Cis ‘Allies,’ You Probably Think This Work is About You

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by cis “allies” that if I don’t directly appeal to them in the most generous terms possible, I can’t expect their support. And as far as I can tell, this is a pretty explicit way of saying, “I will not affirm the humanity of transgender people unless their movement caters to me.”

I mean, at least you’re being honest so I know upfront that I can’t count on you.

A lot of fake allies came out in full force when I wrote an article in late March, really unpacking different trans-antagonistic microaggressions (in plain terms, acts that hurt trans people in subtle but important ways). I put an incredible amount of labor into that work, trying to hold space for cis folks’ emotional realities while also being firm about what is and isn’t acceptable when interacting with folks from my community.

“Oftentimes, as we try to support the people we love, we can make mistakes – and that’s a normal and expected part of the process,” I explained. “The best way to make it right is to learn a little more, do some self-reflection, and not just apologize, but commit to changing our behaviors.”

Wow, I’m so mean… (sigh)

I offered a piece that I believed could bridge gaps in understanding for cis folks, particularly loved ones, who were struggling with their own emotions around transition. I put an incredible amount of intention behind every word that I wrote. And I wrote from the place of someone who has firsthand experience trying to hold space for my family, my friends, and my own pain all at once.

I’ve often said that when I write these rare pieces that are designed to reach folks of privilege, I’m (in some ways) giving them my heart. And a few months out now, and thousands of responses later, I find myself questioning why I did that in the first place.

Cis folks, I’ve been told over and over again that I’m not patient enough, nice enough, generous enough. That if I’d just be a little more understanding and a little less hostile, you’d come through.

(And this is a familiar refrain for folks who are marginalized. This isn’t new. “Allies” love to hold their support hostage, making it as conditional as possible so that they feel justified in doing nothing. I see white queer folks in my own community doing this right now. White folks who are looking at Black folks protesting at Pride for the right to exist, telling them they’re too angry, too disruptive. As if the comfort and feelings of white people somehow matters more than Black lives.)

Allies, most having never shown up for these communities beyond a filter on their profile pictures, love to tell folks that their tactics are wrong. As if marginalized folks haven’t lived in these bodies and persisted through these struggles their entire lives. As if allies are somehow better positioned to determine how communities should advocate and care for one another.

“Allies” like these think that they know better and that they’re owed the emotional labor and warmth of marginalized people at all times… otherwise we’re not worth the time of day.

Cis people, you’re breaking my heart. But that’s what I get for putting it on loan, right?

In fact, some of you find it more offensive that I’m calling you “cisgender” than you are with the rampant amount of violence waged against trans women of color. You’re outraged by a label, a category that does nothing to endanger or disempower you — one that names the safety that you possess in this world because of your identity, and asks for you to acknowledge it.

A simple acknowledgment. And you accuse us of asking for too much, of being too much.

But this was never about me. I’ve held your hand. I’ve held this space for you on more than one occasion, applauding your good intentions and giving you the benefit of the doubt. This was never about what I did and didn’t say, how I did or didn’t say it — I know this because I’ve coated it in honey for you and you still said it was bitter.

When it comes to privilege, it’s almost always about comfort. Your comfort. And until you’re willing to sit with that discomfort, my approach and my labor are irrelevant at best. I could hand it to you made-to-order, to every specification, and it still wouldn’t be enough. If you’re not ready to be made uncomfortable, not just once but many times over, you were never going to be my “ally” in the first place.

And to be clear, I’m not here to make you feel comfortable.

My work, first and foremost, has been giving folks in my community resources to help them survive — whether it’s a tool to start a conversation, or the affirmation they need to feel a little more whole in a world determined to irreparably fracture them. Even when I’m taking the time to teach cis folks, I’m doing it because I want trans people to live in a world where we don’t need to have these conversations anymore.

You emailed, and you tweeted, and you commented, determined to make it about you and what I apparently owed you. You told me that I was unkind, and that I’d never get allies if I didn’t cater to you.

That article had sugar on top and ice cream in the middle, and you said it had a bad aftertaste.

Instead of sitting with those feelings, wondering how you could process in a way that would translate to meaningful action, you rejected everything out of hand. You unloaded your feelings and fragility onto me, demanding that I take it all back. You lashed out, as if to say, “If I have to feel uncomfortable for even a minute, I’m not interested in the pain and fear that you experience every minute of every day.”

I’m not going to claim that I’ve never been defensive, uncomfortable, fragile. I’ve encountered my own learning curve around my privileges, particularly around race, class, and education. But I’ve learned (and oh-so-generously spelled out for you in this article about call-outs) that navigating this graciously is part and parcel of being a decent human being.

Cis folks, I’ve never asked you to be perfect. I know better than anyone that when we’re trying to unlearn all this toxic shit, it takes time and intention. Marginalized folks have been saying ad freaking nauseam that showing up for us and doing the work is a process, not a destination or a title that you earn after you collect enough cookies.

(The concept of “ally” itself is dubious at best. Bless Indigenous Action Media for this article about the “ally industrial complex” and being accomplices rather than allies, some further reading if this conversation has miraculously sparked your interest/you haven’t angrily tweeted me already).

But when I hand you my labor and my heart on a silver platter, and your instinct is to withhold your Very Precious Allyship™ (as if trans folks can’t get on without you — talk about self-important), the problem isn’t with me. It’s with you. 

The amount of labor (emotional, intellectual) that goes into directly engaging with attitudes and people that dehumanize us is, in itself, far deeper and more difficult than any momentary discomfort you experience when a trans person asks you to do better.

And your inability to honor that labor tells me that my approach here isn’t the problem. It was never the problem. Your unwillingness to engage in conversations that don’t flatter or comfort you is. And if that’s your idea of allyship, you can keep it. I won’t miss it.

Who is Sam Dylan Finch?

(GUEST POST) This piece is brought to you by the lovely guest author and writing/publishing/feminist extraordinaire, Alaina Leary, who interviewed me for this piece. If you’ve ever wondered who the heck I am or where I came from, these (super thoughtful!) questions are a great introduction. I cried a lot while answering. Which will surprise absolutely no one.

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 9.06.01 PMAs a disabled and transgender writer, Sam Dylan Finch is passionate about amplifying the voices of marginalized people, as well as drawing from his lived experience to educate and empower.

Currently, Sam is an editor at RESIST and Social Justice U, and the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a blog exploring the intersections of queerness, feminism, and mental illness. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Everyday Feminism, The Establishment, Rewire, and many more.

I’ve been following Sam’s work since around 2015, and have watched him talk about mental illness, trauma, recovery, transitioning, gender identity, and feminism on multiple public platforms. I’ve been fortunate to work with Sam in a few professional capacities and have had the pleasure of getting to him know on a personal level, which is an absolute joy, because he radiates the same love and light in his everyday life that he does in his work.

I had a chance to ask Sam some questions about writing, activism, and being radically vulnerable in his work.

AL: How did you get your start in writing and activist work?

SDF: I’ve always been writing, but I actually have been blogging since I was 13 years old! Back in the day, we had Freewebs and shitty graphics and used the font “terminal” a little too much.

I’ve loved blogging for all these years. As a mentally ill and queer youth, being “seen” was extremely powerful, and was critical in my survival. It was the ultimate way to take up space in a society that didn’t otherwise offer me that visibility or validation.

As for my activism, it really began when I was participating in a walk to raise awareness about mental health with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). I think I was 18 years old at that point?

I was so excited to be visible as a mentally ill person for the first time. But I quickly noticed that the stigma persisted, even there. People signed into the walk with fake names. When cameras flashed, they ducked out of the way or hid behind posters. When the news crews came, many people scattered or ran away.

It was my first real political action of any kind. These were my people, my community. And even in that space, people were afraid. Terrified. Afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of being recognized by family and friends and colleagues, afraid of being seen. And I thought, “This isn’t right. This isn’t the kind of world that I want for mentally ill people.”

Not everyone can be visible. But whatever the personal cost, I promised myself that day that I would be. I haven’t looked back.

AL: A lot of your work has followed your journey—transitioning, being diagnosed with mental illnesses, dealing with your recovery. What has it been like to share yourself so vulnerably and honestly in your writing?

SDF: Recently someone messaged me and told me that, because I’d written so openly about my psychiatric hospitalizations, they had found the courage to admit themselves and get help.

So whenever the trolls try to tell me that no one cares about what I have to say, I remember how it felt to get that message – to know that this person was safe that night and that I played a part in that. Even if this one person was the only one that cared about my words, their survival is worth it to me. Their life is worth that much.

Being so honest in your writing can be scary. It opens you up to criticism and hostility that can wound the most tender parts of you. But it’s also an incredible process, because I get to remind folks that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and in return they remind me that I’m not alone, either. We build community. We build connection. We build strength. We build safety.

Society wants marginalized people to believe that sharing their stories is playing a card, playing the victim, or telling lies. But I believe that being visible as mentally ill and transgender has helped illuminate some important truths. And I hope that it’s made folks in my community feel held and affirmed along the way. I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

AL: What has your journey with intersectional feminism been like? Tell me a little about how you came to find feminism and embrace it.

imageSDF: I found feminism in college. Cue all the groaning about those damn “liberal arts” schools. I double-majored in Anthropology and Women’s & Gender Studies, and that radicalized me. When I realized that my personal struggles were deeply political ones, I started to connect the dots. A lot of folks resent “identity politics” (boohoo for them), but understanding that our lived experiences are shaped by a larger system was mind-blowing and important to me.

My studies taught me the ways in which identity, power, and privilege affect us personally, systematically, culturally. I never looked at anything the same way after that – I never looked at myself the same way again.

In particular – and it’s really important for me to mention her – I wouldn’t be the writer or activist that I am today without Dr. Suzanne Bergeron, who taught my first gender studies course in undergrad and was there every step of the way as I navigated university. As mentally ill and queer, academia was not always a safe place for me, and having a fierce mentor like her is why I was able to succeed despite so many obstacles.

Institutions like universities are not always built with marginalized folks in mind. In fact, when I was a student, we didn’t even have an LGBTQIA+ center on our campus. That’s why mentors are so critically important for the survival of marginalized folks in spaces like universities. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to drop out, or how many times I showed up for Dr. B’s office hours and had to be talked down. She was so patient.

And that’s what feminism has come to mean for me. It’s not just a philosophical worldview that remains abstract, but a daily practice and a commitment we make to one another. It’s a commitment that we make so that we can resist these systems together and allow marginalized folks to come into their own and truly thrive, especially when these systems aren’t by and for us.

I learned that from her. And I’ve tried to be that person now, like, showing up for folks in my life but also through the public work that I do. I’m trying to carve out space where people like me can show up as themselves, like my mentors did for me.

AL: Has anyone ever reached out to you to tell you how your work has impacted them? What does that feel like?

SDF: Every day. I cry about it. It’s especially intense when it comes from a queer and/or mentally ill youth, because that’s such a difficult and powerless place to be. You know, I was there.

And back in my day… I know, I sound old when I say that, but the world has changed a lot in the last decade. I was never able to find people like me with stories like mine. I genuinely believed that I would never see 18, because I’d never seen an adult like me surviving.

When I started writing publicly in these spaces, the most important thing to me was making sure that young folks who weren’t sure if they could make it would see what might be possible for them. That they could reclaim their power. That they could get older. That there was a future with them in it, maybe even a bright future at that. That you could grow up – like me, severely mentally ill and transgender and traumatized – but still be soft, be brilliant, be alive.

I want that for everyone. That when you reach the end of your rope, you can see other possibilities. You can see them, because you’ve seen someone living them. Someone like you, someone who knows how you feel. I didn’t see those possibilities once upon a time, because I couldn’t find them, and I almost ended my life because of that. So I’m trying to create a world where those possibilities are known, never out of reach, never hard to find.

So when someone tells me that I’ve done that, there’s no way to describe how it feels. There just aren’t words… I’ll never have words to explain what that means to me.

AL: How do you come up with topics for your blog posts and writing you pitch? Where do you draw that inspiration, especially for deeply personal writing?

SDF: My writing just comes from my very messy life! When I started my blog, I wasn’t sure if I’d have a lot to say or how long I could keep it up. But that was a few years ago now, and I haven’t run out of ideas yet.

Being mentally ill, gay, non-binary, and transgender – considering where we are situated historically and culturally, you know, the “transgender tipping point” and the new administration and all that – means that there’s an important place for marginalized communities in the narrative we’re writing about this moment.

And with online media at the center of it all, marginalized folks like me have more power than ever to write that story instead of allowing others to write it for them. That’s the inspiration: making history through our words, to ensure that our lives and our struggles aren’t erased.

AL: What’s the hardest piece you’ve ever written?

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 9.51.16 PMSDF: Anything that I’ve written about suicide, to be honest, is the most difficult for me. It’s the most difficult because I know suicidal folks are going to find it, read it, and weigh their options. That feels like an enormous and important responsibility, and I take it very seriously.

Suicide as a topic makes me deeply emotional. I mean, I look at everything I’ve been able to do – and I imagine the other scenario where I never lived to see 18, and everything that might be different otherwise. “Sam Dylan Finch” as a person would’ve never existed. That’s not even a name I had claimed until, I don’t know, four years ago.

My whole body of work, and all the good that it did… you know, there’s an alternative timeline where none of that happened. I can’t even wrap my mind around what that timeline looks like, how many people are affected.

Honestly, I didn’t know I had any potential. Most of my life, I haven’t even had very great self-esteem, because depression can rob you of that. And how many people out there are like me, not even aware of what they’re capable of? So I imagine the collective potential of ALL survivors – everything we could do together, the ways we could shape the world – and the weight of that feels so heavy.

I’ll be honest: I don’t want to lose anyone else to suicide. I understand better than anyone why people end their own lives, but that doesn’t make it any easier to let folks go. Because that’s not just an individual loss, but a collective loss for us all. We’ll never know what you had to offer. We’ll never know what you could’ve done, the life you could’ve led. And whether it was just for you or for all of us, you deserve to know what you were capable of in this life. That matters to me. Survivors matter to me.

When I write about suicide, it’s the hardest thing of all, because I just want to reach through the screen and say, “We need you. You need you.” It’s gut-wrenching. It’s life and death, for real. It will never get easier to write those words, but I also know they’re the most important words that I write.

AL: What do you like about being on the editorial side of the writer/editor relationship, in your past work at Everyday Feminism and your current role at Resist? Is it more satisfying to you to be an editor or a writer?

SDF: I’m always asking myself, “What needs to be said?” And of course, “Do I need to be the one to say it?” If not (as is often the case, because I have my own privileges), I’m doing everything I can to support the folks who are saying it.

That’s why I pursued editing in addition to being a writer – my voice isn’t the only voice that matters, and I want to do everything I can to get diverse voices out into the world. I learn so much through the process. I don’t think I could ever just write or just edit. I see both as critically important work to be doing.

AL: What are some of the things you’d like to accomplish in the next ten years? How do you want to make your mark?

SDF: This interview is making me super emotional. So many feelings.

Because I’m imagining that like, I’ll be 35 in ten years. That sounds young to a lot of people, but when you aren’t used to imagining yourself getting older, it feels immense. I never thought about getting there. And more queer, trans, and mentally ill kiddos are coming up in the world, and they’re going to need folks to show them that they can make it, too. Now more than ever.

This might sound a little dramatic, but in those moments when I can’t live for myself, I live for them. Every time my heart beats, it’s like a signal – it’s like morse code or something – just making sure they know they aren’t the only ones out there.

That’s how I want to make my mark. I want to survive, for all of us. In ten years, twenty years, fifty years. With every beat, telling them: “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”

If you want to let Sam know how his work has made a positive impact on you, he’s just relaunched his Patreon campaign, which allows readers to personally connect with him while supporting the very important work that he does!

We need you. You need you. If you ever need support, please consider the following crisis resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQIA+ youth: 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860

Or check out Sam’s favorite mental health apps at this resource list.

Alaina Leary is an intersectional feminist activist, editor, and publishing professional based in Boston, MA. She is currently a social media assistant for We Need Diverse Books, and is completing her MA in Publishing at Emerson College. Her career focus is on how to increase inclusive, authentic, intersectional representation in the publishing industry. She also edits for several online magazines, including Her Campus, Luna Luna Magazine, Germ Magazine, and Doll Hospital Journal. When she isn’t busy reading, you can find her at the beach or curled up with her girlfriend and their two adopted literary cats. Read her articles here.

Am I the Only Transgender Person Sick of Transitioning?

This is not your “before and after” video that shows me ten thousand times hotter than I previously was, confirming your suspicion that transition takes you from an awkward caterpillar into a glamorous butterfly.

This is not your “I found myself” testimony, where I explain how transition fixed all of my problems and how I’m now living my best life in my best body, the life and body I was meant to have.

Nope. This is your “this sucks, why does this suck, why didn’t anyone tell me that this would suck?” blog entry, by a trans person who is just as confused as before, only this time with more acne.

As a genderqueer person whose desired body leans masc, desired expression leans femme, and overall identity seems to be “alien boy” but I’ll call it “well fuck, your guess is as good as mine,” trying to transition has been a puzzle at best, and a cluster fuck at worst.

About eight months ago, I threw testosterone into the mix hoping it would ease some of the social and physical dysphoria, and maybe answer some of my lingering questions (questions like, do I want to live my life being perceived as a man? how much body hair is too much body hair? can I grow a better beard than my brother? will this make my butt more compact? you know, the important shit).

Spoiler alert, on testosterone I’m totally emotionally unstable, I’m greasy and covered in acne, I have the ability to braid my leg hair, I’m building muscles in places I didn’t know I could develop muscle, and I’m growing (admittedly very cute) whiskers on my face.

So in other words, I’m a moody cat on steroids that desperately needs Proactiv. These were not my #TransitionGoals.

Everyone tells me that, having only been on testosterone for less than a year, I should be patient. But the thing that no one told me is that medical transition – and really, transition generally – can suck SO HARD.

No one tells you that not every aspect of transition will feel right or feel good. That the side effects of medical transition may make you more uncertain than ever of your choices. That sometimes it’s trial by fucking fire, learning what you want and what you don’t as you go.

That it can take a long time before you look in the mirror and say, “Aha!”

That some of us – and this is critical – don’t know what will work for us. We only know what isn’t working, and that’s valid, too.

For non-binary folks, this delicate balance is even more challenging to achieve. Some of us end up back pedaling with our dose or coming off of hormones altogether, trying not to swing too hard in one direction of the binary or the other. Some of us have to settle for something imperfect, others of us are too afraid to begin.

Pass the Tylenol, please – navigating hormones in a binary world is enough to give anyone the migraine of the century.

Truthfully, I spend most days worried about how testosterone hasn’t been this magical, life-affirming journey that has made me more certain of myself – feeling like I’ve done something wrong, or made the wrong choice if I’m not perpetually ecstatic about it. 

I’d like to think that there’s room for trans people to feel something other than endless joy – that actually, it’s an unrealistic expectation that every transgender person on hormones will have the time of their life.

I’m not unhappy, I’m just waiting for it to come together. I look at myself in the mirror nowadays and like anybody else whose body is rapidly changing, I’m just really weirded out. I haven’t had that big moment (is there even a big moment for everyone?).

I’m just sitting around like, “Whoa, bodies are totally STRANGE” and “Did my face get uglier or is it just the acne eating me alive?”

If anything, medical transition has raised more questions than it’s answered. Questions about my relationship to masculinity, what gender identity truly is, about the layers of my dysphoria, about the fluidity of my own gender (and if it’s so fluid, how do I choose a static representation?), and most importantly, what it means to transition as a trans person who is genderqueer.

I did not sign up for some philosophical obstacle course, but here we are.

Mainstream narratives convince us that transition is reserved for people who are brimming with certainty and clarity, neither of which I have. Mainstream narratives convince us that transition will be revelatory and complete us, but I have yet to feel enlightened or whole.

Is it just me?

I’d like to think that it’s okay – and that we can make room for these experiences, too. Transition is not amazing all the time. For some folks, it isn’t amazing at all, but necessary still. And if we don’t acknowledge this, we’re just being really fucking dishonest about what transition is actually like.

So y’all, I’ll just say it: I’m tired. All these bodily changes, all these lingering questions, and the work that goes into deciphering your non-binary gender in a binary world – it’s exhausting, and it sucks.

Word on the street is that it’s worth it, though. And I may not know exactly what’s in store, but there’s no way in hell I’m going back.

Being Non-Binary and a Trans Guy Isn’t a Contradiction

When we think about non-binary folks, we often think about agender, neutrois, or “gender neutral” people who do not identify with the categories of man or woman in any conceivable way.

Those folks are real, and absolutely deserve visibility and validation.

But I also think this is a very limited understanding of what it means to be non-binary. If we only think about non-binary identities on these terms, we fail to encompass the diversity of this community and the radical ways of doing (or not doing) gender.

Non-binary is defined as someone who does not identify exclusively as masculine or feminine (thus apart from a cisnormative binary). This can actually include quite a number of people and (a)genders.

But we forget sometimes that non-binary can encompass more than just someone who disowns the binary altogether – it can include someone who reclaims it for their own ends, expression, or performance.

For me, I am a very femme and genderqueer trans guy, who occupies masculinity and femininity and androgyny in a pretty equal and eclectic measure.

My non-binary identity is important to me – but so is my identity as a trans guy. They are totally inseparable.

My experience of my gender is fluid and moving, non-linear, queer. So while I do identify as a trans guy, my masculinity and my body are experienced through a very queer and non-binary lens.

In other words, I can be a trans guy and be non-binary simultaneously.

I do not exist in an exclusively masculine, binary space. I can embrace all the queer, femme, glittery, tender, and alien parts of my gender while simultaneously honoring the masculine identity that they are wrapped up in.

And I would argue that if we held more space for folks identifying as men or women to queer their gender and expression, we might find that non-binary community exists in more places and in more ways than we’d ever thought possible.

I don’t believe that being non-binary is about rejecting the binary out of hand for every single person. For some of us, it’s taking back the binary from oppressive and rigid social norms and breaking down those expectations.

I think that there is a way to take what is meaningful, resonant, or beautiful about what we’ve uncovered within the binary and take back what’s rightfully ours, making it our own.

For me, there are elements of being a “trans guy” that speak to my experiences – but it’s not quite enough to hold all the other queer, femme, and fluid aspects that make me who I am.

Non-binary, for many of us, is a placeholder because nothing else could contain us.

And at the end of the day, who’s to say that there aren’t men and women that are so queer, so infinite that they need that space held for them, too?

We should talk about the power dynamics and privileges embedded in how aligned someone is with the binary, sure. But that’s a very different conversation from the ones I’m being asked to have.

I have found a certain amount of skepticism of my non-binary identity since I started claiming “trans guy” as an identity as well. Many folks felt these categories were at odds, and that I shouldn’t call myself a non-binary writer or seek to represent the community if it wasn’t my experience.

But I believe that non-binary is a spectrum of experiences that can be held by people of many (a)genders, and that we can make room for all of those experiences without stepping all over each other or denying someone a label that really resonates with them.

If non-binary is to mean “not exclusively masculine or feminine,” we should be open to the possibility that anyone of any gender – especially in a binary system in which few, if any truly fit – might find themselves looking for language that gives them permission to be who they are.

And really, we should always be cautious and self-critical if our skepticism of someone’s truth is turning into identity policing. Denying someone the right to identify as non-binary is simply upholding the binary and imposing it onto someone else.

As non-binary, isn’t the imposition of that binary the last thing we want to be participating in?

I don’t believe that non-binary men or non-binary women are contradictions at all. If anything, it’s an indication that people are catching on.

The binary, on absolute terms, serves very few – and at least for me, being non-binary is about making room for every part of myself. I’m not surprised that others feel that way, too.

How Can We Include Non-Binary People in Gendered Spaces?

nbmeme

This meme is basically my life.

I think it’s interesting to be writing about my gender transition so publicly. I am not always given the luxury of uncertainty or ambiguity.

But truthfully, I am still getting to know who I am and, by extension, how my gender manifests in the world.

I’ve used a lot of words to describe myself: Genderqueer, non-binary, transmasculine, genderfluid, genderweird, androgynous, agender, even bigender to name a handful. I’ve used ze/hir pronouns, e/em pronouns, they/them pronouns, he/him pronouns.

I think of these labels as hats that I’ve tried on at different points in my life, searching for what fits, what suits me.

I’ve made no effort to hide the fact that I’m a gender explorer. I haven’t settled anywhere just yet – and I am comfortable in that fluid space. I dabble in femininity, masculinity, androgyny, and agender expressions and I’ve found happiness in liberating myself from prescribed boxes and letting myself roam.

I’m still figuring it out. This is why I most often refer to myself as “non-binary” – I am holding that space as I learn more and more about myself.

Recently, though, I realized that not everyone is willing to hold that space for non-binary people.

Last week, I was banned from an online group of femme and non-binary writers. A cisgender moderator determined that because I’d used the word “transmasculine” in the past and used he/him pronouns, I was not, in fact, “non-binary.”

I was booted without discussion or question, labelled a “misogynist” for taking up space as a “trans man,” and slandered in writing circles that I had previously held in high respect.

I debated if I would talk publicly about what happened. But I think this is a prime example of the many fundamental misunderstandings of non-binary people and their experiences, and raises two really important questions:

What is the place of non-binary and genderfluid people in explicitly gendered spaces? And how can we be inclusive of non-binary people in spaces like these?

So I’m going to talk about this.

First, I think we should pinpoint what it means to be non-binary. Non-binary refers to experiences of gender that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. It’s an umbrella of experiences.

I have identified as non-binary for five years. This is because my experience of gender is fluid – I have a fluid expression that I am still exploring, and I don’t identify as a man or a woman.

I use he/him pronouns not because I am a trans man or because I’m exclusively masculine. I actually respond to both “they” AND “him” (and if you’ll notice, many interviews and talks I’ve given have used these interchangeably).

However, “he” is easiest and my preference is not particularly strong, so I have defaulted to “he” overtime.

It’s also worth noting here that pronouns are also not necessarily linked to one’s gender. Pronouns are words first and foremost, and they can have deeply personal meanings to each individual.

Some of us use binary pronouns to keep us safe, to adapt in the face of trauma, or because the pronouns we desire are simply not accepted in a binary world.

This is why it’s really best not to assume someone’s identity on the basis of pronouns – it could be much more complicated than you realize.

This particular group, though, consisting almost exclusively of cisgender people made the assumption that “he” meant I could not be non-binary and consequently misgendered me as a “trans man.”

No questions asked, I was banned because I did not use the language that cisgender people wanted me to.

But here’s the thing: At the end of the day, it’s not up to cisgender people to decide the language non-binary people should use to describe themselves. It is not your experience nor your place.

It’s arrogant to assume that, as a binary person, you could possibly advise or understand. And if you are trying to build a space that is inclusive of non-binary people, it is your place to listen – not to assume, impose, or erase.

This kind of smug, violent assumption – that cisgender people somehow know what it means to be non-binary better than we do – is why many non-binary people do not feel welcome in these spaces in the first place.

It’s this bullshit that makes non-binary people feel silenced and excluded. Even when we try to articulate our experiences, so many cisgender people reject them and instead, take their binary framework of the world and impose it onto us.

I’ve said I am not a man. I’ve never called myself a man. So why call me one? Because you don’t believe me or because you are unwilling to hear me out on my experiences?

Transphobia. This is transphobia, plain and simple.

And this is erasure: Being so unwilling to tune in when we are talking about our experiences that you simply deny our identities altogether.

I think another fundamental misunderstanding of gender that came up during this situation was the idea that gender is somehow static.

When we create gendered spaces – spaces that are exclusively for folks of a certain expression or experience – it immediately assumes that all people have a fixed understanding of their gender.

This is patently untrue.

As non-binary, I fluidly move between expressions. There are countless bi/trigender and genderfluid people who do not occupy a fixed point on the spectrum.

And if we do not hold space for folks who are more fluid, how can we claim to be inclusive?

This group could not imagine a scenario in which a non-binary person might dabble in masculinity and still call themselves non-binary. They couldn’t imagine a scenario in which a non-binary person’s identity was not fixed like theirs.

Not only that, but they didn’t feel it was relevant or important to actually ask me how I experience my gender or believe me when I said I didn’t identify as a man or woman.

If you are looking to hold space for “non-binary people” without qualification, that means all non-binary people – even those who are questioning, even those who are fluid, even those who occupy multiple spaces simultaneously.

I think this comes back to the idea that many spaces that claim to be inclusive of non-binary people are actually just offering lip service.

They don’t bother to educate themselves, they don’t consult NB people when creating these spaces, and they don’t care to know about our lived experiences.

As a non-binary person who writes for femme-centric magazines and holds space in communities that are femme-centric, my rule of thumb is to always ask who the spaces are intended for, and only enter into these spaces when I am invited.

It’s something that I hope all non-binary people do when weighing whether or not to be part of a particular community.

But I take serious issue with spaces that applaud themselves for being inclusive of non-binary people, but make no intentional effort to ensure that we are not erased.

NB folks often feel so grateful to be included and do not want to derail the focus of these groups that we feel helpless to advocate for ourselves. These spaces receive no pushback or accountability because NB people feel disempowered in spaces that are not designed with them in mind.

We are invited in word only, but never engaged with on a meaningful level. We’re not asked if we feel included; we are there as tokens and tokens only.

So as a non-binary person who is ridiculously fed up with spaces exploiting my community – by using us as props to hold up as proof of their “inclusiveness” – I want to offer some advice to communities, online and off, who are genuinely committed to holding space for non-binary people:

  1. Realize that not all non-binary people are cut from the same cloth. Some of us are mostly masculine with a femme edge; some of us are utterly androgynous or void of gender; some of us are demiboys or demigirls; some of us are genderfluid or gender-questioning or gender nonconforming. We are not a monolith. Don’t treat us like one.
  2. Be specific about who your space is for. If you want a group for feminine-of-center people, say so. If you want a group for masculine-of-center people, say so. NB people have varied experiences of power and privilege, so it’s important to qualify where needed. Don’t lump us all together and expect us to understand who your space is for.
  3. Believe us. Do not call into question what our gender is. Do not assume what our gender is. It is transphobic to disregard someone’s stated identity because they do not express themselves or articulate their experiences the way that you would prefer. Non-binary people don’t exist for your comfort and our genders are for us, and us alone, to declare.
  4. Let us speak for ourselves. Do not impose your narratives onto us. Do not try to place us within a binary framework to make it “easier” for you. We can discuss our experiences for ourselves. We are not men unless we say so. We are not women unless we say so. We are only what we say we are – so ask us if you’re unclear on what that means.
  5. Hold space for non-binary people to be uncertain. Recognize that because there are so few visible narratives or scripts for us to follow, we may still be in the process of questioning or trying to articulate our experiences. We may still be sorting this out. Keep this in mind if you are inviting us into your space.
  6. Do not make judgments on whether or not we belong based on our appearance. Non-binary people can express themselves in varied ways and may be expressing themselves a particular way for our own safety. This does not mean we are “faking” being non-binary.
  7. Do not use gendered language to refer to everyone in the space. This is a no-brainer – don’t invite non-binary people into your space and then refer to everyone as women or men.
  8. Don’t include us if you don’t plan on doing the work. If you aren’t committed to listening, educating yourself, and creating policies that ensure we are safe in your space, don’t bother. We do not want to be props in your social justice credibility game.

 

The conversation around non-binary inclusion is an important one. What happened to me is not uncommon – NB people are routinely erased or even banned from spaces by cis and trans folks alike who do not understand their experiences.

I write this not because being banned from this group was the end of the world (there are plenty of spaces that are designed with me in mind, spaces that I am infinitely grateful for), but because there are bigger questions at play here.

I write this because what happened to me exposes a serious systemic issue that exists in many social justice spaces – how non-binary people are “invited” to the table, but are driven away through erasure and transphobia the second they arrive.

If you are more interested in applauding yourself for inviting us instead of doing the work to include us, you are not socially just – you are simply the oppressors under another name.

If you claim to be a space that is inclusive of non-binary people, deliver on what you promise. Because we are done being your footnotes or afterthoughts.

I Didn’t Want to be Transgender

testosterone

I remember that field and that body and my undeniable ecstasy before waking.

I was ashamed.

I was so ashamed of being transgender that I held out for years, thinking if I waited long enough, this part of myself would retreat into the dark spot of my mind – the trapdoor where all the bad memories fall in and disappear.

When the gender therapist asks me why I waited until now to start testosterone, I want so badly to explain that I didn’t think I would need it – I had the headstone picked out, the flowers – because I believed that this part of me would die quietly if I was good, if I was patient, if I was persistent.

With my hands over my ears, I shook my head when friends used to ask, “But can you imagine if things stayed the same?”

I threw blankets over mirrors, I kept my eyes fixed on the wall, I tried to forget my body the way we try to forget bad dreams.

Maybe the secret can be found at the bottom of a bottle, I said, or maybe it’s underneath my skin. But drinking didn’t destroy my queerness – just my liver – and not a single drop of blood could tell me where else to look.

I want to say I’m sorry now, sorry to everyone that was afraid for me. You remember and I do, too: Sprawled out on the floor of my childhood bedroom, hysterical because I had dreamt for the hundredth time that I was running through a field in a different body.

That was the night I said that I would wake up tomorrow and be cisgender or I wouldn’t wake up at all.

When the gender therapist asks me what I am looking forward to, I remember that field and that body and my undeniable ecstasy before waking. I remember the way the sunshine fell on my back and my beautifully broad shoulders. I remember feeling so light.

I tell him that I’m looking forward to being able to carry things. Testosterone gives you more muscle, I say with a dreamy smile.

Maybe I’ll be able to lift the heavy things (I think of moving last summer, how my knees buckled as I tried to carry my belongings up two flights of stairs) or the heavier things (like the years of denial and the lies I told my family).

I have a running fantasy.

It goes like this: I gather up every lie about my gender that I’ve ever heard, starting with birth. I return to the field. I plant every mishap – every “she,” “ma’am,” “her” – and I bury them like seeds. When I say my chosen name, its rich and deep resonance is like an incantation. Flowers, flowers as far as the eye can see, burst from the ground, opening up to face me.

They cannot hurt me now.

The gender therapist asks me when I realized that testosterone was necessary. May 1st, 2015, I say. Why that day, he asks. I tell him the truth: It was the day I became afraid to look at my own face and too embarrassed to leave my house.

Do you know what it’s like to feel naked even when you’re not? I ask. I think better of the question. I don’t wait for a response. I tell him that one feels naked all the time when their body is betraying them.

The gender therapist says he’s honored to be a part of my journey. I wonder if he says this to everyone he sees. I wonder if he means it; I decide that he does and I tell him that I’m glad, too.

I hold the consent letter in my hands and I run my fingers along the edges. My body is trembling. I walk downstairs and I let the clinic take five vials of my blood. December 7th, they tell me, and I whisper that date under my breath a thousand times as I step out into the cold autumn rain.

I’ve waited for this. Even when I was afraid, I was always waiting.

Transphobia, Instagram, and Why I’m Done Hiding

Confession: While I am out and proud as a transgender person, I’ve been afraid of what it means to be truly visible.

As a transgender writer and activist, I’m not difficult to find on the web – I tweet my love for Taco Bell and LUSH (we got married once, I think), I post thought-provoking content on LQTU’s Facebook page and my own personal page.

Hell, I have this blog. I’m definitely not a private person.

But many readers have pointed out that unlike many public figures, I am not particularly prolific when it comes to posting photos of myself. While many of my social justice heroes are reveling in their selfies and building entire communities around their Instagram shenanigans, it’s rare that I share my face with my audience.

More than once, I’ve been asked that if I believe visibility for our community is so important, why am I so invisible when it comes to photo and video content? And why is my Instagram – which many of you were clever enough to find – private and restricted while every other platform is easily accessible?

Transphobia. That’s why.

#TransLooksLike me, in this body, in this moment.

#TransLooksLike me, in this body, in this moment.

Secretly I was hoping that, when I finally get on hormones, when I finally “look” and “sound” like a trans person, I could emerge like a butterfly from the cocoon and finally share my life in this way.

Because I was afraid that, as a trans person who is in the beginning stages of their medical transition, I would be rejected as “not trans enough” if I dared to be too visible.

It’s rich, isn’t it? Because I talk a lot about how I am trans enough, exactly as I am (I was published in a fucking fantastic book saying this EXACT THING). But I’m still terrified that I’ll be labeled a fraud if people could actually see me.

I turned down speaking engagements and podcasts for this reason. I postponed the launch of my YouTube series for this reason. I ignored requests for phone interviews because I grew tired of hearing people call and say, “Is this Sam Dylan Finch? …really?”

I apologized so many times for not looking the way that I “should,” sounding the way that I “should,” and reasoned that if I just waited until testosterone “fixed me,” I could finally live as visibly and joyfully as I wanted to.

I’ve already been subject to so much criticism (especially and almost exclusively from other trans people), saying that I don’t deserve to be visible because I’m not “actually trans.” There are entire conspiracy theories online that state that I’m doing this to “become famous” and that, in my real life, I don’t actually live as an out trans person (a hurtful and malicious lie).

They reason that I don’t post photos very often because I’m an imposter, a transtrender, a fake. They’ve actually contacted my readers before through social media and, while misgendering me, stated that this is all a publicity stunt that “she” is doing for attention.

I would be lying if I said this kind of harassment didn’t affect me.

The criticism convinced me that it was better to wait for the hormones, better to wait until I was valid in the eyes of a transphobic society, than to share myself with my readers and take up opportunities that could make a real difference in my community and in my own happiness.

This kind of bullshit keeps so many transgender people closeted, because they fear that no one will believe them. This kind of bullshit is violence against transgender people who, for whatever their personal reasons are, cannot or do not want to medically transition. And this kind of bullshit creates a hierarchy of trans people, suggesting that some of us are more valid, more beautiful, more acceptable than others.

This kind of bullshit has to stop.

Today, I created a public Instagram profile and ditched the private profile once and for all.

Because I’m not going to let transphobia dictate how I live my life. I’m not going to let transphobia keep me closeted. I’m not going to let transphobia keep me from being visible as the curvy, queer, non-binary badass that I am.

And most of all, I’m done hiding because all trans people are valid. Each and every one of us – regardless of circumstances, regardless of our choices, regardless of our bodies – are valid and real and authentic in every sense.

No more of this “you’re not trans because you haven’t taken X hormone or gotten Y surgery.” No more of this “you’re not really non-binary because the only non-binary people are white, thin, able-bodied, Ruby-rose-esque.” Enough with the rules, the restrictions, the oppressive norms. Enough with these impossible ideals that keep people down and lead to violence.

Instagram might seem like a small thing, but being visible in this way has always terrified me and it’s a huge step in my self-love and self-acceptance. I don’t want to let transphobia rule my life. I don’t want to wait until the day when I’m finally deemed “acceptable.” My body does not determine whether or not I am transgender – I do.

#TransLooksLike me, with my awkward and unintentional bowl cut, my big glasses, my round goofy face, my big unapologetic smile.

#TransLooksLike you, no matter the skin you’re in, no matter the body you have, curves or no curves and every shape in-between.

#TransLooksLike all of us, in our diverse beauty, with the collective energy and power that we bring to our communities and our world.

I’m not going to hide to make other people more comfortable. This is what #TransLooksLike – yesterday, today, always.

I’m transgender because I say I am. Not because I look a certain way, not because I act a certain way, not because I follow some prescribed set of rules or expectations.

And I’m going to post so many damn selfies, y’all. Try and stop me.

I encourage you – especially if you know how it feels to be told you’re not valid, you’re not trans enough, you’re an imposter, you’re not binary enough, you’re not acceptable – to join me as we flood the internet with our gorgeous faces.

Tag me in your photos (/samdylanfinch on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and use the hashtag #TransLooksLike. Let’s revel in how fucking beautiful we are. Let’s show the world what transgender really looks like.


 Sam Dylan Finch is a transgender activist and feminist writer, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love, as well as a writer at Everyday Feminism and Ravishly. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community.

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