- Bi-Gender: A Candid Nonbinary Memoir by James-Beth Merritt, Gender Rebel Press, 258 pages. $9.95.
Dating as a woman in Vermont is tough. Now imagine you're dating as a woman who was assigned male at birth and identifies as "bi-gender" — meaning that "my gender switches back and forth between male and female," in the words of Burlington-area author James-Beth Merritt.
For readers who are frankly confused about what it means to alternate between two genders, Merritt's Bi-Gender: A Candid Nonbinary Memoir is both an eye opener and an articulate, lively read. With humor and directness, the author answers questions about being bi-gender — from the nitty-gritty to the philosophical — while also chronicling a personal journey toward living more openly as both man and woman.
That journey, which took place over the past few years, starts with the author as a middle-aged, male-presenting professional married to a cisgender woman. The book alternates between diary-esque chapters and flashbacks to earlier stages in Merritt's life, establishing the various ways in which Beth, the author's female self, emerged before she went public IRL. (One fascinating chapter details Beth's adventures in the online virtual world Second Life, where dating a cat-person or a unicorn is not off the table.)
Early in the book, Merritt takes breaks to address readers' potential questions directly. A chapter called "The Gender Carnival" parses the differences between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, and acknowledges that bi-gender people aren't easy to identify without a conversation. "So Your Friend Is Bi-Gender" offers helpful advice for people who are having such conversations, including potential questions to ask ("What's been hardest for you?" "Have you found any nice shoes yet?").
Early on Merritt warns us, "Parts of what you'll read may be kind of an overshare." That's true, in that the diary segments can ramble, but it's rarely a problem, because the author's promised candor brings readers inside the experience of being bi-gender in immediate, personable ways.
Take a passage in which Merritt describes rising from bed in "girl mode" and trying on some possible dating outfits: "Looking in the mirror, I am obviously not a vision of loveliness. Still, I think, martialing what masculine opinion I can in Beth mode: If you cleaned me up a little, I'd do me." An hour or so later, Merritt is back in "boy mode" and "enjoying the low reverberations of my own voice, so different from the feeling of my female voice vibrating through my mouth and head."
As the dating narrative progresses, Merritt also addresses some of the biggest — and thorniest — questions that people are likely to pose about the bi-gender identity. For instance, can people like Merritt be sure they aren't actually trans women? Or male cross-dressers? Throughout the book, Merritt describes a sense of self to which both male and female components are integral, affirming the male side while also strongly distinguishing "expressing my female side" from cross-dressing. (For a somewhat different view of cross-dressing that includes gender fluidity, see another recent local memoir, Skirting Gender: Life and Lessons of a Cross Dresser by Vera Wylde.)
Then there are the questions that cisgender female readers are perhaps most likely to ask: Why does Merritt's way of "expressing my female side" tend to involve nail polish, corsets and cute nighties? Are those what femaleness consists of? Can a James, who possesses male privilege in a patriarchal society, really also be a Beth, who doesn't?
While such debates are likely to rage on, Merritt handles the question of "cultural appropriation" in good faith. The author's wife, Anne, is a major presence in the narrative, and their relationship is a compellingly complex one. Merritt also acknowledges that a preoccupation with mastering the externals of femininity — long hair, epilation, nice shoes — is "my hang-up on expectations and cultural norms talking. There isn't a single, specific way to be a woman..."
Ultimately, though, the author concludes, we all have to choose the gender expression that works for us, "to muddle our way through." The memoir's parting message of self-acceptance should resonate both in and beyond the nonbinary community:
A lot of us have learned to think we're broken when we don't fit the rigid gender roles that have been defined for us, and we may hear over and over from others and especially ourselves that we're damaged or fucked-up or somehow just wrong. We're not.