Yesterday, I accompanied two friends to a local high school, to give a presentation to the Gay-Straight Alliance about being genderqueer, and a few people talked me into a writing a recap for this site. I’ll be writing this post to try to make it accessible to a broader audience, hence all the hyperlinks.
So, today I understand myself as a person who isn’t a man or a woman but rather a blend of both. It’s been a complicated path.
People are always asking me if I’m going to write a book about being non-binary. I always say no. For one, I’m hyper-conscious of the struggles I’ve had with the trans narrative*, and I worry a lot about inadvertently setting up an equally repressive counter-narrative to that. My feelings about being seen as a spokesperson or representative or role model are extremely complicated. (Had I been the only non-binary person invited to speak on this panel, for example, I’d have probably refused to do it.)
Also, if I were to write a book, I’d be a lot more interested in writing about how a person moves through the world while living in a gender that is not legally or socially recognized as valid. And that’s what I tried to give the audience on Thursday.
I started by telling them about a conversation I had with a close friend: I was angsting to her about not knowing whether I was a man or a woman, and she said “I think you’re one of those people who’s both.” And I answered, “I know, but how do I live like that?”
I told them a little about going from F to M to WTF: how I first came out to myself and to almost everyone I knew as a transgender man, and started attending a FTM support group. How I met all kinds of trans guys, from meat-and-potatoes guys to skater punk guys to tough guys to sensitive guys to glittery gay guys, but I could never shake the feeling that these guys were guys, and I was something else. Then I talked about coming back to Chicago, where I met a handful of people who were actually out as genderqueer in their everyday lives, and how they inspired me and supported me.
I explained a little about the dynamics of being non-binary on a day-to-day basis. For me, I’m generally very invisible as a gender-variant person. When people pass me by in the street, they see me as either a preppy-looking guy with stud earrings on, or as a woman with short hair, and neither of those things is all that shocking where I live. My negative experiences with bathrooms have mostly been limited to staring and rude questions. (The two other folks I was with are both generally perceived as either extremely flamboyant gay men, or as highly visible trans women, and their experiences of being in public are very different from mine.) On one hand, I feel largely insulated from gender-based harassment and violence, but on the other, I am constantly verbally coming out to people. I spend a lot of time deciding whether and when to tell people, anticipating and managing people’s reactions, and generally doing 101. (Which I hate doing. Here’s the righteous and pissed off 101.)
I also told them that my decision to be out, in my life as a writer, was largely about what I needed the audience to know about me in order to get a sense of where I’m coming from. It’s about coming from a place of authenticity, about understanding.
However, at my night job (waiter), I’ve chosen not to out myself, because even if I were certain that no one would respond with hostility, I can’t wait tables and also have that conversation over and over at the same time. The sheer volume of people I interact with each shift precludes it. So I simply don’t correct people when they misgender me. About half the customers call me sir and the other half call me ma’am, which amuses me.
I explained how my name works: that both Katherine and Scott are my first names, that I have no preference as to which one people should use – pick one, switch them up, compound them, it’s all good. (Yes, I often wonder if I wouldn’t be better off just picking a gender-neutral name, instead of dragging around two heavily gendered ones, but those are my names, and I feel really strongly about them.**)
The kids asked great questions, like “What has your experience been with the main LGBT community centers?” (generally between mixed and good), and “How do you handle public restrooms?” (Ex. Hold it. Start making mental maps of where all the single-stall bathrooms are. Pee on anyone who bothers you – though I don’t recommend this one.) And, of course, the ubiquitous “How did your parents take it?” (The jury’s still out.)
All in all, it went really well, the kids were totally interested in what we had to say, and even the teachers took note. I ended my segment by reminding everyone in the room that they had the right to name and define their own experience, the right to change and grow, and the final say over who they are.
And even though living like this can be really difficult, I go through the world with a sense of personal integrity and authenticity, and I feel present in my own life for the first time, and that makes it all worth it to me.
*I couldn’t find a neat enough link, so let me define this one really quick: “The trans narrative” refers to the life story in which every transgender person was aware of their trans identity ever since early childhood, always despised living in their assigned gender, and always displayed behaviors and identifications stereotypically associated with another gender. It fits some people better than others, and some people not at all. The problem with it is that for 60+ years, it’s been the story every trans person had to tell to gatekeeping medical professionals in order to access medical interventions, such as hormones and surgeries, and is still widely used as a litmus test in order to determine whether a person’s gender identity is “valid.”
**Fun Fact: I modeled my full name after Rainer Maria Rilke… who I’ve always wondered about.