by Parker Jackson
A lot of people who have known me for a long time have wondered why, “all of a sudden,” I now go by Parker instead of the name I was given at birth. Or they challenge me when I say that my preferred pronouns are they/them/theirs.
I should begin by clarifying that none of this has been sudden. It has been the accumulation of a very long process about realizing my non-binary identity—but it is also related to questions going beyond gender.
A few years ago, when I was first introduced to people using the pronouns they/them/theirs (and other non-conventional pronouns), it was confusing for me, and hard to wrap my head around. I listened, tried my best to understand, and often was able to relate to emotional experiences they would describe to help explain. But I never fully understood what it meant to take your identity back into your own hands. And to me, that’s what being non-binary is all about.
Learning to identify myself as non-binary came as the result of my learning to view myself as a whole and integrated human being. I am a person with a body, a body which does not have to have a singular gender; I don’t follow restrictions as to how to treat or dress said body.
Going a bit deeper, I think being non-binary is about making individual decisions based on how you feel about your identity. If you really think about it, gender is a term we made up to make sense of the world around us: at birth, people are assigned “female” or “male.” This way of categorizing people leaves out a whole spectrum of genders and leads people to believe that sex and gender are the same. In reality, gender identity is up to each person. There are women who are very stereotypically “feminine” in certain ways, but “masculine” in other ways. These folks may not identify as non-binary, but that’s just to say that there is a spectrum of how we express ourselves and our identities.
At an early age, I was put in a learning support class because I had a difficult time understanding math, and soon following I was misdiagnosed with ADD. I was put on Adderall for several years, but after awhile I rebelled against it (because I did not have ADD) and stopped taking it. For as long as I can remember, I was brought up to believe that every action, behavior and thought I ever expressed always had to have a specific explanation or rationale.
All I can remember from that stretch of time is having to deal with thoughts about how meaningless I was. In high school I was then misdiagnosed again, but this time doctors thought I had Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism). Throughout school, because of these false diagnoses, I was treated differently and not allowed to take certain courses I would have liked to take. It was clear that family members and authority figures like teachers yearned for something diagnosable to explain my actions and behaviors; in reality, most of them were simply underpinned by crippling insecurity about my identity. I just didn’t know that yet.
Meanwhile, I was struggling, and wasn’t able to ground myself in a firm “sense of self.” No matter where I was, who I was with, or how hard I tried, I ended up feeling like an outsider—and I never figured out anything to help me shake the feeling.
As I understood it, I was taught by teachers and other leader-figures who did not understand me. My peers and I never successfully connected, and I always felt worthless and never felt like I was a part of a community. The little passion I managed to feel was towards art making, which is why I decided to pursue a career in the arts.
In college, I learned to deal with my anxiety in various ways such as not socializing with too many people at once, not going out very often, and constantly checking with people to verify I wasn't doing anything wrong. I made decisions based on what I thought others would want me to do, and would never put myself first. I now see that I was simply avoiding any potential for strong emotions in my life; denial was my defense mechanism. I came to think of my numbness as normal, thinking that my lack of emotions and feelings towards everything in life was just the way it was.
In my adult life post-college, I happened to meet many folks who identified as non-binary or genderqueer, but it never occurred to me that my own acute struggles were related to gender. The idea that my identity could exist outside of societal norms was never even something I considered. Simply functioning to the basic extent (working, paying bills, showering) without shutting down was a challenge for me, so adding anything more complex completely overwhelmed me. Despite this, I understood that others thought about these more complex issues, and never thought negatively of it.
After reaching a point at which I could not, and did not want to, function, I sought help and went to therapy each week for about six months. It wasn't until I started overcoming my anxiety and depression that I really allowed myself to think about my own identity and what it meant to me.
Through this work (in the past year in particular), I’ve come to develop vocabulary for talking about some of these challenges related to identity, mental health and more. Recently coming out as non-binary is how I’ve found a way to finally feel at home in my body. It’s helped me feel that introducing myself is no longer a chore. Truly claiming my identity has allowed me to move past certain struggles and find happiness in life again. For me, being non-binary is something I always have been, but now I just have words for it—and a community of other like-minded folks.
When I started wearing chest binders a few months ago, I immediately fell in love with having a flat chest. I felt like myself in my body; and though the binder isn’t part of me, it makes me have a sense of confidence that I have never felt before. Identifying as non-binary, I feel there is nothing wrong with my natural body, and have realized that my binder just reminds me that my body is not gendered, and I can present it however I choose. This is just one way that I am able be in touch with the fluidity of my gender expression on a daily basis, and it allows me to feel just how important it is to understand how I am feeling about myself each day.
After going through what seems like a very long few years, I feel like a new person. I feel like achieving new goals every six months, and continuing to grow. I don't feel like giving up anymore and when I do occasionally feel like that, I now know to reach out and seek help in my community and loved ones. I wear clothing that gives me confidence now, because I want to feel confident for myself instead of dressing for other people. Now that I am aware of myself, and have taken back my identity, I can present my gender and appearance however makes me feel truest to myself. I identify as non-binary and this allows me to view myself as a person, independent of the pressures society places on binary genders.
Parker Jackson is a working artist who has been living in Philadelphia for five years. They graduated from Pennsylvania College of Art and Design with a BFA in May of 2011 and has been teaching art outreach programming and curating art exhibitions ever since. Their artwork focuses on educating people about current environmental and social issues.