The Invisible Gender: A nonbinary journey amid the constructs of gender

 Kendall Anthony Busbee

Advertising Manager

kanthony@unca.edu

Illustration made by Kendall Anthony-Busbee

With short dark hair, bold lipstick and stylish glasses perfectly framing their whimsical features, one may never ponder how Molly Herold, 29, prefers to identify. Herold uses the pronouns they and them, and identifies as nonbinary. 

Some may erroneously assume Herold’s preferred pronouns, like the barista inside one of Asheville’s trendy coffee shops, who proceeds to ask, “How are you ladies doing tonight?

Even so, Herold seems comfortable presenting themselves in this way. They arrive in a long-sleeved purple dress and fur lined coat, perfect for combating the evening’s brisk November weather. The soft sounds of café chatter and dishware clinking together fade into the background as Herold discusses their journey with the construct of gender. 

“Presenting as fem is where I feel the safest, but there’s this element of, I’m in drag all the time,” Herold describes through mouthfuls of the crumbling sugar cookie they’ve ordered. 

Acknowledging this feeling creates a safe space for them, after having spent a lifetime analyzing and understanding their gender identity. “When I’m naked, I’m myself, when I’m going out into the world, I’m in drag, and that’s OK.

Herold’s memory of their gender realization, like others’, lacks certainty.

“It’s a little blurrier,” they say. “We have less of a linear, or binary timeline.”

People who identify as nonbinary often struggle with recognizing that they’re nonbinary for years, as they can’t point to a specific moment in time when they knew. 

“I remember some conversations with friends where I recall wishing that I had something like a ‘switch,’ where I could just show up the way I wanted to show up,” they said. “Wishing I could show up more masculine, looking like a boy – but also not feeling fully comfortable presenting that way, and not feeling safe to do that.” 

Growing up, Herold always felt the gender assigned to them at birth never quite fit. 

“I realized that for a long time I felt super uncomfortable being lumped in as female and with women.” 

Words like ‘she’ and ‘her’ didn’t necessarily hurt, but when people said ‘lady’ Herold felt a sense of inaccuracy, almost as if they were hiding something. Desperate to understand these feelings, Herold began conducting their own research in a way that one may expect of a curious preteen.

“When I was 13 or 14, YouTube came around, and started to be a thing, and I would obsessively research.”

But it was the subject matter of Herold’s research that spoke the loudest. 

“I would kind of obsessively research medical transitions,” Herold says. “I know a lot of 13 or 14-year-old girls don’t do that, friends of mine didn’t do that.”

For Herold, they were continually yearning to be understood, and their feelings of incongruity were ever prominent. 

As time went on, Herold found comfort in learning more about the process of transitioning from female to male, but this still didn’t quite fit. 

“There was something about the female to male transition that didn’t speak to me,” they said. “It didn’t feel like enough.”

Many non-binary-identified people do not feel the need to take hormones or undergo surgery, according to Kara Catrelle, an analytical psychotherapist specializing in sexuality and gender-related issues.

When Herold came out as bisexual to their mother, they received a less than supportive response.

“Well maybe it’s a phase,” Herold’s mother said. “You don’t really know yet.”

The subject was never brought up again.

Typically, children can sense their own gender identity from a young age. Sometimes their environment does not offer encouragement to freely express that desire, according to Catrelle.

“By the time they enter school and see such harsh lines depicting gender, they typically suppress their yearnings until teen or adulthood,” Catrelle said.

There came a point in Herold’s life when they reached what felt like a brick wall, preventing all further emotional exploration on the matter.

“I was just like OK; I’m going to put this in a box and never think about it again.” 

Fortunately, the diversifying aspects of graduate school shed light upon many of Herold’s self-imposed questions. The queer-friendly campus of Warren Wilson College in North Carolina was an environment in which Herold flourished. A place where they began to safely embrace the ambiguity and complicated nature of their gender identity. 

“I realized that instead, one could identify as a man, show up in a dress, present to everyone else in the world as fem,” they say with hints of excitement. “I didn’t have to abide by the straight line of direction.”

Herold also found their first love at Warren Wilson, a cisgender man, who helped them to feel validated and seen as a person. Even so, Herold struggled with the magnitude of invisibility that came with what others perceived as a seemingly heterosexual relationship. 

“I was out to myself, but people wouldn’t really know that about me,” Herold says. “It wasn’t really a lot of hiding, but it wasn’t a lot of talking either.”

Visibility proves essential in Herold’s nonbinary journey. While they may have wanted to present as male on one day, and female on another, the fear of an unappealing outward appearance stunted their identity’s development. 

“I was really worried that if I presented masculine, would that scare away potential suitors.” 

Their nonbinary gender identity continued to be unseen, as those who experience a journey such as Herold’s often conform, leading to erasure and suppression of their true self.

“In the past, a lot of my identity was tied into attraction and wanting to be valued for being attractive.”

Herold’s college experiences continued to open doors of liberation for them, sparking conversations about identity, intersectionality, and an examination of how they appear to the world. Through such moments of self-reflection, they’ve managed to build a stronger foundation for their gender identity that goes beyond an outward appearance. 

“I was scared because it’s hard to acknowledge something that you didn’t know about yourself for a long time,” Herold says. “There was a sense of loneliness too, but also kind of excited know that this might help me understand.”

Herold was shy about implementing and using their preferred pronouns at first, not wanting to deal with the flighty and over-apologetic responses from those who get it wrong.

“It almost doesn’t feel worth it sometimes, to try and regularly show up saying this is my pronoun, and this is what I want,” Herold says. 

But they gain a sense of empowerment and visibility from enforcing they and them pronouns.

“I definitely put it out there now, I use it in emails and I’m out at work.”

Now an accomplished therapist with two master’s degrees, Herold’s nonbinary journey continues. 

They still deal with voice dysphoria, and a disconnection with their body. They deem this disconnect as another safe place for them. 

“I live in the head,” Herold says. “Very cognitive, always thinking.”

Herold’s current work involves helping clients to get in touch with their bodies through various methods of therapy. Tracking, sensing and being aware of physical sensation prove helpful in becoming grounded. Many patients with trauma can live in a constant state of disconnect from their bodily experience, a sort of numbness. Herold often sees themselves in their work. 

“It’s been eye opening to work with people, and to realize that I do that, too,” Herold says. 

Herold has recently completed a course on a type of therapy called, EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. 

“That’s a whole other world,” Herold says with a laugh. “It’s pretty awesome.”

The person who started as a confused preteen, questioning their identity and struggling to find inner peace, has arisen and begun their own private practice in the Asheville area. Herold focuses on helping clients with transgender, nonbinary and gender identity related issues. This proves fitting, as Asheville is a hub for LGBTQIA+ inclusion, according to Amanda Wray, associate professor at UNCA and a member of the university’s women, gender, and sexuality studies department.

“I am doing oral history interviews with LGBTQIA+ people in the area, and many of our participants talk about Asheville’s reputation of inclusion as integral to them choosing to come here,” Wray said.

Herold also delves into their artistic side through their business called Pour Darling. In 2019, after months of experimentation, creation and YouTube lessons, Herold founded Pour Darling to share a new obsession and knowledge of acrylic pouring. 

Currently a business of one, it may expand, but for now, the sole artist is Herold.

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