Non-Binary with Animals
Content: This post includes being bullied because of non-normative gender presentation and suffering dissociation due to abuse.
When I was young, I was into amateur dramatics. No matter which plays I auditioned for, the result was nearly always the same. I'd be cast as a man, an animal, or one of Shakespeare's cross-dressing women. My first role ever was the lion in the Wizard of Oz. My second was Hansel and Gretel's uncle—or was I their father? I'm fuzzy about that. At the local kids' drama club, I played Toto the dog. At boarding school, where I only spent two years, I was cast as the cross-dressing Portia in the Merchant of Venice, and then as a cow in Animal Farm. At university, I became Katherine's father in the Taming of the Shrew.
And that's just to name a few.
You can construct this string of events in all sorts of ways, but here's how I make sense of it: Even as a child, I knew my gender was different. The first time I was invited to a party, the kids were all going swimming together. The birthday boy's mother called mine on the phone and said, "I wanted to let you know that your kid is the only girl [sic] he's invited. All the others are boys." Their suggestion was that I should bring a friend.
The only friend I had who I felt might not be a boy was Simone. But even then, I was hazy about Simone's gender. Was their name perhaps just an alternative spelling of Simon? After all, to me, Simone seemed like a boy. Hell, I'd never felt the need to ask about their gender. Still, I invited them to the swimming party and that placated the parents—though I'm honestly not sure the kids were even thinking about gender.
Several years later, when I was being abused at home and was dissociating so profoundly that I didn't feel like I had a body, I was also badly bullied at school. Those kids didn't think they were bullying me because of my gender. They simply told me, over and over, that I was "ugly and disgusting," because I was covered in severe acne—a skin condition that, I believe, was a response to the sexual abuse I was experiencing at home. But looking back now, I see my gender was emerging, not least in the clothes I was wearing, for which I was also bullied. My non-binaryness was there. I just didn't have a name for it.
The gender binary is a construct. But binary constructs can be like alligator teeth, gnashing at you until you're torn. And if you don't even know that humans can be gender non-conforming, how do you work out that you are?
That's just one reason why non-binary and trans voices are so important.
My experience is by no means the only one. There are many of us. Fox and Owl, for instance, who are non-binary activists, said, in an interview with Ditch the Label, that as kids they were bullied because of their presentation, and also, in Fox's case, for the color of their skin. "For many years I was very down on myself," says Fox in the interview, "but I learned to turn that sadness around, and to create poetry, fanzines, music projects, screen-prints and film."
Fox's partner Owl Fisher was also bullied, but had friends who supported them. "I become very involved with sports, as an act of rebellion and to show people that even the people they bullied could beat them at sports," says Owl. It sounds to me like, as kids, Fox and Owl may have had more gender awareness than I did—the bullying they experienced, which was both aggressive and oppressive, was clearly centered around gender. I am very grateful to them both for speaking out.
As non-normative kids, we are bullied in different ways. What strikes me about Fox and Owl is their tremendous activism from a young age—even as oppressed kids, they were each able to channel their feelings into creative activities.
I did the same, as it happens, though my activities were inspired by the cat I owned, who I loved to bits. Every Sunday, I would create a little "mewspaper" called "The Cat Mews," which would feature my cat and her cat community. The headlines were the best fun of all: "Cat gets caught up tree and parachutes to safety!" "Cat saves clown from burning circus ring!" I never missed a week and was obsessive about this little project, even when ill. That paper, with all its "cat news stories" provided a world of my own.
At one point, on stage at boarding school, wearing a papier-mâché cow's head, I felt something I'd never felt before. I was so used to dissociating—to staring at my hands and thinking they looked like they were made of plastic—that it was a shock to feel real underneath that mask.
Cow's don't have gender, of course. No-one tells them what to wear, how to act, which pronouns to use, or who goes first through a door. Well, inside that cow's head, I didn't have gender either. Even in the script, I had no pronouns—was simply "Cow 1." Sure, thanks to an inflated washing up glove, I did have udders, but they had nothing to do with my gender. As I sparkled behind that mask, as present as a growing tree with roots shooting downwards, nobody could see me in binary terms.
I was myself, where no eyes could judge me. Yet I was seen by everyone:
An animal, with a single line to speak.