I like the word liminality. It’s a bit obscure, but really useful in certain contexts. Originally in reference to rituals observed by anthropologists, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage […] when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete”. To be liminal positions you on the border of the definition of something, or on both sides. There is an uneasiness and a complexity to defining where liminal things sit, without a sense of ‘hm, yes, but…’.
It might be pretty easy for some people to see how this relates to sexuality and gender. In the familiar cultural process of coming out, be that as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, or anything else, there can be a period in which you’ve at least vaguely got to grips with accepting a label, but you haven’t told anyone. Maybe you don’t want to. Maybe it’s too scary, or dangerous, or complicated. So say if, like me, you came out as a gay guy. you feel that that’s what you are, so you don’t identify with ‘straight’ any more. But no-one else knows this, and if asked ‘are you gay’? there would definitely have been contexts where I would’ve said no. I was transitioning, getting to grips with things. My visibility as gay (and I’m not referring to my style of dress or other aspects of presentation) was nil. I wasn’t even out and proud in some contexts whilst not in others, so the identity label as gay didn’t hold any public significance to me at all. Because of my personal, internal processing of myself I didn’t fit as straight, but I wasn’t yet ready to take on a ‘gay identity’, and wasn’t ‘positionable’ as such by anyone. I was liminal.
Some might argue that regardless of my self-awareness or comfort, I was always gay. I don’t think this is the case. There would’ve been times that I would’ve been very distressed or disturbed if someone had tried to convince me of this. Of course this is a product of heterosexist cultural factors, which make camp, queer, or variant children prime targets not only for bullies but for social disciplining of adults and society alike (“boys don’t cry”, “only girls wear pink!”). Also to think about labels pragmatically, in the case of sexuality and gender, it can really foul things up when you try and force an essentialist definition of labels – that is, “if you do X, you are Y, end of story” – rather than considering how and why people label themselves the way they do.
Regarding gender, things can be more complicated, and non-binary people experience particular challenges. Because gender is socialised as very much ‘one or the other’, there is no way to obviously present as non-binary. Plus, there is no ‘one way to be’ non-binary either. Not that there is one way to be male or female, but because of how things are culturally coded, if pushed people can say ‘they have a masculine walk’, ‘that top is quite girly’, and conglomerate these things into an overall picture. People don’t even have to think consciously about it – made especially easy by the majority of people ‘doing’ their gender in ways that plonk them obviously into the categories of male or female.
Queer scenes and spaces can mean that clothing and style choices especially can take on new significances, due to the knowledge and understanding people in these spaces tend to have, which means they read people in different ways. There are lots of different ways to have a ‘queer uniform’, but when you’re familiar with such spaces you might recognise dapper, AFAB individuals (or people you assume to be or read as AFAB) in jackets with bow ties, undercut hair dyed all kinds of colours. AMAB (again, assumed) people wearing makeup with an alternative style – who may not ‘appear’ to be gay men, but also not making it obvious that you should assume they are a trans woman and that you should use feminine pronouns. This highlights an important point that isn’t the one I’ve set out to make – that it’s dangerous to make assumptions about people’s genders (and therefore pronouns) and that presentation doesn’t necessarily tell you anything, especially in queer spaces.
The reason why I needed to set all that up in order to get to some personal reflection is this – I don’t really identify as gay anymore (gender, I’ll come back to). This is partly a conscious, social decision in that I don’t strongly identify with a movement that has become predominantly cisgender, white, middle class, and increasingly apolitical or, unrecognising of its comparative privileges. Racism, sexism, transphobia, body shaming, and homonormativity are all common enough for me to find alienating. Secondly, my queer relationships have made me critically engage more. I can be attracted to and engage romantically and sexually with trans men, trans women, binary and non-binary people. Does any of this mean I can’t identify as gay? No, absolutely not (or you’d be back to not only ‘if you do X you are Y’ but also ‘if you do X you CAN’T be Y’ which is shitty and breaks down very easily). But I feel much more of a resonance with the label ‘queer’. It’s a word that doesn’t pin a person down. It leaves ambiguity, in a way that I find to be confident, defiant, and mischievous. It also doesn’t require me to have a clear cut understanding of my sexuality. I’ve thought about it to the point of exhaustion and came out now so long ago that I’ve in some ways stopped caring. The bottom line is that I’m not straight and things are a bit wibbly-wobbly-sexy-wexy.
With gender (more complicated!) I’m more cautious. I will readily accept the descriptor of cisgender – I was assigned male at birth, I present as such and I don’t experience gender dysphoria. But my relationship with my gender isn’t entirely straightforward, as I’ve never liked the word ‘man’ or being identified with it, though not to the preference of being positioned into another category. The best way I can articulate it is that I don’t think I ‘feel’ gender very strongly. I don’t feel like I strongly identify with masculinity or femininity – much of the time. Sometimes I lean one way or another – or another, in that I might put on a shirt to ‘play up’ masculinity a bit because I know my partner likes it, I can enjoy expressing myself through drag (in a way that is more important and personal than simply ‘fun dressing up’), or I might feel like expressing myself in ways that aren’t so readily within the binary – for instance wearing foundation, mascara, and a red lipstick with my otherwise typical jeans and jacket, which I have only had then inclination and bravery to do publicly once. With pronouns I don’t have strong feelings about ‘he/him/his’ (perhaps paradoxically?) but I will also happily embrace singular they.
My muted experience of gender doesn’t feel like a nullness – I don’t feel that I am agender or neutrois. Could I be some flavour of demigender – perhaps demi-agender or demifluid? I’m not sure. However, I am unwilling to position myself as not cis. This is in part due to the fact that I possess cis privilege. Even were I not to simply situate myself as a guy (I really detest referring to myself as a man enough that I don’t even want to write it!), I don’t experience fears and oppressions as a result – it’s entirely something internal (well, until I wrote this) and I wouldn’t want to appropriate or co-opt the personal and political struggles of transgender people. Maybe it’s that I don’t feel I’m ‘non-binary enough’ to dare to use another label. It’s also important that given the nature of my scholastic engagements that I wouldn’t be read by trans people as ‘strategically identifying’ in order to gain access to spaces or conversations, which would be disgustingly underhanded. There are also discourses of people being accused of identifying in particular ways out of an adolescent desire to be a ‘special snowflake’. This has been a very poisonous attack on non-binary people. However, when levied against particular otherkin community members – such as to internet subculture fame, the person supposedly identifying as a dragon who was upset about not being able to eat their mother’s diamonds – it may be seen as a reasonable criticism of younger people detracting from the legitimacy of transgender people’s struggles.
I am lucky. I’m not shying away from a non-binary identity for fear of violence, or rejection, or even because of how difficult it would be to explain something to people I don’t really understand myself. I don’t identify as other than cisgender because I worry about what that would mean politically, and I’m not certain that I’m not. Ultimately what I am pretty sure about is that I’m queer, and occupy a blurry, uncertain borderlands regarding my identity. I still am liminal, in a new way to before. There can be a great deal of pressure for people to ‘know’ who/what they are. However there is no objective, absolute knowledge of the self! More important is well-being and happiness, which are my priority in preserving even as my life-long journey of self-exploration continues.