A Soul Detached
An autobiographical sketch of being neither/nor.
I’ve never seen a soul detached from its gender
but I’d like to. I’d like to see my own that way
free of its female tethers. Maybe it would be like
riding a horse. The rider’s the human one,
but everyone looks at the horse.
~ Chase Twichell, ‘Horse’, collected in Neil Astley (ed.) Staying Alive
As a child in Sunday School, having recently painted wargame miniatures, I had a trace of acrylic red on my nails. The woman who ran kids’ activities gripped my arm, demanding an explanation. I had one, but felt guilty of something. After, another woman confided I should wear whatever I want. That also felt inexplicably frightening. Later, my hair long, someone delivering food took me for a woman; I was unsure how—if—to correct him. Later still, an online far-right troll speculated whether ‘it is a bisexual’ [sic] on a comment to a video I uploaded. Amusingly, this last one was perhaps the first person to correctly gender me, however disparagingly, as neither a man nor a woman.
Long-standing social anxieties have made me cautious, at some points in my life to the point of isolation, and how I define my gender was secondary to fitting in. I dodged my identity, preferring the anonymity of masquerading as generic, which I am often privileged to be granted. But as well as ignoring that these alleged generics are identities in their own right, fulfilling or not, my experiences needed to be squashed or stretched into a Procrustes bed to ‘fit’ them.
Throughout life, I reinvented my appearance, sometimes unhealthily. As a kid my ‘look’ was tempered by monomanias and the charity shop clothes I loved. I preferred one look at a time: hoodie, dungaree, cringy leather jacket. Often admiration of a friend’s style, girls and later boys, shaped obsessions, although I cannot remember adapting to a whole group. Gradually social phobias, arriving in waves, had me curate chiefly to blend-in.
During a late adolescent depression, I developed neuroses around eating and exercise. Diet was a mechanism by which I had previously exerted control, and my ability to alter the feel and look of myself was intoxicating. But then, I went to an extreme; cut meals considerably, stopped consuming many carbs, exercised over an hour a day even when ill. I felt freed not just of literal weight, but the weight of a body that was somewhat arbitrary, not ‘me’ at best, a hinderance at worst.
One of my most vivid memories (I could not have been older than six) is of sitting in a classroom (during that narrow window when I attended school) in alienated fascination with my calf fat; I never fully felt ‘at home’ in my physical self, not always in a negative sense, but rather in that it felt to me different, other. This was reinforced by experiences with a neurological chronic condition that induces (largely nonpainful but odd) symptoms of burning or numbness. To be clear, I make no philosophical separation between my ‘I’ and embodiedness, but I felt and to some extent feel one.
As a child, I was nearly diagnosed with the now defunct Asperger’s Syndrome, but withdrawn from this process for reasons with which I still agree; as someone (happily) home-educated, an autism diagnosis would have seen my family come under the paranoid scrutiny of social services, and the threat of school was also of traumas (I had been violently assaulted there, so going back was a nightmare). Still, I am probably not, to use the nomenclature, neurotypical. And I do not know how this interacts with my sense of selfhood and embodiedness.
Gender weaves through all of this. Perceptions of gender are shaped by the interaction of self and body. Being nonbinary often means desiring a space of physicality that is not well defined or catered to. It is in that ill-defined area that I find some freedom. Acknowledging to myself that I am nonbinary, for a long time only to myself, has meant a coming to terms with the ways in which I am embodied. It’s a slow process of learning to be, and I have always felt myself lagging on that journey.
Lately, however, and in that perspective, the gap between my ‘I’ and my body has shrunk, a little. I now relate to my physical self not in the detached, controlling way I did when extreme dieting, but with a new openness that recognizes that I am not addressing something separate.
Nonbinary on the Edge of Time
Rather than questions of who I am, the most sustained interest of my adult life has been utopia. The question of where I would want to be, in what social and mythic context. Indeed, writing all of the above was as difficult as I know writing this part of the essay will prove easy. Utopia, however, has brought me indirectly to questions of identity; ‘indirectly’ makes things considerably simpler.
In the utopia I found a wealth of stories about the societies we—humanity—might inhabit, and the contestations and malleability this opened up fascinated me. Relatedly, in Marxism I then found a radicalism that eclipsed just utopia; that is, in the substantive claim that all of human history had been defined by contradictions (of scarcity, of class), replete with the idea that through a revolutionary movement these could be transcended and a new, human history begun. (This is not an exhaustive definition of Marxism, but it is what pulled me to it.)
The utopias of William Morris and the later process utopias of the seventies evinced a synthesis of the radicalism of the literature I loved with a Marxism that promised something beyond the bounds of all previous human history. Such a coming together posited what the thought experiments of the early modern period could not; the idea of an imagined, better society not only alive through being fictionalized, but in its historical flux. A more Marxian utopianism. Morris, influenced by Marx, situated utopia in a period of post-revolutionary rest. And while his News from Nowhere entertains archaic views about gender (in its occasionally belittling depiction of women), Morris nonetheless makes astonishing leaps for his milieu.
Ursula K. Le Guin goes further, defamiliarizing (and denaturalizing) gender in The Left Hand of Darkness, where an ambisexual planet is deployed to critique existing gender roles. It is by no measure a perfect exploration any more than Morris’s, even if impressive; for example, Le Guin herself later acknowledged limitations in the book’s treatment of homosexuality. Still, it shows a scope of ambition that remains powerful and speaks to what human liberation could achieve if we surpassed petty bigotries.
The Dispossessed is most peoples’ favourite of Le Guin’s utopian(ish) Hainish cycle. That is, I would speculate, because it examines the subjectivity of its utopians: how they might relate to the world, how humanity could be unburdened from unnecessary reifications and much alienation. One of this book’s dominant ideas is that ‘those who build walls are their own prisoners.’ And this is uncovered throughout, but especially in an earlier part where utopian children play at imprisonment, abandoning the game in horror and bewilderment at the implications for their self-conception.
This is what drew me to utopia. As a Marxist-Humanist the core of my politics is a belief that there is a foundational human drive to freedom, but that this must be socially realised. The unfreedom of anyone in a social species is—to whatever extent—a limit to all freedom. In the Marxist reckoning, freedom is achieved socially and materially, freedom exists in real capacities in the world, not abstract allowances granted by exploiting classes to cater to a still restricted human flourishing.
Utopia also brought to me ideas about how identity cannot be reduced to single factors. Lasting, meaningful utopias are speculations in the interstice of material conditions and social relations, besides also being commentaries on the times in which they were conceived. They are commentaries that intimately explore the contours of the possible. Identity is not nature nor nurture, nor just nature and nurture, but an interplay of all that, mediated by the agency of human consciousness as it engages spiritedly, creatively in the world.
We do not wholly define ourselves, but nor do the interactive forces and processes in which we are strangely self-aware participants predefine us. And through the mastery of ourselves and the socially shared mastery of our world, we seek to expand human freedom, to stake out fresh contradictions beyond the debasing banalities of starvation, coercion and violence. How we think of ourselves is so much at issue, a perennial preoccupation of the utopia; therefore, a category such as gender, one into which we are all often sorted without much say and all to facilitate narrow, class sustaining social roles (often the social control of reproduction), cannot be sidelined.
Every utopia navigates gender. From the all-female utopias to the patriarchal ones, assumptions (good and bad) about gender have shaped the genre as surely as any ideas of political economy, religious belief, racial oppression or education. The best utopias, from the aforementioned to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, provoke a radical rethink of gender. The worst, ground themselves in reactionary fantasies, in worlds where everything aligns neatly with prescribed expectations and women especially are, with emphasis, made implausibly content in their dehumanization.
A Serious Nonbinary
As a way of categorizing people, gender is vast and vague. It haunts other parts of ourselves. The attempt to simplify gender—the assortment of roles, oppressions, and emancipatory identities all in flux with one another—is the gesture of the frightened and incurious. Something people who seek to erase nonbinary identities like to mock is the notion that there is either some specific number of genders beyond the assumed two, from three upwards, or that there are infinite genders.
It is in the vast vagueness of gender that such attacks take root. As gender is culturally mediated, its permutations are as expansive as human social relations. How we conceive identities is altered by the social relations of a time and place, and it is utopian in the most negative sense to foreclose our creative navigations (to tyrannically affix some definite number of ways of being) to all that gender comes to mean.
Being a man is as tethered to a historicised socialization as any concept of nonbinary genders; it is full of arbitrary details and expectations, some even cruel and farcical. The covering up of that sociality by the ruling ideas of class society allows many to assume that to be a man or a woman in some exact way, or to define these things by reductive and demeaning criteria, has a greater correspondence to an immutable reality than to be agender, demigendered, genderflux, etc. Incuriosity is hard to fight, because its characteristics preclude its own overcoming.
When writing a recent piece on transphobia, I sought advice on an early draft and it was rightly pointed out that I unconsciously framed cis gender identity (those whose gender aligns with what was assigned to them at birth) as different to gender identities per se, as not a gender identity. That is, I unconsciously naturalised cis genders and by implication denaturalized the gender identities of trans people. I did this despite also expressing discomfort with my own gender identity in the selfsame piece. It was a slight issue of phrasing, but it reaffirmed to me the power of received opinion over my own imagination.
My journey to realising I am nonbinary, here thinly sketched, is by no means offered as representative. It is one of many possible coming to terms with the web of tensions, repressions and controls, but also freedoms, self-understandings and joys, which the interrogation of gender opens. Binary gendered (cis or otherwise) and nonbinary peoples’ explorations illuminate one another, and there is a great deal to gain from the freeing up of society to engage with this subject, at the personal and research levels.
We are encultured as well as embodied. What would a society look like where prejudice cannot affix into oppression? What would that mean for something such as gender, that is so enmeshed in class society and its oppressions? From our vantage, the tentative, human, liberatory imaginative act of utopia offers only the merest hints. We cannot know because the processes that take us there are apparent only in potentia.
We look on those fictional better societies, those more realised but still dreamt human worlds, through a glass darkly. But look on them we must, in the spirit of Ernest Bloch’s Not-Yet-Conscious (traces of future hopes contained in the material of the past). In the same spirit, I look to my past, my relationship to gender, the curiosity I felt when conventions failed due to bullying or the breakdown of assumptions, not with a total self-understanding, but a recognition that the conventions never worked and that I am more comfortable acknowledging neither ‘man’ nor ‘woman’ fits.
Bloch also wrote at the beginning of his early contribution to theory, The Spirit of Utopia, ‘I am. We are. That is enough. Now we have to start.’ I am nonbinary, for me there is something utopian in that acknowledgment, some portion of the Not-Yet-Conscious, which is enough. Now, let’s start.
If you enjoyed my essay, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.