In understanding that I don’t identify as either a man or a woman, I am granted some peace.

illustrated profile of stace selby, a nonbinary person who has curly, brown, shoulder-length hair and blue eyes. they're smiling and looking off-screen, with a bright yellow sun shining behind them and vibrant green plants growing around them.Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Brittany England

I’ve spent my entire life being looked at and preparing to be looked at.

I remember when I was 11, walking into the grocery store with my mom, and she leaned over and hissed for me to cover myself. Apparently my breasts were jiggling.

I quickly crossed my arms over my T-shirt. I didn’t know that I had breasts until that moment in time, let alone that breasts were something that could call unwanted attention to me.

Then they got big.

People of all genders often lowered their eyes from my adolescent face to my breasts, then slowly and reluctantly, raised them back to meet my gaze.

Before, I’d been invisible. But now people stared, and their staring made me self-conscious and nervous.

The thing is, I didn’t identify with my breasts. Nor did I particularly identify as being a girl or a woman. It took me a long time to find the word “queer,” which felt like a gift.

The last summer before the pandemic — the summer of 2019 — I came out, with great hesitation, as nonbinary.

The world had always coded me as a woman because of my breasts. Did I have the right to be nonbinary? The right to use they/them pronouns?

After spending the summer teaching in Hawaii, I flew to the Czech Republic on a Fulbright grant, where I was immediately and always pegged as a woman with a capital W.

Being unmarried and without children was a novelty in the tiny village where I taught. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my pronouns or being openly queer.

I floundered, and after 4 months, I quit the Fulbright program. I stayed in Europe, moving from house-sit to house-sit while trying to write a book.

And then, the news broke about COVID-19.

The United States government declared the novel coronavirus a public health emergency on February 3, 2020. Shortly after, state governments began to issue stay-at-home orders.

So, on March 16, just days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I left Europe and moved back to Seattle.

I was 39 at the time, isolating in a house with several open-minded roommates.

I decided to start seeing my therapist again via Zoom. We hadn’t really spoken since I left the states. And now that I was home, I was ready to talk more about my gender identity.

Within a couple of months, I shared that I wanted to change my name back to Stacy and fully embrace they/them pronouns.

Stacy felt less gendered to me, and it was a childhood name.

Renaming myself Stacy connected me back to my child-self, before I grew breasts and before the world decided I was a woman.

Because we were all home together, my roommates and I often met in the kitchen throughout the day. I told one of them I’d come out to my therapist, and she hugged and congratulated me.

I never thought that coming out was worthy of congratulations, but over time, I began to see that it is. It’s a reclamation of my self that I was taught to reject.

The supportiveness of my roommates helped me immensely, and also created space for further change.

I ventured out for long, long walks throughout the Seattle streets to help pass the time during self-isolation. I barely looked at anyone, and no one really looked at me.

I found that, without the acute gaze of others, I was able to exist differently. I felt more freedom in my movements and in my body.

I grew to understand the ways in which I had been performing in my daily life, in order to appear more feminine. I stopped sucking in my stomach and worrying about how I came across to others.

But it wasn’t until I got my own apartment when I began to fully sense into my nonbinary identity. Externally, not much about me changed, but internally, I knew I didn’t identify as a woman, nor did I identify as a man.

My identity was liminal, always shifting, and that was okay. I didn’t have to be anything for anyone.

It was then, as the bright Pacific Northwest summer dimmed into fall, when I joined a somatics group online.

My roommate (who I came out to first) told me about it. We had both grappled with disordered eating, and the group was led by someone who identified as nonbinary and taught body acceptance.

Alone in my apartment, using somatics to connect with others who were also questioning their identities and cultural training, I learned that I had long been struggling with gender dysphoria.

I hadn’t felt embodied for most of my life, not just because of past traumatic events, but because I had never felt like my inner self aligned with this idea of the “woman” I was supposed to be.

The word woman didn’t fit, nor did “girl.” The misalignment was painful. I didn’t feel at home in groups of women, but I didn’t feel at home with men, either — though I could easily slip into male performance (especially having worked as a firefighter).

In understanding that I don’t identify as either a man or a woman, I am granted some peace, knowing that I don’t have to try to be either one.

Some lawmakers call gender dysphoria a mental illness. But, as I’ve been spending my time alone, my inner voice has gotten louder, and the voices and judgements of others have quieted.

Without constantly being around people who immediately assume I identify as a woman, I feel stronger in my identification of nonbinary, and the magic and beauty of my nonbinary identity.

As humans, we’re always categorizing each other. It’s a part of our brain makeup, an ancient survival mechanism that, for many of us, is now out of date.

Many people are threatened by those they can’t categorize. Throughout my life, I’ve helped others categorize me by streamlining my identity and presenting an external self that’s easier to swallow (woman).

But that was out of alignment with my true self (nonbinary person), and doing so was painful.

It’s also painful to be out in a world where people judge you harshly — even try to harm or kill you — for using they/them pronouns and refusing to wear the cloak of “woman” when they’re sure that’s what I am.

People don’t like being wrong. But what if we approached each other with curiosity rather than assumptions?

What they call my mental illness is their own mental incapacity to expand their worldview and suspend their need to categorize. It’s their own willful ignorance. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Now, over a year into the pandemic, my name is Stace, and I am proud to say that I am nonbinary, a new addition to my longtime queer identity.

In some ways, I dread going back out into the world. I’m fortunate to live in a liberal city. But even here, there are people who cling to the idea that someone who “looks like a woman” must, of course, identify as one.

I’m still coded as a woman and will likely continue to be. I don’t have the money for a breast reduction surgery, I like my long hair, and I sometimes like wearing makeup and dresses.

However, I’m learning that my likes and dislikes don’t define my gender — nor does anyone else’s judgement of me.

I’ll spend the (hopefully) last shreds of this pandemic strengthening my resolve and getting the support I need. When I’m back out in the world, I hope I can find the strength to gently correct people when they use the wrong pronouns.

But I know my job isn’t to force people to accept me, and meeting resistance from others — as I already have — doesn’t change who I am.

Stace Selby is a graduate of the MFA program at Syracuse University and currently lives in Seattle, WA, where they work as a nanny and writer. Their writing has been published in High Country News, Boulevard, Vox, The New Ohio Review, Allure, and Tricycle Buddhist Review. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. They are currently working on a book.