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For the first three decades of my life, everyone who knew me thought I was a woman. I never was. I’m agender. But I didn’t correct their misunderstandings until I was 30 years old. The whole time, being treated like I was a woman made me miserable.

So why did I let that happen to me for so long?

Here are seven reasons.

1. I thought I was a stuck as a girl

In childhood, I learned that people were going to lump me in with girls whether I liked it or not. And whenever they did, it made me deeply uncomfortable. The awkwardness of that never died down, but I learned to think of it as inevitable.

I didn’t exactly know that I wasn’t a girl—I just thought that being a girl made no sense and I hated everything about having to be one. Every part of it felt like an existential error that I was trapped in.

I was forcibly dressed up like a doll every time my family went to some kind of social function. I protested a lot when I was little, even attempting to hide and destroy girly clothes so I wouldn’t have to wear them, but eventually I learned that protesting just made it worse.

When I was twelve I asked to get my hair cut short. My mom and the local hair dresser were friends, so under their influence I ended up with an extremely girly shoulder-length cut. I was horrified (but I knew I’d be punished if I didn’t smile and say thank you anyway).

Those are just a few examples of the constant imposition of the “girl” role on me as a kid, which never let up, and in fact, got worse as I grew up.

I learned that being a girl seemed like this awful fact of life I had to get used to, no matter how weird it made me feel.

2. I thought I had to train myself to be a girl

Eventually, after being pounded for years with pressure to act like a girl, I figured I was just really detached from my gender and needed to work on connecting to it so I could be a functioning person in society.

I got criticized a lot—especially as I reached young adulthood—for “hiding my beauty,” and was taught that I had a duty to my genetic disposition to do myself up like a lady.

People were always trying to give me makeovers. I hated it, but sometimes I let them do it out of that same sense of duty. Every time I did, and saw myself in the mirror, I had to hold back the impulse to throw up. (It wasn’t until 15 years later that I learned this was gender dysphoria.)

I did my best to try to imitate how women walked and moved, and to understand the science behind what they wore (joke’s on me; it’s not science—fashion is about what people feel good in, and I could never feel good in feminine clothes).

I didn’t get the hang of any of it, but people still thought I was a woman, so I eventually figured I was off the hook. They’d see whatever they wanted to see no matter what I did anyway.

3. I couldn’t figure out how to express my non-female self

Growing up, I was involved in church, classical music, and in a lot of sports. All these things were extraordinarily gendered. There was no way to even participate in a way that didn’t revolve around gender. That was the case for just about every aspect of my life. Dorms are gendered, school is gendered, dating is gendered, bathrooms are gendered, clothes are gendered … you get the idea.

All the conditioning I went through that taught me that I had to dress and behave like a woman in order to do anything in society at all led me to believe that the real me was just out of luck. I could express myself through my art (which, in all honesty, probably kept me alive), and I could do my best to work around the gender stuff that dictated how everyone had to do everything, but mostly I just needed to plod along and try not to get too depressed in my isolation.

This led to me just going about my life in a deeply internalized way, expecting people to only see their invented versions of me. And that’s what they did. I didn’t think there was anything I could do to make things any different.

4. I didn’t think there was anyone else like me

It was a surreal moment when I discovered the term “nonbinary” and recognized there were people out there who weren’t strictly men or women. I came across several people publicly out as genderfluid, part of this new-to-me concept of “nonbinary.”

At first I was skeptical. Looking back, it cracks me up how I was skeptical. I thought: No way. These people are nowhere near as genderless as I am, and I’m not going around saying I’m nonbinary.

Of course I was nonbinary, and so were they—I just didn’t realize I was a certain type of nonbinary that was different than the folks I came across. I was agender, which is in many ways even more different from genderfluid than it is from man or woman.

I had to dig up a lot of scattered reading to understand the terminology and reconcile it with my experience. It was a tangly maze of information mixed with misinformation. The confusion of that process is a big part of why I started this site.

During that time, I was still enmeshed in environments that didn’t even believe that these identities were real. I was among people who believed any form of queerness was sin. So I kept it to myself as I tried to understand what I was learning, and tried to figure out if I was part of it.

5. I wasn’t totally sure I wasn’t a woman

Most of the people I’d known all my life only knew me as a straight cisgender woman. Including my family. This made me question my sense of not being a woman. I had to be totally sure before trying to talk to anyone about who I really was, because I knew they were going to be skeptical. They were going to want proof. They were probably going to try to convince me I was wrong.

If I couldn’t explain myself, and if I turned out to be wrong, I’d risk losing the respect of friends and family for no reason.

I had to dig really deep and be really certain. It took me a long time to get to that point.

6. I didn’t want any attention about gender

It’s pretty much impossible to be treated as myself without asking people to treat me that way. Many young people do it naturally, but generally people over the age of 30 just tend to decide that I’m either a man or a woman.

I never wanted attention about gender—that’s the whole problem in the first place—is being assigned this gender that was never me.

But in order to just exist honestly, I need people to stop using the only words they know how to use to refer to me. I need people to stop treating me in these default ways that are engrained into their thoughts. I need to ask for space where there is no space.

People make a big fuss about that, and it leads to a lot of attention—both negative and neutral (and occasionally positive). It means that I have to spend all this time explaining my lack of gender.

I knew that was going to happen, and it kept me quiet for a while, because I didn’t want to have to deal with all that.

Standing up for who I am takes a lot of work, and it’s a frustrating and awkward learning process that I just had to decide whether or not I was up for. It took me a while to be able to accept that.

7. I thought others’ view of me as a woman was unchangeable

I’d only ever been around people who had wrong expectations about who I was, no matter what I did. I knew I was enforcing those expectations whenever I didn’t break them, which led me to feel hopelessly alienated. Those expectations were really strong, and I had no idea how to break them. I’d pretty much given up on getting to be me in any social context.

But the more I gave myself a chance to really consider it, the more I realized there were ways to express myself that I hadn’t done yet—things that stood a chance to shatter those expectations, if I had the guts to take the leap. Scary things, like changing my name, and getting top surgery. Things that I feared would lead to me losing everything I loved.

But it became clear to me that I held the keys. I could do something. And as soon as I realized that, I only had one choice.

I had to stop pretending.