Maya MacGregor, author of The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester, writes about their relationship with gender, why they creates non-binary characters, and about making a space, in their novels, for those who want to avoid binary 'boxes'
The first time I consciously noticed gender as a strict binary that divides humanity into tidy boxes, I was in nursery. It came up the way I reckon it does for many people: a little boy told me I couldn't pretend to be a Ninja Turtle because I was a girl.
Never mind that he clearly was not, in fact, a sapient teenage mutant turtle himself. And never mind that playing make believe as children is entirely about being things we are not - that's the point! The most important factor in that wee lad's head was that I was a girl and he was a boy, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were male, ergo he had a right to pretend to be one, and I didn't.
"Until that point, I had just been a kid. And then I wasn't."
I very clearly remember my anger, and just as clearly, I remember - though I lacked the vocabulary to express it - the absolute banality of his insistence. Until that point, I had just been a kid. And then I wasn't. That strict binary manifested in myriad ways from there on out, some banal and some vicious.
Much more recently, I was watching TikTok, and a cis gay man was talking about how he also experienced this alienation. He was deemed too sensitive, too artsy, too queer for the strict binary boxes' acceptance of his existence. He spoke passionately about the frustration that I felt with an all-too-familiar resonance; he'd just wanted to be a kid. Instead he was forced into an early reckoning with his Other-ness. When other kids couldn't stuff him into a box, they simply tried to beat him into the right shape to fit better.
The damage done to LGBTQIA+ children by a hostile world that tells them they are deviant and wrong in a million subtle and overt ways is literally life and death. It is considered acceptable to shove us into a few specific boxes no matter how much it hurts us. We all carry that with us, a wound that heals over and over only to be ripped open anew by bullies, barbs, and bad actors who use us as political punching bags regardless of our age.
My understanding of gender is inextricably tied to my autism. As someone whose mind tends towards very rule-based thinking, I remember how wrong 'girl' felt when folks tried to push me into that box, and I also remember thinking that since the 'boy' box felt equally wrong, I supposed I had to be a girl after all. My mind did the same thing with my sexuality. I had crushes on boys; therefore I must be straight. On both counts, I had been told explicitly and implicitly that these were the only boxes. It didn't matter that it wasn't in itself a complete thought.
Now that I'm grown and have an adult's autonomy, my relationship with gender can be summed up by one word: exhaustion. I sit in the non-binary box not because it really feels right to me, but because nowadays, it's a box that most cis people have at least a cursory understanding of. 'Agender' feels much more appropriate; 'nope' even more. My relationship to the gender boxes is to remove myself as far from all of them as possible. But if I don't use the shorthand of the non-binary box, I spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to people who may or may not actually care about feelings that, to me, are intensely personal.
"As someone who took 30 years to realise I didn't have to sit in a box I didn't want to, I want to make space for people to do the same if they need to."
These things come out in my work as an author - I've struggled to write explicitly agender characters out of the fear they won't be understood, even though many or most of my protagonists' relationships with gender mirror my own. I use the non-binary box for ease for myself, but also for my readers. As someone who took 30 years to realise I didn't have to sit in a box I didn't want to, I want to make space for people to do the same if they need to. Or to realise they're happy in their current box. Or to validate that they don't need to have one at all.
Before I could investigate my feelings about my own gender fully, I felt a tremendous amount of outrage at the idea that my body dictated who I was and what my life should look like - which boxes I got to sit in. I think most people ought to, at the extreme least, empathise with that. Who hasn't been made to feel shame about our bodies not fitting a strict, rigid concept of what they should look like? We are all - all - so much more than a few stone of flesh and blood and bone. None of us feel comfortable in every box assigned to us. But it's exhausting explaining that over and over to people who are intent on not hearing it.
People love to sort each other into boxes. Who belongs in which box is something that varies tremendously from place to place, from era to era, from culture to culture, even from decade to decade. Is long hair feminine or masculine? What about the colour pink? Neither of those categorisations have remained consistent throughout history or cultures, but people have intensely strong feelings about which boxes such things belong to. For many people, those boxes are personally resonant for them; that's why they struggle so hard to understand when others have different feelings.
I like to think about the boxes like a cat would. We all know a cat loves a box and will hop into it of their own accord more often than not. We also all know that there is a very large difference between a cat hopping into a box of their own accord and stuffing a cat into a box against the cat's will. This Pride, my wish is for a bit more understanding that those boxes can exist just fine without stuffing people into them. Let folks hop in where they will. I'll be over here with my cuppa, avoiding my own boxes altogether and telling my stories.