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An introduction to non-binary beauty

TextTom RasmussenIllustrationHatty Carman

In their first Non-Binary Beauty column, drag queen and writer Tom Rasmussen asks, “What should a non-binary person look like?”

“But you look like a dude,” has become my fourth least favourite thing to hear, after “Sorry the free bar tab’s closed”, “Have you seen Trump’s latest tweet?”, and anything that comes out of Stefano Gabbana’s mouth.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt boxed in by my male presentation: suffocated when friends casually greet me with a “hey man”; misunderstood when I overhear someone pointing to me saying “he”; unseen when I’m addressed, politely no less, as “sir” by a bank teller over the phone who I’ll eventually sing I Will Always Love You to in order to get an overdraft extension (I’ve done that twice, it’s worked once).

I’ve never really felt like a man, and thus the cementation of my gender by others has only ever served to remind me of how I’m failing at that category. This is because I’ve been non-binary all of my life -- although, it was only about a year ago that I really discovered what it felt like to name myself as such. Of course, I’d come across the nomenclature for my identity well before this, and been looking up to non-binary folk like Travis Alabanza, Alok Menon, and Victoria Sin for a while, but at the time I was still prodding around with masculinity because, in a way that feels packed with shame through the viewfinder of hindsight, I desperately wanted to find a way to make masculinity, being a man, even, work for me. I finally decided to come out as non-binary when a friend told me they were too: “We’ll do it together,” we promised.

And so now, when folks automatically assume I’m a dude, I’ll politely push back and say something like: “I’m non-binary, my pronouns are they/them/their.” A lot of people will absorb it, accept it and apologise (this is the way to do it); others will tell me how it doesn’t exist (this is the way to get blocked); and some will push back, misunderstanding it altogether.  “But you look like a bloke,” they’ll say, as I recoil into feeling like both a failure at being a guy as well as now being non-binary.

I often wonder what these people expect me to look like: should I glow like an alien from a Katy Perry video? Should I have a mound in place of my genitals, like Marilyn Manson on the Mechanical Animals album cover? Should I look like I’ve torn items of clothing from mens and womenswear and paired them in an unlikely way? Should I be wearing loads of makeup or none? A wig? A buzz cut?

Presentation’s a tricky fixture. Everyday feels like wardrobe Groundhog Day: a constant excavation through years of bad fashion choices and confused experiments desperately seeking the combination of garments that will best represent my gender, which will stop people telling me I look like a “man”. And every morning I fail.

This is commonplace for non-binary persons: working with inadequate and gendered clothes to try to work out how we’re going to present ourselves to the world, how we might best communicate our gender to those outside of ourselves through aesthetics, through the way we look, hoping that today’s combination might help us escape an experience of constant misgenderings.

People who aren’t non-binary so often misunderstand what it means to be non-binary. Almost always my gender is still defined by my aesthetic -- its relation to maleness or femaleness. If I wear a skirt I’m a man in a skirt, if I wear a t-shirt I’m a man in a t-shirt.

But the very point of non-binaryism is to exist outside of a gender binary. For me, and many people who identify as non-binary, throwing out these strict definitions has allowed us to explore so much more beyond the boredom that comes with a gender binary and the dull behaviours and aesthetic expectations it demands of us.

"We might be the person with buzzcut and the nail varnish, the person in the suit, the person next to them in a dress, the person in the running gear or dancing naked at your last house party" -- Tom Rasmussen

Some of us look like “men” in t-shirts, some of us in fact do look like iconic aliens ready to float through a Katy Perry video. When I stop thinking about how people might see me, and start thinking about myself and the other non-binary folks I know, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m neither male nor female. There’s no doubt that I’m non-binary, even if I often look like a “man” in a t-shirt to some people.

So what should a non-binary person look like? It’s the easiest question to answer: like us. Not an amalgam of every gendered signifier cross-pollinated to create an abstract piece of fashion performance (although this sounds genius, and writing it I wish I looked like this). We look like everyone: we might be the person with buzzcut and the nail varnish, the person in the suit, the person next to them in a dress, the person in the running gear, or dancing naked at your last house party. We are everywhere, we’ve been here forever even if the words we’ve used to describe ourselves have changed. We look like anything we want.

While the aim of this column isn’t to prioritise the needs of cis folk, here are a few key pointers to perhaps help them out and so minimise the amount of intrusive questions we non-binary folk are often asked due to ignorance.

Non-binary how to

They/them/their is the most common pronoun used among non-binary people.
However there are also countless other words and pronouns used. Don’t question someone’s definition, just accept it and try to get it right.

Non-binary people identify as such to escape the gender binary.
We are often seen in relation to binary cis-gender people, but we exist outside that category in our own right, not in relation to it.

Don’t conflate or compare every non-binary gender with medical transition.
There are endless ways to transition, there’s no need to take hormones or undergo surgery to be validly non-binary or trans. If this is something you need, then that is of course equally valid. Gender is an individual experience, not a mass category.

Gender is often contextual, it changes for everyone.
My gender changes a thousand times over the course of a day. There are endless genders.

We’re learning too
We're experimenting with our presentation until we learn what’s right for us.

Non-binary genders aren’t a millennial fad
We have existed for centuries. Think of the Hijras of India, the Two-Spirits of indigenous Americans, the Waria of Indonesia, the Māhū of Hawaii, the Muxes of Juchitán, Mexico. We didn’t invent non-binaryism, and the West have only erased a multitude of genders and reinforced binaryism during, and since, colonial rule.

We all present ourselves differently.
But that doesn’t make our identity any less valid.

We aren’t just words or online ideas
We are human and very, very real.

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