For some, discovering the term “non-binary” or “genderqueer” feels like finally coming home. For me, however, it was a little more complicated.
Over the past year, my TikTok feed has been flooded with videos calling gender into question. It’s a topic I'd had no previous familiarity with. But here I was, with a personalised algorithm serving me videos celebrating life beyond the binary. I had fallen down a cyber rabbit hole, and it led me to question my own relationship with gender.
Most of our lives are still largely dictated by rigid cultural norms surrounding gender — norms steeped in misogyny and white supremacy. And yet non-binary and gender-diverse individuals of all stripes continue to resist archaic constructs, simply by existing. As they always have.
Up until the 18th century in the West, the medical and cultural elite considered males to be the “essential sex” and women as merely inferior versions of men. Outgrowing this idea, philosophers devised the idea of two sexes, male and female, that existed in opposition to one another. Oh, and they still noted that males were the superior sex.
Fast forward to today, and digital platforms like TikTok offer a democratised space for people (notably the emerging Gen Z) to express themselves, in all their fluidity and flavours. The #nonbinary hashtag alone houses 5 billion views to date. It seems TikTok has become *the* home for a myriad of non-cis content creators, generously sharing their lives, perspectives, and lived experiences outside of the binary.
I had fallen down a cyber rabbit hole. And it led me to question my own relationship with gender.
Activist and co-founder of Speak, a community organisation promoting LGBTQ+ inclusive spaces, Sage Akouri’s work is proof of the power of the internet. “Social media has given underrepresented voices a massive platform to reach millions of people,” Sage says. “That’s something we’re not granted in a patriarchal and capitalistic society that only offers a seat at the table to people who are cisgender, heteronormative, white, able-bodied … I see these people online existing and thriving outside of these binaries and that gives me strength.”
Queer rights activist and non-binary creator Deni Todorović, known online as @stylebydeni, is also changing perceptions within this space. “Being queer, simply the way that we exist is an education in itself, you’re instantly teaching things before you open your mouth,” Deni says. “After I came out I became an accidental activist and started to observe a real desire from people to know more; learn more.”
While showing up as non-binary online is a powerful form of representation, Deni stresses the importance of creating and nurturing real-world spaces that are safe and inclusive for people to explore their own gender.
“I feel so safe in my little cocoon on the internet and then I step out into a space where I’m being kicked out of the toilet because another person is saying I don’t belong there,” they say. “As a non-binary person, it’s not my job to delete gender and the binary structures of gender, it is simply to make a space for people who exist beyond that.”
Fellow non-binary creator, Jonti Ridley, explains just how important it is that their platform is built on this same kind of security. “I’ve been invalidated, dismissed, and had people flat out argue over what’s in my pants before and it’s really shitty,” Jonti says. “As an adult who is fortunate to be able to curate the people around me, anyone who discredits your identity isn’t someone you want around.”
As confusing as questioning your gender can be, Jonti explains that these feelings are totally normal. After all, gender is far more nuanced than simply switching pronouns. “The increase in casual representations [of gender diverse people] online has been so important, particularly as I prefer to present hyper-femme. It’s validating to watch other non-binary people reject the idea that we have to exist as androgynous beings.”
When I came across the world of non-binary content creators like Jonti, Deni, and Sage, it struck a nerve. For the first time, I heard stories of creators who had allowed their gender identity to unfold and evolve. I learned about gender dysphoria (and euphoria). I saw people experiment with gender presentation in real time. It wasn’t until my algorithm presented these stories to me, that my surface-level understanding of gender was completely blown apart. In its place grew a hunger to learn more about this community and more about myself. Cue waves of anxiety.
I now have the language. And with it, the sense of possibility.
Although I typically enjoy presenting as femme, there are parts of me that TikTok allowed me to realise don’t align with what’s socially deemed “female”. From the way I feel most comfortable dressing, to my innermost personality traits; they’ve never seemed to fit. I realised gender dysphoria was something I’d unconsciously experienced but didn’t have the words to define. Until now.
As with any period of profound growth, fear and confusion were at the core of my realisation that maybe I — like these creators — could exist beyond the binary. And while I’m not sure if coming out as non-binary is where I’m at right now, being a “she/her” no longer feels 100 per cent correct in describing who I am either. Thanks to an app that's famous for viral dance videos, I’m leaning towards fluidity, more than ever before.
Although initially scary, stepping through the metaphorical door that’s been flung open for me is a privilege. I now have the opportunity to learn more and explore my own gender, fallible and fragile as it is. I now have the language. And with it, the sense of possibility.
Gender itself is limitless. The less we try to define it, the more freedom we have.
As society plays catch up in understanding the nuances of gender, there’s a strong likelihood that other unsuspecting TikTok users like me are realising they don’t fit within an archaic binary. “The beautiful thing is the conversation is inescapable,” Jonti says. “Once you ask ‘why should I confine myself to a gender label?’ and particularly one designed to oppress me under the patriarchy — you can’t take it back. And that’s pretty powerful.”
Equally powerful is the consideration of what a future free of the gender binary could look like. If we let it. “Gender itself is limitless,” says Sage. “The less we try to define it, the more freedom we have. We exist outside of a system that tries its best to erase us. Yet here we are. That to me is liberating.”
Thanks to those who have paved the way, stepping into my own truth and blacklisting the binary — though still daunting — is arguably the easiest it’s ever been in history. Here’s to figuring it out. Online and IRL.