I work as a freelance assistant at a public access art studio. Generally speaking, that means that I am employed by multiple people, for four to eight-hour blocks, a handful of times throughout the course of the week. Sometimes they’re one-offs, but if I am lucky I can score a recurring gig. One of my regulars named Maya asks me on our second day together, “So what’s your deal? Do you like guys? Girls?” Sure, she’s a bit forward with the question considering we’re in a professional environment, but she works in the arts–she tells me–so she meets all kinds of people and always wants to know what their stories are.
Until this point, Maya had been hitting me with a “Thank you, sir!” here and a “Nice young man such as yourself...” there. As the “he/him”s whizzed out of her mouth and lodged themselves into the walls behind me, I found myself wondering if this might finally be the right time to break the news that I am nonbinary.
“Well...” I begin gingerly, preparing a layer of dissociative protection much like the garage doors restaurants and newsstands pull down before closing for the night. “I don’t really care about that kind of stuff, but I am currently dating a girl. And she’s also queer, which is really nice!”
I gave myself A for smoothness on that one, but a B- for clarity. I’ve found “coming out” as a genderqueer person to a cisgendered person much easier when I frame it in context of sexual queerness. By and large, the general public understands what it means to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole (Thanks, Obama.) better than they understand identifying with the individual letters–especially the T, Q, I, A, and +. So that’s why I generally use the word “queer” as my hook into the conversation. It is specific enough to guide the conversation into the right territory, but vague enough to prompt a follow-up question.
“Okay. So you’re gonna have to help me out with that one, because I don’t really–” Maya started, but I knew where she was going. Again, B- for clarity.
“Yeah! No problem!” I cheered, as if following a four count and an inquiry of appreciation. I could do this routine in my sleep. “I am a nonbinary person, so I actually do use they/them pronouns. And my partner is not nonbinary, but she has her own history with queerness.”
Maya was very receptive! She certainly wasn’t perfect, but I try to give folks the benefit of the doubt most of the time. If I assume I’m the first person to educate them on the existence of gender divergence, I can come to the dialogue from a place of openness and forgiveness–which I find both makes listeners more receptive and, more importantly, preserves my mental and emotional well being. I feel safe with Maya, but in reflecting I must ask myself what I sacrificed for that safety.
Is it worth the money? The discomfort? The potential for it to go wrong? The reason kids go on field trips to the zoo or a national park is it is much easier to understand how big an elephant is or how tall Half Dome is when you are standing right in front of it, so why can’t people just see me existing and understand that a nonbinary existence is indisputable? I’m right here! You’re looking at me! And I’ve told you how I live my life when you aren’t looking at me, so what is so difficult to understand? Why am I forced to first intellectualize my existence in order to have it respected?
The answer to that question is unfathomably multifaceted. It is the entire canon of past, present, and future queer theorists all wrapped up into one omnibus and taken with a glacier-sized grain of salt; so seeking an answer in singularity seems foolish, at least to me. But continually teaching Genderqueer 101 with no tenure in sight is exhausting–mostly because, even with a fully stacked syllabus, education alone will never be enough to teach people how itfeelsto be gender divergent in environments that are still entrenched in the binary.
That’s why when I came out to my parents, I tried to avoid intellectualizing all together. I told them stories about growing up and feeling out of place. I told them about the trans people I’ve met since leaving home and how they’ve shaped my understanding of myself. I told them that I’ve always felt disconnected with the men and boys in my life; that I have male friends, family, and mentors to whom I am very connected and love very much, but I am certainly not connected to them the way I see them connected to each other. I told them I don’t understand brotherhood just as I don’t understand sisterhood. I don’t know what it means to be a son just as I don't know what it means to be a daughter. I tried to explain how it feels to walk to the bathrooms at a bar or restaurant and see them marked male and female; how once I was at a bar that taped biological illustrations of the male and female anatomy to the doors just to beextraclear who belonged and who didn’t (Youmusthave avas deferensto pee in this hole!). I described to them how being nonbinary is like firing a gun in a bulletproof room. As the bullet bounces off the walls I dodge it, but I’m not always quick enough. Shopping for clothes, binary bathrooms, and misgendering, are dodgeable bullets, but sometimes they will graze me just enough to cut. Those are wounds I’ve learned to mend pretty quickly. Things like terfy family members, violence against trans bodies, and anti-trans legislature are much harder to dodge. Those bullets move faster and are armor piercing. They tend to make more serious contact and put me in recovery for longer.
Coming out as a nonbinary person, for me, has been a delicate balance between describing feelings of invisibility, rebellion, and trauma, while also teaching the people who are responsible for those feelings how they can remove themselves from the culture and tradition that creates them. I also find myself trying to prove why these issues matter to those people just as much as they matter to me; a binary system is worse for everybody.
And I hesitate to even call it coming out, because it’s never as simple or singular as the extravagant floats covered in drag queens and Capital One logos would lead you to believe, especially as a gender variant person. It has never been, nor will it ever be a one time “Here I am” moment. More likely, it is a realization followed by a lifetime of correcting, reminding, and standing up for oneself. Actualizing one’s queerness is marketed as stepping into freedom–and that is true in many ways–but it can often be like enlisting in the military (That’s right! You just try and keep us out!). It is consigning your identity and self to a cause bigger than you in exchange for community and affirmation. It is choosing to acknowledge instead of ignore, but it isn’t just over once you stop pretending it isn’t happening. It is rooted in the identification and eradication of a common enemy, because no matter how many times you come busting out of that gorgeous mahogany wardrobe you’ve been hiding in,Hewill still misgender you. On purpose.
Like most wars fought against injustice, this one features a complex, unknown, and ever evolving landscape–nay, an entire planet with different biomes and natural features to navigate depending on where you land–and unfortunately there are not enough cartographers in the world to make the maps we need to successfully traverse the terrain. To help navigate the little Maya-shaped plot of land I’ve found myself on, I made a map of my own. I suppose it’s not so much a map as a flowchart of all the potential outcomes of me disclosing my queerness at a new job, in addition to the danger associated with each one.
I put it on a timeline at the top as a reminder that disclosure never really ends. That is a daunting promise, but when I look at how many ways my situation with Maya could have gone wrong I find myself more focused on celebrating what went right. I love working with Maya. She’s still not perfect, but I can really see her trying. I can see her reevaluate how she classifies the world into a binary, accidentally or otherwise. I can see that even if she isn’t sure how it feels yet, she’s doing what she can to create feelings of happiness and safety with me. Let it be known, that’s all I could ever hope for.