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Doormats, being nonbinary, and me

aster self piece
Aster Zhang / The Daily Princetonian

I’m a bit of a doormat. 

More than I’d like to admit, I tend to give more than I take in relationships and friendships. I let others dictate our party plans, where to go for dinner, and a number of other daily matters. I tend to listen too long and not speak enough. Often, I find myself looking back on these occasions, trying to figure out why I’m so god-awful at seizing initiative. But of course, these are small things of little consequence.


As I write this, there’s a slew of legislation designed to curtail the rights and free expression of queer and transgender people in the United States passing through various legislatures. There is endless and overwhelming discourse on how we ought to supposedly “Save Women’s Sports”; to restrict and ban gender-affirming healthcare for minors; to enact an alphabet soup of other restrictions that apply especially to kids who are just beginning to come to terms with their gender and sexuality.

Seven years ago, I was 13, and I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin. I started using the name “Aster” for the first time. Timidly, having just moved to a new state, feeling the opportunity to present myself as someone new, I began asking people to use gender-neutral pronouns for me. At first, it was just a few close friends. Gradually, it became peers more generally; then, teachers; then, professors and coworkers. One day, it’ll be my parents, who I’m fairly sure don’t read The Daily Princetonian.

This journey hasn’t been affirming. It’s not hopeful. It’s crushing.

It’s marred by people who have asked me “Why are you doing this when you’re clearly a man?,” who have told me in pointed terms that my name by birth “sounds better,” who have gone for the iconic “he-oops-they” gendering in what seems like every conceivable reference to me. I was once told — outright — that somebody preferred to use male-gendered pronouns for me because it “seemed more respectful.”

Let me be selfish: what often causes me the dullest, numbing anguish about these minute actions is that they’re rarely something I can fault somebody for. I can be convinced, at least, that the people I surround myself with love me, and that they make a genuine effort.

But, after seven years of this, I know when somebody is making an effort only because I’m lucky enough to go to a school where my gender identity is — at least, to external notions — acknowledged and supported. It’s abundantly clear to me, as it has been for quite some time, that some people will never see me as the gender I’m seeking to present.


Put in other words, I’ve gone through all of these tribulations during a time period you could reasonably construe as the most openly inclusive to diverse gender identities in history. I do all this while attending an educational institution that claims to make diversity and inclusion one of its top priorities. And I still can’t shake the fear that some of the people I love will always see me as a man and nothing else; that I’m somehow “incorrectly” presenting a gender identity I can’t even articulate; that all this will make me undesirable as a subject of romance and intimacy.

Doormat as I am, then, I’m afraid of what I might have been, growing up in a world less tolerant than the one I experienced. A world where public figures can call trans people “perverts and predators” without expecting one bit of meaningful pushback, and where politicians with support numbering in the millions can posit that being transgender is an act of “aggressively replacing” some abstract cisgender population as if there were some kind of limit. I worry about what I might have been and what I might have not; about not only whether the people around me would have accepted me but also whether I could have accepted myself for who I am.

I don’t think I have too many answers to this problem. If writing this piece has taught me anything, it’s that definitive conclusions — whether they apply to myself or to others — are few and far between. So I’ll continue doing the only thing I can, which is to persist in the constant, ever-changing journey of carving out an identity for myself. And then fitting into it.

Aster Zhang is a sophomore concentrating in Economics and Head Prospect Editor for the ‘Prince.’ They can be reached on Twitter at @aster_zh or by email at

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Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at