There is a scene in Alison Evans’ Euphoria Kids where one of the protagonists faces a conundrum I’m sure is familiar to a lot of trans people, especially those caught in between “still figuring it out” and “coming out”. The boy—as he is called throughout the novel, as he has not found his true name yet—has to fill out a medical form. This requires, of course, his legal name. But his friend, Iris, suggests that maybe he can make a note for the doctor to only call him by his surname—he’s keeping that, after all, no matter what he discovers his first name to be. It’s a small thing, but it’s a revelation for the boy and in the moment it eases his mind.
On the train home, they have this little exchange, from Iris’ perspective:
I ask the boy, “Do you know about gender euphoria?”
He shakes his head.
“I think, when you smiled after realising you could just use your last name, that might’ve been it.”
“It’s just like, good feelings? About gender?”
“It’s like… the opposite of dysphoria.”
He stares out the window, watching the shops go past. “I’ve only heard of gender dysphoria before.”
“I found out about it a while ago, but yeah. I thought I should let you know.”
He smiles, lost in thought.
(Evans 2020, p. 200 – 201)
When I read this scene, it made something at the back of my mind itch. It pulled up a memory of putting my Honours thesis together in November 2017, my first real academic publication. Obviously, I had to put a name on it. My instinct was to brand it with my full, legal name; after all this was an official document. But there was a second, deeper, pricklier instinct underneath that spark of professionalism. A slight sensation of being off balance, an incredibly faint ringing in my ears at the idea of my work and my image being attached to that name.
Then it occurred to me that, duh, I could just write “Alex”. There was nothing stopping me from submitting under a pen name. And it was hardly a pen name in the first place: it’s what everyone calls me! I felt a little flush of happiness at this, something like relief that I kind of couldn’t explain. Something I barely noticed at the time, but looking back seems kind of significant. Like so many things.
My full name, at this point, is kind of like an evening gown: fancy and feminine and tucked away except for special occasions. I think it was my parents who started it, actually, defaulting to “Alex” for me even as a wee sprog. I was a good kid, for the most part, so I barely even have memories of The Full Name being whipped out when I was in trouble. I was always happy with “Alex”, though it would annoy me if other kids teased me about it being a boy’s name—or, later on, when people would see my name out of context of knowing me (for example, in an article byline), and assume I was a dude. That always rubbed me the wrong way.
I remember thinking to myself, “Would you rather they assumed you were a woman?” The reply inside my brain was “I’d rather they didn’t assume anything at all!” It’s been a running joke for a while that when I get my PhD I’ll become Doctor Alex and no one will be able to guess my gender just by looking at my name and credentials.
Again, probably should have thought about if that meant anything. But self-reflection is not one of my strong traits. And a lot of the time, it’s easier to notice discomfort than comfort, that sense of yuck more than that sense of wow! Especially when that’s what you’re taught that gender identity is associated with.
I remember really, really wanting to write and research and explore the gender themes in Land of the Lustrous, but pulling back deliberately because I was cis and thus “not qualified” to speak about such things. Instead of questioning why I might find those themes so intriguing, how that intrigue might be the very thing that “qualified” me. I remember emphasising the power of allyship in my PhD project seminars, how I was writing a story with non-binary main characters because I wanted to create representation and fun art for my non-binary friends and loved ones. I just found it super interesting, you know? The whole possibility of existing outside the borders of man and woman. It’s neat, academically. Conceptually.
And because of academic interest, I should read textbooks like Life Isn’t Binary and novels like I Wish You All the Best. Life Isn’t Binary fascinated me because it was really useful for my work, that was it. I Wish You All the Best made me cry because it was just, like, really well written and did a good job getting me to emphasise with the non-binary protagonist! Empathy, you see! Nothing to do with me. I’m over here, not qualified to talk about such things.
This sounds like an active process of denial, but it’s more accurate to say that I was goofily oblivious. It wasn’t until I got deeper into the niche of non-binary representation—now the core of what my project is about, alongside Trickster gods and YA fiction—that I took pause and wondered if there was a reason I was so invested in this. You don’t sign up to a four-year-long creative research project about something you’re only kinda interested in, right? As I slid deeper into the niche, I tried to pay more attention. I read Euphoria Kids and let it wash over me, listened to it when it seemed to really speak to me. Same for Felix Ever After, same for The Brilliant Death, same for several others that are now piled high on my desk.
I listened to that swelling in the chest, the Big Feelings those books (and others) gave me. I took the time to wonder what it meant. I took the time to wonder if it had something to do with those little zings of happiness I got when writing simply “Alex” or thinking about the glorious, comfy neutrality of “Doctor”. I realised it was resonating with me, personally. The same way I Wish You All the Best sang out to me, the same way Phos’ journey of change in Land of the Lustrous rang strangely true.
In children’s lit studies, we often return to a metaphor coined by Rudine Sims Bishop when we talk about the importance of diversity and representation: books can be mirrors, windows, and sliding doors. A window gives you a look into someone else’s life, encourages empathy. A mirror reflects your own experiences back at you. Both are important! But what’s also important to acknowledge is that books can also help you realise that what you first thought was a window is actually a mirror. Adjust your head, let the light shift, look properly, and you might be shocked to see your own reflection staring back at you.
You don’t always know how to tell a window from a mirror, how to listen out for these melodies of identity. Especially when—as I’ve talked about before—you’ve spent most of your life ambling along assuming you’re “normal” and not daring, or even thinking, to consider other options. As Oliver Reeson writes, simply and effectively, in Growing Up Queer in Australia, “How could I have grown up as a non-binary person when it was not a story I had ever heard?” If you don’t know something is an option, you just won’t think about it. And if you don’t experience the negative feelings that are broadly associated with an identity, you’ll count yourself out.
Euphoria Kids is a beautifully odd duck in the history of trans representation in that it almost completely bucks that dysphoria narrative. Through its story and the certified Nice Time that its characters have, it encourages its readers to think about trans gender identity not in terms of A Lifetime of Suffering but in small moments of joy, all of which gradually accumulate around you in little spots of light until you realise that the world is aglow. Getting that into my head has really helped me conceptualise my own gender.
I sometimes catch myself thinking, “Am I [this] enough to really be non-binary?” But then I remember all my research, the academic writing and the personal essays and the testimony of all my friends, and remember that the super cool thing about being non-binary is that it manifests differently in every person and can kinda mean whatever you need it to mean. It can be as simple as a sparkle of joy when your partner calls you “handsome” even though you’re dressed (what is usually considered) feminine, a sense of freer breathing when someone uses gender-neutral pronouns, or even just asks for them without assuming from how you look. A comfort in the very stretchy label of “non-binary”, how it encompasses so much and doesn’t place you in a box.
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t prickly moments of discomfort too, but they’re affirming in their own way. Even though most of my family are kind and cool enough not to hassle me about them, I became increasingly aware of how stifling the traditional expectations of female adulthood felt to me, whether that was “are you planning on having kids?” or “you should wear high heels and skirts to work if you want to look professional”. I began to wonder if the case of “I’m Not Like Other Girls” disease I had as a pre-teen might have something to do with, well, not being a girl.
I realised my hackles always went up when I saw “girl power” movements that seemed superficial or not intersectional—to steal a phrase from Jack Halberstam, I began to be wary of the “narrow politics of womanhood” that informed a lot of pop culture feminism. When I thought about it, beyond “you’re really going to charge $15 for a drink bottle that says The Future Is Female and call it progressiveness?”, I realised it was personal. I realised this was a feeling of exclusion, of shaky uncertainty. I realised how grateful I was for spaces (and work teams!) like Anime Feminist, which genuinely feels like it welcomes and gives platform to a wide range of identities and voices.
And, of course, there was that complicated dance/boxing match I was always in with my full name. Did it feel like it didn’t fit because it was A Girl’s Name? Is “Alex” much more comfortable because it affords some gender neutrality? Or does it just feel like a pair of well-worn jeans compared to the evening dress? There are a lot of complicated questions in play when you get into this stuff. Identities overlap and intersect and inform who you are overall. Which frankly is super bloody annoying—I’ve spent all this time getting a grip on my bi and ace identity, and now I’m throwing gender into the mix? For God’s sake!!
As I’ve articulated before, the reason I find queer media rep so important is because it can show you new possibilities that may well help you to rethink yourself. Once more I find myself wondering how my life might have been different if I’d had access to all the information I have now, at a younger age.
But then again, I don’t mourn the loss of a queer youth. Everything that has happened to me up to this point has made me who I am, has set me on my current path. As well as All the Gender Stuff, a freeing realisation I’ve had recently is that every human being is a work in progress. You don’t “come of age” and then stop growing. To quote Reeson a second time, there’s no deadline on figuring yourself out. Maybe I’ll change the way I identify later in life when I learn and experience new stuff. Who knows? That’s the beauty and terror of The Self.
This is not a coming out post, but it might be the first time some people are learning this about me… so hi! I’m Alex, I’m non-binary. I use she/her and they/them pronouns, with a growing preference for they/them. Gender is weird and I cannot explain it to anyone, and in fact I’m still kind of figuring out how to explain it to myself. But there’s something kind of fun about that, you know? This space of elasticity and experimentation. That space of euphoria, where joy and affirmation can take shape from a thousand tiny bits and pieces you never thought to notice before.