I’m non-binary, and it’s liberating
By Clara How, Aug 29, 2019
Growing up, most of us were told that we were either male, or female. But when it comes to gender identity (a personal sense of gender that may or may not be aligned with biological sex), that’s not something that’s absolute.
For a group of people, they don’t identify solely with one gender, or being called a man or a woman. The term is non-binary, and depending on their choice, they might go by the pronouns they/their, rather than he/his or she/her.
Louise is a 22-year-old Singaporean who identifies as being non-binary. They tell us what it’s like to be queer in Singapore, how they realised they were non-binary, and why they are truly, wholeheartedly happy with their choices today.
My name is Louise, and my pronouns are they/their. I’m a live performance artist, and I also work on various projects at a company that develops social enterprises through technology.
Even though I work for this company, when I introduce myself I always call myself an independent performance artist, because that’s what I would like to be known as.
I do live art, I dance barefoot on the streets (movement makes me happy!), and do guerrilla art projects. I’m working on a series with another artist where we go on the MRT at peak hour, wear face masks and business attire, and take photos. There are also podcasts in the pipeline.
When I started working at the company, I said on my welcome message that I am non-binary, my pronouns are they/their, and I’m happy to share more if people want to talk. But no one approached me about the topic. I think when you give information like that, people would rather Google than ask the person directly. Not everyone at work has gotten used to the right pronouns, but I do send polite emails to remind them.
Every non-binary person has a unique take on what identity means to them. For me, being non-binary means that my conception of myself doesn’t fit comfortably into either ‘woman’ or ‘man’.
It’s like choosing blue instead of white or black, because neither of those two binary options work for me. I don’t think I ever feel like a man or a woman, and there’s no distinct line between the two.
I went to Scotland for university, and the Scottish government consulted the public on policy changes they were making towards institutional recognition of people on the gender spectrum (the consultation drew 15,500 responses). Institutional change is so important because it makes huge ripples. It warmed my heart and truthfully, made me so sad to return to Singapore.
It isn’t an issue for most days, but in Singapore, when I’m filling out forms that require me to indicate if I’m a “Mr or Ms”, I just go with whichever option feels most alive for me in that moment and in that day. “Mx” is ideal for me (my healthcare provider in Glasgow would address mail to me as “Mx Louise Marie Lee”), but I’ve not seen it offered in a Singaporean context yet.
It would make such a difference to never have to close both eyes and tick “male” or “female”.
There are plenty of misconceptions that I’ve encountered about being non-binary. Someone has asked if I should be called “It”, and this person didn’t consider the hurt that it caused me. People can also expect you to dress a certain way, but for me, all that matters is that my clothes need to be comfortable. How they look is secondary.
People also assume that being non-binary and transgender mean the same thing. In terms of strict definition, being non-binary means you’re trans, because being transgender means that your gender identity doesn’t correspond to your biological sex. I too, identity as trans.
I didn’t always identify as non-binary — the concept was first introduced to me when I was in university. It’s not a term that’s widely known in Singapore — I believe the community that’s most alive here is transNUS, which is the National University of Singapore’s community for trans folk. I do have one non-binary friend who belongs to it. The last time we spoke, they were the only non-binary member of that group, but the commnuity affirms and acknowledges their identity.
As a child, I refused to wear dresses and skirts. Partly because I loved sports and fully embraced being rough-and-tumble, and felt initially more comfortable in my masculinity than in my femininity. But I also didn’t want to “be a girl” in that I had to sit nicely, play quietly, and I was having none of that. The only skirt I was confident in wearing was my netball skirt, because it meant that I could be tough, fast, and part of a team.
There was one point when I just started my Secondary One year where I was curious and thought, okay, let me try being a girl. I grew out my hair and tried wearing skirts. But it didn’t last long, because it just wasn’t for me. I was lucky that I had a lot of free rein at home, which was surprising given that I am from a devout Catholic family. I’m not sure why, but my parents didn’t object when I bought clothes from the boys’ sections.
Growing up in an all-girls school, gender identity was something I was oblivious to. I was too busy with school and activities to think about sexuality. In hindsight, I was definitely repressed. I was performing the role of a super high-achieving kid, where I played netball, won awards, did well academically, and headed a leadership board. I was a nerd and used math for my Direct School Admission into school. So all these things took up time and space in my head.
I recognise that I had a lot of privileges —I went to a school that was all about female empowerment, and my mother is the superwoman of the household.
She’s the one who gets things done — if something is broken, she fixes it. She also runs a business, teaches math, and she can do anything. So growing up, all the brilliant, creative people I knew were women.
I thought that women were the world, and being a woman would never preclude me from doing anything. Not many people grow up like that.
There were people in secondary school who asked me if I was gay, and I would always say, “Wait and see until JC lor.” I wasn’t bothered by the question. It was really just a “wait and see” thing for me. I didn’t think about it.
But in retrospect, I was attracted to girls. There was someone in school who I definitely had more than just a friendship with. I met her after I eventually came out a couple of years later, and she went, “Dude, you didn’t know you were gay? I didn’t know that you didn’t know!” I got that reaction a lot from my friends after I came out, where they joke, “Yeah we know, you’re very slow.”
I only realised that I was gay when I was 18. I was out with my friends and they were talking about boys, and I was uncomfortable and bored and just not interested. Later, I spoke to someone who asked me, “On a scale of one to 10, what are the chances of you being gay?” I answered five, and then thought, “Oh shit.”
Previously when people asked me if I was gay, the answer was either yes or no. Because the answer wasn’t a 10, I assumed it had to be a zero. But my answer made me realise that actually yes, I think I am gay. So I came out to myself in the middle of 2014, and took my time to learn about this whole aspect of my life that I had missed out until that time.
Eventually I came out to my mum three years later, but I did come out to my sisters (we’re a family of four siblings) before that. My mum wasn’t surprised, but she did ask me if I could “adjust to liking boys.”
I told her that I’d “waited” for nine years, thinking that it’s just that I hadn’t met the right guy. But now I know that it’s because I’ve never been interested in any prince.
I’ve never had the coming-out conversation with my dad, but I’m sure that my mother spoke to him. He asked my sister if I was gay because they sent me to an all-girls school, which of course isn’t the case. But I’ve never come out as non-binary to my parents. They prefer to see me as Louise, with no labels attached.
I haven’t been asked about whether gender identity is nature or nurture, but while I believe that nurture does play a big part, different souls who experience similar external influences can develop differently. My sister, who went through the same first 12 years of education and is only a year older than me is straight and cis (to be cisgender is when gender identity is aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth). Whether nature or nurture, it doesn’t seem that important to me if you feel happy and at home in your body.
In 2015 I met my partner, KY. We met as interns in a theatre production, where we had to do a lot of dirty work. We were each other’s first relationship.
KY is brilliant. When we first met, she was already writing her own full-length play (we were both 18 then) and finding a way to stage it on her own. She constantly blows my mind. There was a year where we were broken up, but aside from that time, we have been together for four years.
My relationship with KY is also a working relationship. We are very much creative partners - the romantic side is what comes and goes. Even when we split up, we were still working on productions together, because I knew she was the best person for the job, and she felt the same about me. I know it’s an unusual relationship, but it works for us. Sometimes, we prefer to just lie in bed, and talk about our projects.
KY doesn’t identify as gay, because she’s not into labels. While she did grow up with an open mind of being in a relationship with a guy, that was never the case for me. So when we started dating, we had no preconceptions of what dating should be like. Nothing was assumed. How do we fit together? Would we have sex? What would it be like? We would talk for hours trying to understand what it all meant for the other person and for us.
We don’t know what the future holds for us — I have a lot of baggage about Singapore and how the art industry is too small, and I feel like there’s not enough room here to make mistakes. But she intends to stay in Singapore with her parents, at least for the foreseeable future. So for now, we plan in the short term. After all, a year can change so much.
Some time ago, we were approached by a photographer to be shot for her project. She wanted to photograph same-sex couples, but eventually we didn’t go ahead with working with her because I felt like there were a lot of ‘straight-gazing’ stereotypes that were put upon us.
For example, we were assumed to be a butch and a femme. There’s nothing wrong with that — there are a lot of people who are in these relationships and enjoy them. But this person assumed that it applied to us as well, which it didn’t. People do get confused when they see us, because I present a little more conventionally masculine, and people might expect KY to look more feminine, which isn’t the case. It annoyed me that a project featuring women in relationships with women would make these assumptions — it felt like a severe blind spot.
It was only in university where I came across the term non-binary. It must have been a classmate who brought it up, and I thought, what is that even? I studied performance art in Glasgow, and my course was a haven for people who have experienced marginalisation in some way, and who have chosen art as a way to express these feelings.
I heard the term in my first semester, and at the back of my head, thought: “Ohhhh.” It took me less than six months for me to say, yes. I want to occupy this space.
It was a relief. Being non-binary is a much more comfortable chair for me than the one I was previously in.
Coming out as non-binary was different from coming out as gay. The latter felt like I didn’t have a choice, in that I couldn’t help my attraction towards women. It felt like something I had to come to terms with. But I realised that I had come to terms with being non-binary before I even knew what it was. To use the analogy of a chair, it was liberating to find a seat that worked for me.
When I came back to Singapore, I realised that I was going to be in a room where straight people are the majority, unlike my experience in Glasgow. It’s something that I miss, where even though I was the only non-white person in the room, I was able to be comfortable in my identity.
I faced discrimination both in Singapore and abroad, but the thing about Singaporeans are that they are quiet about being transphobic or homophobic.
If you’re loud about it, at least I can react and say something back. But here, it’s very insidious, much like racism. People don’t talk about it, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t prejudiced behind closed doors.
I believe that Singaporeans prioritise knowledge and being perceived as smart. We don’t feel like we can make mistakes, because when we do, the consequences seem large (especially in circumstances like work). And we end up applying that same principle to smaller behavioural, everyday patterns. We prefer to keep quiet so we don’t make mistakes.
In my experience, whenever I broach the topic, people are not interested to find out more. What they hear is that I’m telling them why they are ‘wrong’, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m just trying to explain why I chose this non-conventional life. I’m not guilt tripping anyone for making the ‘easier’ choice.
When I introduce the subject of being non-binary to strangers, it’s usually in a super casual way. I can be at a shop, and someone comes up to me and says, “Hi sir, can I help you?” I tell them, “Oh, I’m looking for this.” They hear my voice, and say, “Sorry ma’am!” I reply that it’s fine, both sir and madam are fine, I’m either and both. Or at the hawker centre where I tell the aunties, “Xiao di or xiao mei also okay!”
Some people tell me that using they/their is not grammatically correct, but that’s not what it’s about. I do understand that it’s not always instinctive, and it takes reminders. There are people who tell me that they will try but that they might slip up and forget, and they apologise in advance. That does make it a lot less awkward.
People usually brush it aside and in these situations, they just want to serve me as a customer. It’s fine, I understand that there’s also not enough time to have a long conversation about it. And of course, if someone doesn’t know what my pronouns are, it’s totally fine. I correct them if I feel like they care enough to make the change. But when people continually misgender me (which happened on a work trip where I had repeatedly explained what my pronouns are), it’s clear that it’s not important to them.
When people misgender me, I feel emotionally exhausted, because if I’ve already explained myself to someone and given them time, their choice to continue misgendering me is tiring.
I have to pretend not to be affected, and try to not cut them off to correct them. Because I don’t like confrontation, I try to shake it off in my head and rely on myself and friends to feel affirmed.
Another everyday situation is using the washroom. The bathroom is a vulnerable place to be — after all, you’re there to relieve yourself! I usually go into the handicapped toilets, but there are some places that make these toilets inaccessible to people without Persons With Disabilities (PWD) cards. I understand why, but it does make things harder for me on a personal level.
When I can’t use the handicapped toilets, I use the women’s toilets. Many times, people will tell me that I’m going to the wrong toilet. When I reply that I’m going into the right one, they repeat again that the gents is on the other side. They repeat it because they think I don’t understand them, or that I’m stupid. It’s like, come on.
There was once, a cleaner shouted at me from a long corridor that I was entering the wrong toilet and even though I called back that I meant to use the ladies, she kept shouting back that I was wrong. In these cases, you just have no choice but to laugh at the situation.
But even though these everyday things do suck, for me, being non-binary is great. I feel comfortable to do what I want. I don’t have to wear a bra. I don’t have to cross my legs. I don’t need to do my brows. There are definitely perks to being a cis woman, but there is so much that I’m free of.
I believe that many people have internalised sexism to a certain degree, and have all these assumptions put upon them because of their gender. But I’ve never experienced having these assumptions imposed on me.
I can’t explain it, but when I was growing up, even though media and society imposed a lot of heteronormative expectations (such as guys ‘should’ do this or that, or that girls ‘should’ look for a guy who’s taller), I never bought into it. It wasn’t that I didn’t consume media — I love watching films, and I love the feelings films evoked, but I never employed these expectations to myself. (I haven’t come across a LGBTQIA+ film that really resonated with me, but I have to say Ellen Degeneres’ “The Puppy Episode” in 1997 made me cry several times as a young gay teen.)
I never realised that my take was different until I encountered other people and had discussions, like how KY and I had to talk about what dating each other would mean for us.
The dream right now is to play and learn creatively and exponentially for maybe the next three to five years, and then reconsider my future with Singapore. I won’t dismiss living here in the future, but honestly I would want to choose to be here, and I’m not there yet.
I can stand with women, but I don’t have to identify with or have to behave “like a woman”. It’s awesome to have that freedom of not playing by someone else’s rules. And that’s liberating.
Photos provided by Louise.
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