The Portrait series gives us a first-hand point of view of the great diversity of identities, gender expressions, sexual orientations and attractions that color our world. Here is Nathan's story.
Navigating the world as a human in a “post-gender world” today seems, according to popular (fashion) magazines, easier than ever. Attempts are being made in many places to align our everyday communication with the reality of people existing all over the gender spectrum. Especially in regards to public space, we can often see discussions about implementing more neutral terms of addressing people, all gender restrooms and the likes. Unfortunately, these efforts are oftentimes rather limited to a certain surrounding and have yet a long way to go to affect positive change for all.
In experiencing an acute lack of representation of people beyond the binary realms of gender, I have decided to open up about my experiences with living life as a non-binary individual. Especially with the current climate online and in the media about people like me, it feels vital to cultivate solidarity and support within the LGBTQPIA+ community. Therefore I have decided to present you with an account of how medical transition has impacted my life. I want to raise awareness, that not only do non-binary people exist; we might also pursue to transition in means that have been largely attributed to binary trans people. It is an individual decision after all, and not indicative of the validity of one's gender identity.
Every trans person’s story is unique. Here is mine.
I was socialised in a country I often criticise for its deeply rooted binary structures. Over the course of my becoming aware of who I am and who I can become, I've had the privilege to conduct my university studies in different places. The opportunity to be part of higher education courses of Fine Arts, Fashion and Costume Design in Austria, England and Belgium, has afforded me the means I needed to shape myself as a person, while also opening up to my European identity and compare the living situations of queer people in different places in the EU.
During the last couple of years, I have meandered through various labels, from identifying as a pansexual cis woman at age 18, to becoming aware of my trans identity and adapting the label genderfluid at 19, which then alternated with the idea of being genderqueer. Now at 23, I am aware of the shifts and fluidity of my gender identity and mostly vibe with the term non-binary as well as transmasculine or agender/androgynous. It seems a tangled mess, but for me it has become the most liberating and straightforward knowledge I have about myself. In my current state, I just feel this sense of inner peace in the knowledge that I am a human being with a physical form that roughly aligns with their understanding of an intergender mindset.
It seems a tangled mess, but for me it has become the most liberating and straightforward knowledge I have about myself.
Now, I am certainly not of the persuasion that anybody needs to experience gender dysphoria in order to be afforded the right to use the label transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming. I have met plenty of people who fall within these categories who are perfectly content with their physical bodies or even the way they are perceived within society. For me however, this has not been the case in a long time. Like many trans people, growing up had been a strange experience for me. I have always struggled with having fat on my chest area and hips, which seemed to render me unmistakably 'a woman' in society's eyes. I was cutesy, adored all things femme and aligned rather a lot with the ways cis women are interpreted. But I was miserable. For the longest time, before I had any terminology to describe my discomfort with the way I was read, I was sizzling in unconscious body dysmorphia and a general hatred of my physical shape. Paired with many mental health issues this clearly did not make for the easiest adolescence.
Self Love is allowing yourself to be present in who you are.
Social transition was certainly one of the biggest acts of self-care I could have endeavoured to. Voicing my thoughts about my own identity aloud and asking people to refer to me by my chosen name and pronouns has granted me so much more ease in just being and becoming. It was and still is a tough process, with the lack of general media representation making it so that people beyond the out-dated media trope of 'born in the wrong body/changing sex/transitioning strictly from one side to the other' have to perpetually explain themselves. One realisation I was lucky to come across in this, is that acceptance often appears where we least expect it. Read: I've had self-appointed 'open minded' individuals blatantly disrespect and misgender me and spew transphobic notions; when, conversely, I met people who had rarely consciously met a queer person in their life make absolutely no big deal out of my identity other than trying to make sure I was okay and felt respected.
The lack of general media representation makes it so that people beyond the out-dated media trope of 'born in the wrong body/changing sex/transitioning strictly from one side to the other' have to perpetually explain themselves.
A couple of years into my first coming to terms with my trans identity, I was, by pure luck, presented with the opportunity of a short time delve into hormone replacement therapy. Thanks to my community, I heard about a doctor prescribing testosterone without the entirety of gatekeeping and medical bureaucracy attached. I ended up with a supply for 2.5 months of T which I taught myself how to self administer since I had gotten my first shot abroad and did not trust my country's medical professionals to not ask intrusive questions or get me into trouble. Later, a friend supplied me with a week’s ration of testogel.
Due to prior unhappy experiences with trying to come out as trans to my family, I avoided doing so up until the point where hiding my voice drop became too big an effort and so did the inherent anxiety I had faced for transitioning in secret. Coming out was everything I feared it would be, even if I was still majorly privileged to be accepted by my parents. This was after approximately 1.5 months of constant anxiety, self-monitoring and isolation. It took a massive toll on me mentally to go through this process by myself, but also taught me immense respect and love for myself in, despite all hardship and mental struggles, commanding the capacity to grow into myself.
I would not have made it through this process without the support of my online community, mainly the one I have built up for myself on Instagram.
I truly believe that this struggle might be avoided by communicating to your surroundings what you are going through and to create an accepting environment around yourself (should there be such a possibility for you). It is probably not too far from the truth to state that I would not have made it through this process without the support of my online community, mainly the one I have built up for myself on Instagram in the last couple of years.
Transition is never just linear. It’s an ongoing, complex process.
Transition without a clear-cut 'final result' can be overwhelming. Not every non-binary person seeks to transition, nor should they have to, obviously, but for those who do, there might not always be a definite point of reference. After all, we are all different entities and our motives and outlooks for being on HRT might vary largely. I personally craved a deeper voice, some more body and facial hair and a tad of bottom growth. I was lucky enough to achieve this with my short duration testosterone adventure but unfortunately lost another thing: my cis passing privilege.
Now, I had experienced some transphobia before starting hormones, which mainly coincided with my looking decidedly queer. Oddly enough, being on HRT made me feel much more unsafe because now I was rapidly losing the option of pretending I am female after all. For all I know, that option might still be there but I was certainly subconsciously wearing more make up again, rocking long painted finger nails and displaying more feminine interpreted mannerisms. Some of these things might just be inherent to me; things I had abandoned to try and pass as more androgynous but some of them certainly reappeared as my safety concerns grew.
Now I can find peace and solace in loving and accepting myself in ways I did not manage before.
While I am absolutely at peace with remaining a massive gender confusion throughout my life, medical transition has highlighted even more for me, how visibility can be both a privilege and a curse. Being seen as trans and not just a 'quirky woman/possibly lesbian with stylish short hair and a goofy eccentric dress sense' changed things for me. I've faced scary situations before and will probably again in the future but at least now I can find peace and solace in loving and accepting myself in ways I did not manage before.
Sometimes you need to take a dive into unknown waters to find out who you can become.
I have a lot of contact with my community and am very lucky to call many gorgeous trans and non-binary people my friends and supporters. By cultivating a positive and affirming conversation culture, I’ve come in contact with many lived realities of people all over the gender spectrum. This has taught me that many of us face similar difficulties in navigating a cisheteronormative cultural context. As there is a seemingly infinite amount of ways to define your identity, there are also countless possibilities of transition. Although there are now rather outlined roads to transition especially for binary trans people, the fact needs to be stressed that this is not something every trans person – binary or not – desires, strives for or requires.
As there is a seemingly infinite amount of ways to define your identity, there are also countless possibilities of transition.
It took my departing on a reckless journey into the unknown, for my voice to drop and other physical characteristics to alter, to appreciate how I had been 100% valid in my non-binary identity and body before. When I look at all the pictures I have accumulated, I can see who I am, soft and fiercely myself. The truth is: there was no way I could have appreciated this before my transition, to the extent I can now. I was held back by intrusive and harmful thoughts of how I would always be a woman, how my body was disgusting and I could never be read as anything but female.
Allowing myself to transition despite all the setbacks and hatred I had internalised for the 3 years of knowing that this is something I need to do, has liberated me. I was lucky that my mental illnesses and gender dysphoria never fully rendered me incapable of going on with my life; rather they instilled a fury and will to live within me, that kept me going, even though I never believed that life could be easier. I can see the beauty that broke free from pain like small plants cracking open concrete walls; I can appreciate the immense effort I put into finding ways to be me when certain aspects were previously out of my hands. Having a small moment of gender euphoria has allowed me to give credit to the hard work I have put into becoming me, to be an ambitious and innovating artist, to travel and love. It’s made it possible to finally get rid of the self-hatred rooted deep within my chest.
The Future transcends Gender Norms. You are the Future.
If there is one take-away I have for the non-binary trans person possibly reading this, it is to always stick with your knowledge of who you are and what you can become. The world is entirely too set on sorting us all into two categories that it has lost all kindness for the nuance and softness that can appear when navigating the in-between spaces. We might feel like the world is not ready for us; but never forget that some parts of it are. There is a big, loving community out here, ready to embrace you for all that you are and all you are growing into. You don’t need to pass to be perfect. Neither do you need to stick with one gender identity through all your life. You’re allowed to change your mind, to alternate, to evolve into something different than what you’d have thought.
You don’t need to pass to be perfect.
We are revolutionaries, writing our own script of becoming human; independent of the cisgender heterosexual chronology that has been set out for us. We need to be so much stronger than many, but the rewards are so very high. Don’t ever listen to what a binary, sexist, racist, ableist world has to say about your body and identity. You tell them. And sooner or later they will have to listen, for your voice will carry far and wide. We are now and we shall never be erased.
Nathan Cha is a 23-year-old artist, writer, performer and trained hat maker x fashion designer from Austria. In his works he addresses many queer issues as well as questions of identity. He is adamant to never back down to hatred when we could be strengthened by love and hope.