Personal Life

How Being Nonbinary Helped My Dysphoria

For most of my life, I have had a complicated relationship with my body.

The first thing to keep in mind is that I had severe eczema over most of my body until about 2 years ago when I started taking a biologic and the eczema was beaten back to nearly nothing. I mention the eczema in a post about being nonbinary because I want to be clear that a lot of my covering up with hoodies and long pants was because people are weird about rashes. They will give you dirty looks, stare at open sores, and generally be rude. On top of that, eczema burns like a bitch when it’s exposed to the air or the skin touches other skin, so covering the folds of my arms and legs helped to mitigate that constant pain. Due to the eczema, I covered up most of my body, and people often took that for being uncomfortable with my body. I was but not in the way they thought.

My build is what some people would call sturdy. I have muscle on my calves and straight, strong shoulders. Neither fat nor thin, just in the middle but sturdy enough and tall enough (though still average) that I am certainly not petite or slight. My chest is disproportionately large, but I’m not really curvy either. Before I realized I was nonbinary, I didn’t always like my body. A lot of this has to do with growing up in the late 90s and early 00s when the in look for women was thin, almost prepubescent in terms of build, and wearing 85 layers of tight clothing. The alternative was big boobed bimbo. No shade to the bimbos of the world, I love Dolly and Elvira, but the thought of people seeing me that way because my genes decided to grace me with a disproportionate amount of fat on my chest was alarming to say the least.

At that age, I couldn’t articulate how I felt, but the fact that I couldn’t control how people perceived me terrified me. I hate that people saw me as a woman and sexualized me the moment I wore feminine clothing. I already didn’t like feminine clothing. That had been an ongoing war with my mother since I was in late elementary school. I hated dresses, hated skirts, and only wore them when my mom insisted I had to dress up. Around 10, I discovered anime tshirts and cargo shorts in the boys section of Target and let out a sigh of relief. There were other options than the booty shorts or feminine capris the girls section had to offer. T-shirts and cargo shorts hid the things that made me uncomfortable. Puberty had been a special sort of hell as a neurodivergent person and as someone who, unbeknownst to them, was experiencing dysphoria.

By the time I got to high school, the thought of putting on feminine clothing filled me with a special kind of dread. Every time I had to wear something feminine for a school event or a holiday, it felt like I was wearing an incredibly ugly costume. You know the scene in Beauty and the Beast when Beast is in the tub and they give him that ridiculous haircut and he just deadpan says that he looks stupid? That’s how I felt. This was compounded upon by the ease of my cousins’ transition into adolescence where they (seemed) to happily wear makeup, feminine clothing, played with their hair. I constantly felt like I was doing a really bad job pretending to be a woman. The label chafed and sagged, like I filled out all the wrong places. At some point, I stopped caring. I was bad at womanhood, so be it. I kept my hair pulled back, wore t-shirts, jeans, and hoodies/pullovers while giving zero shits, but the fact that people still perceived me as a woman nagged at me.

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school (so around 24-ish?), I stumbled upon the term nonbinary, and it was like everything clicked. In the past, I had debated if I was a trans man. I saw Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars when I was in college, and while I felt not-feminine, I didn’t think I felt that masculine. I was caught in a weird middle ground between masculine and feminine, none of which particularly appealed to me. When I finally understood what nonbinary people were and that they existed, it was like oh, so there’s a word for all these feelings I’ve had for years. All those moments of panic and revulsion made sense. They were dysphoria. It also helped explain why some things that were seen as feminine by others didn’t bother me.

I didn’t hate my body, per se. I hate how others perceived my body. That it was simultaneously seen as feminine yet not feminine enough because I wasn’t petite, because I had strong shoulders and legs, because I didn’t like to wear makeup or wear dresses. None of these things are inherently masculine or feminine, but society arbitrarily ascribes gender to them (aka don’t @ me for this, you know what I mean). Suddenly, my body felt less wrong. I was never a woman. I have always been nonbinary but didn’t have the word for the feelings. My strong body mixed with my long hair, chest, and generally, neutral clothing felt right.

This mix of hard and soft feels right to me and has settled the war between my body and mind substantially. I still panic at the thought of clothing that is too gendered in either direction (or what my brain deems gendered), but my dysphoria has subsided. The freedom to buy clothes I want and to say, “F it, I’m buying from the men’s department,” without caring about other people’s judgment feels right. The more I branch out, the happier I am, and it’s been nice to see my partner exploring more feminine options (often my cast-offs) and loving how he looks.

The Ingenious Mechanical Devices Series · Writing

The Hadley Problem

If you’ve read The Earl of Brass or The Earl and the Artificer, you know Hadley Sorrell (formerly Hadley Fenice). If not, here’s a little biographical information: Hadley is an inventor and artisan who ends up creating a new prosthetic arm for Eilian Sorrell (her future husband). She’s described as having henna red hair, blue eyes, freckles, and prefers trousers to dresses as they are far more suitable for her purposes and overall, she just likes them more.

Nothing there sounds too out of the ordinary, but the “problem” arises when Hadley dresses as a man repeatedly in the story and seems totally fine being treated as such and enjoys it. So much so that she decides to keep her hair short in future books and wears a faux bun when in the company of people who might complain (consider the story is set in the early 1890s).

Now, back in 2013 when I was writing this book, I had just figured out I was queer. It should have been blatantly obvious by how much of a rainbow covered ally I was. I already knew I was asexual, but I was beginning to realize I was biromantic as well. At the time, I had never heard of being nonbinary. My only exposure to trans people was Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars and a vague knowledge of Christine Jorgensen, who was a famous trans woman who happened to share my last name. Every trans person I knew of was still a man or a woman. Despite not knowing there was such a thing as being nonbinary, I was still grappling with very complicated gender feelings.

I have never felt like a woman, ever. As a teen, I rejected purses, nail polish, getting my hair done, and the idea of putting on a dress and being done up for prom made me feel ill (what I recognize now as dysphoria). I ended up skipping all the fancy, “fun” stuff at the end of high school because dressing like that felt wrong. My body and brain didn’t mesh, and I constantly felt like I didn’t fit, especially when my family tried to foist it on to me. Eventually they gave up, but during college when I was writing The Earl of Brass, I poured my feelings about gender and not fitting in into Hadley.

Hadley is physically strong from years of helping her brother and working in the shop with heavy ceramics. She has a good grasp of what we’d consider mechanical engineering today, and she can create complex mechanisms and workings as well as the artistic flourishes that come with them. She cuts her hair short, adopts the name Henry, appears to be a young man (younger than her actually age and slightly effeminate), and goes on an adventure with Eilian Sorrell.

The “problem” now is that it’s blatantly obvious to me that she should be nonbinary, agender, or genderfluid. Those words didn’t exist back in the 1890s, so part of me thinks it’s a moot point to bother getting worked up over it. There were people we could consider transgender during that time period without using our modern terminology. Even in the second book Hadley’s in, we see her struggle with expectation and get anxious about not fitting in or being another. Still, there’s nothing said explicitly about it.

I once stumbled across someone on Twitter asking if Hadley was nonbinary or if the portrayal of her going in disguise was the usual transphobic, oh they automatically pass as a man, type deal, and it was hard to sit with that because she encapsulates so much of what I was feeling before I realized I was nonbinary. She was a stepping stone in me realizing there was something outside of the binary where I fit, and in her portrayal in The Earl of Brass while disguised, she is seen as a queer man by outsiders. A character outright says she’s a young gay man who is Eilian Sorrell’s boyfriend (his affection is pretty obvious), and she uses he/him pronouns in the book when acting as Henry, switching back and forth depending on who she is with. So does she pass as a cis straight man in the story? No. She’s inherently seen as queer when living as Henry, and it makes me laugh now because back in college, I used to tell people that I felt like a gay man in a woman’s body. What I really meant (now that I can parse it out better) is that I am very queer and mildly masc leaning. I will always be slightly effeminate even if outright femininity makes me squirm, so seeing men act feminine felt more akin to how I felt internally because I didn’t feel comfortably being wholly femme or masculine. I consider myself agender/genderless, but the definition above is one that I apply to myself only.

It’s complicated.

Being queer is complicated. Gender is aggravatingly complicated, and putting those feelings into words is messy because they can be interpreted a myriad of ways, some of which are nowhere near what you feel. I have been hesitant to write this post because so much of it is laying my own feelings regarding my gender on the table for others to pick over.

Hadley is my first character that explored gender expectations, norms, and ultimately found there were pieces of each side she knew that she wanted to use. By writing this, I was sort of hoping I could figure out what I wanted to do with Hadley in the future. I would like to write another book with her and Eilian, and I’ve put off doing so because I think her feelings regarding gender should be a part of that book but wasn’t sure how people would react. Just because you consider yourself cis at 24, doesn’t mean you won’t be nonbinary by 28. I didn’t adopt that label until about the same age despite those feeling brewing for years, and I think if Hadley comes out as something like agender or genderfluid, it isn’t retconning her character. The blueprint and evidence was there, it just takes years sometimes to figure out what those feelings mean and how you want to live your life going forward.

I have nothing particularly clever to end with, just that I hope people will still cheer for a character who figures out their identity a little later in life and that we will give them the same grace we give people who don’t come out as teenagers. Hadley is a huge part of how I figured out my own identity, and in the future, I’d like to see her figure out hers too.

Personal Life · Writing

Who Am I & Why Do I Do This?

I think as writers and bloggers, we assume that everyone knows who we are or that they somehow found their way to the About page or that original post we made when we started our blog that stated who we were and why we bothered making a blog. I’ve had this blog for over a year now, so I thought it would be prudent to reintroduce myself, especially since I think this year has been one of growth and change for me.

Who am I?

My name is Kara Jorgensen, and I am a [nearly] twenty-four year old writer from New Jersey. No, we do not have accents like those people on The Jersey Shore. Currently, I am working toward an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing and only have a year left before I complete my degree. Of the 16 major personality types, I am an INTJ-A, which means that I am the “architect” type. Shockingly, this says a lot about me. I demand perfection of myself and others and strive to meet my goals through whatever means necessary. For years, I have asked a lot of myself in terms of school and grades, and that has now shifted to my writing.

My ultimate goal is to one day be a full-time writer or nearly full-time writer as I would also like to become an English professor. Sometimes in my pursuit of my goals, I take myself too seriously and occasionally burn out for a time, usually after accomplishing that goal. What recharges my batteries are: my border collie mixes, Edgar and Finny, my boyfriend, trips to bookstores or museums, and of course, writing and reading.

Currently, I have two books out, The Earl of Brass and The Winter Garden, which are both part of a steampunk-ish series. I say steampunk-ish because my books fall more into historical fiction than fantasy or scifi. It’s probably an 80-20 split between historical and fantasy. If you like Victorian literature or period dramas, you may like my writing, but if you’re looking for space battles or goggles on saloon girls wielding Gatling guns, you’re not going to find it here. Right now, I am working on the third book in my steampunk series, The Earl and the Artificer, as well as a companion short story that will go between books two and three. In the coming year, I’m hoping to work on the fourth book in the series and possibly branch out to a more heavily fantasy series (the aesthetic is old leather-bound books, humanoid creatures of mythology like something out of Pan’s Labyrinth, and old houses).

Why do I do this?

I ask myself this a lot. From as far back as I can remember, I have always loved to write stories. I drew little picture books where cats and dogs went on adventures and when I wasn’t writing them down, my Barbies were embroiled in soap opera-like drama. Writing is like a compulsion for me. I have characters and stories chattering in my head, knocking at my brain for me to write out their scenes.

One of the things I noticed as I grew up was that there weren’t often characters I immediately connected with. As a middle class, white girl from the suburbs, it seems odd that there wasn’t a female character that struck a cord with me. The girls were almost always stereotypical girls (pink, fashion, boy problems) and apart from Hermione, I was dissatisfied with what I found. It made me wonder how people who are minorities or varying sexualities and genders felt when they couldn’t find themselves in characters, so I have decided to dedicate part of my writing career to exploring diverse characters, especially ones of diverse sexuality and gender.

This blog is dedicated to the mid-writing rambles of an up-and-coming author. One day it may be a progress report, the next day it may be me railing against the man or a blurb about sexuality or gender in the Victorian era. No matter the subject, it will be a behind the scenes look at my life as a writer and twenty-four year old.

Writing

What is Your Novel’s Sex?

I’m not sure many people think about the gender of their book while they are writing it, but when I began The Earl of Brass as an undergraduate, it crossed my mind.  While reading other steampunk novels, I was rather surprised by how the books seemed to either be very masculine (G.D. Falksen’s Blood in the Skies) or very feminine (Gail Carriger’s Soulless).  I wanted to write a book that was androgynous, that had no defining gender for itself or its audience.

As part of my research for writing The Earl of Brass, I read through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World as well as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in order to better understand Victorian and Edwardian adventure novels. There again, I found the gender gap.  In Conan Doyle’s novel, the men leave their women at home and go on an adventure full of dinosaurs and savages, and while Gilman infused her work with feminist ideals, it was very much an us-versus-them mentality with a muddled ending where the women and men fall in love and go back to America. Continue reading “What is Your Novel’s Sex?”