One afternoon, two Musers got together to interview each other about their experiences in dating and relationships as non-binary folks. What came of it was a series of extremely deep, personal, and nuanced responses—some of which they’d acknowledged for the first time.
For Saundarya and Manami, coming upon their non-binary gender identity itself was quite the journey. Both are from different backgrounds, have come from different parts of the country (Delhi and Kolkata, respectively), and have a palpable age gap (31 and 24, respectively). Their worldview is extremely diverse, but they do have one thing in common—they’re both non-binary individuals living in urban India.
Q: When did you know that you identified with a non-binary gender identity?
Saundarya: During the pandemic, I got a lot of time to introspect. It was around the same time I was coming to terms with my bisexual identity. I yearned for community; but like billions across the world, it felt like I was stuck in a fishbowl. So, I spoke to some people I found through online forums.
During some of these conversations, I came across non-binary as a term. And for the first time in 28 years of my life, I felt like I found a sense of belonging—a ‘home’ if you will. Today, I’m more sure of my non-binary identity than I am about my bisexuality, but that’s a whole other conversation.
Manami: I found out very recently. I knew that I was gender fluid when I was maybe 12 or 13. I came upon it when I read about gender-fluid clothing in a fashion magazine. I learned that some people didn’t want their gender to be assumed and I suddenly felt something akin to enlightenment because I fit right in with that.
I related to the word ‘androgynous’ because I always felt like that. I was super young and I didn’t know non-binary’ meaning at that time or had non-binary pals. Before even accepting this, I knew that I wanted to be referred to with her/him pronouns. Bangla is not a gendered language, so it took me some time to understand the binaries of pronouns and genders.
Q: What’s an everyday experience that you have as a non-binary person?
Saundarya: Oftentimes, I check myself out in the mirror right after a shower—especially while I get ready to go to a space that involves other people (like work, or a party). Most days, my body dysphoria is so much that it gives me decision paralysis while I try to pick something to wear. I feel like a shapeshifter as I try on different clothes. In fact, I used to relate to Mystique from The X-Men.
Q: While growing up, was it any different when you saw your cishet peers having romantic feelings for folks of the opposite gender, especially when you didn’t know about your gender identity?
Saundarya: As a teenager, I’d constantly look to my peers and older friends to understand what is conventional behaviour. Frankly, I was desperately trying to fit in. I had crushes on guys, but it felt a little foreign. I was trying so hard to feel ‘normal’ that I started copying anything that anyone did.
For example, there was this didi (older sister-like figure) in my colony who was 6 years older than me—I was 11 and she was 17. She had the biggest crush on Hrithik Roshan and made these thick scrapbooks full of newspaper and magazine clippings with his face. So, naturally, I felt that I had to make one too—except I picked Mallika Sherawat for some reason <chuckles>. The signs were there me being a non-binary child, I just took 15+ years to see it.
Manami: I never felt like a ‘girl’, and I didn’t want to conform to that identity anyway. Whenever I had a crush on a guy, I somehow could never feel the way my female friends felt. I always had a very different way of expressing it. I knew that I was different and I always went towards more unconventional interests. By ‘unconventional’, I mean going against what is prescribed for a girl.
Q: How do you feel about the patriarchal gender roles in a relationship? Do you think they somehow still apply?
Saundarya: I’ve never related to gender roles. In my book, the roles that we play in a relationship are dynamic and ever-changing. I like to take charge, but I also like being taken care of. Intimacy is a gender-agnostic concept and requires everyone to pull their weight for it to contribute to a fulfilling relationship. I’ve always believed this and I can’t imagine thinking otherwise.
Manami: I was always the one to take charge and the ‘caregiver’ of the relationship, and it came naturally to me. But, as I’m growing and evolving, and now that I’m in a relationship with an NB person, I find that I like giving up control and being taken care of.
Plus, in cishet relationships, I always felt like things had to happen one after another - you date, you marry, then you have children, and so on. While I know now that I want these things, I used to shy away because it felt more like an obligation.
Q: How has online and offline dating been?
Saundarya: I date a lot of cishet men. I’m on all of the dating apps but have never found luck while trying to find other queer folks. I’ve even tried to increase the age range and distance, without any luck. And when I do find someone, it usually fizzles out after the first text. I have seen myself fall back into the pattern of dating men also because it’s comfortable to do that. In the binary of dating, cis-men are very predictable.
However, I tend to reveal my non-binary and bisexual identity selectively. When I do the former, it goes by unnoticed or I’m asked questions very respectfully. But, for the latter, I’m always asked whether I’m down to be in a threesome as if that’s the sole purpose of a bisexual person. It’s incredibly annoying.
Manami: I’ve personally seen a lot of acceptance for queer folk online. But, there is still very little awareness about what it means to be bi. There’s a lot of bi-erasure and people often assume that it’s some sort of percentage game. As if only 70% of me likes men, but only 30% likes women, so I wouldn’t actually do anything about it. But now that they know that I’m dating a non-binary identifying person, they think I’m actually lesbian. Everyone just wants to put you in a box and there’s no winning with them. Even within the queer community people forget that it’s a spectrum.
Q: Has body/gender dysphoria affected the way you get intimate with a partner?
Saundarya: Absolutely! I can sometimes physically feel myself switch between feeling effeminate and completely disconnected from my body. Depending on how deep my connection is with someone, I find myself leaning into my femininity or switching off.
Even when I’m in a fulfilling situationship, I feel like I’m more in my body. I don’t mean that I feel more effeminate or anything, I just feel more seen and present. But, I’ve found myself reverting to using self-care products like Pulse Massager because it doesn’t have a sexually suggestive form.
Manami: I’m very confident in my body, but I do still feel dysphoric. My own gender and body dysphoria has led me to phases where I felt extremely comfortable in my femininity and/or leaning into androgyny. I’ve also sometimes felt very frustrated and I want to be able to pick a side. I’ve often wondered why some parts of my body can’t be attached or detached when I want, much like switches on apps. But, now I’m in this space where I know that I’m more than that and my queerness has more layers. There is a certain beauty in being versatile and it has helped me see others in a different light.
Q: How different is it to date other queer or non-binary folks?
Manami: Even within the queer community, dating a cis-gendered woman and a non-binary or trans person is very different. Cis-folk tend to try and label you as a tomboy or femme, but trans and non-binary folk understand that it’s not a fixed phase. It keeps ebbing and flowing, sometimes through the day. There’s not as much of a power dynamic here unlike other relationships. They truly get it.
Q: What do you think dating would look like in the near future?
Saundarya: By the power of the interwebs, more and more people are learning and understanding where it is that they find themselves on the gender and sexuality spectrum. There are so many resources out there for people now, that it’s enabling younger people to understand their own queerness. The future is going to be more fluid and I feel more people are going to view love as a spectrum and accept the non-binary flag. The conversations around polyamory and open relationships are beginning to help people explore it, and it’s only going to become more commonplace to do that.
Manami: More and more people will accept that nature is fluid and they’ll be more expressive. I think there will be more open relationships and more people trying out alternate arrangements. People will be more cognizant of mental health and how that affects sexuality and interpersonal relationships. I think people will recognise more gender and sexuality identities. There will be more interest in tech—in terms of self-care products, AI, and even the Metaverse.
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