The Privacy of the Soul

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

In Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Josh Atwater (TD ’24) examines how his left-wing convictions are at odds with American liberalism.

For my entire childhood, I never “felt like a boy”—I didn’t like sports, my closest friends were female, and most of my toys were from the girls’ section of the store. But I knew that I certainly wasn’t a girl, either. So, at age thirteen, when I encountered a Tumblr post containing a detailed catalog of non-binary gender identities, I was intrigued. After a few minutes’ contemplation, I settled on the label of genderfluid, which offered me the freedom to indulge and project my feelings as they changed day by day. This phase lasted for all of one week.

Gender—that nebulous synthesis of an individual’s unique interests, inclinations, and physical characteristics—has long been a prescribed identity. For those who don’t feel comfortable with either binary gender, non-binary labels offer a more expansive array of categories with which to identify. A more precise gender label can feel empowering, like finally knowing oneself on a more intimate level and feeling confident enough to share that inner experience with the world. As non-binary gender identity and the discourse surrounding it become more mainstream, there is growing pressure to find the gender that you most “identify” with. Women should feel feminine, men should feel masculine, and people who feel aspects of both (or neither) can identify as non-binary. In the time since I found that Tumblr post, the categories have only multiplied.

Looking back, I know that genderfluidity appealed to me at thirteen because I was convinced that my gender had to be “just right,” that I had to articulate my gender identity with the most accurate label possible. I thought that by identifying as non-binary, I had finally found the right terms to describe the ways I had always felt at odds with traditional notions of boyhood. But finding a new way to describe myself didn’t resolve my discomfort, because it didn’t address the underlying reasons why I didn’t feel like a boy.

At that age, I had just come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t straight. I was uncomfortable in my body, anxious that I didn’t look like other boys in ways that I couldn’t control. I saw other boys becoming more masculine, growing more athletic, and displaying a newfound interest in girls. None of these differences meant that I was less of a boy. Rather, my fixation on my supposedly “lacking” masculinity was fueled by my misconception that my gender label was supposed to be a meaningful descriptor of my personality, my appearance, my selfhood—a mindset that the use of increasingly precise and abstruse labels deepens rather than deconstructs.

The reality is that the average person is not consciously aware of theirhis gender all of the time, or even regularly. It is perfectly normal for a man not to “feel like a man” every waking moment. The assertion that possessing traditionally “feminine” traits aligns a man more closely with a non-binary gender only serves to uphold antiquated gender roles. It is now widely accepted in our culture that gender is a construct. Further scaffolding this taxonomy of traits into countless levels of abstraction merely creates more expansive gender norms, when the truest liberation would be to eliminate prescriptive notions of gender altogether. 

I identify as a man not because I “feel like a man” all the time, but rather to challenge the notion that “being a man” means anything at all. Since accepting that gender labels are an insufficient means of describing who I am, I’ve found a new confidence in my experience of gender, one that is unencumbered by expectations of what any gender “can” or “should” do. And, though I exhibit a wide variety of “gendered” traits, I prefer to keep my own gender—that sum of all the facets of my inner life—to myself. Knowing that my gender is truly mine has freed me from the insecure impulse to constantly articulate my identity to others in search of validation. 

I, like many others, often feel the impulse to define my own individuality. It’s alluring to try on alternative labels, to find new language to describe one’s feelings. But regardless of how intimately I come to know myself, I’ve found that asking others to understand me on my own intricate terms is an unreasonable expectation. Because every individual experiences life in an equally unique fashion, categorizing and projecting our Unique Experiences in the form of gender is not subversive. Only by dismantling the validity of these labels altogether can we alleviate the crushing expectations of gender norms.

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