I always knew that I was not like other girls. No, not that sexist stereotype that all young women are the same and that I was uniquely different… But rather that I could never relate to girlhood. I remember being 10 years old and crying desperately in the swimsuit aisle of Kmart, torn up over the racks of tiny string bikinis I couldn’t possibly wear as my Mum walked off in exasperation. As a teenager, I stayed far away from push-up bras, make-up, bikinis and revealing clothes. I refused to shave my legs for years longer than most girls in my grade and could not have cared less about boys. In fact, I was consistently annoyed at boys who tried to ask me out, even those I actually ended up dating. Did they miss the memo? I clearly wasn’t interested.
I now know those were my first experiences of discomfort with my gender, a discomfort that came with puberty and my sexual objectification as a woman. Back then, I had no words to describe myself, I only had feelings. I rationalised my gender expression and rejection of sexuality as a practice of modesty. My Christian Chinese-Indonesian background was a convenient excuse to explain why I didn’t want to wear revealing clothing, why I wasn’t interested in dating or boys. It was the perfect cover.
Back then, I had no words to describe myself, I only had feelings.
In reality though, I could never dress modestly enough to stop the endless street harassment, sexual advances and sexism, no matter what I wore. The world saw me as a woman and treated me as such. While many women around me seemed to feel empowered through their identity as feminist women, I only felt more and more disconnected from the gender I felt was forced on me from birth, and the discrimination and inequality that it brought with it. For me, femininity was inextricably connected to the male gaze, and I couldn’t embrace something so deeply tied to my experience of patriarchy, sexual objectification and sexism.
In the last year, I have openly let go of womanhood. I no longer identify with the gender assigned to me at birth - a common way of understanding trans identity. My gender has become a space where I can actively let go of all the gendered societal and cultural norms that were forced onto me, and build my own gender expression and embodiment. I have settled on the word ‘agender’, meaning without gender or no gender. I use they/them pronouns and identify on the gender spectrum as neither a man nor a woman. Now, the word woman simply describes a relationship to patriarchy, it is a power dynamic, an external construct that has nothing to do with who I am on the inside.
I no longer identify with the gender assigned to me at birth - a common way of understanding trans identity.
My trans identity has given me so much freedom; to shave off my hair, to fill my wardrobe with men’s clothing, to take joy in being visibly Queer, visibly butch, visibly not a woman. I am not beholden to androgyny or men’s clothing or medicalisation. If I want to wear a dress, I will, and that doesn’t make me any less trans.
Although the term agender is most similar in definition to non-binary, I prefer to identify with what I am, rather than in comparison to what I’m not. Additionally, the emphasis of two exclusive options is something I want to let go of altogether, which the word agender allows me to do. If my teenage self could see me now, they would revel in how little I consider gender when it comes to my clothing, my dating life and who I am (the significant decrease in attention from men would also be a huge plus).
Being gender-non-conforming has given me the control I always wanted over my body, but I’m now faced with just how completely I have rejected the gender roles entrenched in my Chinese-Indonesian culture. Knowing that I will never be the feminine woman my family expects, knowing I will never get married and perform womanhood as a wife and mother, is something I have had to confront with my family. I do have empathy for their loss. They had expectations that will never be fulfilled and dealing with that disappointment has taken time.
Being gender-non-conforming has given me the control I always wanted over my body, but I’m now faced with just how completely I have rejected the gender roles entrenched in my Chinese-Indonesian culture.
Synthesising my journey with gender and my journey of overcoming the intense shame I carried about my cultural background has been incredibly key to being able to take pride in both. Learning about the many cultures across Indonesia (and Asia more broadly) that historically embraced gender diversity prior to colonisation, like the bissu, hijra, and fa'afafine, has given me the validation to understand the specific relationship my gender has to my cultural identity, and my political identity as a Person of Colour.
At this year's Mardi Gras, I marched in Batik, a traditional Indonesian textile made through wax-resist dyeing. I did so consciously, with fire, purpose and staunch resolve, because my culture is who I am as a Queer person. Honouring that duality, accepting all the different parts of myself and letting go of the shame I grew up with; about my body, my Asianness, my feelings, has allowed me to grow into a person who not only marches, but organises a float of 200 people protesting for refugee rights in the biggest Queer Pride Parade in the country. Participating in Mardi Gras from this place of conviction and strength, shows an understanding of myself I could never have imagined when I was just that overwhelmed child, crying in the swimsuit aisle of Kmart. If I could go back to that moment, explain those feelings for what they really were, give myself other options beyond the gender expression that was forced on me - I can only imagine just how much sooner I could have felt as comfortable with myself as I do now.
Bridget Harilaou is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who writes extensively about politics and race, they tweet at @fightloudly.