Nonbinary Transition in Midlife: Reflections on Navigating Chaotic Waters

I became certain of my nonbinary identity a few months ago. Ever since, I’ve endured a state of unrelenting crisis in my personal life, mostly unrelated to my gender identity, which is forcing me into a “day by day” mentality of wondering what fresh hell each new sunrise will evoke. I am aging from young into middle adulthood and, despite my current state of affairs, I am doing all I can to break my internal equating of mid-life with obligation, unpredictability and financial strain.  As I do this, I believe that the unique challenges of middle age* bring with them an over-lapping but potentially unique set of needs as compared to transitioning at a younger or an older age.

As I continue my transition, these are the self-care practices and beliefs that I anticipate will continue to prove useful:

Setting My Own Pace

Most of the information I’ve accessed on nonbinary transition involves advice to go slowly. I think there is wisdom in this, especially for those who are teenagers who may have fewer social advantages (such as a job and a safe place to live) if they receive a negative response from their community. In addition, for many trans and/or nonbinary people of any age, the speed of transition is dictated not only by their own desires and confidence in their decision, but also by external factors they can’t control.

For me personally, I feel one privilege of middle adulthood is that I’ve lived nearly 40 years in my body and I know what makes me tick. Once I grasp something core about myself, I run with it and have had few regrets about drastic changes I’ve made in the past. When I know, I know. Therefore, I’ve socially transitioned very quickly. I am switching up some medications so that I can hopefully start HRT in a few months. I live in a state that offers job and housing protections in relation to gender identity. I don’t have to take direction from anyone else about how slowly, cautiously or hesitantly I “should” be moving with this change and I am extremely grateful for this reality.

Recognizing the Limits of Validation from Others

I’ve had very little success in getting others to use my chosen name, much less my pronouns, correctly. In their book Gender: Your Guide, Lee Airton mentions feeling drained rather than offended by misgendering. In general, this has been my experience as well. Being called “she” for hours straight with no or few “they’s” to break it up wears me out. I believe that I’m fighting not just blatant transphobia, but also the basic conceptualization of gender that most Americans still hold. My belief is that most people’s brains don’t have a slot for “nonbinary: they/them/theirs” the way they do for “man: he/him/his” and “woman: she/her/hers.” Educating people only goes so far if they don’t make a conscious effort to create a different way of understanding gender mentally. All this to say that I try to separate my experience of myself in terms of gender from what others make of me. I’ve had so much practice not being seen in other areas of my life that I finally know that, even if someone else can’t or chooses not to see me, I still exist and am valid.

Acknowledging that Being Nonbinary is Enough

As soon as I came into full awareness of my identity, I went through the paces of what I perceive to be the nonbinary initiation for those who were AFAB, including purchasing a binder and growing out my body hair. I’ve found, though, that I can only wear a binder in a limited capacity as the weather warms up because I become overheated and uncomfortable quickly. I’ve adjusted my wardrobe to help reduce my physical dysphoria even on days where I can’t wear it. (Side note, vests of all kinds are my go-to!).

I’ve enjoyed having my armpit hair long, but my lower legs in their full fur made me feel extremely self-conscious socially as well as overheated. (I run hot!). I finally shaved them and felt instantly better. I know I’m nonbinary; I do not have to sport every single possible trapping of “androgyny” or, as I read or heard somewhere, “being vaguely masculine” in order to prove my identity to myself or anyone else. As a person who experiences chronic pain, I value anything that reduces my dysphoria without adding to my bodily suffering. It feels very freeing to figure out techniques that allow me to express my gender in a physically comfortable way that also matches my internal experience of myself.

Finding My Mooring(s)

Prior to fully accepting my identity as a nonbinary person, I devoted a lot of my energy to women-centered spaces. My transition has not yet progressed physically to the point where those spaces are inaccessible to me, but my internal makeup has caused some of them to feel potentially inappropriate and/or unwelcoming (there was always an internal tension in me in these places, now I know its origin). I’ve found it helpful to be direct in asking about whether or not someone like me “fits in” with the mission and purpose of the group as well as to evaluate both the group’s stance on issues such as trans rights and their work to be inclusionary in their activities and language.

There have also been shifts in my personal relationships, although I believe most people who know me IRL still see me as a woman and default me into that category in their head, rather than experiencing the discomfort of how to interact with someone who fits into a category which they may not have previously encountered. Based on their sexual orientation, some people have rules around who they feel comfortable spending time with alone (I don’t have the fortitude to process this here) and I find myself curious about how their rules apply to people in a gender to whom they may or may not be attracted, were they to acknowledge its existence.

To the extent that neither men’s or women’s spaces feel 100% right to me, where do I belong? As an asexual panromantic person, mixed gender groups have brought their own set of problems related to boundaries as those working from cishet norms assume I’m obviously there to find a man to date. I am excited for Pride month and will be attending at least one event that has the potential to bring like-minded people into my life. I am spending as much time as I can in queer spaces online. Finally, I am considering ways I can create my own spaces, even in a simple form on this blog, to welcome others with whom I might be sharing a nonbinary journey.  

In reflecting on my experiences as an openly nonbinary person thus far, I feel the shame I felt around “why didn’t I know this about myself 20 years ago” fading and a sense of gratitude seeping in instead. I’ve had a sufficient range of life experiences, both positive and negative, to know what I need, how to express myself and how to care for myself during this time of exploration and change. Plenty of teens and young adults are equally equipped to navigate these things as well as I can now, but where I was at in my teens and 20s would have created a massive crisis, had I tried to fully grapple with my gender identity at that time. I get to things as soon as I am able and ready to do so; that confidence I have in myself is allowing me to feel gender euphoria in the here and now.

*Sadly, there is a stereotype that only teens are identifying as nonbinary as a “trend.” Ash Hardell recently created an awesome video sharing the experiences of older nonbinary people.

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