Strong, Independent, but Certainly not a Woman: How Peers Disrupt and Maintain the Gender Binary

Gender is something that everyone experiences, even if everyone is at a different point on the spectrum. From a young age, many children are taught the gender binary in nonexplicit ways. My brother and I had very different childhoods based on our genders. My brother grew up playing with blocks and learning about planes and cars. While I also played with blocks, I was taught more about how to work in the kitchen and have been artistic since I came out of the womb. Surprisingly, my brother and I are very similar people, with many shared interests, despite our different childhoods. I think this is in part because I am nonbinary. 

Growing up in the gender binary, I was always encouraged to be a strong, independent woman. While I am strong and I am independent, I am not a woman. The binary has always felt off to me, mainly because I haven’t identified with either side for most of my life. My brother was the first to catch onto this because of our closeness. At first, he just thought I was a tomboy, but that didn’t feel quite right either. He never tried to convince me that I should act or dress a certain way; he never questioned me during my journey to figure out who I was. He is my biggest supporter.

I have peers on all parts of the gender spectrum, and for the most part, we are all comfortable with our identities and support each other. So in that way, peers don’t disrupt the gendered assumptions because they don’t really have any. Of course, there are implicit biases and based on appearances, which can be shrunk but not eliminated from one’s psyche. But for the most part, my peers have been accepting and understanding of my journey with my gender identity. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for everyone.

If I expand my peer circle to the adults in my life, I find much more prejudice and a lack of understanding. My parents, for example, were not nearly as understanding as my brother. One of them even going as far as to call me an “it.” The other non-teacher adults in my life have responded in similar ways. The few I’ve told have said that I’ll always be a woman in their eyes, and while they mean well by that, it’s incredibly damaging for me. So it’s less that my peers, in this case, are disrupting my sense of gender and more that I’m disrupting their perception of the spectrum. 

As we read Homecoming by Yaa Gyasi, I find many of the same narratives, only not with nonbinary people. The prejudice I see is against women and young girls. From a young age, Effia is taught that men are strong, and a woman’s worth lies in her child-bearing ability. It’s so heavily engrained in her that she thinks men should be “strong and powerful, like he [can] lift 10 women above his head and toward the sun” (13). I’m not saying that men shouldn’t fall into the more masculine side of the spectrum. I am saying that they shouldn’t be limited to “strength” and should be free to explore the balance between masculinity and femininity. Holding up the walls of the gender binary and continuing to separate masculinity and feminity is damaging to all gender identities. 

Later in the chapter, Effia’s mom tells Chief Abeeku, “If you marry [Effia], she will never bear you children” to convince him not to marry her (15). While this takes place in the 1700s, and there were different expectations for how a woman should be, a woman’s worth never has, and will never, be defined by her fertility. Effia is a woman; she’s comfortable in her identity, and she is proud of who she is. However, just because Effia comfortably falls within the binary doesn’t mean that should be her limit. Her “mother” defines her worth by whether or not she can bear children. She defines it by her strength and wit. 

There are so many ways to define womanhood and manhood, and every identity in-between. Effia and Abeeku define their genders differently than my mom and dad do. They express their genders differently than my grandparents do. Everyone has their own definition of what it means to be the gender that they are. Ultimately, it boils down to what that person is most comfortable with. I’m more comfortable with being non-binary than I am with being a woman. My brother is more comfortable being a man than anything else. Both are valid, both are real, and both deserve to be celebrated.

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