Gender Presentation beyond the binary: Reflecting on Society and Self


Emily Sun, Staff Writer

“It all started in eighth grade,” Dylan Acharjee (12) said. They always wore their hair down to their lower back until one day, they decided on a whim to tuck it under a hat so it looked like they had short hair.

All the signs of their identity as a transgender person, from when they said “I wish I was a boy” in fifth grade recess, to when they wanted a flat chest like the boys from their swim unit, clicked into place. “I was like, ‘hang on, I kind of like being seen as this more masculine version of myself,’” they said.

Acharjee is a nonbinary transgender man, which means their gender falls between male and nonbinary, they said. For both transgender people — those whose gender does not align with the gender they were assigned at birth — and cisgender people, gender norms shape how they choose to present themselves through their appearances, styles, behaviors, and mannerisms.

Gendered expectations set the terms around which styles are open to who and how much effort is socially acceptable. “As a woman, there’s a lot more societal pressure for me to look good all the time, even if I’m just going to school,” Lian Ayedemir (12) said. Ever since she was 12, she planned her outfits the night before and woke up early to do her makeup. The pressure was especially apparent in junior year, when she caught herself worrying about what to wear even after she stayed up until 3 a.m. for schoolwork. 

Ayedemir stopped dressing for others after that realization, she said. Instead, she wears the skirts, lace dresses, cardigans, and jewelry that she likes, she said. “I always keep in mind, ‘am I putting so much effort into how I look just because I like it, or do I subconsciously want external validation, especially male validation?’”

The male gaze describes the pressure to retain social value from men by being pretty, smart (but not too smart), and timid, Tomoko Hida (12) said. “Despite my will to pursue the feminist agenda in all parts of my life, I still fall victim to pining after male validation.”

Hida noticed how she catered her appearance and actions to how men or people of higher status might perceive her because she worried that they might lose respect for her otherwise, she said. “I often make myself very small when I am wearing more feminine clothes, and I don’t want to take up as much space as because I feel like I’m showing myself off.”

That internalized anxiety shaped her behavior in classes when she was younger, Hida said. Even if teachers did not expect her to, she felt the need to seem subordinate for a better grade. “I used to think that I had to form my responses in such a way that they were less confident,” she said. “I would preface with, ‘I’m not sure’ or ‘I think it’s a stupid idea.’”

Recently, Hida feels more comfortable in masculine styles such as loose sweatpants and sweatshirts that cover her physique, rather than form-fitting, feminine items that show her body. “It doesn’t make me think so much about whether my stomach’s out, if I have a muffin top, or if my waist is being sucked in constantly because my waistband is two sizes smaller than it should be,” she said. 

Cisgender men also have to defy societal norms for authenticity, Joaquin Ramirez Villarreal (12) said. He has grown more comfortable with his self-expression, but expectations for how men should dress still limit his choices. “I don’t think I’m as adventurous as I could be — I think it’s really cool when guys go out and wear crop tops and stuff, and I haven’t been able to get to that stage,” he said. “An implicit bias of mine is worrying that I’m going to go too far with an outfit, or that I’m going to make myself the object of ridicule because I’ve been too liberal with my expression.”

Gendered norms for men have made Matthew Aponte (12) second-guess choices over his appearance, like painting his nails or wearing pink clothing, he said. 

Even when societal standards are not overt, they still have a subconscious effect by steering people towards certain styles depending on their gender, Avi Rao (11) said. His usual outfit is a long-sleeved shirt and tan corduroy pants, with a dash of pink on his shoes. “I don’t try to look traditionally masculine or conventionally feminine, and I don’t think gender really plays into what I choose,” he said. “If I wanted to wear more conventionally feminine clothes, I totally could, but I personally just have a preference.”

Cultural signifiers set masculine presentation as the default, math teacher Benjamin Kafoglis said. For example, the signage on bathrooms shows men as the standard, while women are identified by the add-on dress. Rather than a set of identifiable qualities, masculinity is sometimes defined as the absence of femininity, he said.

Kafoglis’ style leans masculine — long pants, collared shirt, short hair — though he has considered deviating from the norm and tried painting his nails, for example. He found that he feels more comfortable presenting in traditionally masculine ways, he said. “It feels good to know that this is an active choice, not something I’ve just fallen into because it’s the male thing.”

Gender presentation intersects with sexuality, as certain signifiers incorrectly connote homosexuality, especially for men. Aponte worries that others might mislabel his sexuality based on stereotypes that gay people are involved in theater and “flamboyant,” since the tone of his voice fluctuates as he talks and he punctuates his speech with hand gestures — mannerisms that deviate from the expectation for heterosexual men to be monotone and stoic, he said. “It’s as if people are talking about you behind your back, but I don’t know what they are saying,” he said. “That’s where the anxiety comes from — not knowing how people will react.”

Joan*, who is anonymous because she does not want to out herself as queer, said that the more authentic version of herself is a mix between feminine and masculine qualities — she wears crewnecks and her dad’s sweaters, as well as tight-fitting crop tops. 

However, social representations of women’s beauty through the eyes of men pushes Joan towards a strictly feminine appearance and demeanor when she talks to men she is romantically interested in, she said. She is more comfortable with a fluid gender expression when she is with women or nonbinary people. “I’ve been trying to be more authentic, no matter who I’m talking to, but it’s still a work in progress,” she said.

As diverse as gender presentation is between cis and trans folks collectively, there is as much diversity again within trans communities. “Cis people have the privilege of not actively fighting against societal expectations to present as their gender identity,” computer science teacher Avery Feingold said. “I, as a nonbinary person, have a sort of relative privilege compared to binary trans folks where I feel comfortable being perceived in a variety of ways, rather than having a particular identity that I want to strive for.”

The unease that arises from an incongruence between one’s socially perceived gender and their true identity is termed gender dysphoria, Trish Tran (11) said. They are nonbinary and experience dysphoria when others group them with women, they said. “It’s a discomfort and agitation, but on a deeper level, it’s feeling like I’m not being respected.”

Robin*, who uses she/they pronouns and is anonymous because they are not publically out, also experiences dysphoria when people categorize them solely as female, they said. Her discomfort stemmed from the hyper-femininity associated with their larger chest, which her mom and friends had commented on ever since they were younger. “I’ve always been uncomfortable with my body, but only recently did I really realize that it’s not just uncomfortable in my body, it’s also uncomfortable in comparison to what I want to project,” they said. “I don’t want to be feminine all the time.”

While many nonbinary people assigned female at birth present as androgynous — between masculine and feminine — or masculine, some lean into their feminity, which creates another set of challenges when others assume they are cis girls. Chris Smith (11) is nonbinary and dresses in a stereotypically feminine manner because it is more authentic to their style, they said.

It is frustratingly common for people to use she/her pronouns for Smith and view them as cisgender after they introduce themselves, they said. “It’s like they don’t hear what I’m saying, they only look at me and think, ‘oh yeah, we’ve decided who you are,’ even though that’s not me.”

Tran did not come out as nonbinary until their sophomore year because they did not want anyone to see them as anything other than “normal,” they said. Now, they introduce themselves with their correct pronouns. “The amount of support and respect that I got from my teachers was absolutely mind-blowing,” they said. One interaction that stands out is when their math teacher immediately corrected himself after using “she” to describe them. “Hearing that happen was one of the first times I felt seen and recognized as myself.”

Before the first day of school, Feingold practiced how they would introduce themselves with their pronouns, which they have been using for the past six years. They are constantly working on setting boundaries when it comes to misgendering, they said. It is important to assert their boundaries but there is an unease around creating conflict when they correct people, so they appreciate when someone else talks to people who misgender them privately, Feingold said. “That’s a really great ally move — take [misgendering] away from the trans person’s responsibility and help hold other people accountable.”

Perception and gender presentation is a central concern for trans people, as they assert themselves in a largely transphobic society that sets limitations on how people are allowed to act. “It’s something that’s literally always on my mind,” Feingold said. “I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what to wear, how to put my hair, how to do every specific detail for every interaction I’m going to have with people.”

Shay*, who is anonymous because they are not out, acts more feminine to pass as cis when they are closeted around people such as their family, they said. It is frustrating when others’ perceptions of Shay differ from how they perceive themselves, they said. It throws their identity into question, causing them to feel like they have something to prove. “Perception is truth,” they said. “If people perceive me in a certain way, that’s how I am, but if I perceive myself in a certain way, it’s also how I am. I’m cis to them — but I’m also just not.”

It can be exhausting to dress and act based on fears over how others might perceive them, Feingold said. “There are a billion trade-offs every day on that axis of my own comfort versus other people’s comfort,” they said. “There are times when I prioritize other people’s comfort over my own, and sometimes that’s just as much about keeping myself safe, as it is about keeping myself happy.”

Feingold walks the line between wearing things that make them happy in their identity, and presenting in a way that is perceived as professional. They often wear a masculine-coded metal watch, Feingold said. “People want to be able to categorize you, so finding details that allow them to do that while maintaining your own sense of self is helpful.”

Being socially constructed, the binary categories of masculine and feminine do not serve any purpose outside of enforcing conformity, Joan said. “People feel a need to label certain things, certain clothes, certain mannerisms feminine or masculine because they are uncomfortable with ambiguity,” she said. “It just hurts society because it tells people a way to live, and it hinders authenticity.”

 While binary gender stereotypes are often negative in the cisgender community, trans people can utilize or usurp them if they want to be perceived in line with their gender, Tran said. They use mannerisms and clothing to outwardly represent their identity such that others cannot tell if they are a boy or girl at first glance, they said. “People get very confused by the way that I look, the way that I dress, or my energy, and I think that’s a very beautiful thing.”

For example, Tran observed how to display more masculine body language by sitting open-legged and talking from their chest in a low, slow tone. They wear thick and heavy rings that add weight and size to their hands, their favorite being a skeleton ring that wraps around their middle finger. They also learned that layering creates a boxy body shape, which can distract from their chest or stomach. Lifting weights and gaining muscle helps them feel more with their body, and their hair — shoulder-length with shaved sides and streaks of green — completes the image. “When I get dysphoric, I touch the sides of my head and I’m like, ‘you still have this part of your identity, that’s not going away,’” they said.

On the flip side of dysphoria, gender euphoria describes feeling confident in one’s gender and its presentation. “It’s a sense of comfort after a long span of discomfort, like sitting down in the shower after a roll in the literal mud,” Feingold said. “I feel it when I’m alone — I feel safe and I feel happy and I feel excited about the person I am, in the body I’m in.”

Feingold sometimes finds euphoria in the clothes they wear, such as flowy tops, unusual accessories, and the multicolored bandana their partner gifted them for Christmas that they use to pull back their hair, they said. “My hair in particular gives me a lot of opportunities to present intentionally, whether I do something traditionally feminine like wearing a bow or something that just looks wonky like letting my curls hang free.”

Similarly, Robin gravitates towards outfits that spark gender euphoria, such as sweatshirts, flannels, and a pair of jeans they bought from the men’s section, they said. It helps her look the way she feels so that others see her the way she sees herself day by day. While there might not be a visual distinction between a cisgender girl or a nonbinary person in an androgynous outfit, clothing choice resonates differently on an internal level, they said. “When I wear masculine or androgynous clothing, I think ‘oh, this is really affirming.’”

There are limits to how much fashion can ease the dissonance between Robin’s perceived and true gender, they said. Even though she shops in the men’s section or looks for baggy clothing in the women’s section, the clothing they buy still fits her body differently. “Something that’s not talked about a lot is androgyny for different body types,” they said. They have tried binding — where one compresses their breast tissue to create the appearance of a flat chest — but there are no equivalent techniques for hips or other feminine body parts.

Medical transitions are another part of gender presentation that can be a gender-affirming practice for trans people, Acharjee said. They plan to get top surgery, a procedure that removes one’s breasts for a masculine chest. “When I get dysphoric it’s mostly about my chest, so the thing that really helps me get through it is this hope that one day, I’ll be able to have top surgery, and I need to hang on to this body that I have in the meantime,” they said.

Transitions happen one step at a time; they are not an all or nothing process, nor a required step for every trans person, Acharjee said. “Once I have top surgery, I’ll see whether I’m happy with my body or whether I could do more to foster more comfort in it.”

Until then, Acharjee’s biggest source of euphoria is when others use their correct name and pronouns, they said. “It reminds me that there are people who don’t see me as a girl, who will get used to my pronouns and adjust to my true expression to see me as who I am.”

When it comes to envisioning a more accepting future for people outside of the gender binary, Feingold prefers a progressive lens over an idealized lens. “It’s all incremental, right? I’ll always try to find better ways to make myself happier, but I don’t have an end point,” they said. “Trying to conceptualize the perfect society is a little impractical, and also it makes me a little sad to think about the distance we would need to travel to get from here to there.” 

Whether it is their pronouns, clothing, or how they do their hair, Smith is also looking for ways to present that affirm their gender and their sense of self. “I’m trying to figure out how to feel as authentic as possible,” they said. “How do I be more me, whatever that is?”