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.

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.

To Be Transgender, Mentally Ill, And Still Alive

Content Note: Mentions of suicide, trans/homophobia, saneism

Nearly every day for the past five months, give or take, I’ve had a moment when I glance out the window onto my street and think to myself, “I was never supposed to be here.”

This feeling isn’t new to me – I’ve dealt with “survivor’s guilt” in some form for years now – but the feeling intensified when I moved to my new apartment.

You know, the apartment that I feel like I don’t deserve for some reason or another.

Here’s the honest truth: People like me? Mentally ill queer kids, the ones that get their homophobia or transphobia with a side of psychosis? The ones whose trauma isn’t just a meal but comes with an appetizer and a fucking dessert?

This world isn’t made for us.

How would I know that? I’ve lived it.

And I don’t think I would have been so persistent about ending my life all those years ago if this were a world that saw me, validated me, affirmed me. If this were a world that had a place for me. If this were a world that held space for me.

I know this because it took me years to sit beside the window instead of dangling out of it, held in place only by someone’s hand clinging desperately to my shirt collar, because to be queer was one thing but to be queer and crazy was another thing entirely.

There has never been a moment when I’ve forgotten that I am both. I’m not allowed to forget.

I remember it when the psychiatrist advises that I not pursue hormones because I could just be manic and not trans; I remember it when another trans person says to me, “I’m glad that gender identity disorder is no longer in the DSM. It’s not like trans people are crazy.”

But I am.

I remember it when I recall the mere inch that came between myself and my own death.

The names of those I knew and could’ve known that ended their lives still swirl around my brain, and all I can think about is how I’m here and they aren’t, and how senseless all of this feels.

Yes, I’m here. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Sometimes the guilt is so painful that I’m convinced that some part of me is fractured – that if you peered inside, it’s almost certain that something in me is irreparably broken. That being a survivor that has watched people like me die, over and over, has left me in a permanent state of grief.

I am in a permanent state of grief.

When I have flashbacks to the moment I woke up, realizing I was still here, I find myself trembling and shaken, wondering why the world steals the light of so many queers but somehow left mine intact.

Why, after making self-annihilation my hobby for a time, should I be rendered whole in a world that despises our wholeness?

Why did I survive?

And it’s not that I believe that my life wasn’t worth sparing. It’s just that, when you watch your comrades, your community, your friends dying all around you, you can’t help but wonder why it was them and not you.

Well-meaning friends tell me, “Remember to be grateful, too.”

But what they don’t understand is that there will always be another mentally ill trans kid like me, ready to follow through on what I failed to finish.

And I can’t just feel grateful when I know, in the back of my mind, that that kid is still out there.

Maybe I feel guilty for being alive because I’m conditioned to believe that people like me aren’t meant to exist in the first place.

Every day since my attempt there’s a scene that plays out in my head, where I’m banging on the closet door, trying to stop that kid from repeating my mistakes, begging them to let me in, begging them to stay, knowing that I can’t promise them that it will get better but I can do everything in my power to create a space for us.

Just one space.

Well-meaning friends say, “Yes, it’s horrifying, but you can’t dwell on that.”

Why can’t I dwell on that?

Do you know the overwhelming trauma of existing in a world that teaches you, from day one, to resist everything that you are?

And why should they act horrified when we destroy ourselves – why should they act surprised – as if that’s not what the world was asking of us all along?

They ask me not to dwell on this as if trauma is a garment you wear, as if we can forget who we are. Please listen when I say this: I can’t forget.

Well-meaning friends ask me, “Why do you write?”

But the better question is why I stayed.

And I stayed for the same reason that I write: Because so long as this world isn’t made for us, I have to keep fighting for a better world.

Trauma and Transness: Why I Didn’t ‘Always Know’ I Was Transgender

There are a number of transgender people who have known, from a very young age, that they were a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Their stories are encouraging , interesting, and important. Their stories are also not mine.

I knew as a child that I was different – but not because of my gender. I knew this because I had early onset bipolar disorder. My life, in so many ways, was consumed as I struggled to keep my head above water. While other children my age contemplated their place in the world, I contemplated hurting myself for reasons I couldn’t explain.

This disorder derailed my life – impacting my relationships, my self-esteem, and of course, my stability – until I finally started getting treatment for it when I was eighteen years old.

It’s not a coincidence that when I started receiving treatment for bipolar disorder (and anxiety, a later diagnosis), questions about my gender began bubbling to the surface. The only person who didn’t seem surprised was my therapist at the time.

“You might have had to suppress or avoid questions about your gender to focus on your survival,” she told me. “Bipolar disorder might have required all of your attention. Now it doesn’t.”

Bingo.

While every trans person with mental illness has a different story, I think that I was put in a sort of auto-pilot because of my trauma. There was no room to contemplate gender identity. I assumed the role and took the validation that came with it. I put my mental and emotional resources into surviving bipolar disorder and weathering the damage it did on a daily basis.

It’s hardly surprising that when my mental health began to rebound, I started to consider the possibility that I might be trans. As therapy and medication helped me to cope more effectively, I began to interrogate my assigned gender in ways I never had the space to before.

In this way, it’s impossible to talk about my trans identity without talking about my struggles with mental illness.

I believe that, in the face of trauma, I was unable to contemplate or comprehend my own truth (and not just about gender – mental illness made me feel less like a person and more like a body moving through physical space, aching).

There was no room to consider gender for a long time. It was deemed “non-essential” by the part of my brain that determined what I could and could not handle.

And honestly? I’m grateful for that.

Sometimes I do wish I’d started testosterone sooner, or understood my gender a little earlier on, or embarked on this journey at a younger age. But then I ask myself: Was that really possible?

I think about how much pain I suffered through earlier on in my life. I try to imagine if I could have handled a transition at the same time – the upheaval in my family, navigating social pressures and even societal violence, trying to advocate for myself and find resources in my small Midwestern suburb… all during a time when trans people were scarcely visible.

Could I have done this when I was in the throes of a mood disorder, being pulled into suicidal lows and manic highs?

I say that I’m “grateful” because I started to come into my own as a trans person at a time when my life was beginning to stabilize. It was a time when I had social support, a time when I could find other queer people, a time when I had more agency than I did as a kid. I was ready.

Not all trans people realize they are trans at a time that they’re ready to – they simply are, and they have to navigate that whether they are prepared to or not. And while I’m not suggesting that trauma is a privilege, I will say that my journey as trans could have been more difficult than it has been.

In some ways, I feel lucky that I came to know myself as transgender at a time when it was safer for me to come out. My transition could have put my mental health in further jeopardy had I begun at a time when I wasn’t mentally healthy or supported. Instead, it happened when I had full autonomy over myself and had a community rallying behind me.

When people ask me how I “knew” I was trans, the answer is much more complicated than they realize. Because while I could sift through my past and find moments that seemed to indicate the kind of discomfort or confusion they might expect, the truth is that it was the furthest thing from my conscious mind for most of my life.

Keeping myself alive in the face of mental illness was the only thing I knew for the first eighteen years. It was the only context for my pain. I had no concept of who I was or any future ahead of me – I only knew the turmoil of bipolar disorder and the trauma that I had lived through.

I’ve often said that I didn’t feel like my life truly began until I was 20 years old. Which, not-so-coincidentally, is both when my medications began to work and my transition began in earnest.

Trans people with mental illness are not a monolith, either, and I imagine many of us have different stories and trajectories. We’re all affected by our illnesses differently.

But for me, I was only able to see myself clearly when my recovery began. And I don’t think being a “late bloomer” in some respects makes me any less trans.

To say that gender is an objective, static truth that we all intrinsically understand from the moment we are born – as if it is untouched or unaffected by our trauma – erases the journeys that many trans people have been on.

It’s impossible to say who or where we would be without our trauma. But what I do know is that who I am now – both as a trans person and as bipolar – is at this intersection of everything I have endured.

When Your Violin is Supposed to Be a Cello

This article was originally published by Ravishly.

cello.

They promised I would “grow into it.”

When I was small and new to this world, my parents placed a radio beside my crib.

“We used to play classical music for you,” they told me. “You loved Bach.” For years, I fell asleep to the sounds of 12 different violin concertos, the music bouncing off the walls and into my tiny ears.

My mother swears that this is why I took up violin.

My parents eagerly exposed me to any and every song with a violin solo. I went from Bach to Riverdance to Dixie Chicks, the music captivating me. By the time I was 12, I told my parents that I wanted to make beautiful music like the people on the CDs.

They made me promise that I wouldn’t quit after just a few weeks. I would’ve promised them the moon in the sky or my allowance for every week of my life to have a violin of my own.

They conceded. We went to a store filled with violins from countries all over the world. I had my eye on one that came from Germany. I remember holding it, expecting to make a triumphant sound like all the musicians I’d listened to since infancy, and was shocked that I could hardly make it croak.

“You’ll get better after some lessons,” they told me.

“And after you get some rosin on the bow, of course,” the salesman added with a wink.

It was a little too big for me, but the music teacher at school promised that I would “grow into it.”

I’m not sure I ever did.

* * *

I believed that Lily Peters was the prettiest girl at Rhode Middle School.

And I was the luckiest kid at Rhode Middle School, I reasoned, because I was one of her closest friends. We were cast in the school play together and for those three months, we were inseparable.

I remember looking at Lily with so much envy.

Lily was idyllic in my mind. I grew out my hair and wore it just likes hers, with the messy bun perched right on top of my head. I got contact lenses and I carefully applied the same powdery shade of blue around my eyes. I begged my mother to let me wear high heels for the school dances, the slip-on sort that Lily would wear.

I dragged my mother to the store to buy pleated skirts, but they could only be pink — Lily only wore the pink ones. And they could only be from Limited Too, the only acceptable store for Lily’s taste.

I tried doing all the same things — like it was an equation, and if I did the math just right the product would be the same — but was left with the lingering sense that it was some sort of farce.

When Lily became friends with Cameron from Speech class a month after the play was over, I could feel myself being pushed to the sidelines. I started to feel less and less important. Not even my pool party at the local recreation center — the one with the amazing water slide and the lazy river — was enough to regain her favor.

It all came crashing down one day in English class, when a giggling and mischievous Lily passed a note to Cameron. Cameron, delighted by what she saw, started to giggle uncontrollably behind me.

“Can I see?” I asked, feeling left out.

“I don’t think you want to,” Cameron said, smirking and shooting Lily a look.

Grabbing the note from Cameron’s desk, I opened it up expecting to laugh along with them. Instead, I saw the words, “Don’t you think Sam is really weird?” scribbled in Lily’s flawless cursive writing, a heart dotting each “i.”

My face began to burn, tears blurring my vision. Lily’s assessment was not unfamiliar. It was one that I’d pondered many times — why, no matter the equation or the formula or the number of pleated skirts I squeezed my body into, was girlhood so evasive?

Why didn’t I belong?

Lily never said. But the farce was confirmed, on perfect pink floral stationery, no less.

* * *

The teacher said that I was a gifted musician.

I was first chair in the Rhode Middle School Honors Orchestra, the best of the best. I was ecstatic to be the best at something. I was on my way to making beautiful music, like the violinists I now listened to on my CD player on the bus every morning.

I tried to move my wrists like they did, to make the vibrations hum and tremble, to make my violin weep the ways that theirs did.

We didn’t have anything but violinists in my old orchestra, but it was at Rhode that I heard a cello for the first time. While the violin made me excited, the cello had a stranger effect on me. The cello was deeper, more emotive, and twisted my heart until I thought it might burst.

Every day in orchestra practice I would stare at the cello players in awe. Their music made my high-pitched violin — something I once felt so accomplished in — seem so inadequate, so empty.

But it was too late, I reasoned. My parents had bought the violin and they would never stand to invest in another more expensive instrument, to pay for more lessons, to start over.

Besides, this is what I was destined to do. From the crib, remember? I recalled the stories my mother told me, when the Bach violin concertos lulled me to sleep. I remembered the Dixie Chicks concert when it was broadcast on the television, when they pointed at the violinist under the spotlight and said, “That’ll be you someday.”

I practiced diligently every day after school. Remembering, as I went over my scales repeatedly, the way my mother would squeeze my hand when the violinist at Riverdance played faster, and faster, and faster.

But sometimes, when I was all alone, I’d stand the violin up on my lap and pretend, just for a moment, that it was a cello. I would close my eyes and imagine the deep bellowing of Bach’s Suite No. 1 rattling in my chest, the most dizzying and captivating melody I’d ever heard.

But the vibrations of my violin against my chest, too high a pitch, were a tragic reminder of what I lacked.

I grieved — and the grief, at the time, was so unexplainable to me — contemplating the mistake I could not utter aloud. The mistake, the very undeniable fact that my violin could never produce such rich and deep and lovely sounds.

My violin would never be a cello.

* * *

I wanted to be good at femininity, the kind of femininity that girls like Lily and Jessica and Courtney could wear so effortlessly but I never could.

I wore the homecoming dress with the high heels, my feet aching, my stubbornness forcing me to wear them until everyone, especially the boy I liked, had seen me.

It was a performance, I knew it, but I gave it my best — lusting after the affirmations, the encore, someone or anyone to tell me that I had done good.

I didn’t want to be myself, but that was OK. I just wanted to be beautiful, to be worthy.

So I practiced applying mascara the way I practiced my scales: repeatedly, persistently, and with great attention to every lash and every note.

* * *

My best friend in high school, Lucas, was a cellist. At our director’s urging, Lucas decided that we should enter the state competition as a duet. He chose a concerto by Mozart and invited me over to his house after school one day to give it a whirl.

He brought me down to his basement and into a makeshift practice room, with sheet music strewn about and his cello leaned precariously on its side. He carefully tipped it upright again and, sitting down, drew it close to him.

As I removed my violin from its case, he began to warm up with a G major scale. I paused, letting the notes wrap around me and echo in my ears.

I wondered what it must feel like, to keep your instrument so close to your heart.

He looked up at me and smiled, setting down his bow.

“Hey,” he said with a laugh. “Do you want to switch instruments? For fun?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed, with a little too much excitement in my voice.

Handing over the violin to Lucas, I made my way to the cello, hands trembling.

What if I was terrible at it and all my dreams dissolved in a single moment? Or what if, miraculously, I was so proficient that I could convince my parents to let me switch instruments? The moment was ripe with possibility and heavy all at once.

Bringing the cello near — tilting my head and bringing my ear as close to the strings as I could — I took a deep breath. I pulled the bow across the strings in a hesitant, slow glide, and felt the weight of each note in my chest.

Something about the richness and depth of the sound, reverberating in every bone in my body, felt so tremendously right.

Playing each note so carefully, I looked at Lucas and confessed, “I should’ve played the cello.” The confession was drowned beneath the vibrations that filled the room.

In a single scale, I broke my own heart.

* * *

I can tell you the exact moment I realized, without a doubt, that I was not a woman.

It was when I put a chest binder on for the first time, during a freezing Michigan winter, late at night. It was when I recognized my own queerness for the first time.

Shocked by my own silhouette, I could feel everything shifting. I ran my fingers across my chest, studying myself intensely in the mirror, trying to resist the joy that was coming over me. I did not want to love what I saw, but I could not take it back.

“What do you think?” my partner asked me from the other side of the room.

What would the future be now? Now that I knew the truth?

“I think it’s…” I was holding back tears. “I’m trans. I really am transgender.”

“Yes, I know. Why are you sad?” they replied.

I recalled the moment that I held Lucas’ cello near me, and all the years after, when, no matter how beautifully I played my violin, I never felt whole or satisfied. The way my scales withered on the vine, how every pass across the strings was empty, and how the notes were always too shrill.

And the regret that washed over me — intense, relentless — when I watched Lucas every afternoon, swaying side to side as his cello beckoned so sweetly from across the room.

“Because nothing will ever be the same,” I whispered.

A thousand Bach violin concertos swirling around my crib, imprinting those melodies on my brain, had not changed the fact that I was meant to be a cellist. And a thousand “she”s, beginning from the moment that I was born, had not changed the fact that I had grown up to be a “he.”

It was in that moment — imagining who I might be, and the terrifying and glorious possibilities that it held — that I realized that the instrument we’re given is not always the one we’re meant to play.

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.