Travel writer Nick Krieger’s memoir, Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender, was released earlier this year to rave reviews, in part because it presented a side of gender experience that is usually absent in traditional trans narratives.
The title reflects Krieger’s refusal to follow the Western binary-gender model that requires the adoption of male or female, man or woman, as an identity, and the book recounts the personal journey that Krieger took to get to that place of comfort and self-actualization.
Matt Kailey: At the close of your book, you had undergone top surgery, but you were not on testosterone and you had no intention of transitioning to male. You also use the name Nick, which is considered a “male” name in our culture, but you do not identify as male. Has anything changed since then? Can you please explain to the readers how you currently identify or how you see yourself in relationship to the Western binary gender system?
Nick Krieger: My identity now is very much the same as it is at the end of the book. I identify as transgender. Other words I use are genderfluid, genderqueer, or hybrid. I do not fit into the Western binary system because it only allows for man and woman, and I understand myself as both man and woman.
I do have what many consider a “male” name. “Nick” came to me, literally popped into my head, many years before I took it as my name. It showed up at a time when I was living as a woman (a lesbian) and the boy-part of me was unseen and unrecognized. Having this “Nick” alter ego, which I kept a secret, helped me to acknowledge the boy side of myself. And well, some things just stick.
MK: You’re a travel writer by profession. What made you decide to write a book about your gender experiences?
NK: I am a travel writer, but my preference, even in travel, is personal narrative. I like first-person writing. I find that it allows me deeper access into whatever I’m exploring. It also gives me the room to be funny. I love self-deprecating humor, but I’m sensitive about cracking jokes about other people. In general, I like to write about topics that are urgent and compelling. For a while, it was my travel experiences. Then it became my gender experiences.
MK: It seems that you were not truly aware of any gender identity/body misalignment until you were in your twenties and exposed to both trans guys and female-identified individuals who were packing and having top surgery, but not transitioning. The realization also seemed to come on gradually. Do you think that it really came on gradually or do think you were in denial or were burying it for many years and were given “permission” to acknowledge it by those you saw around you?
NK: My realizations did come on gradually, and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that my gender identity was and is very much in the middle of man and woman. Growing up as a girl/young woman was quite comfortable for me. Both the social and athletic aspects of women’s sports teams were a huge and enjoyable part of much of my life. I was a tomboy, but I didn’t see myself as a boy. Currently, I relate to and identify as much with women as I do men. If my gender identity was black and white – man or woman – then maybe it would’ve been clearer to me at a younger age.
That said, I do think I buried a lot of my body discomfort for many years. I did this by ignoring my body, dissociating from it, and to a large extent avoiding sex. Once I started to pay attention to my body, it became clear to me that my understanding of my physical self was way more male than female.
MK: In the book, one of your friends says, “I don’t want to be a man. I want to be a flat-chested dyke.” You also had a strong desire not to have breasts, but not necessarily to masculinize in any other physical ways. What do you see as the symbolism of breasts that might cause those who don’t want to transition to still desire chest reconstruction? What did your breasts mean to you?
NK: For me, it was a less about the symbolism of my breasts and more of a growing awareness that these things did not belong on my body. I would see them and yet I could not understand them as mine. They looked foreign. But when I was binding, I could look in the mirror and relate to my body.
Transitioning (and taking testosterone) was a completely different concept to wrap my head around. While I understood my body as more male than female, I did not identify as a man, so the thought of having to live as one did not appeal to me. In the couple years since, I’ve followed a path that allows me to feel comfortable in my body (and now includes hormones), but this is not about “transition” for me, reaching an end point, or becoming a man. It is about recognizing the shifts that brought me a profound sense of previously unimaginable happiness, and making independent decisions that may or may not lead somewhere.
MK: Some people would argue that having chest surgery, going by a male name, and using a prosthetic penis for packing purposes indicates a masculine identity and a desire to be a man as well as a desire to transition. They might say that you’re kidding yourself or that you are in denial about your true identity. How would you respond to that?
NK: I would say that I understand my body as being male, and that when others use language (“sir,” “man,” “dude”) to reflect that they too understand my body in this way, then I feel comfortable and at peace. I would also say that I literally see my body as being trans-male, meaning I see my chest scars, my hips, my dicklet – my maleness built on top of my femaleness, my body as a beautiful hybrid.
I also don’t see my body as being directly correlated with my identity. In the same sense that transgender men may have once had female bodies but didn’t consider themselves women, I now have a male/trans-male body but that doesn’t make me a man. I identify and probably always would have (had I known there were more options) in the gray area, the middle ground of gender, but when it comes to a culture that splits us up into only two categories, I’m significantly more comfortable on the not-female side, which the mainstream calls the man side.
MK: At the end of your book, you say, “The paradox will remain with me forever, the confusing choice to take on a guy’s name, even though I do not consider myself a guy. To let words like Nick, or even he or she, create my identity would give too much absolute power to them. I use words to express myself and yet they do not define me, cannot crystallize a life that is in constant flux.” I think a lot of people feel like this, and yet there are few other options available. How have you managed this, and what advice do you have for those who are attempting to navigate the world as neither male nor female, or as a little bit of both, but some of neither?
NK: I love this question. I manage this by not putting too much stock in our gender system. I’ve come to realize that people perceive my gender on their own terms. For those who understand the full panorama of genders, they see me as occupying the middle ground. For those who have no idea of my history and see me go into the men’s room, they see me as a man. For those who believe sex-assignment at birth defines gender, they see me as a woman (which I consider transphobic and find hurtful.)
I try to surround myself with people who see me, my essence, which is actually genderless. It is revealed in that moment when a good friend says, “That’s so you,” without explaining why because you both know it’s true. My advice to others is to find the way of being (whether that includes surgery, hormones, both, or neither) that is most comfortable and honest for you, then practice letting go of how others perceive you. It’s really quite liberating.
MK: Some women have criticized trans men for “betraying their gender,” “rejecting their gender,” or reinforcing the idea that being male is superior to being female. Could the same criticisms be leveled against you, and how would you respond?
NK: I’d respond by saying “male privilege” unquestionably exists in our society. I’d add that there is no such thing as transgender privilege, so what a trans guy gains with manhood is nothing compared to what he loses. Then I’d kick myself for engaging in such a stilting dialogue that does nothing to progress the rights of women, trans people, or society as a whole. As humans (and I’m certainly one) we have a really bad habit of criticizing others especially when we cannot understand them. This is a disservice to us all.
MK: Along the same lines, how would you respond to those who might say that you are just “playing” with gender and that your decisions might make it more difficult for those who truly need to transition?
NK: My life, experiences, and identity do not invalidate those of women, lesbians, or other trans folk. There is enough room for all of us in the GLBTQ. There is enough room for all of us in this world. I believe that in the deepest place in my heart. Until we as a trans community allow everyone in our community to live and express themselves freely, the greater social change we desire will elude us.
A lot of people have written to thank me for writing a trans memoir different than the standard “I always knew I was a man because [insert gender stereotype]” narrative. Many people have told me that for years they felt like they couldn’t have top surgery or transition because they thought of themselves as genderqueer and weren’t textbook transsexuals. There are many different narratives out there, and none are more valid than the others. They all need to be heard.
MK: You were having some problems with your parents toward the end of your book around your decision to have chest surgery and to present a more “masculine” appearance. How are things with your parents now?
NK: My relationship with my mom is better than it’s ever been, and my father and I are starting to rebuild our relationship. Now that I’m comfortable in myself, I have a lot more patience, compassion, and love for my parents. I have much more to offer them because my needs are met. I am at peace.
MK: Where do you go from here? Are you going to write another book? Continue as a travel writer? Or do you have other career and life plans?
NK: I’m always writing and I‘d love to write another book. Travel and gender are still big passions of mine, as is yoga, so I’m currently writing about all three. Basically, I’d like to go to Asia and write the transgender version of Eat, Pray, Love. I’m kidding. Kinda. But more seriously, I’m currently writing a column about trans and yoga for Original Plumbing.
Also, since Nina Here Nor There has come out, I’ve started doing speaking events about trans issues. I love the mix of education and entertainment. In November, I have a two-week tour that will bring me to eight universities in New England. I hope to continue with speaking engagements.
MK: What else would you like to say?
(Nick Krieger photo by Angela Jimenez, www.angelajimenezphotography.com.)