were made for. It made being in this body feel worthwhile.

It also pushed me firmly into the female roles of Mother and Wife and I didn’t know how to remake those roles for myself at that time in my life. I felt the discordance, though.

My 30s

Most of my thirties were busy years, raising young children, moving across the country, getting divorced, remarried, blending a family, working, and barely having time to think many days.

Age 40 (2017)

I learn about nonbinary gender from someone close to me and my world opens in new ways. Internally, I begin to explore my own ideas about my gender identity, gently probing and wondering what could be.

Age 41 (2018)

I begin using they/them pronouns, changing my email signature, my Facebook profile gender, and start using they/them on name tags whenever I have the opportunity. I explore transgender spaces.

I keep using she/her pronouns as well, though. It doesn’t feel safe yet. I’m not quite ready. I don’t know how this new old discovery about myself might change my relationships with the people around me. I’m still scared.

Age 42 (2019)

In summer, I finally come out to my therapist. Looking back, I’m amazed and sad it not only took me two years to tell her after I figured it out for myself, but that she wasn’t a safe space for me to figure it out in the first place.

I keep coming out to people that year, friends, family, writer colleagues, and medical providers, keeping track of their reactions in a spreadsheet. It generally went better than I’d feared, although some of the reactions were weird.

My ovaries explode. At least it feels like it and I choose to have a total hysterectomy — all the bits, ovaries included gone. I didn’t realize I had dysphoria from my menstrual cycle but I experience definite gender euphoria with it gone. Plus, the super-low-dose testosterone I take for libido feels so right, I begin jumping through the hoops for gender-affirming hormone therapy.

I also take the first shaky steps toward top surgery. First I try a local plastic surgeon, to go through insurance under back and neck pain, but it’s a no-go. So I’m on the gatekeeping hoop jumping transgender care train of therapist letters and wait times.

Age 43 (2020)

I move to they/them pronouns full-time, all the time, no exceptions. I learn that, if you give people the option of still using the pronouns of your assigned gender at birth, they keep using she/her pronouns and don’t make the effort to change. After moving to only they/them pronouns, I learn that a lot of people still don’t make the effort to change.

My hair gets progressively shorter on the sides. I get a large tattoo on my left arm: a watercolor rainbow heart with an equal sign within it on my forearm, opening up to birds flying up and around my upper arm.

I am out. It’s pretty obvious now.

One of my kids comes out as pansexual. I get to tell him, “Yeah, that describes my sexuality the best, too. It’s about the person, not the parts they have.”

In the summer, I begin low-dose testosterone. I don’t like what it does to my face. My hormonal acne finally cleared up after the hysterectomy and it’s back. But I change in subtle ways and it feels good.

Age 44 (2021)

“Top surgery” finally happens in the summer. Except it’s not what we talked about and I still have breasts. Obvious breasts. Breasts most people would put in a bra, but I’m not doing that anymore. I can’t stand the pressure around my ribcage and feeling the straps make me look more female. I wear an undershirt all the time, though, to keep from feeling too “booby.” I figure most people probably look at me and think, “huh, butch dyke.”

I not-so-patiently wait to see my surgeon for my six-month follow-up where she takes no accountability for my results, tells me I’ll need another entire surgery, and tries to diagnose me with body dysmorphia. I thought maybe she could make it better with a revision.

This takes me months to process. I still feel betrayed.

Age 45 (2022)

Hey, this is how old I am now. Still on this journey. More stuff happens.

I change as much of my documentation as I can — driver’s license, passport, insurance, medical records — to X gender. I get insistent on correct pronouns and gendering in all settings. It’s exhausting, but better to stick up for myself than be walked on.

I work on another top surgery and have two disappointing surgeon consults, so I start looking out-of-state which seems like crazy balls, that a person should have to go to such lengths to get adequate gender-affirming care. I will likely write more about this.

Voice therapy is also part of my life now as either stress or voice changes due to testosterone have caused me to develop muscle tension dysphonia. My voice gets hoarse and breathy with use and I’ve lost my singing voice.

It’s not lost on me that I’m having difficulty using my voice in a society that actively erases me, pronoun by pronoun. So I’m here, writing about it. I wasn’t ready to do that until right this moment.

This is the first article in Nonbinary Notebook, a series exploring my experience transitioning as a nonbinary person in midlife.

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JY Bartlett

Pronouns: they/them. Award-winning writer, author and teacher on overcoming adversity and learning to trust yourself. www.jybartlett.com