This is Meg-John Barker here. I’m one of the authors of the new JKP book How to Understand Your Gender. JKP asked me to write a blog post about how I came to understand my own gender identity, so here I am.
When I shared a pic of the book cover on Facebook one of my friends asked whether it came with a guarantee that the reader would understand their gender by the end of the book! They pointed out that they’d already read and learnt rather a lot about this topic and that certainly hadn’t left them with some kind of clear simple understanding of their own gender.
I had to agree. ‘Complex’ might well be one of the words Alex and I use most in the book, because gender is certainly that! As with our sexuality, relationship patterns, sense of self, inner emotional world, and so much else about being human, understanding our genders is probably going to be a lifetime journey for all of us. And it’s made even more of an ongoing process by the fact that both the wider cultural understandings of gender, and our own experiences of it, change over time.
So, no the book won’t necessarily leave you understanding your gender in a simple ‘Eureka, I’m a ___!’ kind of way. What it will help you to understand is how your wider world views gender, how you came to experience your gender in the way you do today within this, and what options are available to you as you take your next steps on your gender path.
How I understand my gender
Given all of this, my understanding of my own gender is definitely still a work in progress, but I have come to a more comfortable – even exciting – place with it over the course of my life.
As I explain in the book, I grew up in a time and place where there were very rigid rules about what boys and girls were supposed to be like, and very little space for anyone who didn’t fit neatly into one of those two categories. If you saw the recent BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls you’ll get a pretty good idea what my school was like. If you haven’t seen it then I’d encourage you to do so: we’ve still got a long way to go.
Before going to my middle school, I didn’t have a strong sense of a gender. I was just a kid who was into dinosaurs, ghosts and monsters, nature, drawing, and comics. In that school, I longed to join the group of other kids who were into the same stuff as me, but I could feel the ever-strengthening barrier that divided me from them because of gender. Like all of us, my gender experience intersected with other aspects of my identity: my hearing difficulties, non-local accent, and charity shop clothes marked me out as ‘different’ to the bullies as much as my gender. I spent much of the next decade slowly and clumsily learning how to do ‘girl’ because I was desperate to fit in, while retaining a sense that something about that wasn’t a good fit for me.
A pivotal point in my gender journey came in my twenties when I got my first job teaching psychology and was put on the gender module. I had to do my own crash course in feminist psychology and queer theory pretty much overnight. What I learnt there enabled me to move from doing femininity to beginning to undo it in various ways: asking questions about why I seemed to believe that I had to do relationships, emotions, appearance, work, and everything else in certain ways because of my gender.
Fast-forward many more years and I was able to survey the range of options available to a person who had the particular combination of femininity and masculinity that I seemed to have. ‘Woman’ didn’t feel like a good fit, but neither did I really feel like I was a trans man. At that point I stumbled across musician, activist and writer CN Lester’s blog and had my light bulb moment. I could be something other than a woman or a man: non-binary gender was a thing!
To me non-binary makes the most sense of my gender experience. I like that it’s a big enough category to hold my different gendered experiences over time. I also like that it encompasses multiplicity because I different have sides of myself which feel more masculine, more feminine, and more androgynous. I like the double-meaning of my ‘they’ pronouns: both gender-neutral and indicating a plural experience.
Words of wisdom?
JKP asked me whether I had any advice or words of wisdom that I could pass on in this blog post. I think the vital thing to say is that what you’ve just read is only one gender experience.
If you got a hundred non-binary people in a room you’d get a hundred different gender experiences, all of which differ to my own. Indeed, you’ll read in the book how Alex and I have very different gender journeys and experiences despite sharing some identity terms and expressions in common. Many non-binary folks have a clear sense of being one gender: no plurality. Many have no gender at all. Many prefer terms like ‘genderqueer’ or ‘agender’ to ‘non-binary’, or would rather have no identity label.
And there’s just as much diversity under the umbrella terms ‘woman’ or ‘man’ as there is under ‘non-binary’. Indeed, you could find people with very similar life experiences and gender expressions to me under both of those categories and that’s completely cool. None of us are fooling ourselves. Just as we all come to our own unique way of expressing and experiencing our gender, so different identities or descriptions feel like better fits for different people.
My advice would be to remember that whatever feels right to you gender-wise is okay. To quote the marvellous gender warrior Kate Bornstein who very kindly wrote an endorsement for our book (squeal!): ‘Your dreams are not dangerous. Your desires are not damned. Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Anything at all. There’s only one rule to follow to make that kind of blanket permission work. Don’t. Be. Mean.’
The world won’t make this easy because – right now – the world is a pretty mean place when it comes to gender, and so much more. But wherever you’re at gender-wise, it really is okay. And so is wherever everyone else is at. If we could all accept that then I think we might be getting somewhere.
You can check out Meg-John’s other books and writing over on megjohnbarker.com, and their podcast about sex and relationships at megjohnandjustin.com.
For more information on Meg-John’s new book, check out How to Understand Your Gender here.