My Non-Binary Journey
Parts of my life have become need-to-know information for people that interact with me on a regular basis, because I’m making plans to undergo a process that will make me look and behave significantly different, and I want to get in front of that to mitigate any confusion that might arise.
So I feel as though I should provide you with information that might help some of you understand the changes I’m making in myself, the decisions I’ve made that have led me here, and the circuitous route I’ve taken.
Normally I’m of the mind that, ahh, I do what I want, and I don’t keep people apprised of my business—not because I am trying to hide it, but because it’s none of their business, and if it was need-to-know info, I would give it to them. Maybe I inherited that frame of mind from my mother. She’s always been the frontierswoman type, real private and industrious, leave you to yours if you leave me to mine, you know what I mean?
But I want to get this all out there. I want people to understand me.
I don’t blog often, so I don’t talk about myself much outside of complaining on social media about this or that. So you’re probably pretty aware of my political views, or how I feel about Oxford commas and “Write what you know.” You probably know that I love horror and coffee. You might even already be aware of my “non-binary” status.
So anyway, I don’t do that often, so I figured that since I was about to make some big changes, I might as well pour all that out here and make it a thing.
And besides, I’m a storyteller.
How can I pass up the opportunity to tell you a story?
(Content warning: there’s a brief mention of suicide here in about eight paragraphs, some mild talk about bodily functions later, and a brief description of child abuse.)
Unaware that I had other options (namely, the Alcona Community Health Center, where I go now), I went the yellow-pages route and googled nearby men’s mental-health counselors. I don’t quite remember the exact events that transpired, but I found three.
One of them wouldn’t pick up the phone, so I biked out to his practice only to discover that his office was cleaned out and he had retired. The next one was a total misogynist who told me over the phone not to cry in front of women because it made me look weak and they didn’t like men like that. I don’t remember what happened with the third, but the first finally returned my message and asked me to come visit him at his private residence.
That seemed incredibly inappropriate and gave me total Tusk and Human Centipede vibes, so I called off the search for the time being, discouraged.
Eventually, my relationship with Jess deteriorated to the point that we ended up separating just before Thanksgiving, which devastated me. I spent the winter in some strange, desolate limbo, grieving my lost relationship, soul-searching, haunting a dark corner in the local coffee-shop hangout, skulking around in the snow sobbing like a Victorian La Llorona—you know, all those wonderful things emo writers like me do.
That first night happened to coincide with an event at Beards’ Brewery—Game Night, I think, something I had put on my schedule before the breakup and had really wanted to attend—but I didn’t really have any friends then other than my D&D group, who had been scattered to the four winds over the winter.
So I sloshed around the tourist district all evening in knee-deep snow, trying to stop crying, hoping some group of tourists would take pity on me and invite me to hang out with them. My heart was so fucking broken that my body had washed away like old food in a kitchen sink, revealing some kind of ravaged, agonizingly-raw ghost. At several points, it took all I had not to kneel in the snow and press my forehead against the frozen sidewalk and just be like that forever. I had come a thousand miles from home and now I no longer had anything tying me to Petoskey other than a few friends that I didn’t even get to see anymore.
When Christmas rolled around, I didn’t put up a tree. I was done with relationships, and women, and people, and maybe life in general. It had taken me almost a decade to recover from my abusive relationship and begin to regain trust in women. I had gotten back on the horse, and now . . . I was on my back in the dirt again.
My life-long depression came back with a vengeance. I moved my futon into the dining room where the tree usually stood, and lay on it for hours every night fantasizing about buying a long, sturdy rope and doing a scuba flip off the handrail of the Mitchell St. Bridge. Good time of year for it. This useless husk of mine would freeze solid in no time. One of my biggest fears were the insects feasting on my corpse, but in a Michigan winter, that was not an issue.
So as I tend to do when I get my heart broken, I dragged myself out of the mud by my bootstraps, and made a big change.
The first time it happened, when my first wife Jennifer left me in 2005, I joined the Army. I had to get out of town, I had to make a change, I needed a change of scenery.
The second time it happened, after Teasha left me in 2011, I moved to Kentucky to hang out with my stepbrother and make video games in Lexington. That turned out to be a mistake—or maybe a half-mistake, because Slade, Kentucky, where I ended up homeless for a little while, provided part of the inspiration for the Malus Domestica books. But around this time I started writing the Outlaw King series, which was most decidedly not a mistake, and continues to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
This time I made a weird move. I stayed put. I did not flee like usual.
Instead of running away, changing my scenery or my situation, I changed myself. I did not reassemble my broken pieces into what I thought everyone wanted me to be, or what I thought I ought to be. This time I reassembled my broken pieces into what I wanted to be. This time I liquified like a caterpillar in my emotional chrysalis, and began my Kafkaesque transformation into a creature I’d been fantasizing about becoming for a long time.
Raised entirely by a woman and surrounded by her sisters, I was kind of a shrimpy, bookish kid—adventure-minded, head in the clouds, with a vivid imagination and no friends, and I had trouble fitting in with redneck society—chopping wood, four-wheeling, deer-hunting, fishing, NASCAR, horses. I wasn’t into sports like other boys. I didn’t roughhouse. I wasn’t a Don Juan, even though I’m attracted to women. I was a lonely, nerdy kid, and I didn’t fit in even the least little bit.
Even then there were two sides to me, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time: a dark, headstrong, turbulent side, and a quiet, thoughtful, vulnerable side.
They say authors contain multitudes—we are all full of characters yelling to be heard, clamoring to be set to paper, bickering with each other and discovering themselves. I have come to learn that I have always had two characters inside me: an angry, impulsive, insecure man, and an exasperated, introspective, confident woman who is tired of his shit.
Over the winter, I discovered the term “non-binary” floating around on the internet.
Something about it reached through the dark caul of my post-breakup depression and sparked a light in me. Felt like I’d finally determined a real truth about myself, a secret name I’d had since birth and never known, or perhaps it had simply helped me pull my dual nature into clearer focus, and suddenly I gained some measure of power over Me and who I was.
I was not wholly male—I was both in one.
I was non-binary. I finally knew. I was an “enby,” a nickname for “NB,” non-binary.
✅ All of the above
I consider myself a mixture of the two traditional genders—both male and female simultaneously. I refer to myself not as “he” or “she,” but as “them” and “they.” I am a human Reese’s peanut butter cup—female chocolate and male peanut butter, living together in gooey symbiosis.
Wikipedia’s entry for non-binary says it is “a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine.”
I contain a dichotomy, a dual nature that is sometimes at odds with each other.
If you’re familiar with Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels, consider me something sort of like Susannah Dean. I am Susannah, the combination of Detta Walker and Odetta Holmes. Long days and pleasant nights, gunslingers.
A quick aside—the Wikipedia entry for “non-binary” also states thus:
Non-binary people may identify as
- having two or more genders (being bigender or trigender);
- having no gender (agender, nongendered, genderless, genderfree or neutrois);
- moving between genders or having a fluctuating gender identity (genderfluid);
- being third gender or other-gendered (a category that includes those who do not place a name to their gender).
I consider myself “genderfluid,” meaning my gender expression fluctuates from day to day, dictating my choice of expression and fashion. Today I might be stomping around wearing pants and going barefaced, tomorrow I might be sashaying around, wearing pink eyeshadow and a dress. It depends on how masculine or feminine I feel when I wake up that day (and how much time I want to spend shaving and putting makeup on my face).
Gender identity is separate from sexual or romantic orientation, and non-binary people have a variety of sexual orientations, just as transgender and cisgender people do.
Think of it like this: your gender and your sexuality are two different things. Your gender is what you are, and your sexuality is who you like.
Your gender could be “spoon,” or “fork”—and your sexuality could be “cereal,” or it could be “soup,” or it might be “chili,” or even a mixture of caviar and marmalade. Cavalade. Point is, you can eat whatever you want, but what you are is a spoon.
For the record, as a non-binary person, my sexuality is “pansexual,” meaning I’m a spork, and I’ll eat just about anything.
But I know that after a lifetime of pushing myself to my limits, including ten years in the Army, this hardy Irish body is strong. I am strong as fuck for my frame. I can one-arm-row-lift an average-capacity water heater at ~100lb. I can suitcase-drag a 250lb refrigerator up a flight of stairs with one hand. I’ve lifted a ~300lb enamel-iron bathtub by myself and thrown it into a Dumpster. Never defeated in Army Combatives (hand-to-hand ground game). If I ever get into the guard position, or if I’m on my hands and knees, good luck. If I get on top of you, it’s over.
And while the pragmatic female side of me has been ready and willing to leverage this strength into achieving many a feat of manual labor, the angry, impulsive Mr. Hyde has a history of using this strength to self-harm and sublimate his frustration in unhealthy ways. When I was younger, I squeezed video-game controllers to pieces, twisted household fixtures out of their mounts. I’ve punched holes in walls, dented fire-exit doors and foot lockers with my fists and elbows.
To this day my hands cramp up when I try to write longhand. It’s a miracle I’ve never broken them.
Many people assume this kind of behavior is some kind of chest-beating display of dominance, done purposefully, meant to intimidate. Some men can be guilty of this. But in my experience, it has proven to be an instinctual coping mechanism, a form of self-harm, like cutting or burning yourself, to gain some control over whatever anger or despair you’re feeling at the time.
You can’t control emotional pain like despair or sorrow, but you can control physical pain. You can take the reins of physical pain, and use it to obstruct the emotional pain with it like an umbrella blocks the sun.
Self-harming is emotional Tylenol.
Some people drink to forget, to remove themselves from reality for a while. Some people get high. Some people go running until they puke. And some people hurt themselves on purpose.
Of course, I’m not proud of it. It’s been years since I’ve done anything like that—I don’t have that pain tolerance anymore, I’m no longer in a headspace where I instinctively turn to self-harming when I’m frustrated, and honestly I’m just too old to abuse myself that way these days. The majority of the time now, when I get those urges, I have the self-control to step back and evaluate my reaction to the situation, and the ramifications of losing focus. But my introspective, deliberate female side still experiences no small amount of shame and frustration at how I used to behave.
And as I’ve grown older and wiser, the anger, the confusion, and the urge to self-harm have not completely gone away, but they’ve become colder, slower, more considerate. For the most part I can control it now, or at least consciously dial it back.
In the end I have decided that my male side has done enough driving (and crashing into shit), and it’s time to let the woman in the passenger seat hop behind the wheel.
By that I don’t mean that I want to transition into a woman—I know I am not a woman, at least not fully. But I’m also not fully a man. I just want to hit a midway point that expresses what I am inside, on the outside, biologically.
Think of my non-binary gender dichotomy as a stereo system. Specifically, the equalizer, the bass versus the treble. Right now my bass is up way too high—my trunk is buzzing, my bones are shaking, and I’m struggling to hear the finer notes. So I want to turn that EQ dial a bit off-center, toward the feminine treble, and bring out those higher, more complex and delicate rhythms.
Another way to conceptualize my non-binary nature: consider my favorite Dungeons & Dragons monster, the Owlbear.
I love the Owlbear because it’s a perfect visual representation of my non-binary nature. Half of the beast is a wise, elegant owl, the queen of the night skies; the other half is a hulking, explosive bear, the apex predator of the forest.
And as an Owlbear, I am way too much bear and not enough owl. I want to bring that bear down a little bit, and pump that owl part up considerably.
In order to feminize myself, I needed to find hormone replacement therapy to introduce estrogen to my system. By the time I had rebounded from my winter bout with depression, I had been putting out experimental feelers for HRT options for a year at least, and had done a lot of anecdotal reading and Googling. From what I could tell, I was going to find a lot of pushback, even if there were any local sources, which I didn’t see. I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for.
I discovered a hormone specialist in Petoskey, but when I called them they admitted that they did not work with transgender people. “There’s an endocrinologist at MacLaren once a month or so that might do it,” she told me, but I wasn’t sure how to even begin that quest, so I put it on the backburner until I could find a clear route.
In the meantime, I tracked down online sources for hormones.
One of them was “Lena,” a trans-woman in the Ukraine selling unmixed tinctures of estradiol through the mail for about eighty bucks, taking payment through an obscure go-between service I’d never heard of. She mails you powdered estrogen; you mix it with castor oil (or the suspension medium of your choice), draw it into a hypodermic syringe, and inject it into your ass-cheek.
I’m no chemist or pharmacist, and I’m not injecting some Eastern-European mystery powder into my gluteus maximus.
By the way, estradiol, if you were wondering, is one of the three main naturally-occurring estrogen steroids in the female body. It’s the primary one. Wikipedia’s article on estradiol says,
[Estradiol is] an estrogen steroid hormone and the major female sex hormone. It is involved in the regulation of the estrous and menstrual female reproductive cycles.
Estradiol is responsible for the development of female secondary sexual characteristics such as the breasts, widening of the hips, and a female-associated pattern of fat distribution and is important in the development and maintenance of female reproductive tissues such as the mammary glands, uterus, and vagina during puberty, adulthood, and pregnancy. It also has important effects in many other tissues including bone, fat, skin, liver, and the brain.
Though estradiol levels in males are much lower compared to those in females, estradiol has important roles in males as well. Apart from humans and other mammals, estradiol is also found in most vertebrates and crustaceans, insects, fish, and other animal species.
The other two are estriol and estrone. There’s a fourth one, estetrol, but it is only produced during pregnancy.
Anyway, the other item I found during a cursory sweep of Amazon: ProEstro black cohosh pills, meant to treat menopause symptoms, twenty dollars a bottle. I won’t bore you with all the botanic information like rhizomes and stamens, but “Black cohosh,” Actaea racemosa, contains phytoestrogens. Wikipedia states,
A phytoestrogen is a plant-derived xenoestrogen [...] consumed by eating phytoestrogenic plants. Also called a ‘dietary estrogen,’ it is a diverse group of naturally occurring nonsteroidal plant compounds that, because of its structural similarity with estradiol, have the ability to cause estrogenic effects.
[...] According to one study of nine common phytoestrogens in a Western diet, foods with the highest relative phytoestrogen content were nuts and oilseeds, followed by soy products, cereals and breads, legumes, meat products, and other processed foods that may contain soy, vegetables, fruits, alcoholic, and nonalcoholic beverages. Flax seed and other oilseeds contained the highest total phytoestrogen content, followed by soybeans and tofu.
The highest concentrations of isoflavones are found in soybeans and soybean products followed by legumes, whereas lignans are the primary source of phytoestrogens found in nuts and oilseeds (e.g. flax) and also found in cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Phytoestrogen content varies in different foods, and may vary significantly within the same group of foods (e.g. soy beverages, tofu) depending on processing mechanisms and type of soybean used. Legumes (in particular soybeans), whole grain cereals, and some seeds are high in phytoestrogens.
A more comprehensive list of foods known to contain phytoestrogens includes:
- Soybeans and soy products
- Linseed (flax)
- Sesame seeds
- Wheat berries
- Mung beans
- Wheat germ
- Rice bran
- Licorice root
- Bourbon whiskey
- Red clover [...]
The National Institute of Health says in a study of black cohosh,
Studies indicate that flavonoids, like [black cohosh], may act as a “selective estrogen receptor modulator” (SERM), thus inducing inhibitory growth effects on hormone-dependent cancer cells.
At any rate, the Amazon reviews for ProEstro were full of elated exclamations about how their hot flashes and other menopause symptoms had all but disappeared. It wasn’t true HRT—the capsules didn’t contain any real biological estrogen, but they were about as close as I was going to get without ordering mystery powder from “Lena.”
So as far as I could tell, the ProEstro capsules had a pro-estrogenic effect and there was empirical evidence that they helped to inhibit the cancer growth that certain Facebook friends had expressed concern about.
I mean, the choice was obvious.
The capsules showed up a couple weeks later and I started taking them the day they arrived. I had also ordered a lotion called “BiEstro,” which did contain biological estradiol, and started massaging it into my face after every shave.
Within the month I could see my face feminizing as the fat cells rearranged themselves. I stood in my bathroom, gazing transfixed at myself in the medicine cabinet mirror. My skin looked softer, my jaw seemed less square and my face more heart-shaped, my eyes seemed to have become significantly more vivid and prominent, my neck had vaguely narrowed. I don’t know if my estrogen had increased or my testosterone had decreased, but something was struggling to take effect. I gained an almost willowy aspect.
For the first time in my entire life, I felt attractive.
My self-image shot through the fucking ceiling. I was over the moon happy. For the first time in 37 years, I liked the person I saw in the mirror.
In retrospect I think this might have been what is called “gender euphoria” in gender exploration circles—the idea that you experience an automatic, inherent joy through expressing your gender in its proper form. The Gender Wiki says,
“Gender Euphoria is a psychological condition which consists of comfort or even joy when thinking about one's true Gender identity, often accompanied by a strong desire to change one's sex to better match their identity or to be called the correct gendered language.
“Euphoria can be focused upon bodily attributes, treatment from others. It is possible for nonbinary people to feel gender euphoria too, for much the same reasons as binary transgender people.”
/u/hatshepsut at Reddit says about a female-to-male trans-man’s gender euphoria,
“Does being called [a] man give you euphoria? Perhaps . . . but I wonder if this euphoria is rather yourself coping without the burdens of forced femininity, of feeling relief in the idea of opting out of being female.”
Not sure that’s one hundred percent true, but there is definitely a relief and satisfaction in crawling out from under the weight of masculinity, especially toxic masculinity, and opting out of being fully male.
There is absolutely an allure to being allowed to show my emotions or express my sexuality, and to finally being valued—valued as an intellectual human being and a sexual creature, and not just as a source of income, or being valued solely for how much backbreaking work I can do.
I also find incredible relief in not being perceived as a predator.
When they noticed I was there, many women reacted to my presence in certain environments in a guarded, unsure way—and I don’t blame them for that.
Take the local city park, for example. I’ve been sitting in the picnic area working on a book within sight of the playground, and women give me pointed looks, pack up their kids, and leave. Women make a hasty exit as soon as they see me, or don’t even get out of the car at all. I’ve seen women pull into the parking lot dressed for jogging on the track, sit in the car for upwards of twenty minutes, then back out and leave.
Like I said, I don’t blame them for their caution, there are a lot of terrible people out there—but I’m not one of them. And there is an immense un-burdening and comfort in being able to shed that, and be perceived as a friend and not an enemy. I like being soft vulnerable, and what kids on the internet call “smol.”
There’s also an element of being seen.
As a man, nobody gave a shit about me or the way I looked—I’d never received a compliment in my whole life other than the occasional “handsome” from my aunt. I was invisible. I was a faceless ghost, wearing shapeless mens’ peasant-rags from Walmart: polo shirts and cargo shorts in masculine colors like Dog Turd Brown and Shovel Gray and Who Are You Again? White. I might as well have been a Generic Caucasian Guy cardboard cutout.
But when the estrogen changed my features and I started dressing in feminine clothing, suddenly everybody in my life* was telling me I was “cute,” I was “pretty,” my clothes looked good, I looked good.
The summer before my breakup with Jess, I’d begun to experiment with feminine clothing—chiefly, leggings. I’d found a pair of Halloween leggings at Meijer, fleece tights covered in pumpkins and gravestones, and I was amazed to discover that they were the most comfortable thing I’d ever stretched across this moldy cadaver I call a body.
Started wearing them under my jeans—women’s jeans at that, a pair of black stretch-denim biker jeans that looked really good on me. I bought a couple of “T-shirt dresses” and wore them under my jacket, passed them off as unusually long T-shirts. Found an activewear hoodie made of quilted fabric that came down to mid-thigh, almost like a tunic. I liked the way it looked over the T-shirt dresses; reminded me of Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice.
Everything in black, of course.
By the time I’d discovered who I truly was and started taking the ProEstro this year, I was going in public in full panoply—dress, leggings, eye makeup and all. People loved it. Even strangers were complimenting me every day. I got an anonymous message from a secret admirer telling me I was “beautiful.” My partner Kate told me I was gorgeous every day with this awestruck expression on their face.
All of a sudden I began to exist in the real world like Roger Rabbit stepping through a portal from Toontown into real California. I was no longer a wooden puppet, or a cardboard cutout. I coalesced out of thin air and people started to treat me like someone that deserved to exist.
This list of people is why I am still in Petoskey, Michigan. I’m so lucky to live here with all of these accepting, incredible people. I’m lucky to have been able to afford to move up here.
To a certain extent there’s the ever-nebulous Outlaw Army and all my thousands of adherents on social media, which means I don’t truly know exactly who is in it, how many there are of you, or who’s even still there. But of the ones I interact with on a daily basis, all of them have been accepting and even enthusiastic about my change. Chaser, mostly, and Katie, Monica, Oakes, Ruz, Logan, Marcus, Glenn, Caleb, Emily, Lason, Gallowglas, Chamren, Franck, Shea, Lucas, Coorlim, Barouch, Sandlin, and many, many, many others, known and anonymous.
There’s also my agent, Leon, and my editor, Diana.
Last but not least is my partner, Kate, who has supported me and my decision since we met, and thinks I’m beautiful. They love the way I look when I’m dressed up and find it extremely attractive.
I am surrounded by loving, wonderful people, and I am astronomically, desperately lucky to have that.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone yet that hasn’t been receptive, or at least not openly hostile. I’m hoping that doesn’t change, because there are probably a lot of people in my life reading this essay and learning these things about me for the first time.
To them I just want to say: as much as I’m telling you about monumental changes and how amazing and incredible this “new me” is . . . in the end, the new me is really just the old me with most of the shit I don’t want replaced with new and better shit.
I still love you as much as I ever did. That never changed.
That heart is still under there.