Ben Pechey, 25, is a freelance writer and LGBTQ+ activist, from Yorkshire. Identifying as non-binary – not exclusively male or female – 'they/ them' are their preferred pronouns. Here, they detail what it is like to live a world in which kindness is often in short supply.
People say school makes or breaks you. Frankly, it broke me. I was relentlessly bullied – like many who stand outside of what is considered ‘normal’ by society. Others might be able to hide, chameleon-like, in plain sight to protect themselves, but my personality wouldn’t allow it.
I was born male, but aspects of my personality are very feminine, and seeing myself as non-binary means these things can peacefully coexist.
My mother accepts me, but there are times when we’re out in public together and I can tell she’s uncomfortable with me wearing make-up and clothes traditionally worn by women and would rather I just looked ‘normal’.
My father and I tend to just ignore each other. They don’t understand, which, of course, isn’t ideal, but I still consider myself one of the lucky ones in that I’m able to live with my parents and have a home. In the queer community, homelessness is rife, with many children and young people banished from their homes due to a lack of tolerance.
Conflict occurs more from my interactions with others. Sometimes, when I walk down the street, people will stop and stare or even cross the road to avoid me. Yesterday, someone stopped in front of me and said, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I try not to let it get to me, but can anyone really brush that kind of thing off completely?Some days I don’t even want to leave the house.
I experienced a violent hate crime once, at university, where three men shouted slurs, tried to punch me, take my phone and kick me to the ground. I didn’t report it because I thought no one would believe me, or that they’d believe I’d brought it on myself. That may sound unduly negative, but it’s the message I’ve received whenever I’ve tried to speak to those around me about where I’m coming from.
I can’t pinpoint a time when I perceived of myself as non-binary, specifically. It’s more that, since childhood, I’ve moved through life showing up in the world whenever I’ve tried to speak to those around me about where I’m coming from. These people haven’t been intentionally cruel, but they’ve suggested that the only way I can remedy the situation is to change who I am, because society isn’t ready for me right now. It makes me feel very alone.
People telling me they ‘like my costume’ and taking pictures of me without my knowledge or consent – or simply staring– are micro-aggressions I deal with daily. The cumulative effect on my mental health is a loud, near-constant hum of anxiety that accompanies me through life.
In public spaces, I constantly feel as though I have to police myself in order to make others around me comfortable. Public toilets are where it’s most acute – as a non-binary person, I’m not welcome in either the women’s or the men’s, so unless there are disabled or gender-neutral ones available, I avoid going to the loo, sometimes even letting myself go thirsty so I won’t need to.
Navigating this new world of non-traditional gender identities may seem complex, but it really needn’t be. The first step is asking what someone’s pronouns are. How would they like to be referred to? What’s going on for them? What would they like you to understand about their situation?
The second is to listen – really listen – when they share their experiences. Listen when people who identify as non-binary tell you this life isn’t a choice, or a fleeting phase. Listen and you’ll understand that nearly everyone in this community is dealing with the mental health fallout of traumatic experiences born of them not fitting neatly into society’s ‘male’ or ‘female’ boxes. Listen and be generous in your understanding. I – we – need it.
What does it mean to be non-binary?
Dr Sarah Vohra, consultant psychiatrist and author @themindmedic, says:
Non-binary means that you don’t identify as either male or female. Gender identity is not fixed, it is dynamic or fluid and can change over a period of time. For some individuals who identify as non-binary, the prospect of coming out can be an incredibly daunting and difficult process. There is the fear of how others around you – family and friends or complete strangers – will react: will you face judgement, isolation or rejection?
Those around you might hold strong views or show no interest in trying to understand what identifying as non-binary means, which may delay your coming out. This can put you under an immense amount of pressure in addition to trying to navigate the other usual life stressors such as puberty, educational and employment transitions. Societal gender binary biases mean that navigating things like public toilets, changing rooms and day-to-day conversations where you’re incorrectly referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ can be incredibly challenging and distressing.
These negative experiences may mean that you are at increased risk of developing mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety ,self-harm, and experiencing suicidal thoughts, which may well require treatment through talking therapies or, in some cases, medication.
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