When the tea kettle whistled, Milo took refuge in my lap.
"He'll leave you alone soon enough," said Sand. "Did you know he has 16k followers? Crazy right?"
Milo is Sand's Instagram famous Chinese pug with keen doggy senses. I relied on his comforting presence to acknowledge the elephant-in-the-room question. Do I, a cis-gendered, privileged white(ish) male, "deserve" to interview Sand about their daily struggles in a gender-binary world?
Sand is one of many people who identify as non-binary. Sand is both a therapist and advocate for a growing number of people who struggle to "fit" in a gender-binary world.
When Sand emerged from the kitchen with two beige-colored mugs, they asked me: "Do you know what dysphoria means?"
As the hot tea eased my anxieties, and Milo began to doze off by the coffee table, Sand continued.
"If you haven't you'll be hearing more about it in your upcoming interviews with people who have transitioned or who identify as non-binary," Sand said.
Sand described dysphoria as the feeling of being born into the wrong body, a seemingly unsolvable mismatch between your internal state and how the world perceives you. Dysphoria, Sand said, is depression, it is hopelessness, and it is anxiety mixed into one potent emotional state. Sand, who prefers the neutral pronoun "their" over "him" or "her," experiences a daily tug-of-war between the binary poles of male and female.
"I'm just so tired of having to explain myself to everyone," they said, "but I’ve learned to cope with it, and a major part of my therapeutic practice is to help others navigate, and fit, in a gender-binary world."
Another frequently used word that comes up is "trauma," a word that I'm all-too-familiar with after years of undergoing my own trauma work. For Sand, trauma runs deep and stems from many sources — family, society, work. Raised in a traditional Chinese family, Sand detailed a journey of confronting a family governed by unbending gender norms and unwavering gender expectations. While Sand remains cut off from their family, they possess a humanity about it all.
"Yeah, well, as you can imagine, it wasn't easy," Sand said. "I know so many people who had it even worse, and much of my own trauma takes root with my parents, but I'm so thankful I grew up with the internet."
For many people who have transitioned, or who identify along a gender-fluid spectrum, the early days of the internet was a safe haven. It was a place where people could customize how they presented themselves to an online world. They could exercise agency — or control — over how they wanted to appear to others in chat rooms, specialized forums, and multiplayer games. A digital world enabled up a real choice that was disabled in the real world. On the internet, they could simply be.
"That was a time when I could explore myself with a trusted community, and talk to people who felt just like me," Sand said. "I didn't feel alone. At times I even felt empowered. How far we are from that version of the internet."
Sand paused, refilled my mug with lukewarm water, and cradled Milo.
Belonging is what "we" rob people who experience a mismatch between their body and their gender. The shame that follows can be just as crippling as the loneliness that endures, Sand explained. They had to not only "come out" to their family and endure being "othered," but also fight against the daily war between being told who you are and knowing who you are.
"It's like being "unhomed" and "othered" every day, all at once, without much give." Sand said.
Despite our obvious differences, I felt close to Sand. I identified with their tireless pursuit to satisfy the almost physical need for authenticity. As Sand went on, I began to understand that "authenticity" is not a privileged theoretical right. It is a visceral and pressing bodily need to belong and to be seen. Dysphoria is the emotional language of that unmet need.
I asked Sand, "Why is it so hard for us to reflect on gender norms?"
Sand described how easy it is to other their experience, while admitting that it is equally confusing to them. Common psychological practice, Sand explained, is to notice when a projection happens or when one "catches" a projection. When someone others someone else, it is typically a sign they are othering something within themselves. Sand's interview transcended any professional duty. Sand's story reached me at a personal level.
Listening to Sand's experience — and anyone for that matter who struggles to find authentic ground — I located myself in their journey. I did this not by reducing Sand's daily struggle to fit into my own cis-gendered world-view, but by finding an empathetic bridge between our experiences.
Irrespective of gender norms, I thought, everyone faces (or will face) what Carl Jung termed mid-life, which can be loosely defined as the fundamental breakdown and opening to one's true Self. In Jung's model, one is constantly wavering between belonging to, and separating from a community. Mid-life, like symptoms of dysphoria, seem to culminate when life lived according to cultural norms feels empty. You might own the perfect home, have the perfect family, and work in the perfect job. But now what? Is this really it? The cliches can follow — the divorce, the new sports car, the eat-pray-love sabbatical — with one big looming question: who am I?
Sand's concluding thought articulated something challenging but profound.
"Perhaps it is hard for us to accept that we have a plurality baked within ourselves. That we possess male and female dynamics clamoring for our attention. It is challenging to integrate this awareness, so it seems easier and safer to make people like me feel like the weird ones."
After thanking Sand for such a generous interview — and snapping a selfie with Milo — I thought about Whitman's famous line: "I am large, I contain multitudes." I felt at ease because it's an experience that seems hardwired to our collective experience.
Sand's wisdom is simple and complex: what can feel "other" on the outside might be a subtle cue to be curious about the "other" within. Thank you, Sand.