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Review: 'Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity'


Back in early March I was distractedly scrolling through my Facebook feed, becoming more tense as I absorbed the stress-posts my internet friends had shared. As we do. Somewhere in the stream of virtual fist-shaking at the Trump administration's latest stunts; anxiety about health, money, or work concerns; sick pets; lamentations about winter's duration; and nihilism-flavored memes, a bright spot of positivity appeared. A person I know through the arts community shared a selfie of himself holding this book, accompanied by an enthusiastic caption: "I'm a published author!" I pre-ordered it immediately, eager to learn about the varied experiences of gender nonconformity from nonbinary folks themselves.

Edited by Micah Rajunov and Scott Duane, the volume includes 30 authors spanning different ages, races, ethnicities, classes, abilities, and religions. The bite-sized personal essays, which are each about five to 10 pages in length, describe the various ways the gender binary has shaped their lives, and what it looks like to shed the rigid, ill-fitting categories imposed on us from birth.

Doing away with the male-female binary isn't something that's only useful to people whose identity doesn't fit either. It can be considered an evolutionary step in how we actually reach for equality, in which answering the question "What are you?" becomes more complex than a set of organs and the assumptions about roles, preferences, and value that come with each.

In the book's forward, Riki Wilchins, longtime activist and founder of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, says that as the concept of nonbinary identity becomes more visible, "it will challenge everything we currently think about our bodies, sexual orientation, and gender, almost all of which depends implicitly or explicitly on the binary." The boxes that language places us in become moot, she says. "The entire discourse on gayness and sexual orientation collapses."

Wilchins goes on to paint a vision of why the death of that paradigm, including the concept of "transgender," is a positive: "Since no one really fits the perfect masculine or feminine ideals," she writes, "these rules end up being terribly oppressive to almost everyone, and more so to those who are genderqueer."

This resonates: I've witnessed almost everyone I've known, as well as many strangers, proclaim some deep dissatisfaction with themselves and their perceived inadequacies -- mostly concerning their bodies not living up to some unrealistic ideal of femininity or manhood. It's no secret that internalized messages of inadequacy make a lot of people a lot of money. This argument that everyone feels imperfect is not meant to take anything away from those who experience the most traumatizing conflicts with gender identity, but to say that the binary isn't working well for most people.

Following a thorough introduction to the subject from the editors, the anthology's stories are grouped under five sections: "What is Gender?" "Visibility: Standing Up and Standing Out," "Community: Creating a Place for the Rest of Us," "Trans Enough: Representation and Differentiation," and "Redefining Dualities: Paradoxes and Possibilities of Gender."

Rochester-based writer Kameron Ackerman's essay, "Making Waves in an Unforgiving Maze," is in the section on visibility. Ackerman is working as a janitor in his old high school, a position that leaves him feeling simultaneously invisible and anxious about being seen as a failure. He describes shamefully shirking eye contact with old teachers while navigating the ghosts of adolescent trauma. His story is bookended by two "mirror-moments" -- the first an encounter that leaves him feeling alien in his own skin, the second a resolution of identity -- which frame the process of coming to terms with exploring trans, and then nonbinary identity.

Like many others, Ackerman's first glimpses at a more comfortable understanding of his identity came from all-too-rare bits of representation in culture. As a young tomboy, Ackerman latched onto the film "Boys Don't Cry," which wasn't a perfect fit. "I guess...I am transgender? I like the idea of 'boy' but not of 'man,'" he wrote in his journal. He describes initially deciding against trying testosterone ("I didn't want a beard; I didn't want broad shoulders or a deep voice.") and then the metamorphosis he experienced when he did use it, and the control he has over regulating the changes.

Importantly, Ackerman describes his process of feeling at home with himself not just through an explicit shift from one gender to the other, like reaching a destination, but in the ways the process of taking control over his physicality has rooted him in his body, and allowed for greater comfort -- and pleasure -- in the way he physically relates to the world.

The anthology is a good resource for people exploring their own nonconforming identity, but it's also a useful, honest read about being human in general. Fiercely holding onto the categories of male and female serves the purpose of telling us how to think about and treat each other before we know much else about a person, which immediately sets us up for inequality, and imposes limitations that don't reflect reality.

But many people can't conceive of letting go of the binary. The popularity of gender-reveal parties for expecting parents can feel like a slap in the face to any progress we make toward understanding that it's harmful to impose gender norms on children. And watching big-sibling-to-be little boys howl in despair when an opaque balloon is popped and spills pink glitter is particularly taxing. I have to admit that I chuckle to myself whenever I catch a blooper video of people flubbing the reveal apparatus, accidentally letting go of the balloons and watching them fade out of reach.