nonbinary musings from my first year out
I’ve been formally out for about a year, most of which has been spent in the relative solitude of quarantine. Covid has afforded me the space and time to figure out what versions of me feel more correct, but I’m increasingly conscious of the turbulence that will doubtless ensue when I start going places in person again.
If we’re being honest, I don’t really look different than I did last March. Sure, I’ve got a killer undercut and a ballet bun now, but on the day-to-day, I don’t dress particularly differently. I have not subscribed to the time-honored tradition of short-sleeve button-ups and general androgyny that some queer folks love but which society tries to shove all nonbinary identities into. If anything, the past year might have actually enabled me to be more feminine, because I’ve gotten to make (some) aesthetic choices for myself without the external pressure of networking and gigs. Because I’m out at work, I haven’t had to over-perform gender for my students either. The changes I’ve gotten to experience haven’t really been aesthetic. (I basically just look more comfortable now.)
In fact, this aesthetic consistency has impacted my treatment significantly, because there’s been little outward change. I don’t look obviously, there’s-no-other-option queer, and because my appearance makes it so easy to address and treat me as a cis woman, a lot of people still do. And will. (Including family.)
It’s true coming out is a never-ending process, but that statement isn’t supposed to include the time it takes others to treat us accordingly. So, in honor of coming out (roughly) a year ago, I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify some important points:
- gender presentation and gender identity are not the same. Just like cis people can be aesthetically a little gender-bendy while still identifying wholly within the gender they were assigned at birth, trans people can make visual choices that may not align with your personal understanding of their gender. Just because I might look like what your idea of a woman is doesn’t mean I am one.
- nonbinary people don’t owe you androgyny. We wear and look like what we want. Our gender expression is about us, not about what you think we should be.
- “nonbinary” can mean neither, some, or both. The nonbinary umbrella is vast, and encompasses folks like agender and gendervoid people (“neither”), people who have a distinct gender that is neither male nor female (“neither”), genderfluid and multigender people whose gender identities may pull some or all from a binary gender in addition to others (“some”), and bigender and multigender people whose identities include male and female aspects (“both”). This is a super top-level overview, but the point is, our identities can still be informed by womanhood and/or manhood while also being nonbinary.
- swapping names, pronouns, and titles isn’t that different than updating a married friend’s surname. Yes, the first few times, you will need a lot of practice, particularly if you’ve never used they/them for anyone or are encountering a new neopronoun set. It does get easier over time (I promise!), but you should expect yourself to try your hardest to make mental updates to folks’ names and pronouns as fast as possible. (And if your “as fast as possible” is “really heckin’ slow,” you should work over time to make that process work better for you.)
- you should never force someone to give you their pronouns. This is a specific, nuanced take: when I ask for someone’s pronouns, I purposely say, “what pronouns should I use to refer to you?” and not “what are your pronouns?” Some people are out in certain social environments but not in others, and it’s most important that we talk about them in a way they’ve consented to that keeps them safe. By asking “what pronouns should I use to refer to you?” I’m not asking that person to give me the pronouns that best describe who they are; I’m letting them use their best judgment, their relationship (or lack thereof) with me, their risk factors, and our environment to determine how to best keep themself safe. (I still recommend offering your own pronouns when you introduce yourself, especially if you’re cis. “I’m Eris, and I use she/they pronouns.”)
- yes, your dress code/mission statement/pre-concert talk will need updating. Any organization with “women” in the name who’s now trying to claim all gender-marginalized people needs to a) rebrand and b) explicitly include all of us in your mission statement. Lumping the entire trans and nonbinary community in under “women” is super, super transphobic no matter how you do it. Anyone who’s had “women’s” and “men’s” dress codes will need to broaden those, too. (Might I suggest “if you want to wear a skirt” and “if you don’t want to wear a skirt”? Or better yet, get rid of them altogether.) Relatedly, “ladies and gentlemen” probably doesn’t encompass all of your audience members at any given performance, so… yeah, that goes in the trash. Some others you can try instead: “Friends!” “Honored guests!” “Folks!” “Everyone!” “Chaos monsters!”
- saying “we won’t treat you any differently” is not the reassurance you think it is. Like… we’re out so you don’t treat us like the gender you were under the impression we were before. Stop that. I understand you’re trying to be nice, but if you mean you’re looking forward to growing with us as you understand us better, say that. If you mean you’ll fight for our rights alongside your own and all others, say that. If you mean we’re still welcome in your communities and spaces, say that. Specificity here will keep you from accidentally looking transphobic.
- not all nonbinary people are AFAB. (AFAB = “assigned female at birth.” AMAB = “assigned male at birth.”) A lot of the stereotypical image of nonbinary people revolves around skinny, white, abled, androgynous, AFAB people at the direct expense of our AMAB siblings. Though some of our struggles are similar, some are drastically different, especially as we analyze along axes of race, disability, and sexuality. Please make sure you’re seeking out a variety of nonbinary voices to round out your education.
Also worth a note: nonbinary people all have individual relationships with their assigned gender at birth (AGAB), but for some of us, poking back into that (like asking for our AGAB, which is really just asking what genitals you’ll assume we have) is painful and will make us mad. Before you ask us something like this, ask yourself: why do you want to know? If it’s for genitalia reasons, you need to take a step back and think again.
- not all nonbinary people like “enby” as an endearment. Enby is a phonetic spelling of the “n” and “b” in nonbinary, but some people find the term infantilizing, and as such, I really don’t recommend it as a blanket term. (I’m fine with it for myself among close friends, and I’ll use it in passing sometimes, but I prefer to avoid it in most scenarios.) Related: the shortening “nb” stands for “non-Black,” so if you’re trying to really shorthand it, use nbi or nby.
- if we want to tell you more about our identities, we will. Some folks will tell you they’re open to questions from very early on, but some of us need time to open up about our genders. We might have to educate you on general concepts before we get into specifics. We might not know you. We might not know how you’ll react. Or we might just not want to talk about it! Maybe ever! All of these things are okay, so please don’t go asking the nearest nonbinary person to explain our gender to you. If you dump that much emotional labor on us, we’re liable to make you as miserable as you’ve just made us. (Also, please don’t assume that knowing about one nonbinary person’s gender means you’ll understand another equally well. Knowing someone who’s genderfae gives you very little context with which to understand a boyflux person, for example.)
- correcting you ourselves is risky (and sometimes very painful). I am officially very, very tired of the phrase “I have to undo [x] years of calling you [pronoun]!” (with the exception of my brother, who used it in passing once last week, not as an excuse, and should not think I’m mad at him. love you, E.) Yes. I am aware. We are all aware. But we don’t need you getting defensive in our faces about why you aren’t using our correct pronouns yet. We have to choose who we correct and who we don’t, and if you’re particularly close to us, you shouldn’t be the people we need to worry about, particularly because you should care enough about us to work on it proactively. Yes, some people struggle with language and words in a big way, but in my experience, those folks put in a shit ton of work to refer to us correctly. They’re not my (personal) concern, because in most cases it’s super, super clear they are putting time, effort, and care into addressing us.
But people who can and arguably should, who just haven’t made it a priority? Folks who we’re close to who… I don’t know… I guess think they can skate by without really working on it? Those people actively make our lives harder by invalidating us in environments where it can be really personally painful to confront someone or issue a correction. A lot of you would rather be casually transphobic than show the trans people in your life that their identities matter to you.
Yes, we know you might get our pronouns wrong. But if you do, correct yourself quickly and move on. (If someone else does and doesn’t seem to catch it, correct them quickly and move on.) For many of us, seeing you work through that, without a big flowery apology we feel obligated to accept, is more impactful than you trying to explain to us why it’s hard.
If I’m being honest, I hope in a few years I won’t have to be so aggressive about enforcing my pronouns; by then, most people in my life will have either switched over to one of my multipronoun sets (the public one or some others I’m cool with) or they’ll have left my life entirely. There isn’t a third option here where people refuse to gender me correctly and keep getting access to my energy. But by then, I’ll hopefully have made it through a lot of that initial process and figured out which people from my past are invested in being part of my future. Hopefully I’ll be able to admit that (at least right now) I do like she a lot, actually, but when people use it for me exclusively without thinking twice about it, I know they’re seeing me as cis and dismissing the rest of me. Maybe that stems from ignorance, sure. But ignorance doesn’t dismiss harm.
For a lot of people, including some of my audience, my queerness is useful for their consumption (and education/entertainment) but irrelevant past that point. Their engagement with it doesn’t extend past the relationship between them and the parts of me they observe; it sure as shit doesn’t make it into their interactions with others who know me.
My partner has a standing policy to exclusively they/them me when someone else in the conversation is only using she/her to refer to me. I have a whole page on my website now to give tips for folks who might have to talk about me because they’re interacting with my work. I do not get to passively exist and have my identity respected. If I do not assert myself every time I get an opportunity, I am misgendered, and the full depth of my experience is erased.
I’d like to not have to talk about it all the time. I’d like to feel secure enough not to. But today is definitely not that day, so here’s me, signing off and asking my cis readers and friends to start being better, active supports for the trans and nonbinary people in your lives.
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