By Vik Bensen
My best friend Stella loves to joke that my partner and I are the “straightest-passing queer couple” she knows. It’s a damn funny joke and by virtue of our looks, I’m inclined to agree. Both of us are nonbinary and bisexual, and we are, by the definition of two people of the same gender (or lack thereof) dating, a gay couple. But no one outside our circle will see us that way, and I find myself conflicted between feeling safer when we go out and can conceal our queerness, and feeling utterly rejected by the LGBTQ community because of our invisibility. The concept of “passing privilege”—the idea that if you pass as able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, white, etc., you are safer than your non-passing counterparts—has been a contentious topic not only within the LGBTQ community, but also in communities like the disability community, where I have experienced similar feelings with my fibromyalgia. While it is undeniably true that those who can pass are safer than those who cannot, what do we lose when that passing comes at the expense of our identities and existences being invalidated on every scale?
Unfortunately, it boils down to appearances. With there being virtually no visual markers to indicate whether or not someone is nonbinary, how are we supposed to find support and validation both inside and outside the community? With invisible illnesses like fibromyalgia, how do you get others to believe that you’re experiencing debilitating pain? How do you communicate to others in the world around you when you may desperately need a seat on the train because you’ve lost feeling in your feet, but to onlookers you look perfectly “normal”?
Often, I find myself engaging in deliberately performative behaviors, searching for someone to acknowledge my existence as a nonbinary and disabled person. This isn’t to say that I’m searching for people to treat me differently beyond basic things like using my pronouns or being patient with me when I move slower or have trouble holding a pen. Mostly, I crave someone I’ve never met before understanding my identity and experience and saying “I see you, I respect you.”
In regards to appearances, Rob, my partner, is amab (assigned male at birth) and to the cisgender eye, has a very typical “male” build in their height and facial hair. I’m afab (assigned female at birth) and also have a very typical “female” build in my height, the curve of my waist, and “feminine” face. No matter what we do, regardless of whether or not we’re wearing clothes matched with our assigned genders, whether one of us has our hair long and the other has it short, no matter what queer signifiers we may adopt, we look like a straight couple.
We both engage in performative behaviors to try and communicate our identity to the world in a way that doesn’t compromise our safety, but makes us feel like we are asserting our identities to stave off the feelings of invalidation. Rob will paint their nails and wear crop tops and I’ll wear button downs and attempt to conceal my chest. On the train, I’ll deliberately expose my knee brace or crack my neck or stretch in ways that make me look visibly uncomfortable to the people around me. If I’m with a friend, sometimes I’ll speak about my fibromyalgia or talk about how my lower back is impacting, all in hopes that someone will pick up on it and let me sit down. For my partner, these behaviors feel far more natural than they do for me. They paint their nails because they think it looks nice and wear crop tops because they look good. Often, I feel I betray my own feelings on what I think I look good and what I feel comfortable in for the sake of this performativity. I feel nice in dresses and wide leg pants and high waisted jeans, and I hate that the way I dress is so intrinsically tied to the way I’m perceived. I’m deeply frustrated that there’s no way afab people can be seen as actually nonbinary or even androgynous to most cisgender people without us wearing menswear and attempting to look as masculine as possible to counteract our “biological femininity.”
Personally, my nonbinary identity has nothing to do with the rejection of femininity or the embracing of masculinity. We all feel the intricacies of identity differently. In line with what being nonbinary means, I don’t feel particularly anything towards any gender and I wish it was possible for my physical form to reflect that. Whenever people ask me to describe what makes me “feel” nonbinary, or why I don’t “want to be a woman,” I refrain from telling them that what I want is to be a cryptid in a forest in Maine or a floating mass within the void where no one can ask me a stupid question like that again. What I end up saying, though, is “I don’t know, I just am.” It’s not that being mistaken for a woman feels bad, even. It just feels off. I feel a deep bond with women and womanhood because of the way I am generally perceived as a woman. I consider myself, in the way many feminine nonbinary people do, to be “woman-aligned” due to these overlapping experiences. I don’t personally know anyone over the age of 30 who is nonbinary, and I fear that one of these days I’m just going to resign myself to living life as a slightly-off cis woman.
In experiencing all of these conflicting feelings, sometimes I’ll tell myself to stop being a baby and be grateful for my ability to pass as a cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied woman for the safety it brings. Gender non-conforming and disabled folks face an immense amount of harassment and are exposed to more danger in just living their lives than cisgender and able-bodied people can imagine. These are things I’ve experienced firsthand. Using a cane definitely makes walking easier for me when I’m having a flare-up. But, whenever I do give in and use one, the physical ease is offset by the stares of people on the street and the fear that if I’m walking home late at night with it, my cane would make me an easy target. It has before. And during the flareups where I’m not using my cane, I worry that because I’m experiencing physical difficulties, should someone follow me I wouldn’t be able to move fast enough to get away.
The times I do bind or have my head shaved and generally look more visibly GNC/LGBTQ, I’ve been called a dyke, a faggot, and have had men tell me they’d love to “fix” me. This isn’t to say that when I am intentionally being perceived as a woman, a statement that makes me feel like my skeleton is fleeing my body, I haven’t also experienced danger. I have been followed more times than I can count, had men get far too close for comfort on the subway, and faced a general onslaught of misogyny in the world. I feel like a chicken for hiding behind my ability to pass as able-bodied and kind-of wrong gender. With danger coming from all sides, how can I win?
Within the disability and LGBTQ communities, those of us suffering from invisible illnesses or who are on the nonbinary spectrum are virtually ignored. The American Chronic Pain Association estimates that 2-4% of the United States population have fibromyalgia, just like me. Despite the fact that millions of us, most of whom are women, suffer from debilitating chronic pain, there’s still virtually no research into the illness and it’s incredibly difficult to diagnose. Lady Gaga’s recent diagnosis was the most I’ve ever heard people talk about fibro in my six years since figuring out I had it.
I remember a trans rights meeting I attended at the L.A. mayor’s office in 2015 where I spoke about the need for more gender-neutral bathroom facilities for everyone, but especially GNC/NB folks who may not feel safe or comfortable in a bathroom of a binary gender. Instead of support, I was met with an onslaught of criticism, saying our priority should be on making sure binary trans folks were able to use the proper bathroom first, and that nonbinary people would come after. We can’t afford to leave members of our communities in the margins, because it will only lengthen the march to forward progress. Despite throwing the first bricks at Stonewall, trans women and the trans community in general were left behind in favor of cisgender gays fight to legalize marriage. It’s great that we have marriage equality, but because that was the sole focus for so long, most other legal forms of discrimination against LGBTQ folks went unaddressed and are still in place today. Leaving behind members of the community makes us weaker, not stronger.
All of this carries an incredible psychic weight, and so most of the time I consciously choose to push out all these thoughts. My fibromyalgia diagnosis and nonbinary identity are important to the person I am because of the way they shape my view of the world, but they aren’t the things I turn to first when I think about what makes me, well, me. Unfortunately, though, because people don’t know how to let others live their lives in peace and respect people’s identities, they’ve become far more prominent members of my consciousness than I’d like them to be. I’ve got books and video games and recipes I want to think about instead of the crippling weight of having no presentation options that I feel safe, respected, and validated in. And so I stay in my insular community in Brooklyn and hang out with friends who see past the layers of tumultuous public identity, and instead see the me who loves RPGs, their cats, and their heated blanket.
Vik Bensen is a native New Yorker and a recent graduate of the New School’s Political Science and Food Studies programs. They’ve worked with nonprofits around the city on food justice, mental health, and LGBTQ liberation. You can find them spouting nonsense around the web @nonbyenarie.