Gender is still a foe and I still don’t like labels. But I have to make my peace with it.
If I were fifteen years younger, I’d identify as nonbinary. It would be on my bio, I would write and speak about it. Or maybe not, it’s hard to tell. I’ve always been such an off-the-beaten-path kind of person. Then again, I don’t know if that’s just because the beaten path beat me down so often and mercilessly. Gender has been its biggest weapon.
So why would I not identify as nonbinary today? To answer that is to open up a wormhole that I’m still falling through. Or maybe it’s a ladder down a dark tunnel that I’m still climbing, a steady step at each interval but only for a brief period. Insights abound.The realisation that all my choices have been to seek belonging, to escape violence, to feel safe. When you’re constantly navigating attack, you morph into whatever you need to, in order to survive. So trauma is the first rung of the ladder of answers.
I was a teenager who thought ‘I’m not like other girls’. I see no reason to apologise for that. The girls I saw around me conformed with greater ease to gender norms. They also weaponised it brutally. They manipulated boys & men, feared rather than respected the men in their families and in authority and they began romances with a war plan that included strategic secrets. With other women, they relentlessly body-shamed, fought dirty for attention, their friendships were political alliances rife with betrayal & cruelty. I was not like that, I will never be like that. I am aware of terms like ‘internalised misogyny’ and all the explanations of how these women were damaged by the trauma patriarchy inflicted on them. I did not succumb in the same way and that doesn’t mean I didn’t endure trauma or that I deserved that abuse from them. This was the framework of femininity that I saw (and still see so much) and no, I am still nothing like that.
The real human lives I saw being lived were by men. They were full of conversations of wonder, relationships of trust & respect, ambitions that could be articulated, paths that could be charted and navigated. If they saw something, they could call it. If they wanted something, they could reach for it. If they began working towards something, that effort alone would merit respect & access. Why would I not want that life? I still do. The second rung of the ladder.
I was so young when I realised this that it did not even occur to me that I did not have a choice in the matter. I grew up in an environment with issues that needed someone – anyone – to pitch in and take responsibility. It would not have been practical to limit me because of my gender. You see, patriarchy’s chains limit your freedoms but also your burdens. So by the time the larger world got to impose its rules on me, I had been functioning minus gender for years. And we know patriarchy and Indian society like nothing better than to punish someone for not following the rules because they didn’t know them. Apparently the choice had been on the table much earlier and I had missed it. And it seems I was never going to have been invited to the table to make that choice. I am still struggling with this. My whole life has been scripted and decided by committee, one that I was never even a part of. What is this shit system? Rung three.
Here’s where it gets complicated. It’s not a ladder, after all but a rope hanging down into the water while a thousand hands reach in to push you under. So you go down, then bob up despite your best resolutions to obey. Reaching for life. For air. Only men have that kind of luxury. I’ve lost track of what rung we’re on by now.
Then along comes third wave angry feminism, wrecking ball rage, grabbing the artefacts of masculinity in defiance. The Alanis Morisettes, the Kat Stratfords, the tomboy girlpower, the tough girl culture. It worked for awhile. It coincided with my teen rebel years, after all. But it stops being a party when it takes effort to cling to. And the whole point of this was the joyful, cathartic revelation of breaking free.
So I set my sights on the life I wanted. I was a citizen of a brave new world, the new millenium, the first generation of women with a career and so on. I underestimated the strength of the system I was fighting; I completely misjudged the enemy. I thought if I did as men did, I’d have the life they lived. I worked hard, refused concessions for my gender, stood resolutely firm against playing hide-and-seek with men’s affections. But honesty is a privilege afforded to those born to it, the male gender. I was punished, over and over again. Nobody wants to believe me when I call out the brutalities, the entitlement, the ugly hateful undertones in men. “But he’s a great guy”, they say and often punctuate with, “Hamare saath toh aisa nahin hain“. It made me realise men could be great but they were only ever so with other cis men. Strategically, they’d elevate one woman or two as their badge of ‘I’m good to women’ and this would be paid for by the woman’s hatred towards other women. It’s the epitome of evil. Horrible revelation, the ladder shakes and I am almost knocked off by the malevolence of it.
It has been a long journey since then. I’ve learnt to pick myself up from the daily assaults that patriarchy unleashes. I’ve even learnt (albeit with resistance), that cis men will never be my ally. It’s not intentionally machivellian. The average cis man does not even see me as a human being. I have spent my whole adulthood learning how to articulate their many travesties on my gender, politely, confidently, diplomatically, unapologetically, artistically, scientifically. Nothing works. I have even tried setting aside the individual crimes. But it is impossible to have any kind of meaningful conversation with someone who does not even recognise that you have a voice. They don’t hear me; they can’t hear me. And unfortunately identity is shaped as much by the relationships with people around you as it is by your personal characteristics.
A few years ago, I wrote I am not a man trapped in a woman’s body. I’m a person trapped in a woman’s body. My language for this insight has shifted; I’ve added more vocabulary, more acceptable ‘woke’ terminology but the core fact remains the same. Rung however-many and it is holding steady. ‘Nonbinary’ comes closest to what I’ve been feeling is me.
There are many paths beyond this, all leading deeper into darkness. But I’m middle aged now. I’m bone tired of fighting for a right to be. I’m exhausted with shapeshifting for survival. In all this pruning, all this fighting, the armour of the female gender has come to fit me, wounds and all. It is not a garb I would have chosen for myself. But then, remember I was never given a choice. My female gender now is a hardwon trophy. And it is armour that I have learnt to fit into. There is no good reason for me to give it up and start with nothing all over again.