Presenting as Non-Binary Changed My Dating Life Completely
Staying true to my femme gender non-conforming identity has definitely made relationships more complicated.
Photo by Hani Hooper.
There I was again: Six outfits down. An emptied wardrobe. A tired and out-of-advice roommate. And an impending date that I was getting ever closer to being “sorry, i’m running five mins late, traffic x" for. Time was running out, and I was filled with uncertainty.
They couldn't possibly find you hot in that dress.
You weren't wearing expressive makeup in your Tinder photos, so you can’t wear it now.
Maybe he swiped right on the photo where you look more masculine.
Your life isn’t a 2000s rom-com—just pick the outfit, and go have an average time.
What felt all too familiar was not the horrible trial of outfit-picking before a first date—I’m sure we've all been there. It was the particular weight added to that by dating while gender non-conforming.
Becoming more authentic in my gender presentation has given me a deeper understanding of myself and relieved (some of) my gender dysphoria. But in the context of dating, choosing to be all of my Black, gender non-conforming, non-binary, feminine self in a body that was assigned male at birth has made me very intimate with loneliness. It's definitely complicated my relationship to desire and sex.
The landscape of dating and sex that I occupied when I conformed to a more expected masculine gender presentation shifted the moment that the world saw me in a dress, makeup, and heels. Before, in dating scenarios, queer men bought me drinks, didn't ignore me on dating sites, and never told me I was "disgusting" over Grindr. Now, getting dressed for this date—any date—felt like choosing between a dress, or an embrace; a lipstick shade, or a kiss; the skirt I really wanted to wear, or a second encounter.
I learned quickly that being desired was conditional, and if I strayed too far from gendered expectations, my experience of dating would severely change. I’ve had boys in clubs find me attractive and talk to me, only to see the eyeshadow I’m wearing in better light and change their minds. It felt like, with each application of makeup or feminine-coded item of clothing I wear (like a skirt)—the more visibly out of the male/female binary I present—the further people stray from desiring me.
After tearing apart my closet that one night, I tried to ignore that feeling and choose my full self, pushing aside the questions about desire and gender that made me “hey, sorry, 30 minutes late, cat threw up on my shirt lol” for a date I was no longer sure I wanted to go on. I left the house in a cute black faux-leather skirt that my roommate had given an unenthusiastic yes, a casual gloss on the lip (it was a first date, after all), and headphones to block out the harassment I will get on the street so I can instead focus on the possibilities that lay ahead: Maybe we will sit in near-silence for 30 minutes and only talk about the weather? Or maybe we will both pretend to like jazz and end up drunkenly dancing at a jazz club? Maybe we both share an ex? (It’s queer dating, so, probably…)
I approached my date. They looked a lot cuter in real life! They caught my eye, smiled, then zeroed in on the small heel I was wearing.
A pause. “Oh, you look fierce, sis, yaaaas!”
There's nothing wrong with not finding a spark in your date, but I find it rather coded, and layered in femmephobia, how I'm spoken to in order to convey that. On dates like this one, a potential partner becomes a potential "sis." There is no hand-holding—just performative finger snaps. No flirtatious questioning—rather, an inquiry about if I ever would ever put him in makeup sometime. Simple answers to his questions are met with "yassss!" I am told to “werk” for ordering a glass of house white wine.
It feels like some people's relationship to gender non-conforming femininity is one of both desire and distance. We are wanted in the clubs, on high podiums, in high heels, in all our fabulousness to entertain, perform, be fierce, death drop, be a sister. I find, though, that we are rarely considered romantic or sexual prospects—in our normality, in our boredom, in our softness, in our mundanity, in daylight, hand in hand.
When you declare you are outside of the binary, it can leave you feeling like you are also outside of sexual plausibility. I have heard LGBTQ people discuss the culture on Grindr and dating apps as it relates to “no femmes,” which is a common trope among gay men on apps, but those conversations often stop short of addressing sex with people who are not male or female. Gender non-conforming identities have existed throughout history, but the language surrounding desire and sex stems from binary gendered thinking.
The language used in sexual health contexts, even within LGBTQ organizations, still feels dated, defining us into categories like “MSM," or men who have sex with men. Even "queer" movies rarely show gender non-conforming people experiencing love and desire—sometimes, we show up in a nightclub scene for a few minutes. If we cannot create language or images that include non binary and gender non conforming in stories about sex, then we start to question if we can even exist within them.
As I left my date-turned–makeup tutorial, I thought about how choosing authenticity can mean losing comfort in places you once felt seen in: a gay club, a walk home, a man’s desire. I wondered how communities and cultures can want you so intently while simultaneously pushing you away. About how, by placing us on podiums to look at, but never be close to, we slide further away further from intimacy.
I walked on, thinking of what quick remark I'd use to describe the disappointing date to my roommate, when I caught the eye of another person on the street. They had hair on their legs, a dress similar in length to my skirt, a blouse exposing their chest hair, and a beard surrounding a pair of lip gloss–covered lips. We smiled at each other. As they approached me, the moment felt incredibly new: I wondered if I have always been centering the wrong people in my approach to dating. I have already broken so many of the rules regarding my gender(s)—who said my desire had to be binary, too?
I’d never been here before: Two of us, on the street, not running, but standing in power, in potential.
You asked for my number, and I realized that in welcoming you, I had the potential, in turn, to be welcoming to myself. You asked my pronouns in the third text. We went on a date the following week. You said I looked hot—not "fierce!"—in my skirt. We talked about everything other than our genders, but somehow I knew I could if I wanted to. On our second date, we went dancing, and after we kissed, you made a gesture to my bag. I paused, confused. You took it, pulled a gloss out, and effortlessly reapplied it to your lips, then carefully to mine. My mind wandered: Maybe I did not have to pick between a lipstick and a kiss.