Amateur: Who Gets to Call Themselves Nonbinary?

Thomas Page McBee’s second book, Amateur, about being the first trans man to ever box in Madison Square Garden, is out now. Check out or follow him on Instagram @thomaspagemcbee.

In 2009, the year before I transitioned medically, I pinpointed my rising discomfort most often in my response to language: innocuous, casual words like “she” and “her,” and even (occasionally) “lesbian.” The effect was visceral, lacerating, profound. I knew who I was because I could feel what I wasn’t, and as much as I was invested intellectually in the idea of being “genderqueer,” that wounded feeling, for me, refused to be resolved with they/them pronouns. I knew I was a man — a man whose sexual awakening consisted primarily of “Gia”-era Angelina Jolie, queer butch/femme New York bar culture, and crushes developed at riot grrl conventions — but, yes, a man nonetheless.

Back then, I thought a lot about the stories we tell about trans bodies. I still do. But on the cusp of my transition, I didn’t see myself anywhere: Not in the YouTube tutorials I would watch by younger trans guys newly high on life, espousing the joys of passing; and not in the trope-y stories in magazines about trans people “trapped in the wrong body.” My body had always been “wrong” in the eyes of the mysterious, imagined reader those stories were geared towards, presumably the sort of straight cis person who’d never once thought about gender at all.

I find that my ability to say “fuck gender” increases in proportion to how safe I feel in my body. There are people for whom leaving the house is a safety risk.

Of course, as a journalist who has spent the years since reporting on the masculinity crisis and how we construct gender culturally, I now realize that trans men aren’t able to magically escape toxic masculinity. But back then, I’d shut my computer and put off the inevitable because I was afraid of what, I believe, is the central fear most of us have to confront: What are we willing to risk to be ourselves? For me, I chose, until I couldn’t, to be invisible or misunderstood over being alone.

I was reminded of these very different experiences of language-as-dislocation a lot this week. Readers often ask me hyper-specific questions that I believe get at a much larger one — one that I’ve struggled with throughout my life: What do we do if we feel like we’re trading in one narrow definition of identity for another? Who gets to decide what makes a person part of a group? And what’s the point of groups, anyway?

When I reached out to academics about these questions, several were so overwhelmed that they wouldn’t answer. One even told me these ideas would “require an entire book manuscript to even be able to contemplate.” However, I know these questions feel very urgent to you: Since I began this column, the majority of people writing me have asked me to be the arbiter of what can and can’t be claimed as an identity. “Can I identify as nonbinary just based on the fact that I think the concept of gender is bullshit?” writes one reader who “presents very femininely,” but doesn’t “believe a vagina and a skirt make me a woman or anything else.”

“Are there trans women who can be butch lesbians?” a trans woman asks. “In real life, I'm usually told no, that butch in a lesbian context is referring to a cis woman who identifies as masculine in appearance. There’s just not much support I feel for trans women who feel more masculine, or tomboy-ish.”

A person who’d identified previously as nonbinary and recently came out as transgender writes that they are “under increasing pressure” to begin medical transition, despite mixed feelings about doing so. “I never feel ‘trans enough,’” they say. Read more via them.