What does it mean to be ‘gender non-conforming’?

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The truth is that gender lies in a dynamic spectrum, and we can all choose to live along or outside it. Floyd (pictured above), a genderqueer, prefers to go by gender-neutral pronouns 'they/them.' Photo by JL JAVIER

Author’s note: A few terms that need definition: “Sex” is biological, and is characterized by the body we are born in. “Gender” is social, and is characterized by cultural norms, or what we deem to be masculine or feminine traits. “Gender identity” is a person’s sense of self as male, female, both, or neither. The “gender binary” is the concept that there are only two opposite and distinct genders. “Cisgender” is a term for people whose biological sex matches their gender identity.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — From the moment we are born, we’re expected to follow a set of roles based on our sex. Pink for girls, blue for boys. Barbie dolls and action figures. Playing house and playing soldier. This is gender, and it’s something that follows us into adulthood, influencing our career choices and relationship dynamics, dictating the way we move in the world.

For most, gender exists as a binary — you’re either male or female. But consider instead a spectrum — one where we can borrow from seemingly opposite shades, dance along a prism of colors, or choose to rest outside of it. To live along or outside of this spectrum, to identify as both masculine and feminine, or neither, is to be considered gender non-conforming. And though the concept may seem progressive, it has actually been around for hundreds of years.

In “Aura: The Gay Theme in Philippine Fiction in English,” editor J. Neil C. Garcia points to Spanish accounts of pre-colonial Philippines documenting encounters with “local men dressed up in women’s apparel and acting like women” who “crossed the lines between male and female genders” and were deemed as “highly respected leaders and figures of authority in the societies where they lived.” The babaylan were priestesses of some sort, acting as intermediaries between humans and spirits. Yet their existence threatened our patriarchal colonizers, and along with women, eventually lost their high status as Western values overtook the cultural landscape.

alissa_cnnphlife_Photo-3 (3).jpg For Alissa, gender dysphoria — a disorder characterized by a discomfort and dissatisfaction with one’s physical body or assigned gender — was a huge part of their life. Alissa identifies as agender, saying they want “to exist as a sexless, genderless being.” Photo by JL JAVIER

A similar people, two-spirits, existed in Native American culture. They were highly-esteemed for being doubly blessed by the spirit world, and were regarded as teachers and spiritual guides. As European Christianity spread across North America, two-spirits were forced to conform or hide their true nature.

For the longest time, people were placed into boxes to fulfill a presumed pre-ordained role based on one’s sex — men were to work and provide for the family, women were responsible for bearing and raising children. But today, as science teaches us that sex and gender are separate from one another, one can choose to live a truth outside of the binary.

To paint a clearer picture of gender non-conformity, we asked the help of Floyd, Alissa, Grace*, Jose, Lia, Mikers, and Mara, who opened up about their experiences as they came to understand their identities.

Floyd identifies as genderqueer. “I identify as both man and woman. Sometimes sobrang masculine ko, sometimes sobrang feminine. Tumatawid sa both genders.”

Floyd also prefers to go by the gender-neutral pronouns ‘they/them,’ as do most of the group. Last year, the singular ‘they’ was elected the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, which for some, signalled mainstream culture’s acceptance of transgender or gender fluid people.

Photo-21 (4).jpg Mikers identifies as trans*genderqueer, saying “I feel female on the inside and I'm comfortable with my male body, for the most part.” Photo by JL JAVIER

 

 

Jose Tong, who also goes by the name “A.I. Hoseki,” chooses not to adhere to any kind of label. The “A.I.” stands for artificial intelligence because, according to him, “robots and cyborgs are free from gender norms.” “Hoseki,” which is Japanese for “Precious Stone,” is a nod to his years spent studying in Japan.

“I live by Judith Butler’s philosophy on gender identity — that gender is performative and it’s a script invented by society,” he says. “It’s restricting and suffocating. My aim is to obscure those constructs.” That feeling of being restricted and suffocated is a thought that recurs in almost every interview.

For Alissa, gender dysphoria — a disorder characterized by a discomfort and dissatisfaction with one’s physical body or assigned gender — was a huge part of their life.

Alissa identifies as agender, saying they want “to exist as a sexless, genderless being.” “For the longest time, I had so many things I wanted to change about my body. I used to think it was just me hating my female body, but I realized that I didn’t want to be a guy,” they explain. “I second-guessed myself, kasi maybe I just don’t fit beauty standards for women. Until I realized na I didn’t really want to fit those standards anyway.”

“It's all rooted in what society has already instilled in all of us. When I became aware of the non-binary and genderfluid community, something clicked. I finally felt my true place in the spectrum of gender." — Mara

Meanwhile, for Grace*, their discomfort with gender, particularly with being a woman, is rooted in a childhood sexual trauma. Multiple encounters with catcallers and public harassment have only solidified their desire to distance themselves from the feminine identity. “With everything that I have gone through, I feel myself so far removed from being a woman that I choose and try to put in the effort to respond from somewhere beyond that duality.”

“It's all rooted in what society has already instilled in all of us. When I became aware of the non-binary and genderfluid community, something clicked. I finally felt my true place in the spectrum of gender,” says Mara, who identifies as non-binary.

When it “clicks”

For many, that moment of clarity is preceded by a slow process involving a lot of reflection, research, and self-love. For Mikers, it was like going through a “second puberty.”

Mikers identifies as trans*genderqueer, saying “I feel female on the inside and I'm comfortable with my male body, for the most part.” But the lack of information made it difficult for them to reconcile those feelings in the beginning.

“I realized I wasn't cisgender when I was 22. I really didn't understand myself back then. I knew what I was, what I was into, but there was this disconnect between the way I felt about myself and what I saw in the mirror,” they say. “I didn't have the language to recognize and articulate what I was holding back from myself until I started reading up on gender identity. Then it just all made so much sense.”

IMG_0173 (Edited).jpg Jose Tong, who also goes by the name “A.I. Hoseki,” chooses not to adhere to any kind of label. The “A.I.” stands for artificial intelligence because, according to him, “robots and cyborgs are free from gender norms.” Photo from JOSE TONG

But finally being able to grasp that identity was but one component of the journey. For the first couple of years, Mikers struggled with figuring out how to express it.

“At the start, it was rough to come to terms with, because I wanted to do and say so much, but I didn’t know where to start. It was hard to look into the mirror without crying, because for once I finally recognized my reflection. I wanted to be open as possible, but for the first couple years, my gender identity was on a need to know basis. Growing my hair out was one way, and dressing subtly feminine was another.”

Interestingly, videogames also served as a safe space to experiment with Mikers’ self-expression. “With some games, especially open world games that allowed me to create my own character, it became a place where I could let myself out without any bounds,” says Mikers.

Coming out

Coming out is a journey that is deeply personal and unique to each individual. For most, coming out is an act of liberation; to live by and express your truth openly to the world, and in turn, allow those around you to understand and accept it. Others find coming out unnecessary, preferring to maintain a private relationship with their identity. But for many others, coming out is a luxury they cannot afford. In a conservative and traditional country like the Philippines, coming out can still feel like navigating a minefield.

“It is in the struggle of having that possibility that makes it worth doing. ‘Yung patuloy na lumabas sa kabila ng lahat.” — Floyd

 

Floyd, who had experienced an emotional coming out to their parents as ‘gay,’ anticipated that genderqueer would be more challenging to explain. So they got creative, and prepared a PowerPoint presentation featuring artists, like Marina Abramovic and director Lav Diaz, who do not necessarily identify as gender fluid, but choose to operate outside of the conventions of their respective industries.

Ang way ko para ma-gets nila, ay magpakilala ng mga taong lumalabas sa kung ano ang deemed normal ng society, says Floyd. “That way, naipaliwanag ko ang concept na genderqueer is different from being someone na straight male or female.The goal was to show their parents that people defy societal expectations all the time.

Photo-11 (9).jpg “We live in a great time because there is a wealth of information, prolific essays, and out people to learn from. And of course it's good to always be open to learn. When people correct you, listen,” says Mara, who identifies as non-binary. Photo by JL JAVIER

Coming out is a process for everyone involved, and understanding and acceptance does not come all at once. Lia, who identifies as genderfluid, makes a good point when referring to her parents. “I know they are trying. They are doing so well at wrapping their heads around [the fact] that I have a girlfriend and that I’m gay, I don't expect them to get all of this in a few months.”

Discrimination

There’s a kind of resilience and perseverance gender non-conforming individuals have to equip themselves with. “Every day involves me coming out to someone new,” says Mikers, who talks about the apprehensions they feel when donning a more feminine expression. “When I do go out in my skirt, I kind [of] feel like I have to armor myself in ‘dudeness’ for the first couple hours until I relax and settle.”

Last year, Floyd was barred from entering five consecutives buses in Cubao station, wearing long hair, a skirt and a flower crown. “May isa talagang conductor na nagtanong, ‘Bakit ganyan itsura mo?’ tapos biglang sinara ‘yung pinto,” Floyd recounts. In another instance, they were denied entry to a mall. Despite these interactions, Floyd is undeterred. “It is in the struggle of having that possibility that makes it worth doing. ‘Yung patuloy na lumabas sa kabila ng lahat.

Photo-2 (9).jpg For Grace*, their discomfort with gender, particularly with being a woman, is rooted in a childhood sexual trauma. Multiple encounters with catcallers and public harassment have only solidified their desire to distance themselves from the feminine identity. Photo from GRACE

Ironically, even within the LGBTQ+ community, gender non-conforming individuals don’t always feel welcome, as sexism and homophobia remain ingrained even in these spaces. But for Tong, it was the very existence of misogyny within the gay community that pushed him to defy gender expectations. “I got annoyed when I tried dating here in Manila when a lot of guys open the conversation with the question, ‘Halata ka ba?’”

“It implied that I have to hide my sexual orientation by behaving and acting out heteronormative behaviors, which to me was absurd, because for me, being ‘gay’ in this society automatically makes you an outsider,” he says. “So instead of hating myself for not being what those masculine men expect me to be, I amplified my feminine predisposition. And you know what, I’ve never felt as happy and as free after doing this.”

Similarly, for Mara, having people question their identity fuels them to speak up for those who can’t. “I am hoping that someone out there can feel less lost or frustrated about themselves. To feel less alone.”

‘No single way to be gender non-conforming’

To avoid discriminating or invalidating genderqueer or non-binary people, Alissa advices people to remain open and expect to make mistakes: “What could be fine with one person might be offensive for another. The best thing to do always is just to ask.”

“We live in a great time because there is a wealth of information, prolific essays, and out people to learn from. And of course it's good to always be open to learn. When people correct you, listen,” adds Mara.

Photo-6 (4).jpg Lia, who identifies as genderfluid, makes a good point when referring to her parents. “I know they are trying. They are doing so well at wrapping their heads around [the fact] that I have a girlfriend and that I’m gay, I don't expect them to get all of this in a few months.” Photo by JL JAVIER

What echoed throughout the conversations was a persistence to live by their truth, despite what society dictates, despite rejection, despite prejudice. It seems rebellious, but it’s not. It’s more akin to an open invitation for everyone to question what we allow ourselves to be defined by.

“In truth, there's no single way to be gender non-conforming. We're all shades in the tapestry of human expression,” says Mikers.

And for those out there who are questioning their identity, Mikers leaves this piece of advice:

“Whatever your experience, it's totally fine. You're okay. You're finding yourself and it's an amazing thing. Nothing happens overnight. Stay true to yourself and remember there are people out there just like you doing amazing things with their lives. You're on your own way to something truly amazing!”

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*Name changed at subject’s request.