Being non-binary and looking for the "girl gang" I never had
June is Pride Month.
A Slack invitation isn’t usually something to cry about. And yet, when I got the email inviting me to the Women Write About Comics Slack, I couldn’t hold back my tears.
It was the invitation to the virtual girl gang I never had in real life.
I’m non-binary, which means my gender does not fit neatly into the man/woman dichotomy, even if I tend to lean strongly on the feminine side of the spectrum. But I was assigned male at birth, and as a kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, that meant everyone assumed — and treated me like — I was a boy.
There were definitely some privileges that came along with being perceived as a boy — adults often paid more attention to me than to my female peers — but the downsides were staggering. I spent decades trying to conform to gender expectations that didn’t fit right, pretending to be something that I wasn’t. I was bullied and harassed because I was (correctly, it turns out) perceived as queer.
I had trouble making friends with the people I felt the most like — girls.
From a young age, society (especially the boys around me) made it clear that I wasn’t supposed to be friends with girls or express interest in “girly” things. My early memories of practicing the Wonder Woman spin transformation in the basement and pleading with my mother for Smurfette shoes quickly gave way to the fear of being outed as…something I didn’t quite have a name for yet. But I knew it had to be something bad.
Before I began kindergarten, I had a certain freedom to play with anybody I wanted. That included the neighbor girl whose house adjoined with the same communal backyard space that all the neighborhood kids claimed as our own. But things changed when we started school and the “no friends of the opposite sex” rule began to be enforced by our fellow students.
We weren’t classmates in kindergarten, so I was excited when I found out we’d be in first grade together — excited enough that I broke one of the cardinal rules of elementary school in the ‘80s: I asked her if she would like to sit by me at lunch. The mockery that our peers subjected me to convinced me to never do that again. We might have played together in the past, but we could no longer be friends in the same way.
I did my best to make friends with the boys in my classes, to varying levels of success. Sometimes I’d manage to make it work, but far too many of my friendships with boys and men collapsed under the weight of just how fundamentally different I was from them.
Things did get better as I got older, especially by the time I was in high school. The bias against opposite-sex friendships didn’t seem as important, and I was starting to feel more comfortable challenging at least some gender expectations. By the time I graduated, I had a group of female friends with whom I would sit in class and eat lunch. But there was still something missing.
While these friendships were undoubtedly real, they were different from the friendships my cis female classmates had with each other.
We might have been friends at school, but I was rarely invited to do things outside of that context. I didn’t get to go to the sleepovers; I wasn’t invited on the shopping trips; there were certain subjects that were never raised in my presence.
I might have been a friend, but I was never part of their inner circle. I was never a genuine member of the girl gang.
While I completely understand why I could never quite form these friendships in high school, that feeling of being on the outside looking in stung. It continues to sting as I think about the experiences I never shared with friends I never had.
This isn’t to say I never had female friends as an adult; I definitely did. But just like in high school, I was always aware that they were different from the friendships women have with each other. These friendships could disappear at a moment’s notice when life circumstances changed. Our connections would burn hot for a few months and then flame out when one of us started a new job, moved to a new city, or started dating someone new.
I still didn’t have a girl gang — that group of female friends that I could just hang around with. And years later, I still don’t.
Making friends as an adult is grueling for anyone, so it has been incredibly difficult — if not impossible — to find that girl gang dynamic I’ve always longed for.
But not all hope is lost.
Since coming out as non-binary and embracing my femme side, I have found a number of online communities that embrace me for who I am, including one I’d secretly hoped to join for years before I ever came out: Women Write About Comics.
Women Write About Comics is a collective of women and non-binary folks who, well, write about comics and geek out about pop culture. And then, one day, the invitation came.
I’d be lying if I said suddenly everything was different. I still feel incredibly awkward as someone who was assigned male at birth; I worry constantly about intruding or talking over folks. Still, it’s been great to have a virtual space to just hang out, chat, rant about our lives, and occasionally shit talk. It’s really quite wonderful.
Now if only I could find my IRL girl gang…