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Health & Fitness Model Olly Eley: 'I Exist Totally Outside Of Gender'

13:05  06 may  2021
13:05  06 may  2021 Source:   elleuk.com

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a person posing for the camera: Olly Eley covers ELLE UK's June 2021issue and talks all things body dysmorphia , representation and navigating gender conventions. © Damon Baker Olly Eley covers ELLE UK's June 2021issue and talks all things body dysmorphia , representation and navigating gender conventions.

The first time someone used the pronoun ‘they’ instead of ‘she’ for me, it felt like peace. Finally, the way others saw me was the way I understood myself. After years of despising the body that I was born with, unable to relate in any way to the gender I was assigned at birth, I had at last found a way of existing in the world that made sense to me.

I’ve never felt female, but then neither have I felt male. If there was a thin line that connected the two genders, I would be a dot floating somewhere between the two, but untethered to the line altogether. It’s the only way I can describe it. Articulating this feeling of existing in a hinterland outside of the binary is one of the greatest gifts the past few years has given me.

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I grew up in rural Australia; our closest neighbours were miles away and our house was in the middle of a forest, hours from the nearest big city.

Ever since I was a toddler, I was thought of as a ‘tomboy’ – the only time I’d wear a dress was if I was forced to for a wedding. My hair was long but, other than that, I had the strong features, physicality and energy of what is typically associated with ‘boys’. My five brothers and I played outside together all the time. I did everything they did: football, climbing trees, running around exploring – it always felt relatively equal, although as time went on, it got harder trying to keep up with the restrictions and differences that came with my body.

Lotte van Noort posing for the camera: Olly Eley - June 2021 Issue © Damon Baker Olly Eley - June 2021 Issue

A lot of girls feel a sense of shame around their changing body as they go through puberty, but for me it was different. There was no base of ‘femaleness’ that I was gravitating towards or away from – I felt completely unanchored to my body and my sense of self. A simmering rage coursed through me almost constantly, but I didn’t understand why.

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I remember watching my brothers pee standing up behind a tree; the way their bodies worked, and the way they worked with their bodies seemed so easy. I seethed with jealously and the sharp pinprick of frustration. I used to take this anger out on my family. I gave my mum a lot of grief, just for bringing me into this world, and the pressure of being what she thought of as her ‘only girl’, when I never really was. I’d scream at my parents, slam doors, lash out violently and tease my brothers for ‘being gay’ as I tried to regain some power, when I felt so powerless over my changing body. They responded with frustration and confusion – they couldn’t understand what my problem was or why I was so miserable. When I think back to that time, I find it hard to remember specifics. Instead, a darkness descends, and I feel the unbearable heaviness of being.

When puberty hit, and my chest grew, the difference between my unhappy chubby feminine body compared to my brothers’ ripped male bodies became even more difficult to accept and understand. I was bullied at school for being different, and it got to the point that I didn’t want to be alive. I’d only ever fitted in with the boys – but, even then, it didn’t feel right. I didn’t fit anywhere. I felt like an alien, like I was in the wrong place, in the wrong body. I was operating at a completely different frequency to everyone else around me.

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This was the early 2000s – a time when being gay in regional Australia still felt so taboo. I remember putting The Ellen DeGeneres Show on TV to see how my parents reacted; my dad turned it straight off. All the out gay people I knew of were celebrities like Elton John – they were already powerful and that protected them. Meanwhile transness was nowhere to be seen. The closest thing was Dame Edna Everage: a male comedian who was laughed at for dressing up as a woman.

From my early teens, I loved women. I had major crushes on all the early Noughties pop icons, from Christina Aguilera to Beyoncé. When I got a girlfriend at the age of 16, we must have been the only queer couple in a 100-mile radius. Initially I thought I was just gay but that didn’t solve my problems; I still felt far from complete or at peace. Being called a lesbian couple made me cringe – to me, the word was so connected to women, I couldn’t relate. And that’s when it became complex because I realised my journey was not solely about my sexuality but also my gender; the two being so deeply intertwined that making sense of it became my mission. I realised I was not a gay girl when I realised that I was not a girl.

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a woman wearing a costume: Olly Eley - June 2021 Issue © Damon Baker Olly Eley - June 2021 Issue

Before I moved to Sydney, I didn’t have the language or the role models to understand how I felt. I’d never really had the chance to consider that ‘gender’ could be something I could control if I wanted to. Once I moved to the city, that all changed. My mind opened and was flooded with light – there was this whole queer community that I had no idea existed. When someone first introduced themselves to me with their name and the pronouns ‘they/them’, it felt so safe to me. Woah, that’s the answer to everything right now, I thought.


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I met an amazing array of trans people who taught me that yes, you do have power and the right to be who you are and choose how to identify – starting with your pronouns. Among this group of friends, nothing was off-limits – we could experiment without being judged. Someone might ask to be referred to as ‘he/him’ to see how it felt before making a more official decision. We’d try things out on each other; and people would play around with names, with he/she/they and some of the less-usual pronouns – ze, xe, ve to mention a few. It was a revelation that people were ‘allowed’ to do this; that I had more power over the way I showed up in the world than I’d ever thought possible.

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a close up of a person wearing a helmet: Olly Eley - June 2021 Issue © Damon Baker Olly Eley - June 2021 Issue

Some people were taking hormones, some had surgeries so they could better identify with their body, some did both and some did neither. I was discovering that there was no single right way to be trans. I was just wide-eyed and open-minded, listening and learning about a new way of being.

I remember one night at a queer party in a club on Sydney’s Oxford Street – it was late and I was probably not very sober – but I looked around at the people all blurring lines of gender and sexuality with over-the-top outfits, and wildly unapologetic energy and attitude, and I saw the pure joy on their faces. It was infectious. It was an atmosphere of acceptance and validation. As well as being so excited to be part of this world, I was mad at myself for not finding it sooner.

In that moment I felt like I had found a new purpose. From then on, I promised myself that I would do everything I could to normalise and uplift being trans so that future generations might have an easier childhood than mine was. With that decision came a change in everything.

Over the following weeks, I changed my pronouns to ‘they/them’, as well as my name to Olly (after the lead singer of a band that I loved who embodied the kind of aesthetic I strongly coveted). I booked myself in for a chest reduction and bought a one-way ticket from Australia to North America, where I knew there was a larger queer population. Finally… I felt like I could breathe.

There are countless different surgeries that some trans people choose to have to feel more comfortable in their bodies; for me, I feel so disconnected from any gender that no body will ever feel perfect. I chose not to have full ‘top surgery’ [a mastectomy], as that body wouldn’t have served me either. Instead, I wanted the option to bind [a method of compressing the chest to give a flatter appearance] and the size of my chest previously meant that I wasn’t able to do so effectively. So I had a reduction to give me that control over my appearance.

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I bind not because I’m ashamed of my body but because the autonomy of doing so makes me feel safe. I’m not ‘fluid’, where I shift between genders and pronouns. I am agender [devoid of gender altogether] and what I do with my body, whether I’m naked or in a full snowsuit, doesn’t change that. I’ve accepted that I’m a non-binary person living in a binary world (that I have every intention of disrupting!).

When I’m perceived as a woman, I feel very ill at ease. As I am AFAB [assigned female at birth], but have no connection to any gender, I present as more masculine to the outside world to redress the balance. The truth is, this backwards society we live in wants me to have to choose between male and female. Sadly, the less ‘confusing’ I look, the safer I am in public spaces.

Olly Eley - June 2021 Issue © Damon Baker Olly Eley - June 2021 Issue

Tattoos have been a huge aid to my body dysphoria and are a vital way for me to assert control over the way I look. I got my first tattoo at age 18 – my siblings’ birthdates etched across my ribs. Since then, I’ve amassed more, across my arms, stomach and legs. Tattoos became my protection because they distracted from the reality of my body.

Over time, physical distance has been healing for my relationship with my family – they found it hard to understand what I was going through. Now I feel I can meet them on my own terms. I understand that asking someone to entirely dismantle everything they thought they knew about gender is complicated. You can’t help how you grew up or what you’ve been told. This is a journey for everyone. That’s why if someone trips up and misgenders me, then corrects themselves, I’m not going to get mad. That doesn’t help anyone. I want to see the best in people, as long as they are trying.

There’s still such a lot of resistance and confusion around non-binary people; in some ways, trans men and trans women can be easier for people to understand, because they can continue to use those boxes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ to ‘make sense’ of a person. When someone is neither, both or all of the above in terms of their gender – like I am – people can be defensive and reluctant to accept that such a grey area exists.

I wish I’d known that it was OK to exist in this ‘in-between’ place when I was growing up. I wish someone had told me that I could be whoever I wanted to be, do whatever I wanted to do and that I was so valid and important. Trans and non-binary kids need to hear that they are beautiful and worthy of love and a fulfilling life.

ELLE's June 2021 issue hits newsstands on May 6, 2021.

a person holding a tattoo on his arm: olly eley june 2021 issue © Damon Baker olly eley june 2021 issue

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