In 2009 I wrote about identity stress, which Norah Vincent captured so strikingly in her book Self-Made man, and Robin Williams dramatized in the over-the-top climactic scenes in Mrs. Doubtfire. Identity stress refers to the difficulty of maintaining two distinct identities, each with its own appearance, voice, movement, name, pronouns, documents, and social relationships. It can be the factor that finally pushes people to transition, even if they decided long ago not to.
It has not escaped my attention that having two separate identities is only one way to deal with conflicting gender feelings. Many people have pointed out that this is one of the approaches that minimize confrontation with the gender binary.
A lot of people I’ve met choose to push back on gender norms and adopt a single nonbinary identity. That can mean either a narrow range of gender presentations focused on traits that are not strongly marked for either gender, or a broad range from high femme one day to extreme butch the next. The key is that the person generally retains the same name, pronouns, voice and gestures regardless of what they’re wearing.
The people I know who adopt nonbinary approaches tell me that there’s a lot of stress involved there as well. They meet a lot of people who have trouble with unfamiliar pronouns or relatively new uses of pronouns. It is common in our society to compliment people by pointing out how well they fit in one gender or another. Some people feel very threatened if they can’t classify a person by gender, just as some feel threatened by people who change gender presentations.
Even with that stress, a single nonbinary identity is probably a lot less stressful and more sustainable than investing a lot of time and energy in two separate identities. I’m glad it works for some people, but it doesn’t fit well with my particular mix of feelings. My desire is not to be a feminine man, but to be a feminine woman.
My solution is to invest most of my time and energy in my masculine identity, while allowing myself to be as feminine as I feel in that identity, and to devote just enough time and energy to my feminine identity to keep myself from feeling resentful and rebelling. So far it seems to be working for me.
As far as I can tell, this is also what other non-transitioning feminine-spectrum trans people have done, like RuPaul and Eddie Izzard. I’ll talk about the implications of that in a future post.