Questioning Gender, Finding Answers

A classmate’s openness about their journey to find their gender identity helped me embrace being nonbinary

by A.W.

Credit: AndreyPopov

It happened when I paused outside the girls bathroom during a normal 9th grade math class. For the first time, I began to feel awkward and fearful that I was somehow in the wrong place. I wasn’t sure why I was feeling this way. I checked the sign once, twice. I’m a girl, I silently reassured myself.

I looked down at myself and back at the sign, trying to remind myself that it was perfectly normal to enter, but my feet stayed planted on the ground.

I felt as though my gender identity had shattered, leaving behind a series of questions: Was I a girl? What made someone a girl? What connection to womanhood did I even have?

Staring at the cracked bathroom tiles, I waited. I knew entering the bathroom was the most logical choice, but I still felt like I couldn’t.

I stared at the clip art woman on the door. I belong in here, I told myself.

I didn’t want to complicate my life, to admit that I didn’t feel like a girl. So I stepped over the threshold and into the bathroom, imagining phantom strings attaching to me. I am a girl, I reminded myself.

Despite my attempts to reassure myself, it was the first time I had questioned my gender identity, and a chain reaction had been set into motion, one that redefined how I thought about myself.

“Conforming to traditional femininity and being seen as a girl just didn’t feel right to me.”

I recalled the discomfort I had felt wearing a dress to my elementary school graduation. I’d usually avoided dresses, but had to wear one for the occasion. The entire time, I had felt wrong, that there was something off, and I hadn’t worn a dress since.

As I stood in the girls bathroom, I realized that it was the same sense of wrongness that I felt now. For the first time I had named it.

Conforming to traditional femininity and being seen as a girl just didn’t feel right to me.

The more I reflected, the more I realized that my assigned gender had always been disconnected from my sense of self. But I didn’t know what this realization meant for me. I knew the general labels that people identified with—male, female, and nonbinary—but I didn’t know where I fit in.


“You guys can’t forget what gender you’re using when you’re using participles in Spanish,” my Spanish teacher reminded us, several months later. As we went through vocabulary and were growing more familiar with adjectives, the question of whether to use feminine or masculine endings,  “a” or “o,” kept coming up.

“Take Ava for example. If you wanted to say, ‘she was lost,’ you would say, ‘Ella está perdida.’”

At the first sound of “she,” my muscles tightened. The word felt so loud, as if bolded in her speech. When she repeated it, even in Spanish—the genders ever-present—I flinched.

“What other participles could you use?” My teacher asked.

And so my classmates began.

“She was tired,” my classmates supplied. I sank a little in my seat.

“She was done with her homework,” said another classmate. I reflexively twitched my fingers.

“She was finished,” a third classmate responded.

A ring of ‘She was this,’ ‘She was that’ went on, all using me as an example, and every time, I winced.

It was uncomfortable to be reminded of how other people saw me, that she and her were so intrinsically associated with my outward self. Most times, a single she wouldn’t bother me, but the chorus of them was like needles pushing against my skin.

The gender dysphoria was sharp, and it reminded me that I did care about how people saw me and that their perceptions were disconnected from how I saw myself.

Sitting at the uncomfortable desk, I wanted to be anywhere else. My chest felt tight, and I shifted. Why, of all people, did my teacher have to pick me?

Talking About Gender

A few months later, I was sitting in English class, waiting for class to start. “Ava!” my friend Rachel said as they walked over to me. “I’m wearing a binder for the first time and I honestly just want to keep wearing it as a shirt. Like, this is so great on its own.”

Not knowing how to respond, I just nodded.

“seeing how they had found their confidence, I realized that confusion was a part of the process”

Rachel explained how, after coming out to their parents, who didn’t really understand but were willing to be supportive, they had asked a classmate for suggestions on how to safely manage their gender dysphoria. Finally, they’d had a chance to buy a binder.

Their enthusiasm and brightness surprised me. Rachel had put themselves out there, been honest, and embraced their identity to feel more like themself.

For most of the semester, Rachel had struggled to articulate their gender identity. But eventually, they had found it: the individual pronouns and transition that made sense for them.

Talking with Rachel about their struggles with gender and how other people perceived them, and seeing how they had found their confidence, I realized that confusion was a part of the process of finding the change that they wanted and that it was possible to be recognized.

And they had truly embraced being non-binary. Could I do the same if, like my classmate, I confronted the confusion and dysphoria that I felt as someone who didn’t fit within the gender binary?

Driven by this realization, I realized I wanted a change.

Stepping Toward Myself

The first piece was the most clear: a need to change my pronouns. The gendered labels that I had grown up with no longer felt right.

The second went along with the first and felt much harder to execute: for the people in my life to recognize that I was non-binary. I wasn’t sure how my parents and some of my friends would react, since they were raised to assume that everyone is either a cisgender heterosexual man or woman. I knew they would try to change their perceptions because I had seen it in their interactions with some of my trans classmates. But there were always mistakes and slip-ups that showed how hard it was for them. I was afraid of how long it would take for them to adjust and see me differently.

The final piece was a need to understand myself. While I wanted other people to see me, that would be impossible if I didn’t know how to define myself. That didn’t mean conforming to gender norms, but being confident and secure in myself as I moved beyond my assigned gender.

But still, it felt hard to commit to all three things. Even just changing my pronouns felt impossible, much less communicating this change to others. Each step was like a fight against myself, a conflict between my need to break free of binary labels and doubts about my ability to do so successfully.

Would I ever be able to truly feel comfort and assuredness in my gender?


A month later, I stared at the white Instagram screen, my profile staring back at me. For the couple of years I had used Instagram, my pronouns had always been she/her.

Even though I never posted anything, changing my pronouns felt unsettling, like beginning a trek up a mountain I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish. Getting to the other side would change the way everyone thought of me, and I wasn’t sure if I could handle their new, possibly negative perceptions.

Yet there was an obvious, pertinent need to change them: the same needles and pressure that made me feel like I should take this step.

After all, I reasoned, who even looked at Instagram pronouns anyway? They were just two words built from small pixels on a screen, two syllables, six letters, and a slash down the middle. Realistically, few people would see this. Or care. This shouldn’t have been as hard to do as it was, and shouldn’t mean as much as it did. But sitting alone, my heart pounded and my thoughts raced at just the thought of making this change.

Nevertheless I wrote in the updated pronouns —they/them. Clicking the confirmation felt like a commitment, a neon declaration for the world to see.

Becoming More Comfortable in My Gender Identity

“Ava is really stressed about their essay,” my friend remarked.

I paused, my heart racing. The casual use of “their” caught me off guard, its impact magnified as if the word were bolded.

We had never talked about pronouns, so I knew she’d used “their” because she’d seen it on my social media.

The recognition I felt at this one instance of “their” was invigorating; it felt distinct from the use of “she,” leaving me unsure how to respond.

It was so simple—not even the main point of the comment, yet it meant so much to me. The respect she gave me through one comment validated my feelings. She was the first one to say it aloud.

Her words served as a reminder of what I wanted but was too afraid to admit. I wanted to shed the strings that attached me to binary gender labels. Redefining myself had felt impossible, like it would negatively change how everyone perceived me. Yet if one person could be accepting, why couldn’t I hope for more?

Feeling affirmed in my gender for the first time, I knew that I might shake my dysphoria and discomfort eventually. My chest felt lighter, and I thought back to my classmate who had started transitioning. They were much more comfortable now that they had accepted their identity. I began to believe that one day I could be like them—excited to express myself and confident to talk about my gender.

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