When I was born, the doctors told my parents they had a baby girl. My parents named me Naseem, which means gentle breeze in Persian. They bought me dresses, stuffed animals, and books. What they didn’t realize was that I was not a baby girl.
Growing up, I told everyone that I wanted to be a boy — but that wasn’t really accurate, either. What I meant was that I didn’t feel like a girl.
What I meant was that a combination of polycystic ovarian syndrome and Middle Eastern genes gave me too much facial and body hair to feel like a woman. What I meant was that I didn’t care about makeup or clothes, that looking in the mirror was my ultimate nightmare, and that I’d rather spend time with boys because I didn’t know what it meant to be a girl.
Still, I was a daughter. I was taught to sit “like a lady.” I was supposed to mark “female” as my gender on forms.
Spoiler alert: I’m not a woman. I’m non-binary.
The scholar Judith Butler calls gender a performance. She means that gender is not a biological reality, but a concept we learn, and relearn, and project onto the world. In a Big Think video, Butler says, “We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.”
We consider different traits and actions to be “masculine” or “feminine.” When a woman negotiates her salary, she is behaving like a man. When a man takes time to care for his appearance, he is behaving like a woman. These are the little ideas that permeate our society. Dress is a part of this performance, as clothes are the costume we put on before the show. But our words and actions can also be part of our gender makeup.
So if my gender identity is non-binary, what does that mean?
I can’t speak for everyone in the community — nor should I, as gender is an individual choice — but I can describe how I experience it.
I believe that being a non-conforming gender means that I take characteristics often ascribed to men — dominance, assertiveness, confidence, hands-on mentality, leadership — and embrace them. I believe it means that I then take characteristics often ascribed to women — grace, elegance, nurturing instincts, human connection — and integrate them into my larger sense of self. In action, this means I can walk into a room and speak my opinions without hesitation, while encouraging others to do the same.
But why do any of those characteristics have to be associated with a certain gender? They absolutely shouldn’t be. Gender is a fragile thing, and that’s partially why I reject the gender binary.
And what about the relationship between gender and biological sex?
Well, disorders of sex development are so common that not even biological sex is a binary.
At a conservative estimate, 1 in 2000 babies have ambiguous enough genital to warrant calling a specialist. A review of medical literature between 1955 and 1998 found that 1 in 100 people had bodies differing from the “standard” male or female. Let those numbers sink in.
If there is no simplicity when it comes to sex development, then perhaps gender identity isn’t so simple either.
The reality of my non-binary gender is that, unless I tell a person, nobody knows. In my everyday life, people assume I’m female. In some ways, that makes things easier — I don’t have to clarify that on some days it is okay to use the she pronoun, and on other days, it’s not; I don’t have to explain what it means to be non-binary; I don’t have to worry about raised eyebrows and shrugs. If I look like a woman, isn’t it fair to assume that I am one?
But do I look like a woman? Dress is the easiest way to distinguish or express a non-conforming gender — and it’s something I think about a lot. I try to keep my day-to-day outfits simple, but unless I throw on a tie, suit, or vest, my usual jeans and cotton shirt are unremarkable.
With my size and curvy shape, I have struggled to make myself appear androgynous — or even masculine. Every time someone looks at me, they see a woman. I watch their eyes study me, and see them check off one of two boxes.
How can I tell them, hey, I don’t reject all things female, and I don’t embrace all things male? How can I tell them, you only have Mr. and Ms. as options on this form, and those are both gendered? How can I say, please use ‘they’ as a pronoun for me, because English is gendered in a way that Persian is not?
It didn’t always bother me — indeed, for a long time, I almost didn’t mind that I passed as a woman. But recently, ever since the communities I’m a part of have been targets for violence and hate, I feel ashamed that I am invisible.
To those who look at me, I am the norm. I appear to be a healthy, happy, 20-something straight white woman, married to a man. When people hear that I’m a scientist, they assume that I’m also an atheist — I don’t look as though I am a practicing Sufi.
But after all of these years, I’ve come to terms with that. Here’s the truth: I am proud of my identities.
I am proud to be non-binary. I am proud to be Persian, a child to Iranian immigrants. I am proud to be Sufi, a sect of Islam, because I’m proud to be Muslim. I am proud to be queer. I am proud to not just function, but thrive, despite having severe depression and anxiety.