Better Queer?

Two years ago, I wrote a long blogpost reflecting on — and attempting to come to some preliminary terms with — my gender identity. “Bad Queer” was shared widely at the time, much to my surprise, and continues to resonate with others at intervals. Most recently, Twitter user @jamesd_todd shared the post, adding a few summarising reflections:

It’s from a couple of years back but I just read ‘Bad Queer’, a post by @xenogothic and was so moved and — despite coming at this from a different queer angle — felt so much resonance.

Matt reflects on points where the contours of their body haven’t ‘fit’ within space, the alienation and belonging they have felt, their complex relationships to/with queer communities, and how they have stayed in the shadows of queerness to avoid appropriation.

This piece reaffirmed the queer power and potential of being ‘cast out’, of having gone through hostility for not matching the expectations of a masculinist youth culture. And I felt a lot of this personally, deeply.

Matt talks of a need to “talk about myself in terms that feel appropriate to me rather than anyone else.” And surely this is the power of queerness? I too want to wrestle with my own disenfranchisement and fear as a young person. How do we do this?

How do we do this, indeed? I’m not sure I have much in the way of an answer, but the question feels much less daunting these days.

After reading James’ reflections, I returned to the blogpost myself, two years on, and was struck by how fraught I felt about things back then. My situation has changed a great deal since 2021. For starters, I am no longer in the relationship that is referenced many times throughout. It was only a few months later, in fact, that that decade-long relationship came to an end. Then, in the spring of 2022, I moved to Newcastle to start over. The post had not left my thoughts, and I explained to my friends what I wanted to achieve almost as soon as I got there. It was no small task. I had a breakdown a few weeks later and so much of my life felt over. But slowly, over months, I gradually came to rebuild atop the rubble and affirm the desires expressed previously.

I have now been publicly identifying as non-binary for a little over a year. I cannot express the sense of freedom that has resulted from this. In fact, figuring out my gender expression in general remains an active process. But in many ways, this unfolding adaptation is bittersweet. The end of that decade-long relationship remains something I am deeply sad about, precisely because one of the overarching reasons why it ended was a sad state of repression I had come to accept for myself.

I am quite a passive person in day-to-day life. I am quiet. I don’t make a fuss. Though this blog might be a melodramatic space of excessive self-assertion, where I share my life with a candour that horrifies some, I feel far more withdrawn and perhaps harder to get to know in reality. Writing is an outlet for the unsayable. An obvious disparity results. In my daily life, I don’t think many people I know in person actively read my blog. I can probably count the ardent readers who are also close friends on one hand. For that reason, whilst my coming-out might feel overdue for long-time readers, I think it surprised a lot of people who know the person and not the writer. It was the fear of that shock that kept it all bottled up, even in my most intimate relationships. And so, I let my feelings fester, and my last relationship suffered a great deal because of that. It is something I remain so regretful about.

There is a truly sad irony to it all: I ignored these feelings for fear of how they would affect my relationship. I assumed that, were I to truly be myself, my partner would not love me anymore. But it was precisely because I was ignoring them, leaving myself ambiently unhappy, that I became an unsuitable partner for someone I will forever love a great deal. I had a secret, infrequently murmured and then left alone, and the rot spread from within me to without.

This past realisation coloured my re-reading of the “Bad Queer” post in a way I did not expect. For all my prevaricating about being a “bad queer”, I was probably worse at being a cisgendered boyfriend. Not for lack of trying, mind you. As my ex has said to me repeatedly since, it was clear I wanted nothing more than to be a “good boyfriend”, but whatever was going on under the surface made many of my attempts lacking in ways that, in hindsight, I likely could not help.

But that was eighteen months ago. What about now? I have been living openly as non-binary since that time, and whether I am “good” at it, I cannot say — the dichotomy of “good”/”bad” is brought in here ironically, of course, as it’s a dumb measure, but nonetheless something I worry about from time to time. Overall, it will probably suffice to say that I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have before.

That is not to say that things are suddenly so simple, however. But I can at least now identify many of the feelings I have long felt for what they really are. Previous feelings of anxiety, for instance, I now understand as gender dysphoria. Depending on how I feel in the day-to-day, this is easily navigable. I have changed my entire wardrobe, adding skirts and lots of culottes — lots of culottes. (Better young Geordie lads call me “Jack Sparrow” than “faggot”, maybe, but the difference is arguably semantic — “Jack Sparrow”, for all kinds of reasons, still feels like a slur.)

Getting dressed in the morning now feels like a kind of aesthetic affirmation of an inner self, and whereas I would have felt terror at dressing in a way that some people might find provocative previously, I feel so comfortable and happy now as to barely think about it.

Still, an inner androgyny is hardly reflected as well as I would like from without. Masc days are easy, if few and far between; femme days take some creativity. Playing with shapes and textures, breaking up my silhouette as much as possible, offsetting a “hard” build with softer fabrics. It is a challenge, but I have found there is so much joy in it nonetheless.

It invites interesting conversations too, of course. Working in a local pub for much of the summer, these conversations even feel inevitable. I recently had a telling chat with a regular, for instance, who asked to join me for a drink as I unwound from a six-hour shift. I (perhaps too courteously) said it was okay and that he could. (The pub’s manager shooed him off not long after; things got a bit weird.) Initially, he wanted to ask me about my clothes. “You’ve got great style,” he said, before adding: “Those trousers, man. I saw you in them the other day and thought, ‘damn, it takes some bollocks to wear something like that!'” (He then made a point — not entirely convincingly — of reassuring me he just liked fashion and wasn’t trying to hit on me.)

It was hard not to laugh about this encounter, even during it, but it also represents a problem that I have had to get used to all over again these past twelve months. I know how I want to be “read”; I know what signals I am hoping to put out. But I have returned to a odd place of uncomfortable familiarity — a place discussed at length in “Bad Queer” — of being understood socially as a gay man into fashion, rather than someone who understands themselves as gender-nonconforming. (And anyway, to identify as straight or gay as someone who is non-binary is not so simple in itself, since gender identity twists binary understandings of sexuality by proxy.)

Part of this is no doubt related to my beard. I like my beard. For all its eternal patchiness, it hides an aging chin. I feel comfortable in its coverage. But what I would like to change, in some way, is my body more generally. That is much harder to do. I have no intention of getting surgery, although hormones have been on my mind for months; I’m comfortably non-binary and surgery wouldn’t solve any of my problems anyway.

The biggest dysphoric trigger, for me, is my size. This is changeable, but even then, only to a certain degree. A complex relationship to food has often meant that my weight has fluctuated a great deal over the years. But at base, I will always be six foot two and broad-shouldered. No matter how much body fat is lost or redistributed, I’m always going to be big. There is no changing that. There is no getting rid of what is — or at least what feels to me like — an explicitly masculine form.

This makes me sad a lot. There is nothing I hate more than full-length photographs of myself, for instance, particularly those taken candidly by friends, who I feel like I tower over. My otherwise firm affection for my mostly black wardrobe does not help matters. I feel like a walking black hole of masculinity, from which no ambient femininity can escape. But again, there is little I feel like I can do about this at present. Coming to terms with the body I have, and the self it contains, is a longer journey for me — and clearly a necessary one.

The most pressing complication, still related to this, is probably starting to date again. Having dabbled, I am at once fearful of any sort of new commitment and have a rapid tendency to lose my sense of self when I have feelings for another. Woefully deferential, I try to be whoever someone may want me to be. (See: adoption trauma.) Asserting my gender identity, contrary to that personality trait, is taking a lot of practice. Sometimes it is non-negotiable; sometimes I slip back into bad habits. There’s a lot to unlearn.

As discussed in “Bad Queer”, I have always been shy when it comes to romance, and again, this is primarily because of the size that I am. I feel intimidating in my stature, and worry about asserting myself in this masculine form, perhaps due to some sort of internalised male fear. Like so many women, I too find cis men predatory. I have had (both sexually and socially) violent experiences with cis men that have often left me afraid when walking home at night. Of course, I look like I can handle myself (and have been told as much repeatedly). But a dual consciousness results, wherein I often see myself in the mirror as the very thing I am wary of. Maybe this is some sort of internalised transphobia — am I just a man in a dress? Whatever it is, it makes me far from forward when it comes to dating and sexual experiences.

I have never been, for better or for worse, someone who likes to “wear the trousers”, so to speak. But thankfully, an awareness of this has only helped my queerness flourish. A queerer approach to sex and relationships becomes so much more natural, where navigating each other’s bodies and senses of self is far less focussed on attending presumptuously to each other’s anatomies and their social bracketing. Sex becomes more exploratory, less regimented; more sensual. I have found a queerer sex so much more fun than I ever did in explicitly heterosexual relationships. But not everyone possesses this kind of receptivity, of course. All sex can be good and bad, and yet a newly honest communication, which I am still finding my feet within, makes the future of dating look bright, if more complicated. It is not a conversation I am yet comfortable having with those who I do explore forms of intimacy with, but I nonetheless accept now that doing so is essential to my own happiness. It is a case of waiting for the right person, who can meet me wherever I’m at and be happy with who I want to be.

I’m getting there, and this is helped by my community in general. Indeed, the same honest communication is as important to everyday social interactions as well. In Newcastle, it is easily done. I feel like a firm part of an explicitly queer community up here, feeling a sense of comfort and home I have not felt since I was a teenager. Those who I spend most of my time with make me feel wonderfully seen. I am even out at work, finding myself correctly gendered by people I have never even spoken to explicitly about my identity. Everyone I care about knows me for who I want to be. It is something I’m not sure I have ever experienced to such a wonderful degree. It makes me deeply emotional just to think about it. It really is the little things in life…

Two of my friends, in particular, have been instrumental in this. I do not want to mention them by name — it is necessary to remind myself sometimes that, beyond my own disregard when it comes to a confessional overshare, my platform here is larger than many may be comfortable with — but I imagine if they read this, they will know who they are. Together they have made me feel more at home in myself than anyone.

A conversation had some months ago with them remains stuck in my mind like a mantra. To paraphrase, someone said, in response to my anxious attachment to my beard, that the joy of a gender-nonconforming queerness, and a non-binary identity in particular, is that it can eschew all expectations. The bliss of being transgender is picking the parts of your gender identity that you enjoy, irrespective of others’ holistic understanding of how it is all meant to fit together. To wear skirts whilst bearded is valid as long as I am happy — and that is the only thing that should matter. (“I enter a little further into colour…”)

This is something worth emphasising explicitly in our current political climate. The travesty of TERF moral panics is that, fundamentally, what is being policed is other people’s capacity for joy. At base, there is perhaps no more banally evil crime. It is the promotion of a very amorphous kind of unfreedom. It is hard to weather the imposition of not being who you are, and so the demands attached to this desire are hardly impositions on their own. But such is capitalism — truly, it feels like capitalism holds the ultimate responsibility. The communist baseline of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is humiliated daily. Trans abilities are many; our needs are few. To meet our own capacity for happiness is the only thing truly desired. Why is it currently so viciously denied?

It is cruel, but trans fury is vicious, because trans people already know better than almost anyone how deeply oppressive social norms can already be, to the point that — as “Bad Queer” demonstrates to me now — this unfreedom twists you up inside.

What is so sad about that post, in hindsight, is the utter confusion that oozes out of it. I would likely never have questioned anything about my tastes, desires, general comportment, were they not struck in stark relief by a world that demands conformity in even the most inconsequential of experiences. I have never been anything other than myself. What made me a “bad queer” was being beaten so dementedly out of shape by two decades of social imposition. My sense of self was so stirred up, blurred and illegible to me. All the assumptions made by others about who I am, all the fear expressed about who or what I might be, all the abuse dished out to test and provoke and experiment — I had no hope in hell of peeling back all that baggage and taking a long hard look in the mirror.

Then the mirror was all I had. Was ending my last relationship the right thing to do? A question that lingers, but I think the answer is yes. For all the pain experienced, I would never have taken the opportunity to find myself without being pushed and thrown back into a certain solitude. In the end, it took the ultimate failure of a love for another, the ultimate collapse of all habitual defences, the protracted move to a new city with new friends. It took a total rebirth — and on being reborn, I did feel like some poor babe, cold on the scales, utterly alone. It was agony feeling all of that agony, but I am closer to myself now than I have ever been before. I am closer to loving myself and, as a result, finally closer to accepting the love from others I have long felt like I didn’t deserve.

It sounds like narcissism, maybe. But I haven’t described this new thing as my coming-out book for nothing. I just hope I get better at stomaching my own remedy. Until then, I know one thing for certain: I am, and always have been, queer. I’m just getting better at owning it.

Leave a Reply