The Ins and Outs of Femininity and Gender

The interconnectedness of femininity and gender for current and former USC nonbinary students

by Alexandra Adler / Garnet & Black

Not everyone conforms to society’s idea of what makes a man and what makes a woman, and the 21st century has seen a great increase in the exploration of transgender and nonbinary identities. With these communities garnering more attention, there has been an explosion of debates surrounding what gender and gender expression really mean.

Being nonbinary simply means a person's gender falls outside the gender binary of man and woman. There is a long list of labels for those under the nonbinary umbrella, but not every person is required to choose from that list. A person's gender is personal; it's up to them to decide who they are, and in turn, how they wish to express themselves. Those who identify outside the binary and present femininely have a different experience than those who present more androgynous or masculine, and the distinction is more important than people think. Femininity is not exclusive to womanhood, and there are a plethora of people who can prove that.

With this ongoing debate surrounding the exclusivity of gender and gender expression, four current and former USC students detail their personal experiences with gender.

Everyone’s journey with gender is different. Hallie Tam, Eden Prime, Jesselyn Dreeszen Bowman and Maddox McKibben detail their own. All interviewees expressed how they didn't start identifying as nonbinary until later in life. It was a slow realization—though their reasonings varied—and they all had some sort of support system that helped them feel more comfortable with their identity. 

Tam explored their gender identity more in quarantine: “I was like, huh, I guess if I don’t identify as a girl, but I also don’t really see myself as wanting to be a guy either. I was like: ‘Hm, no, I’m me, so I guess I’m nonbinary.’” They talked to friends who also identified as nonbinary and decided that label fit them best.

Prime grew up in a more Christian household, so the language they needed wasn't accessible to them until their undergraduate years. They didn't start identifying as agender until they were 20 or 21. 

“I feel really comfortable with using they/them pronouns and with identifying that way now,” Prime explained, “but it’s definitely taken having friends who were supportive and helped me find that language and also just time and maturity to get there.”

Dreeszen Bowman first started questioning their gender nine years ago during a queer group therapy program, but it wasn't until they started working on a resource project about trans-inclusive education that they truly started exploring their identity. 

“I was watching all these videos of trans and nonbinary youth talking to me about their experience, and I was getting so emotional and crying and having these really big feelings, and I was like, ‘Why is this so emotional for me?’” Dreeszen Bowman said. Soon after, they came out to their partner, who was a major help in their coming out process.

Coming to terms with one’s gender identity paves the way for coming out. Not every coming out story is the same. Prime’s biggest challenge has been dealing with people who are unable to comprehend and understand their lack of desire to have a gender. Parents are not always understanding, and it may take weeks, months or years for them to adjust.

For Prime, such is the case with their mother, whom they came out to a year prior. "She kind of was shocked, honestly, which I thought was kind of funny,” Prime said. “I think it was easier for her to metabolize pansexuality and bisexuality than it was for her to understand my lack of attachment to a gender identity. And I think she’s still working through that.”

McKibben also struggled explaining their gender identity to their mom. “She's about 65, so I kind of tried to have the conversation with her, and she just was not getting it,” they said. 

Dreeszen Bowman had a somewhat similar experience with their parents. Their mom didn’t make an effort for the first two years but is better now and they had multiple conversations with their dad about their identity. Dreeszen Bowman explained how it was probably hard for both of their parents to understand what being nonbinary meant. 

"I think they had a hard time seeing what that really meant because there wasn't a physical manifestation of how my gender was different, and so I think it took them a while to get it." Dreeszen Bowman said.

Not every coming out story includes pushback. Tam first came out to their sister and their mom a few months into quarantine, and they were both accepting. Tam had to correct their mom a few times, but they understand that she’s trying. “I am glad that, at least for the most part, I am out and accepted by a lot of my close friends and family," Tam said.

Coming out allows others to experiment more with both their identities and their presentation. For some, their self-perceptions may change; such is the case with Dreeszen Bowman. The "femme" label always suited them more than "feminine," and it was a major part of their identity for a long time. Their relationship with this label has recently been evolving, and though they're unsure what it means for their identity, being nonbinary is still an important part of their life. 

"I would say, overall, it's an identity that I feel really empowered in and get a lot of joy from," Dreeszen Bowman said.

While femininity can clash with their nonbinary identity, McKibben believes that both can coexist. To McKibben, their gender does not revolve around their appearance. “For me,” McKibben said, “I'm kind of removed—not only removed from the binary, but I feel myself as removed from gender as a whole.” They later explained how their personal perception of gender is more internal. They’re okay with their body, and they're okay with using labels like “AFAB” and “feminine nonbinary.” Currently, they don’t feel the need to take hormones, and they’re more focused on the kind of language that feels right for them and how they feel.

Femininity itself is not an easily definable term—what is and can be feminine is rooted in preconceived notions of gender expression. How a person perceives femininity may differ from another person’s perspective. Prime sums up their idea of femininity in a single word.

“I think being feminine is fun, looking feminine is fun," Prime shared. "It should be fun. People are allowed to look however they want, and femininity is a way that we can play with that.” Femininity is liberating for Prime; they want to be able to wear dresses and makeup without playing into the values imposed on them throughout life. Due to their religious background, Prime was "made to think of being feminine as being this sort of idealistic vision of a woman rather than it just being a component of beauty.”

Whenever McKibben thinks about femininity, they remember how rooted it is in the binary. They’ve studied the gender scholar Judith Butler throughout their academic career, and they shared a theory of Butler's, explaining how “we're always performing our gender, so gender itself is a performance.”

Gender expression is an action; one we wear and put on in accordance with the binary. We're constantly putting on this act, constantly performing our gender because of how ingrained it is in society. It's difficult to break this act and to move away from the binary this performance perpetrates.

To McKibben, using terms like “masculine” and “feminine” when describing their nonbinary identity can be a bit convoluted, because they’re still using the binary to describe how they feel. “Femininity to me is very much something I'm deconstructing every day, just kind of figuring out what feels right for me,” they said.

Dreeszen Bowman is more aligned with a “hard-femme” label. For them, the label makes them feel more queer and that the edge to their identity is important to them. They emphasize how it’s their own personal perspective and that their preferences are not absolute. 

“I think everybody gets to decide for themselves what it means to dress feminine," Dreeszen Bowman said. "I think it's really important that femininity isn't tied to any one gender or any one experience. And so I think it's really up to an individual person how they want to interpret what it means to be feminine and what it means to embody that identity or way of presenting.”

Nonbinary people have different reasons for presenting femininely—safety, preference and dysphoria are only a few examples. Many femininely presenting nonbinary people see their gender as personal and therefore only definable by themselves, a sentiment Tam shares. 

“I guess I definitely do have a preference,” Tam explained, “because the way that I dress and present I do like because those are me. This is how I act as [a] nonbinary person because I am me, and I am nonbinary.”

For a lot of nonbinary people, their confidence in the language they use to describe themselves allows for a free experience with gender expression. How they talk about their identity is up to them and no one else. McKibben's own self-assurance in their identity influences how they present themselves. “It's rewarding for me to become confident enough in the language I use for myself and confident in communicating how I feel internally,” McKibben explained. People might not understand their personal perception of gender, but McKibben won’t change because of that.

Prime uses femininity like a safety blanket—it doubles as a barrier and a source of comfort. It isn’t safe or comfortable for them to be out when they’re visiting their grandfather; he lives in rural Alabama, and they try not to present incredibly queer to avoid any unwarranted conversations. This safety blanket also plays into comfort, not just internally but externally as well. Not everyone can comfortably wear more androgynous clothing due to their body type, something Prime struggles with. 

“I would love to wear more androgynous clothing," Prime said. "But because I have a curvier body, that’s not really a comfortable option for me, so I do end up wearing leggings or things that more masculine people wouldn’t be able to wear comfortably because my body is just shaped different.” This unfortunately does lead to feelings of dysphoria for Prime, though it is more of an inconvenience rather than something that impacts them considerably. 

Though some nonbinary folks may find confidence and comfort in their connection with gender and femininity, not everyone perceives them in the way they feel. Society doesn't always account for the fluidity of gender expression or consider that how people choose to present themselves rarely falls under a universal descriptor. The idea of passing perpetuates this gender binary and universal descriptor, but to some trans people, it’s an important part of their identity. Passing is a word that's thrown around a lot when discussing gender expression, though it doesn’t have a solid definition. Three of the interviewees share their perspectives.

Tam perceives passing as identification: they want someone to look at them and understand that they’re nonbinary. For Prime, passing means respect—that someone will respect whatever they identify as. 

Dreeszen Bowman sees passing as “moving through the world in a way in which you are read as cis." While some nonbinary people may want to pass as cis for safety reasons, Dreeszen Bowman actively tries not to.

People often make assumptions about anyone who presents femininely, and typically they're labeled as women, something Tam, Prime and Dreeszen Bowman all dislike. Because some nonbinary people may present more femininely, others may not consider or respect whatever they identify as. 

“I felt like people definitely didn't take me seriously as a nonbinary person,” Dreeszen Bowman shared. “I definitely resent being thought of as a woman and I kind of go through steps in the way I present myself to seem not like a woman.”

Femininity and womanhood are not one in the same, though their impact on one another is heavily debated. Prime discusses how femininity and womanhood are correlated often, and that people make a lot of assumptions about both concepts. “I think [womanhood] is intimately tied to femininity, but it does not have to be exclusively tied to femininity," Prime said. They describe femininity and womanhood like a Venn diagram: they can overlap, but they can be their own separate entities as well.

Dreeszen Bowman doesn’t think femininity or womanhood have anything to do with each other. McKibben agrees with this and describes gender as its own isolated feeling, how it can be “separated from language" and "separated from presentation." Gender is an internal expression while femininity is an external expression: the two do not have to touch or have to share a meaning. 

Unfortunately, this idea is not easily understood by a society that clings desperately to labels. A person who chooses to wear a skirt, grow out their hair or wear makeup should not automatically be assumed as a woman. “Clothing isn’t gendered," Tam explains, "but people’s perception of it is.”

But what is the definition of womanhood? Can it even be defined? Tam finds the meaning in their mother. “She is the main woman in my life," Tam shared. "She’s always been there. She’s the example I think of when it comes to being a woman.”

For Dreeszen Bowman, it’s hard for them to pinpoint a definition due to their own disconnect with womanhood. “Being a woman doesn't really mean anything to me,” Dreeszen Bowman explained, “because I'm not a woman, and so I think it's up to people who are women to decide what that identity means for them.” They say womanhood is an internal feeling that transcends sex and presentation.

Being a woman should not be equated with femininity, but the notion is so ingrained in society that it's difficult to unravel. Prime and Dreeszen Bowman both struggled separating femininity from womanhood. "For me,” Prime said, “being perceived as a woman for so long, and trying to escape from that, womanhood for me was a prison, and getting out of that, I now kind of have this uncomfortable view of womanhood because it made me uncomfortable to be perceived that way.”

Despite this, Prime does understand why womanhood is often celebrated. "It's kind of that weird juxtaposition of appreciating how other people love themselves as women while I myself am trying the escape from that identity."

Dreeszen Bowman recognizes how society’s tendency to pair femininity and womanhood together made them resent womanhood for a while; they felt like they were expected to want to be a woman. 

“I'm trying to start thinking of it as something that's separate from myself and something that's for other people,” Dreeszen Bowman said. “And that's helping me kind of see how important womanhood is as an identity and how important female empowerment is for other people, just not for me.”

Being perceived as a woman growing up prior to coming out due to a person's femininity can have a lasting impact on personal connections with gender and expression. “Having grown up as a girl, I think that does shape how I experience and perceive things,” Tam said. Womanhood is still defining in a plethora of ways for Tam, who still has to be hypervigilant when they go out, which something they say some people are shocked by. 

With femininity and womanhood so interlocked in the eyes of modern society, growing up and out of this assumption can be eye-opening for those beginning to question their gender identities, and Tam relates to this. 

“Experiencing womanhood made me realize in some other ways that I’m not a woman,” Tam explained. Over time, they realized how disconnected their gender felt from womanhood just by experiencing it for most of their life.

McKibben also acknowledges how being raised socially as a woman has affected their connection and perception of womanhood. In high school, they were told that they acted "masculine" due to the way they interacted with others. 

"Which, again, is problematic," McKibben continued, "because if you're confident, or if you're loud, people would be 'Oh, that's a masculine woman,' right?" Despite presenting more femininely and identifying as a woman in high school, the way they acted fit what society perceives to be "masculine," blurring the lines between womanhood, femininity and the societal binary itself.

Society’s perception of womanhood is often paired with femininity, and that same perception of manhood is often paired with masculinity. When people think of nonbinary identities, they sum down this umbrella term to a singular idea and pair it with androgyny. Androgyny is often expected from nonbinary identities, though not every nonbinary person feels connected with androgyny.

Prime describes this false perception as a “perfect amalgamation of a man and a woman,” a notion they consider ridiculous. This idea also perpetuates society's perception of a linear gender spectrum, another thing Prime denounces. 

“But the reality is that gender being a spectrumatic concept means that it's not linear or binary," Prime said. "And it exists in this entirely different realm spatially." They went on to explain how society wants to be able to label "nonbinary" as one particular thing because it can't conceptualize the fluidity and broadness of gender. Nonbinary people are allowed to be and act and look any way they want. They don't all have to fall under the same checklist.

Tam expresses their own struggles with this binary idea. Tam explains how they used to think that dressing more androgynous would help counteract others' incorrect assumptions, something they plan to move away from. They’ve shifted their goal from “being more androgynous” to “being more comfortable.” According to Tam, being nonbinary depends on how the individual defines it. “If you’re nonbinary then everything you do is nonbinary,” they said. This includes presenting femininely—being nonbinary should not hinder someone from looking or acting a certain way. Nonbinary people are just that: people.

Femininity is like a tree with thick branches that span miles and brush against other trees and reach other walks of life. The same can be said about gender—a person's identity cannot be defined by one thing. How a person feels internally and how they express that feeling externally can be largely influenced by other identities and experiences in life. 

Tam is Chinese American and both of their parents immigrated to the US. They haven't personally experienced much culture clash with being nonbinary. Both their parents and their family are accepting of their identity. 

“The way that I see it is that being Chinese and being nonbinary, you can be both,” Tam explained. "That is a part of who I am and how I grew up.”

Prime’s religious upbringing has also influenced their gender journey. They grew up in a conservative Christian household, and while their parents weren’t bigoted, they didn’t know how to talk about queerness with Prime. Prime shared a story about their mom’s great friend and next-door neighbor, a gay man who would frequently bring his partner to Prime’s birthday parties over the years. Every time Prime's mom would introduce them, she would call his partner a friend, and it wasn’t until Prime was out of high school that they found out he was gay. 

“I got pretty upset with my mom when she did tell me he was gay," Prime said. "I was like, ‘Why didn’t you give me language for that when I was a kid?’”

Prime is proud of the progress they've made despite the religious influences they grew up with. “I think that religion has informed the way I understand myself in relation to other queer people, especially when I was a kid, so growing out of that has definitely been a challenge," Prime said. "But it’s also been really rewarding to kind of reflect on the things in my past that actually were very queer but I just didn’t know because I was sheltered from that.”

Dreeszen Bowman shares that their "femmeness"is impacted by their disability. They explain how their femme identity is tied to good presentation, so they feel more femme when they take the time to do their makeup and put on a good outfit. However, they do experience chronic illness and chronic fatigue, which can inhibit their ability to put effort into their appearance. They often think about what their femme identity means in relation to their health. 

“What does it mean if I can only act as my femme identity when I feel well?” Dreeszen Bowman asked. “That feels fucked up.”

Presenting femininely introduces a plethora of ways to experience the world, especially when a person is visibly queer. All of the interviewees' identities play a role in how they're perceived, and though it may be hard to be femininely presenting as a nonbinary person, they all have shared mostly good experiences on the USC campus. Tam and McKibben both built strong communities throughout their years at USC, both with friends and professors. 

"Being accepted with friends and the people that I do go to school with at USC," Tam shared, "has been really easy and validating."

Prime and Dreeszen Bowman have good encounters with USC staff and coworkers. Prime praised their graduate assistantship supervisor, saying that “[she] has been a wonderful ally and advocate in that way of respecting my identity.” Dreeszen Bowman attributes their easy transition from Western Massachusetts to USC to the fact that none of their current colleagues knew them before they came out. Now, their advisor is incredible, and all their close coworkers gender them correctly.  

Not all of their experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. Dreeszen Bowman had a professor who started a class claiming they/them pronouns aren’t singular. They have been misgendered multiple times by professors, classmates and people they’ve specifically talked to about gender. 

Prime also has to correct people often, and they recently had a strange experience with a queer professor. The professor called them a woman, and Prime had to remind him that they weren’t, which frustrated them. 

“Even with a queer professor, who people know as a very open and affirming person, he just completely missed the fact—even halfway through the semester—of who I am even though I’ve made it clear on multiple occasions that I’m not a woman. He was still stuck in that assumption.” 

While Prime considers this the worst experience they’ve had so far, it wasn’t hostile. They were still disappointed that a queer professor in the Women's and Gender Studies program would make such a mistake, though they do point out that they assumed he’d be more conscious. Unfortunately, people in the queer community are not always as aware and understanding of nonbinary identities as they should be. 

“People on any side of the political spectrum, on any platform, are always going to make mistakes even if they mean well,” Prime explained. Even so, Prime does say their good experiences outweigh the bad.

Every person is different—no one’s experiences are exactly the same. Even though all four interviewees share the same community, they all feel differently about their gender and how they’re perceived by the outside world. Their femininity and gender are important parts of their lives, and though that may change in the future, it’s something they can all understand right now.

Femininity is fun. Being nonbinary is what one makes of it. At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual—not the rest of the world—to decide. Any person, no matter how feminine they present, can be nonbinary. Femininity can be just as meaningful and beautiful on anyone no matter what.