When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I promised myself that in order to remain a vital, full participant in life, I would never get stuck in my ways as I perceived the grown-ups in my life did. I promised I would always be current with new culture, which to me at that time meant fashion, music and slang. Like most of us, I couldn’t have imagined the coming changes in our lives and the greater world — that not being outdated and frumpy would mean so much more than wearing what the kids do, but is now about being open to understanding new ideas expressed in new language.
Many of our new words have to do with identity and many of those have to do with gender. There is cis-gender, gender neutral, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, gender fluid and one that is new to me: non-binary. During my 23-year hairdressing career, I was lucky to have several gender non-conforming clients who taught me about authenticity and self-acceptance. When I first met each of them in the early 1990s, they didn’t have accurate words to describe their gender identity. I also learned that gender identity and sexual orientation are two completely different things. The biological male who wanted to become a woman preferred women and so did the mustached, biological female who identified as a man.
Gender is much more than appearance, but if how we look accurately reflects our inward identity to others, it becomes an affirming loop of expression-reaction that makes us feel at home in our own skin. Whenever I cut my hair extremely short, I feel more energized, as if long hair is a girly lampshade that dims my light.
When Gender Is Non-Binary
I never thought about my own gender identity until recently when I found myself completely enchanted with the character Taylor on Showtime’s Billions. The first non-binary character on a major TV series, Taylor explains the pronouns: “When referring to me, use ‘they,’ ‘their’ and ‘them’.” The ambiguity of gender is dealt with by the precision of the new language.
Taylor is brilliant, analytical and has a strong desire to understand other people and to forge meaningful connections. There’s something gorgeous, otherworldly and vulnerable about Taylor, with a perfectly rounded shaved head and clear blue eyes that convey a sense of deep knowing. Taylor has an appealing lack of cynicism, refreshing in the cutthroat world of a big hedge fund. They are charming in their nerdy powerfulness. I’m fascinated.
My little crush on Taylor is unusual. I’m a 61-year-old Jewish woman with a shoulder-length bob living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I consider myself straight and I’m happily married, with a 24-year-old son. But I’m curious, so I look up Asia Kate Dillon, the actor who plays Taylor. From their Twitter I learn that their assigned sex is female, their gender identity is non-binary. I didn’t really know what that meant.
It means both. I think but of course! This isn’t something new and exotic. We all have both male and female aspects to our identity. The difference is that now the duality has an accurate, non-judgmental name. The pronouns that sound awkwardly plural to older ears now make sense. There are two genders unified in one person. In my opinion, this gender unity is beautiful because it most accurately reflects our true selves. I’m pretty sure our soul consciousness isn’t one-gendered.
Gender Fluidity Is a Gift
I wish we’d had this inclusive identity descriptor when I was growing up. Maybe I would have had the courage to express both sides of me more.
When I was 5, my father said my short hair made me look like a boy. I felt free because I was strong like a boy, yet devastated that I wasn’t pretty. I adored Peter Pan, but knew he was played by Mary Martin, a woman. Who did I want to be — the boy or the woman?
When I went through puberty, I didn’t understand why I was no longer included in the raucous blitzkrieg of what had been our annual neighborhood crabapple fight. Instead, my boy buddies looked at me funny as if they didn’t know me anymore. It was painful and confusing.
Around the same time though, I discovered my love of hair and makeup, what was considered then a female-only passion. Now, people of all gender identities are playing with eyeliner, hair colors and nail polish.
Recently, I was visiting a good friend in her 70s, a large, earthy, grandmother. She surprised me by announcing she thought she was gender fluid. She preferred men sexually but also, she confided, felt like she was one. She was often mistaken for a man and liked it. Then I told her about my own non-binary inclination. We were two older adults having a new conversation.
Gender is more fluid for us boomers thanks to the courage of younger generations. By living their identity, they have given us the language, the safety and most of all, the freedom to know ourselves better.
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