As a non-binary person, I was terrified of looking masculine

I used to have a nemesis: the humble t-shirt.

An odd enemy to have, you might think. But for the best part of a decade, this wardrobe staple was a no-go zone.

I classed them as too ambiguous or boring – but especially, too masculine. Whether they clung to every inch of your skin in a sweaty skin tight affair or hung loose above a pair of cargo shorts – it didn’t matter. They were off limits. 

But I’m writing this now swathed in an orange t-shirt – the colour of a firm yolk – feeling confident and persuaded to perhaps purchase more of my new short-sleeved friends.

So, why?

For me, this acceptance of what I once perceived as masculine or ‘basic’, has led to a transformative process of radical acceptance within my gender identity. An appreciation of the masculinity that I rejected for 26 years – that is now being welcomed into my experience (and wardrobe) alongside the feminine. 

Coming out in 2017 as a non-binary person, it was a journey fuelled by femininity and androgyny.

As someone who was assigned male at birth, I wanted to ensure that I didn’t appear masculine in the ways that I looked. Even in the things that I enjoyed doing, or the people that I spent my time with. I wanted to avoid an assumption that I was a man.

So, from exploring skirts and dresses in my local vintage shops, to getting my first job on the make-up counter in my local department store – exuberant gender expression has been at the backbone of my journey to the person I am now.

From shoulder padded blouses to my sleek bejewelled all black ensemble I wore to prom at 18, it was exciting, joyous, and a beautifully safe moment of true exploration.

What embracing femininity did, however, was make me fearful of masculinity, rather than seeing it as a place of safety. I rejected anything masculine, rather than accepting it and understanding it further. 

This went as far as me rejecting strangers who were men, sports that men enjoyed, even TV programmes and films that were favoured by them. It was me distancing myself away from an identity that I used to inhabit.

Being enveloped in the fashion world at just 18 and living as an out non-binary and queer person in London meant that I was constantly surrounded by femme-presenting people from all walks of life.

Mincing through fashion week, I remember watching Miss Fame – star of RuPaul’s Drag Race and fashion pioneer – walk the runway in front of my eyes. I was in awe. Seeing her be unapologetically brash yet sleek and sophisticated was an empowering moment of recognition.

Fashion designer Pam Hogg’s extravagance is a core memory too – my first time seeing her shows – and more importantly, seeing what the audiences were wearing – showed me that no matter who you are, or how old you are, you can always have an explosive relationship with fashion.

Their beauty and excellence transfixed me, supplying me with the courage and confidence to do the same. But the rejection of the masculine then became something that I conflated with being non-binary.

I didn’t allow the fluidity and uniqueness of understanding one’s own gender expression to include masculinity, so my femme-presenting self became a self-fulfilling prophecy that I felt like I had to inhabit in order to feel like I belonged as a trans person.

Much like people of all gender identities, the expectations that were set by society on what we should look like became something I found difficult to wrestle free from.

So how did I get to the t-shirt wearing, eye-brow owning unshaved ginger being sat here before you? Time.

After the pandemic, I reassessed what my intentions were with how I looked in this world. Was my motivation for looking femme truly for me? Was I presenting femme to the world because I thought that’s what I had to do in order to be seen as non-binary?

I’d created an image of what I looked like in the media – shaved head, blush up to my temples, bold make-up and skyscraper heels. But did that still encapsulate who I was now? 

I began to realise that inviting masculinity into the frame didn’t mean that it would take over, like a drop of ink in a cup full of water. Instead, much like the way I explored femininity, it was an expression of self that became mine to craft and shape.

It was something that didn’t have to have rules or limitations to it. Instead, it became Jamie-shaped. A bit like Dale Winton’s ‘Hole In The Wall’ – an irreverently camp show, in which celebrities morphed themselves into inhumane shapes as a wall of styrofoam raced towards them with the identical shape cut out – but this time with me and masculinity.

I’ve always enjoyed the suit – a look I describe as low effort, high impact. A silhouette I once feminised with a power stiletto and a darted waist, I now find the same thrill discovering men’s tailcoats and three-piece vintage sets.

It’s not so much a rejection of the feminine, more a broadening of what the possibility of formalwear could look like if I take the parameters off of what it ‘should’ look like on a non-binary body. It doesn’t have to be feminine, or masculine, or androgynous – it just has to look good. 

Through giving myself the permission to explore masculinity through things like suits and facial hair, less make-up and different silhouettes or colours, it’s affirmed my gender identity more than ever. It’s shown me that giving yourself the kindness and compassion to say, ‘what do you really want to do, for you?’ is the best question you can ask yourself.

Accepting masculinity in my life has given me a new sense of compassion and understanding for my fellow trans siblings who have also experienced the same hesitation and fear around embracing the masculine. The worry that as someone who is assigned male at birth it makes them a fraud or not trans enough.

It’s made me embrace those who I once rejected. Whether it be more emotive, such as acknowledging the capacity men have for love and softness, to looking at getting back into dating with more compassion and humanity, to the more formative and fun like finally watching Die Hard or not feeling wrong for wanting to watch the football or go to the pub.

It might sound silly, but these were things I adamantly avoided because of their connections with ‘manhood’.

Embracing this has allowed me to feel excited for the future, knowing that there truly are no limitations on who you can be in this world. 

Now I’m figuring out what masculinity looks like in a way that feels euphoric because I am the one controlling and exploring it on my own terms.

Mixing it with the feminine traits I adore about myself – including the make-up and jewellery that have become firm additions to my body – I am confident in knowing that masculinity and femininity can coexist together.

One doesn’t need to be shunned in order for the other to breathe.

Headshot picture credit: Sam Taylor-Edwards

Pride and Joy

Pride and Joy is a weekly series spotlighting the first-person positive, affirming and joyful stories of transgender, non-binary, gender fluid and gender non-conforming people. Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]

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