Kimberly Lopez: Repeat after me – Nonbinary does not equal androgyny (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

If you’re someone society codes as a woman and you’re of a certain age — which is any — there is nothing more innocuous, yet decidedly annoying, than to be called “ma’am” by a well-meaning stranger. 

That happened to me the other day at work, when I was shelving books, bopping along to whatever Taylor Swift song happened to be playing through my single wireless earbud, and then I heard it: “Excuse me, ma’am, can you point me in the direction of –”

There’s nothing wrong with being polite. A Midwesterner by birth, I take note when people pause in their stride to hold doors open for someone else and judge accordingly. I radiate cornfed energy whenever anyone says “please” or “thank you” and they genuinely mean it. However, I think we can all agree that “ma’am” needs to die. 

You know something else that should be buried? The misconception that “nonbinary” equals “androgyny” when, in fact, they are entirely separate. Nonbinary is an identity. Androgyny is an aesthetic. Please do not confuse the two. 

When you’re raised in a world that normalizes the color coordination of sex organs, when even toy aisles reinforce antiquated notions of gender roles, it can be difficult to wrap your mind around the rejection of the binary altogether. It makes a certain amount of sense that the conclusion many would come to in regards to being nonbinary is an absence or mixture of all gender. What comes to mind is a tall, thin figure shrouded in clothing that sort of looks like a designer potato sack and sporting a haircut that gives off the vibe, “I am more cool than you could ever hope to be.” 

This image is painfully chic, and also, devastating in its limitations. Because the thing is that, I, myself, am one of those humans who decided to give a big middle finger to this whole “gender” concept the vast majority of people ascribe to, and despite my curves, despite my traditionally feminine name, I’m neither man, nor woman. However, people who have never met me still find it respectful to refer to me as “ma’am.” I don’t know of anyone who actually enjoys being called “ma’am,” but it hits different when you’re nonbinary, because it’s also an act of misgendering. 

Being misgendered is a small act of violence. It can be a day ruiner, or it can be the final straw. At the very least, it’s incredibly invalidating. It’s a reminder that no matter how many times I cuff my jeans, or how shaggy my hair becomes, my body type will never fit into that standard androgynous image. The one that has inexplicably become synonymous with nonbinary identity. An image that is something I secretly desire, but also revile, because of its homogeneity. There is comfort in being othered in a way that is exotic, in gender confusion. After all, I would never have to endure being called “ma’am” if people looked at me and thought, “What are they?”

But at the same time, glorifying this image as the ultimate form of nonbinary expression is  inherently toxic and blatantly incorrect. Identifying as nonbinary is all-encompassing and vast and unique to each individual experience. It is not an aesthetic. Jacob Tobia proudly sporting a mustache and a red lip is the nonbinary experience, as well as Amandla Stenberg looking and being fabulous in literally everything they do. Elliot Page’s shoulders-forward walk and square-jawed selfie is just as much an act of gender rebellion as Sam Smith referring to themself as wanting to be a mom someday. Or, as they put it, “mummy,” because they are precious and British. 

When you assume how someone identifies based on their appearance, you’re automatically going to run into some issues, because not everyone who looks like a woman is a woman. Not everyone who looks like a man is a man. And not everyone who identifies as nonbinary has to appear androgynous. Associating clothing with gender, or a lack of gender, only reinforces the binary, which dismantles the entire purpose of being nonbinary in the first place. 

So, please, next time you look at another human being, don’t jump to conclusions about their gender identity, don’t equivocate an overall aesthetic with a specific identity, and for the love of all that is holy (namely, Harry Styles in a dress), do not refer to me as “ma’am.” Thank you.

— Kimberly Lopez (they/them) is a queer, nonbinary librarian living in the heart of Lawrence. They can often be found reading romance novels or ranting about the validity of boy bands. Their obsession with Harry Styles is “perfectly normal” and “healthy.”

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