I remember the exact moment I realised that I wasn’t cisgender. It was on my way back home in Germany, a couple of weeks before I was going to leave for Smith. I was just getting off the train and as I climbed up the stairs from the platform, I thought, “I am not a woman.”
I wasn’t and still am not able to understand what exactly that means, and I have since realised that figuring out my gender identity is a process that is likely to be never-ending. This is often frustrating and scary, but ultimately I hope that I will be able to see it as freeing. The pressure to conform doesn’t stop with stepping outside of the gender binary. Even as I came to identify as trans, I was irritated at myself: how could I say I wasn’t one gender or another, when gender is a social construct? What would make the gender I identified with any more real than the one I was assigned at birth? I’ve never subscribed to gender roles anyways, so on what basis do I even define gender?
Coming to terms with questions like these is especially difficult in a society that generally doubts your gender identity even exists. I was fortunate to enter Smith and find a place where I could think about gender in a different way than I could have in Germany. It might seem ironic that I would distance myself from being female while at a women’s college, but it turns out that when you take gender out of the equation, there is more freedom to it.* Sure enough, Smith is far from representative of the rest of the United States (although I am not aware of any women’s colleges in Germany), but one part of the wider culture has been incredibly significant in my understanding of trans identity: the language.
While identifying as non-binary in Germany, the way I conceptualised it was to add a male alter ego to my established female identity. English, a language without grammatical gender that has the option of using they as a non-gendered singular pronoun (however frowned upon it might be stylistically, it is established), provided me with the resources to think and express myself outside of the gender binary. Our language shapes our thoughts and thus our worlds. A language without gendered pronouns, for example Turkish, would help us understand the world in yet another way.
Language is a fundamentally social phenomenon. It shapes our communities and they shape it. I understand now that while, yes, gender is a social construct, that doesn’t make us, as people living in society, free of it. As people who exist in relation to one another, the way we are perceived by others will always be a significant part of who we are. As an individual, I have no problem with my gender identity at this point; I just am who I am. It is when others perceive me in a certain way that does not conform to my self-image that the problems arise.
While transgender awareness is slowly growing when it comes to transgender women and men, most people are not aware that it is a spectrum, and even when non-binary is included, it is often as a third category in addition to the binary extremes. Defying gender roles and wanting to be recognised as non-binary/trans is a balancing act. Even though I know that neither activities, nor clothes, nor makeup, nor haircut have an inherent gender, presenting in a way that is socially construed as feminine will result in me being immediately read as female and erase my gender identity. It often feels that in order to disrupt this, I have to present in a way that is especially masculine, or even identify as a transman in order to not be assumed cis.
As long as we live in a society that upholds gender roles and the gender binary, not conforming to those will be a struggle. But even in this society we can find a community that supports us, in which we can discuss the issues and questions that arise out of this tension, and encourage each other to keep challenging the status quo.
Transition might be read as a noun, but for me it is a verb first and foremost. Life and all that comes with it is unfathomably complex, and there will always be more to discover and figure out. What stagnates will wither, and change is the only constant.
*I am aware that not everyone’s trans identity has been met with love and respect at Smith, but fortunately I have only come across encouragement.
TL Nehls is originally from Hamburg, Germany and has lived in Chile and Northern Ireland before coming to Northampton. Asking them about historical linguistics, memes, or local geology will likely result in a lenghty, albeit enthusiastic, discussion, so be prepared. When not sitting in front of mostly empty word documents, they can be found performing theatre or folk music, or both.by