The terms gender identity, gender fluidity and non binary gender have found their way in the mainstream conversation. More and more people who express these social identities call on all of us to acknowledge them for the people they are. The so called mainstream society has struggled to accept these different perspectives. The naturist/nudist community has long suggested without clothes everyone is equal. It is suggested things like race, and class don’t matter when everyone is naked. What about gender identity? Are naturist/nudist groups and individuals ready for gender fluid non binary people?
About a year ago we started to observe some of these issues circling around naturist and nudist conversations. We reached out to some gender fluid and on binary folks who expressed and interest in clothes free life or said they ganged in clothes free living. We asked them to share concerns, fears experiences and hopes as people living in a gender binary heterosexual normative world. Graciously several gender fluid, non binary, and non hetero-normative people responded through social media. So we asked some them to share their thoughts about non binary gender identities, naturism and clothes free living. What follows is one conversation with a gender non binary person we connected with on Instagram. For their privacy only their initials are used.
CFL – Thanks for being willing to engage the gender fluid/non binary subject and share your perspective and experience. We are interested in learning about your personal experience as a non-binary person and with naturism/clothes free living. In particular your experience of any intersection between the two.
CFL – First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself ?
FB – I was born in mid 1960s, first generation Black British, which means I was born and raised in London by Caribbean parents who came to the UK in the early 1960s as part of the British governments invitation to its Commonwealth citizens to migrate to ‘the motherland’ and help rebuild it after the war. I lived in London all my life, raised 3 children and worked there for 18 years in education. Once my children left home and made their own lives, I packed up and moved alone to live in Amsterdam for a new start in life.
CFL – How do you prefer to be addressed? What pronouns are your pronouns of choice?
FB – I prefer to be addressed and referred to by my first name. I would rather my name be used to refer to me or ‘person’. If there is a need for pronouns then my correct pronouns are ‘they/their/them’. For me, its not a choice. I was not given a choice about my gender or pronouns growing up.
CFL – Do you identify as gender fluid, non binary or something else?
FB – I am a non-binary person. I also describe myself as gender queer or gender non-conforming. I question what are globally considered gender norms. Due to the general confusion about sex and gender, I will add that gender is not the same as sexuality/genitalia. Gender is a social construct that has always been challenged by people over the centuries in all societies.
CFL – You described yourself as actively living a non-binary/gender fluid experience. How did that come about?
FB – As a child I always felt uncomfortable with how I had to force myself to behave in the way adults told me I should, as friends, society and institutions expected me to. I knew as a child that I did not fit into the behaviours that I was taught because of my body type (assigned female at birth). It took until my forties before I began to explore and understand about gender diversity and what this meant to me. When I first came across the term gender queer, my immediate response was “That’s ME!!!” I was drawn to questioning my assigned gender because living as female and following all the social codes and rules since my childhood days never fitted, always felt like a conflict which I didn’t have words to describe or express. I tried to do as I was told, I tried to follow the rules and sometimes did really well with them, yet deep inside something felt wrong. it was like I was wearing an ill fitting suit but thinking its my body that’s out of shape and not the suit!
I kept my feelings of invisibility and hating myself for not fitting in very secret most of my life, out of confusion and shame. I found the courage to fully hear the voice and feelings I had buried all my life, quite recently, about 5 years ago. With more time for myself after my children had grown up, I was able to focus on me. I found I no longer recognized who I was, I lost myself due to years of trying to be everything everybody else wanted me to be, and at the same time burying and losing touch with myself. As a child I grew up with immense fears and insecurities about who I was.
With the courage and wisdom gained through my Buddhist practice (I’ve been a practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism for 15 years) and having a determination to fulfill my highest potential as a human being, I realised that to do this I needed to be true to myself. As I chanted I became increasingly aware of areas in my life where I was experiencing huge discomfort. Underneath that discomfort was a strong feeling of disconnection with myself, a huge amount of sadness and grief. I began to open up to a close friend about questioning my gender. I still remember the first time I uttered the words, it was like a window opening and fresh air blowing into a stuffy room! At this point I was questioning my assigned gender and exploring what that meant to me. I allowed my past feelings of alienation, rejection and isolation to surface.
This went back to childhood – earliest memories from around aged 8 when I remember being told off for misbehaving in school and being confused because I had to behave like girls should, but that didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t feel back then that I fit in with girls OR boys! I had no idea what to do, I couldn’t talk to my parents about it, so I decided rather than continue to be isolated, I buried my feelings and joined the ‘girls club’. I never considered myself as a very convincing member though! maybe because I was the only one who knew deep down I felt like a fraud.
CFL – Did you have any fears or concerns when adopting a gender fluid/non-binary way of life?
FB – ‘Adopting’ makes it sound like a lifestyle choice! Being non-binary is how I exist as a human being comfortable in my own skin. It is not a lifestyle choice, nor something I chose to adopt. What I chose to do is live true to myself. I knew that was not as a woman, nor as a man, but as myself. Non-binary is the way I can respond when asked about my gender. Maybe agender may make more sense, but I’m happy so long as the term describes a place far away from the M – F binary. When I fully understood myself being non-binary, it was like I had physically emotionally and mentally opened up! I felt lighter, happier in myself, and a sense of wholeness I had never known before. It really was like I had found myself.
I finally found a sense of being that worked for me. Once the euphoria wore down, I began to think of how to navigate my way through the world in which I lived where everything is organised around the 2 genders. Having been socialised as female, I identify with the female experience as a gender queer non-binary person living in what I am told is a female body. This is difficult for others to accept and also difficult for me to assert, because the women’s movement, the feminist movement is beset with many who have an issue with trans identities. Yes I am a feminist, no I am not a woman. This is painful for many women who feel I am rejecting my womanhood, my femininity. I am not.
I’m still trying to find a way of expressing this so I can be fully understood. I am not rejecting any part of my self, my past experiences, or my body. I do feel pressure to go back to fitting in. Doing so will serve other people and make life easier for me in some ways, but it would not be a life of truth, nor a life where I would be living fully as my authentic self. I’d much rather be true to myself and take on the nay-sayers! It’s so frustrating not having answers to all the questions that arise about being non-binary. My own inner questioning as well as addressing the many questions raised by living in a CIS normative binary society. Believe me, this isn’t easy. I hope people try to understand at least that much, and do some homework before approaching me and other trans* people with strange questions about genitals and hormones. I’m no expert. I’m just trying to live my truth, as we all are.
CFL – How has living gender fluid/non-binary affected your life socially and overall?
FB – I have a small group of friends and my immediate family I am open with about myself. My children still call me ‘mum’ and my sister is working on calling me ‘sibling’ instead of sister, which she finds very difficult as terms like sisterhood and womanhood are important to her. The bonds are equally important to me, I just struggle with how the language negates my experience. I go to mostly queer friendly social events and venues because there’s less issues I have to confront. Gender neutral toilets, less likelihood of being mis-gendered. I prefer to avoid cis-gender normative settings if possible. I once went to a bar where the female toilet sign was a handbag and a high heeled shoes. Gender conformity is everywhere! It’s like an invisible pressure weighing on my shoulders. On a good day, stuff like that doesn’t touch me at all. On other days, it feels unbearably oppressive. Being forced to choose only 2 options, neither which apply to me!
This decision to gradually let go of gendered language and embraced non-gendered terms like using they/them/their has been a challenge for me as much as anyone else starting out. Its tough undoing 4 decades of conditioning. I am patient and I do empathise with my friends I people whom I meet and request the use of non-gendered terms. Many, many people still have no idea about the existence of gender queer and non-binary people. Some people think its attention seeking and complete nonsense. Its not a new phenomenon. its been around for a long time in many cultures
CFL- You also described yourself as a long time naturist. What was your motivation or interest in engaging naturism?
FB – Being without clothes always felt natural to me. It was always the most comfortable way to feel in my body. Despite very strict gendered rules at home and school about how I should conduct my body, I kept my love of being clothes-free all my life. I remember my first naked swim. Also the first time I walked through the woods at dusk naked. How my body could feel the differing air temperatures down my body. Colder air at the ground near my ankles and gradually warmer higher up my body. My instincts and senses heighten when I’m clothes free. I love that feeling. I’m quite primal at times and being without clothing, feeds that primal part of me.
CFL- Did you or do you have any fears or concerns about interacting with others as you continue living as a naturist?
FB – I am initially nervous about going to naturist parks, beaches etc. the first time, but that’s due to my social anxiety. Once I’ve been with a friend once or twice, I usually can go on my own and relax in my own space. I tend not to socialise with strangers when I’m out alone. I am mindful of cis men coming to talk to me. Or just looking. Sadly there are creeps in every community! As a black person in northern Europe, I’m usually the only black body at the naturist beach or spa. I don’t mind the odd curious glances and I’ve so far not felt completely uncomfortable as people are usually polite and don’t gaze in an obvious way. I’m used to being different.
I was educated in very white establishments so am used to the curious white gaze and how my darker skin will stand out. For some of them it may be the first time they’ve seen a real-life black body! on days when I’m feeling vulnerable for some reason, I do not go to those places. I need to have some energy in reserve to deal with the presence of other curious people. I focus on why I’m there, to enjoy the spa or the beach. I find when I relax and get on with my own thing, the curiosity about me seems to lessen. I hope more people of colour and trans* gender queer people use these facilities over time and make this curiosity about people with different bodies less of an issue.
CFL- How does that influence your engagement in naturism? How does naturism impact your life socially and overall?
FB – As a non binary person, the risk or threat of being mis-gendered is the same for me if I’m clothed or unclothed. I’m not part of a community of clothes free friends , so I’ve not had to deal with other clothes free people’s attitudes and beliefs about gender. When I go to naturist places its usually with one of my gender queer friends or alone.
In the Netherlands I enjoy the freedom to be clothes free much more than in the UK. The Dutch seem have a healthier more laid back attitude to being clothes-free. It’s not so taboo as much as in British culture. There are children’s play areas at most nudist beaches and families with children of all ages attend. I even went to a huge spa that has family mornings each weekend. In the spas and saunas here its forbidden to wear swimwear (for hygiene reasons) and people of all shapes and sizes are very relaxed in their bodies in these places. The complete opposite to the UK and I love taking a sauna and steam. I particular like the locations that have outdoor facilities too. I’m lucky to have quite a few here in NL. Only sad thing is the weather! Being Northern Europe, there’s fewer clothes free days to be enjoyed without central heating which dries my skin, so I avoid having the heating in my home too high. I always sleep clothes free though, regardless of the weather. I cannot sleep well otherwise.
CFL – Is there something that I haven’t thought of you want to share about gender fluid non-binary naturism and clothes free living?
FB – I would like society as a whole to become more open and educated about transgender issues. It’s gradually happening, but the painful reality is that many people are losing their lives through murder and suicide because of ignorance and a need to maintain a power base within the normative lifestyle. There is a need for justice, not equality. In terms of clothes free living, I’d like that people feel comfortable around diversity in our bodies, whether it’s a person with differently coloured or marked skin, breast surgery, scarring, or genitals you wouldn’t expect to see. I would like clothes-free spaces like beaches, spas and clubs to openly demonstrate that they do welcome all people who are differently bodied to know that the clothes free environment is a safer and welcoming space where any transphobia will be dealt with and not tolerated. I have found the clothes-free spaces I’ve visited so far to be pretty welcoming and not affected by what I call body fascists.
However, the ‘no swimwear’ rule did pose a problem for a trans friend who did not want to be fully naked at a spa. Not because they were private about their body, but because of the gaze their body would attract from others seeing a differently bodied person. Sadly these people who can make a clothes fee experience uncomfortable for those of us who do not conform to society’s idea of beauty and acceptable bodies do exist. How can the clothes fee community address this?
Thanks for being willing to engage the gender fluid/non binary conversation and share your perspective and experience.