"I was at a club in Melbourne and I wasn't even presenting feminine at all. These guys... one of them grabbed me and was harassing me, and they found out we were gay, and they were like, 'We'll bash faggots'. It was very Romper Stomper."
James is talking about the moment they were harassed by a group of guys a few months ago. That moment has stayed with them, understandably, ever since. "I was getting into that weird headspace of, like, 'Thank God I wasn't presenting as more feminine'. Then I was like, 'Fuck that'. I shouldn't have someone make me question that."
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James came out publicly as non-binary at the start of the year. They admit that, in the past, their truth in relation to their gender identity held them back from opening up to guys. "I had only ever presented as male, worrying if I got invested with someone that my internal conflict with my gender would be something that would stop that person from finding me attractive or loving me."
"It was sort of the thing that held me back from wanting to see them again," they note, "because I felt I wasn't being my honest self."
James turned to Tinder, and would find themself constantly getting reported. Their experience is not an isolated one, as reports continue to appear over the web about trans and non-conforming users being banned from their Tinder accounts.
"I would suddenly get locked out of my account because people would report [the profile]," James says, "or they matched with me and couldn't stand that they were attracted to someone who's non-conforming. It was such a new level of rejection that I don't even think I had felt from being gay."
Tinder only recently allowed for more gender diverse options in Australia, but there are still inherent issues with the dating app. "Tinder has the non-binary option, but I don't know if that actually does anything for who sees your account," James explains. "I feel like it's more of an aesthetic thing. Like, you're still put in as what you pass as."
"It also doesn't really change which people you see because your preference is still limited to the binary. There's 'men and women' but that's problematic because it's like 'passable' men and women."
James admits they found themself in the darkest moments of their depression from being told to hate who they were from those who would reject them.
"I'm never, ever seen as a person who deserves love," they add. "It's all about being a receptacle for their dick, or something to exploit when they're horny but then disappear."
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James is the first to put their hands up to talk about the of toxicity of being able to 'pass' or not. "You kind of feel like passability is this giant measuring tape that people put against you and go, 'Oh, yeah, you'll be fine, you'll do'."
"Once you get rejected by someone for that, you kind of think, 'What can I change? What can I do?', and then you hold yourself back and think, 'Nothing, what the hell! You can do without this headless torso on Grindr'."
To Ariel, a volunteer at Ygender, the idea that people need to 'pass' in society is an unhealthy concept. "But with that being said," says Ariel, "that's not realistic. Society is still pretty binary, and we love putting things in boxes, and dating as a non-binary person throws a total spanner into the works."
"It can be pretty daunting having to come out to every person you speak to," they continue, "and go that extra mile to identify yourself for who you are while constantly worrying about what others think of you."
This is particularly relevant when considering dating apps, and the need to create profiles and present oneself online. "Everyone who is on [an] online dating site wants to look good, I mean, who doesn't? You're on there to catch people's attention and hopefully be able to reel them in, fall in love and adopt dogs with them."
"If a trans or gender diverse person doesn't look the way they want to," they note, "it can really shake their confidence and make them withdraw from an already difficult space."
Claire, a student and facilitator at Minus18, shares similar feelings to James and Ariel when it comes to initially meeting someone. "I find myself hesitant, especially in an environment where I am unsure if the person is aware of the differences between sex and gender, sexuality and gender identity."
"It is a little nerve-wracking because you always feel like you have to prepare yourself to do a lot of unexpected or unwanted emotional labour, and that doesn't always mean that the person you are talking to will understand."
Claire admits they feel a little unsure if a person that they're seeing will accept them as someone who is gender diverse or use their pronouns. "Especially as I present very femininely and am not medically transitioning either."
So, what needs to be done, particularly from the perspective of the cis and non-gender diverse population, to ensure non-binary folk feel safer when venturing into the dating world?
"Stick with your gender-neutral language, respect people's pronouns and keep that communication open," says Claire. "Always try and educate yourself first. It isn't up to someone who is gender diverse to educate you on gender diversity. There is more to us than that, I promise."
Communication is important too, they add. "Especially if you take your date home, some physical contact might trigger body dysphoria or make someone feel uncomfortable. So ask, 'Hey, is this okay?' or 'Is this nice?' If they say no, don't keep doing it!"
And to every non-binary and gender non-conforming person, Ariel notes, it's important to realise that you're not alone in the pursuit for love. "Although dating can seem scary," they say, "you definitely aren't the only person out here doing it."
Ariel met their partner on a dating app two years ago. "It turns out that if you put yourself out there, you might just meet another non-binary person on their own journey trying to navigate the online dating world, fall in love, adopt two dogs and begin planning to spend the rest of your life with them."
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For James, it's also important to emphasise the fact that gender non-conforming folk do deserve love, particularly following Australia's recent 'yes' vote for marriage equality. "I think it's very important for people in the queer community to realise that love hasn't won for everyone."
"Conforming to the binary should not be the prerequisite for being able to find romantic connections with other humans online."
It's evident that Australia has a long way to go before trans and gender non-conforming Australians not only feel accepted, but safe. If one thing is clear, though, it's that people like James, Claire and Ariel are paving the way for a road of greater tolerance through candid and inclusive conversation.
"We are all deserving to love, and be loved," James adds, after all, "regardless of who we are."
Louis Hanson is a Sydney-based freelance writer and activist. You can also find him on Instagram or Twitter.
Photography: Clay Waddell