How Rowan Collins found the right words, built a new home, and learned to seek out transgressive joy in a binarist world.
Rowan Collins can see the future, and it looks a lot like good growth and messy self-love—the kind you really have to work for. The kind you practice and perform quietly, over time, in a million different ways.
Rowan sips green tea through a straw, a small stack of books slanted across their lap. In the sunlight, their face and jaw are a collection of handsome angles—a hand-drawn map, coursing toward a life more versed in joy.
"It’s hard to explain to people who don’t feel this way,” they tell me. “When I go out in public and I see women all done up in dresses or skirts and heels, I think to myself, you don’t have to do that.”
Rowan pauses for a moment, choosing this language with visible care. “Sometimes,” they say, “I forget that not everyone feels oppressed by gender.”
And it’s easy to forget. Cisgender people, whose gender identities align with the genders assigned to them at birth, might go their entire lives without ever considering the nature of their own gendered behaviors, or the ways in which gendered ideologies and expectations shape our social world. But for Rowan, gender was, and sometimes still is, unrelenting.
At twenty, Rowan identifies as trans and non-binary. They use they/them pronouns, and they exist, purposefully and pointedly, outside the boundaries and expectations of gender as we commonly understand it.
As a kid, during intense periods of dysphoria—most commonly described as a feeling of intense dread, dissociation, or detachment from one’s own body—Rowan stood at the mirror for hours, dizzy with unease at the sight of their own reflection. Sick and unsettled by an image that felt, somehow, illusory—inherently untrue.
In middle school, emboldened by the idea of total anonymity, they dressed as a boy during a field trip with kids from other schools. Now, almost a decade later, they recall that moment of joyful validation in brilliant detail.
“I named myself Justin,” they say, “and girls had crushes on me.” Rowan laughs a little, crossing and uncrossing their legs at the ankle. “Everyone believed me.”
Rowan revels in this memory of self-crafting, and understandably so. It was, even then, transformative; an act of radical self-love to create an identity that felt, even for just a few hours, somehow settled, or at least more like home.
Kids generally develop a sense of their own gender identities—as well as a deeply nuanced understanding of how gender functions in the world around them—by the time they turn three or four. But, for Rowan, it took years to find the right language to talk about their own identity out loud—to name it, and explain it to the world.
For as long as they can remember, Rowan has carried that curious, haunting weight of uncomfortability; a perpetual difference. Even in high school—after winning the “Girliest Boy You’ve Ever Seen” award in drama club, after being told by a straight, male, romantic interest that they made him "understand why some guys are gay,”—that painful otherness remained, still, unidentifiable. Just beneath the surface.
Gender, itself, is a social identity. And the gendered behaviors we associate with boy and girl, man and woman, have no real connection to biology. Gender is something we do, not something we are.
We teach gender, and learn it, entirely through social interactions with one another—through constant social sanction and reward.
We call that complex social system the gender binary. And it teaches us, from the moment we’re born, that boys and girls, men and women, are fundamentally different; biological opposites.
But there are a growing number of young people who not only refuse to be defined by that narrow dichotomy but also seek to intentionally defy and dismantle it.
For Rowan, a non-binary identity allows them space to unravel all those memories of difference and dysphoria. It frees them from a life lived inside checkable boxes. “It allows me to be exactly as I am,” they tell me. “It allows me to just be.”
Rowan twists in their chair and pulls a book from their bag. They let it fall open to a marked page on their lap.
“This book is incredible,” they tell me. “It’s my bible.” I can see it’s by Kate Bornstein— an activist, author, performance artist, and gender theorist. While Bornstein was assigned male at birth, and transitioned in the mid-1980’s, she often talks about her own rejection of gender as a fixed dichotomy, and the importance of crafting language and spaces for non-binary identities.
“In this book,” says Rowan, “Bornstein talks about naming yourself outside the system that oppresses you.”
I watch Rowan search for something—the right language to describe this feeling of otherness, or the radical nature of self contained in a name. Their eyes scan and re-scan some imaginary text until they find what they need.
“For such a long time, growing up, I felt so oppressed by who I thought I had to be,” they tell me. “I felt so oppressed by who people were telling me I was, or what success was.” Rowan pauses, still tapping one heel against the leg of a chair. “When I was finally able to name myself outside of that system that oppressed me,” they say, “my imagination wasn’t confined anymore.”
During an argument, Rowan came out to their parents as trans and non-binary with a swift kind of fury. They describe it not as a request for permission, but rather, a fierce assertion of selfhood. They named themself then, in that moment of revelation; one tiny death in a long string of tiny deaths.
While coming out is an endless process, one that Rowan performs every day (and will perform in hundreds of thousands of instances over their lifetime), this assertion of self-ownership, performed in front of their parents, holds particular significance.
Our culture suggests that a clear line of patrilineal, heteronormative genealogy is the only legitimate way to receive a name. Our fathers name us, and then we name our sons after our fathers.
In naming themself, Rowan chose to disrupt that predictable pattern in favor of something found. In favor of a non-linear kinship network, and an individual identity unchained from the institutions that oppress them.
Rowan, like so many queer and gender non-conforming people before them, has carved and willed their own name into being; a voice steeped in revolution, ringing out in a binarist world. Saying, definitively, I am my own. I belong to myself.
“There are certain identifiers that a lot of people use,” Rowan says. “But even though people use those same words, everyone’s experience is different. People are so mad about new language.” But this language, which includes identifiers like genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, agender, and bigender, is a good thing, because it helps gender non-conforming people name their experiences. It helps them name themselves.
Over the past five years, trans and gender non-conforming people have begun to publicly chronicle their physical transitions online through social media accounts. There are thousands of YouTube channels, Instagrams and Tumblrs filled with time lapses—a person’s voice changes, they zoom in on tiny sprouts of facial hair—they display scarred chests in dramatic post top-surgery reveals.
These accounts can be life-saving resources for trans or gender non-conforming people who are isolated from support networks. But that’s not to say these communities are without flaw. In fact, Rowan often struggles with the dual nature of these online communities—their contradictory message of acceptance and heteronormative conformity.
“There’s so much competition, especially in the trans community, about being ‘trans enough,’ and that has a lot to do with makeup and presentation,” Rowan tells me. “People think that I can’t be trans because I wear makeup. And that’s just not true. Trans doesn’t look like one certain thing.”
These gatekeeper standards within trans communities have been a particular point of struggle for Rowan, because their identities don’t fit nicely into mutually exclusive categories. Their transness exists in relation to their non-binary identity—a complex and imperfect union—both conscious of the binary, and determined to exist outside of it.
“It was a struggle for me,” Rowan tells me. “I thought, when I started transitioning, that I had to be super masculine so people would respect my pronouns, and I had to wear my binder so people would respect my pronouns. I would see other trans guys and think, well, I don’t look like that, so maybe I’m not trans enough.”
My identities are constantly changing and evolving. I like having to think about my identity, so I don’t get stuck with one that makes me uncomfortable.
For years, Rowan placed the idea that they might be trans outside of themself. They sobbed over compilation videos of FTM transition videos on YouTube, and yet never recognized the possibility of their own transness—the possibility that a trans identity could overlap with a non-binary one—that the binarism at the root of the word trans isn’t just static, but malleable.
Those complicated ideas about binarism and personal identity are all things that trans and gender nonconforming people have to sort through on an individual basis—reconciling available language, pronouns, and modes of transitioning with whatever does or doesn’t feel right or comfortable for them on a personal level.
Rowan is no exception to that process. And when they finally started looking into hormone replacement therapy, cautiously excited by the idea that it might quell their dysphoria—might feel right for their non-binary identity—they had a difficult time finding gender other non-binary people documenting their use of testosterone.
“The few people that I found that I did look up to really made me think maybe this was something I could do, and maybe this was something I wanted,” they said. Something that might unbury another part of this newer, healthier self.
Rowan isn’t careful when they talk about death, or when they talk about the hospital. They say “suicidal” and “mental health” out loud, in a room filled with people. When they talk about moving forward, growing into themself, they don’t flinch. To say this, they straighten their back and level their chin.
“I just always thought I wanted to die,” they say. And I’m reminded of a poet I once heard describe suicide as a flickering exit sign—looming and casual; a constant.
A couple months ago, Rowan spent some time in inpatient treatment, learning how to cultivate that good growth—how to stay safe and healthy and, hopefully, how to make that exit sign stop flickering.
In the hospital, they explain their pronouns to a nurse, and she refuses to use them. In a group of older, white, cisgender men, Rowan is terrified to come out. And when they finally do, a few people stop speaking to them.
But one person sticks around. Someone Rowan never expected to connect with—an older, straight, white, cisgender man. He tells Rowan they changed the way he thought about trans people. He asks questions, and learns to use Rowan’s pronouns. He is, Rowan tells me, a beautiful surprise, because he learned to really see them.
For Rowan, that conversion was profound. It was, they tell me, an unexpected moment of validation. It was a thing to carry out into the world again; to hold for comfort when the threat of violence or rejection seemed sharp and imminent.
“Instead of thinking I want to die,” Rowan says, “I’m trying to think of it as I can change.” They thumb the corner of a book in their lap, flipping through every numbered page.
“Instead of killing myself,” they say, “I’m cutting off all the parts of me that other people put in.”
Rowan smiles, a moment of rest in all this push and pull. “I’m learning to be exactly who I am.”
Suicide Attempt Percentages in the general population
Percentage of suicide attempts by population
suicide attempts among the trans population
If you, or a loved one, are thinking about suicide, struggling with addiction, self-harm, depression, or anxiety, you can get help.
While we picnic, Rowan is backlit by the sun—scooping hummus from a plate—glowing in the late afternoon. Their legs are folded, lace socks peeking over the tops of their boots. They seem, to me, exceedingly happy. They’re alight with the prospect of a body that feels more like home.
I still have so much to learn about myself. My gender is still something that I struggle with. And that never goes away.
On the way back to Akron, Rowan falls asleep in the back seat—their mud-caked shoes stacked between their feet. On that day, Rowan glowed fluorescent, buzzing and poised for flight.
"I’m so much more comfortable now,” they tell me. They say they feel lucky to have access to hormone replacement therapy, because it lets them think about gender less. It lets them live, they tell me. And it lets them call their body home.
“I remember knowing when I needed to do it for myself,” says Rowan. “I realized that it wasn’t something I needed to do for other people. It was my choice to place the love I have for myself above the love anyone else could give me.”
Today, Rowan is wearing a pair of ripped fishnets, high-waisted denim shorts, and a button that says “Ask Me My Pronouns” pinned to the fabric of an over-the-shoulder bag.
Every day, they get dressed and do their makeup as a kind of ritual—a private act of self-crafting. Before they go out into this binarist world, they build themself anew. Every day, a different collection of masculine and feminine—a shifting image of who they are, and who they will be.
“I’ve gone through so much emotional pain thinking about my body, and thinking about how I look and how I present,” they tell me. The pain of the needle, pressing in and out of their skin, is connected to that psychological and emotional pain in a tangible way. It leaves something behind.
"If I’m feeling unsure about myself, I can look at these,” Rowan says, turning their tattooed forearms to face me. “I can look at them and think I am my own. And no one can ever take that away from me."
“I still have so much to learn about myself,” Rowan tells me. “My gender is still something I struggle with. And that never goes away.”
Rowan isn’t transitioning from one mode of being to its opposite—but rather, moving someplace beyond what this binarist world can see.
They are a brilliant reminder that it is possible for all of us to undo the negative, violent, and traumatic aspects of the binary-based gendered identities we’re assigned at birth. It is possible, with a little self-love, to cut out the parts of ourselves that no longer work for us—the parts that no longer help us live fulfilling lives.
“Growing up,” Rowan says, “I knew I wanted to be something big and something important.”
They take one last sip of green tea and swirl the ice at the bottom with a straw. Behind them, someone drops an open laptop from a table. Rowan doesn’t look.
Instead, they glance out the window at this summer, spinning away its last days; people moving past on the sidewalk in a slow current. The sun soaking everything gold.
“I think I’m starting to realize that just being who I am, and being as I am—that is something big,” they say. “And that is something important.”
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Statistics courtesy of: National Center for Transgender Equality: The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, Advocates for Youth: The Health and Rights of Transgender Youth, Suicide Attempts Among Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey