Beyond the Binary
© Copyright 2018 by Sapphire Cianfriglia
In a world that strives to make everything black and white, for dichotomies, anything that stands outside the norm is often the subject of ridicule. Or, in this case, anyone.
My name is Sapphire. I want to talk to you about how I break free from conventions and conformity. By simply existing as myself, I am considered by some to be heroic, others to be offensive, but I am simply me. I am non-binary and I am aspec. What do these mean? What is being them like? How does living as them make me revolutionary?
Firstly, I am non-binary. For the uninitiated, this means that I am neither male nor female. It is considered by some—and by myself—to be a subset of transgender. I do, in fact, identify as transneutral. I am agender. I have never felt a connection to any gender, whether that be the typical male or female or anything else outside of it. I simply exist as a human being.
It’s really self-explanatory, but for a lot of people, it’s a very difficult concept to grasp. I don’t go by the pronouns “she” or “her” even though by all accounts and expectations, I look like a woman. I enjoy pursuits and activities that some would consider to be feminine in nature. I never wore makeup until I clarified my gender, simply because I felt it nonsensical and contradicting to be genderless of thought while showing interest in such things. However, when I realized that makeup was not, in fact, inherently gendered, I jumped right into it. As I write this, I am wearing a nightgown that is knee-length, pink, and with a floral print; I call it my “dress.” My toenails are painted green. Do I sound female? Well, too bad, I’m not.
I was assigned female at birth. To most people, whatever the doctor determined we were with a glance at our privates was purely accurate. What I was to find out only later, after I had spent more than a quarter of a century on Earth, was that I didn't even have what could properly be called “female parts.” The condition is known as congenital agenesis of the vagina, and it is very rare. To my gynecologist, it was apparently a sight to behold. It was first presumed that I had an excess of hymen, which could be easily corrected with surgery. But then, while under the knife, it was discovered that I was unique and strange. Basically, God or whatever creator deity made me must have been drunk the day they designed my genitals. Nothing down there was as it should be. It was determined that I could never participate in penetrative sex, nor could I have a child by natural means. For me, the next logical step was a hysterectomy. I had endured horrible pain for many years by that point. I went back to the same doctor, and she did yet another surgery, and woke up to find yet another surprise. Endometriosis, she said. Quite severe, actually. Had to take an ovary. So for anyone who tries to tell me I’m a woman in denial, I would ask them, “What are your definitions of a woman?” For those who try to call transgender women men pretending to be women, I like to show up in said conversations as a walking, talking conundrum.
And so the conversation goes:
“I’m not a woman, I’m agender.”
“No, you’re a woman. Anyone who has a vagina and a uterus is a woman.”
“I don’t have either of those.”
“Well, you’re still biologically female.”
That’s the kicker, isn’t it?
Not knowing of the concept of cissexism, which posits that body parts are necessarily gendered, people told me I was a girl and I just went along with it. But indeed, I never felt like one. Getting to that age, I was highly involved in social justice circles on Twitter. I had a lot of online acquaintances, some of which have evolved into very close friends, who were transgender. I was very uncomfortable with being read as male, as my short haircut often made people mistake me for a man in photographs. For some reason, I just felt harmonious with short hair and with clothing that obscured by breasts. I liked thinking that they weren’t even there. This, I’ve come to find out, is gender dysphoria, the idea that I feel wrong in the body I am in because I wish I were another gender. And, according to the parlance of trans people, I was an “egg”—I was trans myself and just hadn’t “hatched” yet.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, they say. I can now look back on my life and find a multitude of situations and moments in which I should have known this was coming. As recently as seven years ago, I wrote in a college paper that I had never felt like a woman. Somehow, the professor, a social worker who had experience working with a variety of different types of people, and someone who had grown to know me quite well, did not question this statement. I wish she had done so. I wish someone much earlier than that had asked me why I rejected my assigned gender so thoroughly. I was always told that I did not act like other girls. I even had a romantic partner say that he had never met another girl like me. From adolescence onward, I would hear some variation of this repeatedly.
Now there are some of you out there who may be saying, “Oh, this person just doesn’t like women and so has internalized that to reject herself.” For one, I am very reticent to listen to the opinions of those who invalidate me. For another, I have come to terms with my internalized misogyny, and have taken steps to rectify it. I know that a thing exists called femmephobia, or the idea that conventionally female traits are undesirable. But I must tell you, I didn’t reject girl toys as a child because I disliked being myself, but because I disliked the toys. I did not have the desire to act out motherhood, even though I felt highly maternal to my cat. I wanted to be a part of the universe of Star Wars, or Marvel comic heroes, or Jurassic Park. With a choice between recess with the girls or with the boys, I chose the boys. They would let me chase them around as a velociraptor, and the girls would never let me pick up spiders like they would. All was well and cool with that for a while, but once we were pre-pubescent, I began to be seen as someone going against the grain. I never admitted to having crushes on anyone. I did, in fact, have crushes on a few of my classmates, but on girls, not on boys. Aside from that, I was still rebelling against femininity. How could anyone invite me to a sleepover if I didn’t like painting my nails or talking about boys?
Middle school for me was a constant barrage of pushback against my individuality. My friends were mainly male. One drew Dragon Ball Z cartoons for me. With others, I enjoyed sitting and watching them play Magic the Gathering or discuss the tomes of Tolkien. I had a particularly nasty bully insist that I had a mustache. I wasn’t yet shaving my legs, either, which made me the butt of jokes on the school bus. I was very attracted to a young woman in my group of friends who was tall, thin, and had brown eyes and brown hair. In high school, I sometimes dared to make short glances at her in the locker room as we all changed. I didn’t like it at all when she would cut down her looks, because to me, braces or no braces, she was perfection.
So through middle school, and later, high school, I knew two things about myself: I did not feel female in any shape or form, and I was attracted to girls. I started to wonder if I was a man and needed to start taking hormones.
My first exposure to transgender people was on morning television shows. I recalled a person sitting behind a screen to obscure their face, crying. They were saying that they were so desperate to be rid of their penis that they had tried cutting it off with razor blades. My parents had insisted I turn this off, but I was captivated. Even at such a tender age, I think some of me could relate to that poor soul. I also remember seeing a transgender woman while out shopping with my mom, and asking her if the person was a flamboyant gay man. She told me no and said that they were a man dressed like a woman. I believe she used the term “transvestite.” Thankfully she’s learned a lot more since then.
On bus rides home at night in high school, as I neared the end of its four-year term, I would sit and wonder about myself. Once, when upset over unrequited affections, I told my best friend that I would either die alone or “become a lesbian.” Naive as I was back then that one could not “become” anything. Like many people, I endured a homophobic school environment, directed my way because I liked a certain singer. I was made to think that being gay was bad, so I defended him as being straight, protective as I was over him and his career. Health classes discussed safe sex, but I had never had the courage to ask what went into sex with a woman. Again, my thoughts bounced back and forth: how can you like men and women both? How can you feel you’re not a woman, but don’t want to be a man? Confusion about my identity followed me as I embarked off to college later that summer.
Around the time I was beginning college, Cher’s child was beginning to transition, no longer “Chastity” but “Chaz.” So I knew of what is sometimes referred to as “MTFs,” or transgender women, and “FTMs,” which are transgender men. It had been international news when a transgender man had decided to keep his uterus and have a child. Such a neophyte, I thought that someday that might be me. It nagged at me constantly, and classmates noticed, in a sense. I always wore my hair up in a ponytail; my reasons for it was because I didn’t want it getting in the way. I wore clothes that obscured my figure. My friends, who were a much wilder bunch than me, took me to the school’s drag show and had me give the performers tips. A drag-king (a female performer impersonating a man) bent down and took a dollar from my mouth with his mouth. I still remember it vividly. I lay on my back on the stage, clutching the bill in my teeth. While lip-synching, the performer knelt down and took it into his teeth. Our lips missed each other by millimeters. I raved about the experience to said friends for days. They joked that it must have made me pretty hot, and it had, indeed. So was I a man?
I fell in love with a man in 2008. He wasn’t a student there, he had just been in the neighborhood. I was nineteen and he was twenty-eight. The first time we tried making love, it hurt. The second time we tried, he was much gentler. He couldn’t go inside of me, so we kept things external and still enjoyed ourselves immensely. I was desperately in love and in lust with him after only a short period of time. We had been dating for six months when we both met a new mutual friend. I did not feel as romantically attracted to him, but in a physical sense, he pushed all my right buttons. Sometimes, when we were alone, he would mention that the feeling was mutual. Having extremely rigid morals, I had no desire to be unfaithful to my partner, let alone with his new best friend. Yet, in 2011, that is exactly what we both did. By that point, he was considering leaving a troubled marriage, but he was still technically married to that woman. I did not want to be romantically attached to him, I just wanted this, needed this. Not long after that forbidden tryst, he left his wife, and started dating a new woman. I was left emotionally devastated, angry at him for using me and angry at myself for being so “easy.” It took many years before I could forgive myself for it.
In 2015, fresh out of graduate school—I got my master’s in social work—I was trying to find work while building up a brand online. I had recently clarified my gender and had come out with it to the world. I am Sapphire, I am agender, please call me “they/them”! It felt so liberating. I had gone many years thinking that I was cisgender (i.e. my gender and body are not in conflict) and pansexual, finding myself attracted to men, women, and non-binary people. It had left me feeling complete. My inner confusion still nagged at me. Now I had finally and completely figured myself out.
Well, apparently not. I enjoyed sex despite my limitations, but with a romantic partner, I would lust after them wildly for a while, only to have such feelings fizzle out. I would also sometimes have the fear that I was falling out of love with them. The anxiety over these must have been palpable, as anyone who I was with would often reassure me that no one feels the way they do for someone all the time. Yes, but this was different: I would literally lose my attraction for someone. I still had desire, and sometimes, even if tired, I would let a partner stimulate me. But sometimes, I preferred to read erotica, not injecting myself into the story but simply becoming aroused by the content. I could do the same with visual pornography as well. Sometimes, even my desire would go away and I would find the entire concept of sex absurd. This could just as easily happen with ventures of the heart. Occasionally, I could not even watch reality television shows with couples kissing without it seeming altogether pointless, even vile.
What did any of this mean?
Like with discovering that genders existed outside of male and female, again I was hit with profound belief to learn that asexuality was a thing. My asexuality wasn’t constant, but that meant that I was on the asexual spectrum. A matter to some of hot debate, there is not simply pure asexual and nothing else, but different “shades” of it. Some people are “gray,” meaning only experience physical attraction to others once in a great while. Well, I experienced physical attraction quite often, but it could go away, or I could delete myself from the picture and still be content. There are a multitude of labels and identities that entail these types of experiences, and the list grows ever longer all the time. Aegosexual (aka autochorissexual) explained away my detachment. Ceasesexual explained my attraction’s comings and goings. There was even a word for feeling different types of attraction to different types of people. If I felt more physically and aesthetically attracted to women and non-binaries, but more romantically and sensually attracted to men, I was parosexual. Eventually, I would feel brave enough to coin my own term for my experiences. Being chronically ill and often feeling tired, and with muscular disabilities that sometimes made me have muscle cramps, my health affected my need to seek out companionship. That is why I created wolandsexual, in which someone’s “spoons” (level of energy) and pain prevent them from wanting sexual and/or romantic activity with another person.
As you might have guessed, I also am very ambivalent towards romance, even more so. Believe it or not, aromantic people exist. We are people who have no to little desire to fall in love, don’t often or never have crushes, and might never want relationships. I had no way of knowing so at the time, but my tryst was what could be considered queerplatonic. This might be called “friends with benefits” if sex is involved, but it’s not required. If two people love each other deeply, but not romantically, they are committed platonic partners. You can care about someone without being in love. You can hug and kiss someone without feeling butterflies. You can live with someone without sleeping in the same bed. More people should be aware of what it means to have a “qpr,” or queerplatonic relationship. More people should know that “alterous” feelings exist, where you’re in the middle ground between friendship and love. More people should know, overall, that being asexual, aromantic, or on the spectrum of these identities, is normal, common, and a valid thing to be.
I am aware that it is not a necessary requirement of a queer person to be an activist. However, after I made this journey of self-discovery, I wanted other people to be able to have their own. Most people go through life having never heard of concepts like being asexual, aromantic, or non-binary. Even when one attends a workshop on LGBTQ issues, sometimes the moderator leaves these off. It’s enough to try and explain transgender people to the masses, why complicate things further? And still, I worry that some of the queer community questions ace/aro identities and their legitimacy. A battle has raged for years now on whether or not these identities can truly consider themselves LGBTQ. For the most part, people are accepting. But for some, the changing, more inclusive landscape is interpreted as either ridiculous or threatening. That’s part of the reason why I opt out of being called LGBTQ and instead go for MOGAI.
This acronym (“marginalized orientations, gender alignments, and intersex”) is much more expansive and far-reaching than simply tacking letters onto the classic, more recognizable LGBT. It also eliminates the chagrin felt by many in face of the word “queer.” Some people consider it to be a slur, but these individuals, I feel, lack the nuance towards understanding our history. When the Nazi regime put pink triangles upon our sleeves to match those wearing the Star of David, we took it back. Pink triangles now feature on many a product, poster, and logo related to our community. So then why is queer different? Look no further than the trans exclusionary radical feminists, a group of women who forfeit their right to be proud of their community. It’s been known and has now been officially exposed that they will even cooperate with groups who despise any and all queer identity. Strange as it may seem to take up arms with evangelicals, these two share the common goal of erasing trans women, often violently. If one is looking for the origin of the “queer is a slur” catchphrase, please look no further: TERFs, as we call them, are opposed to acceptance, inclusion, and change. And that is why I stand in direct opposition to them.
Humanity is not something that can be encapsulated in only two boxes. We are beyond cisgender and transgender. We are beyond gay and straight. We are beyond male and female. I am living proof of this truth. If more people knew this, there would be less questioning and less inner agony. Yes, agony, because “conflict” isn’t a strong enough word to describe the feeling. In a world that tries to tell you that you don’t, or can’t, exist, daring to defy conformity, convention, the norms of society, is being revolutionary. You are an activist simply by existing. And although you must fight to be seen, to be heard, to be recognized, the fight is worth it, because showing the diversity of the human race simply by being who you are is a beautiful thing.
Sapphire Cianfriglia (or very often, Sapphire Crimson Claw) is a writer, blogger, author, and activist. They are currently working on the sequel to their original book, My Enby Epiphany, as well as a community project in their hometown. More examples of their work can be found on Medium (writing as SapphireWitch) and on Amazon.