Queerness and Gender intertwined

My queerness is integrally tied to my gender identity and it’s not a coincidence that I accepted both parts of myself at the same time.

As a kid, I found myself deeply attracted to lesbians as soon as I discovered them. There was a period where I was worried that I was somehow fetishizing people and being like those gross men who get off on watching lesbians kiss while simultaneously being misogynistic and homophobic. But I realize now that like most of my attraction to women, I can’t untangle my desire to BE them with my desire to date them. In my teens I desperately wished I had been born a woman so I could be a lesbian because at that point I still didn’t know that trans women existed.

For a long time I thought I couldn’t be gay because I was attracted to women and I didn’t have examples of bisexuality or transness in my life. And even when I started to realize that there were some men (like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine) that I was attracted to, I thought I couldn’t be bi because I was married to a woman. There was always some “good” reason that I couldn’t accept my whole self.

So when I finally discovered nonbinary people when I started dating again, I immediately glommed onto them for the same reason. I both wanted to be them and to date them. Now, 5 years later, I find myself dating 5 people, all of them nonbinary. Turns out I just really like people who do gender intentionally. People who have thought about it enough to make a conscious choice about how they present themselves. Which is why I like the term femme too. It means an intentional choice to present in a feminine ways as a queer person rather than just taking the role that society shoves you into.

The thing about sexuality is that there isn’t a lot of terminology that isn’t gendered. So much of homosexuality and heterosexuality is defined by “opposite sex” which doesn’t really exist. Even the term Bi on the surface can be interpreted to mean only 2 genders. So I initially defined my sexuality as pansexual because I was attracted to women, nonbinary people, and occasionally men. Now I’ve gone back to using the term bi for myself because I think there is value is showing people that being bi doesn’t mean you need to exclude nonbinary people. Most bi groups define it as attraction to more than one gender (same gender as you and a different gender). 

Early on, I also latched onto the more generalized term Queer because it kind of sums up both my gender and my sexuality. As I find myself now being more woman than not, that inner kid in me still has this strong desire to claim the term lesbian for myself too. But it’s not entirely accurate. I am too queer for a monosexual label. I’m genderqueer, I’m sexually queer, and I’m just socially queer too. There’s no single box that can hold me but to me, that’s a beautiful thing. I can find people that share some of the same labels with me by using that language and add more adjectives as necessary to fit the situation. I’m not an either/or person, I’m a both/and person. 

I’m not gay as in happy, I’m queer as in fuck your binary.

My coming out post

It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been out of the closet for 4 years. Coming out is a ongoing process in many ways but for me, I mark the moment that I first made a Facebook post to all my friends about my identity. My identity and thinking on terminology and pronouns has changed a lot since then but here’s what I said on June 2, 2015:

Hey folks, I’m Queer!

If you hadn’t figured that out yet, don’t worry! It took me a long time to recognize that in myself and even longer to put words to it, and I’ve never explicitly said it online. More specifically, I identify as Genderqueer Pansexual. And since it’s LGBTQ Pride month, this seems like an appropriate time to officially come out.

Because my gender expression is still masculine(ish), most people perceive me as a cis hetero male, and for most of my life that’s what I tried to conform to. In college our campus LGBTQ discussion group introduced me to the concept of gender nonconformity. For several years that’s how I identified, but it didn’t quite seem like that adequately described my experience of, and sometimes dysphoria about, my gender. So over the last year, I’ve paid more attention to those parts of myself and come to realize a few things.

My gender is complicated, which is where genderqueer comes in. I have never fit comfortably within the standards of masculinity – whether by the American definition, the Evangelical Christian expectations, or in comparison to the experiences of the majority of men I have interacted with. For most of my life I merely accepted being “odd”, “feminine”, “sensitive” or even a “sissy.” But recently I’ve realized that there are other people like me who don’t fit in the binary definitions of gender and that my gender expression doesn’t define my gender identity. I can have a beard and still be non-binary.

Just because the majority of people with a particular body part between their legs tend to act and think in common with one of the two main groups that looks like them doesn’t mean that gender is exclusively binary. There are many people who embrace a non-binary identity like genderqueer. Some choose to change their pronoun to something neutral like “they/them/theirs”. For me, I still choose to use “he/him/his”, but the important part is that this is a conscious choice and I really enjoy being in communities where people ask about pronouns rather than assume.

Genderqueer for me means that I am my own special mix of conventionally male and female behaviors and ways of thinking that don’t really fall easily on a two-dimensional spectrum. I have never identified with other men. I feel very uncomfortable in any men-only groups and I have always sought out the friendship of women, though I did not fully identify with them either. However, feminism has given women some degree of freedom to express a spectrum of gendered behaviors, making “tomboys” and others more normalized. So more often than not, I find that women are more likely to be accepting of my gender nonconformity while men are frequently uncomfortable or at least don’t know how to talk about it maturely.

When it comes to my sexuality, I’m attracted to the person. What is between someone’s legs is not the determining factor for whether or not I am attracted to them. Each person is unique and I experience attraction towards people of all genders, but particularly those who don’t fall completely within the traditional gender binary. Pansexual is a subset of bisexuality for me but specifically calls out my attraction towards other gender-nonconformers and people on the trans* spectrum (not that bisexuality can’t include that).

Some of my friends may have heard me allude to or mention parts of this recently but I have not been very transparent in how I use these terms or inviting of dialogue. So here I tried to lay out the basics but I invite you to ask questions and help me further explore what this looks like for me in relationship with others. This is an ongoing exploration and I don’t know what the future looks like in regards to that evolution, but I hope you’ll join me in finding out.

Because I am white and masculine presenting, I have a lot of privilege in how I come out and who I tell, especially when I am with feminine presenting partners. That’s why it is particularly important for me to come out and speak openly about gender and bisexuality; countering the gender-policing, transphobia, biphobia and monosexism present in both mainstream culture and in homonormative circles can only happen when people speak their truth. I want to use my privilege in positive ways to speak up while it’s not safe for others to do so, though I will try to be clear about only speaking to my experience and not speaking for everyone.

There are a lot of reasons it took me that long to come out, but the biggest one was my first marriage. I started to figure out that I was genderqueer at least 8 months before that post when I started dating other nonbinary people but when I told my wife, she wanted me to stay closeted so she didn’t have to “answer any awkward questions.” My marriage had been doomed from the start for many reasons but that was the beginning of the end. You should never be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t want you to be your most authentic self. But coming out is not always safe and I had to wait until I had escaped that marriage before I could say something broadly.

Leaning into my gender exploration is the best thing I have ever done for myself. I truly think that everyone should have a good hard look at their gender and sexuality before assuming they are straight and cisgender. Because you never know what you might be hiding from yourself.

How long it takes to come out

Something that I have a lot of internalized shame about is how long it took me to figure out that I was trans and act on that. Looking back at my childhood, all the signs were there, though they certainly weren’t obvious at the time. And a lot of that is because I didn’t know that trans people existed. I assumed I must be the only one who felt like this and that there was nothing that could be done about it, outside of a miracle.

But the more I learn about psychology, sociology, trauma, and all that other brain and social determinant stuff, the more I realize that there were plenty of good reasons that I didn’t come out until I did. My brain was protecting me, keeping me safe until I was in a place where I could be myself without as much risk of harm. Or at least it was trying. Sometimes you just reach a breaking point and you can’t avoid it anymore no matter what your situation.

After my very conservative childhood where I was isolated from knowing any out queer or trans people, I went straight into a conservative college. I started to meet gay men and even some queer women, but I didn’t know anyone who was trans. The first out trans woman I met had a more binary path than me and I still had a hard time imaging following that path. I did start to think about expanding gender a bit around that time as I began identifying as gender non-conforming. But I still thought that meant that I was a feminine man.

I feel like I was on the verge of finally figuring out my gender and sexuality when I got sucked into a relationship with my then best friend. It was one of those unhealthy relationships from the start where she demanded all my attention and frequently alienated me from my friends. Partly because of my own lingering baggage from the form of Christianity I was still coming out of and partly because I needed a way to pay for school when my parents tried to control me, we got married after only 11 months of dating. But as soon as we got engaged and she no longer felt the need to woo me, things went downhill fast.

From my wedding night on, my life became about compromising who I was to make her happy. I no longer had any energy to figure out my gender and sexuality because I was fighting just to keep my head above water and try to figure out what was wrong with me and my marriage. I spent 6 more years like that, struggling with crippling anxiety and depression as the abuse continued and my mental health was shamed. She loved taking advantage of my feminine traits when they suited her, like manipulating me into doing most of the cooking and cleaning and emotional labor. But she had a vested interest in keeping me from going past the point she wanted.

During that time my brain didn’t allow me to think about my identity. I hid the most vulnerable parts of myself away deep inside a shell to protect them from the violence in my relationship. I spent most of what little free time I had avoiding any deep reflection. I had finally escaped religious abuse only to find myself in a much more intense form of emotional abuse.

But eventually I reached a breaking point in my relationship. We went to couples therapy for 5 years and finally after 4 years of making no progress on how to make an asexual person and an allosexual person compatible sexually our therapist suggested opening up our marriage and exploring polyamory. My ex had no interest in dating but she begrudgingly allowed me to date because she knew at that point it was the only way to keep me. It was a terrible place to be dating from but it did allow me to finally get farther out in the real world outside of her influence and eventually meet queer and trans people.

It was the first trans person I dated who really helped me think about how I might be more than just gender non-conforming and how to expand how I viewed genderqueer identity. And once I started to unravel that ball of yarn I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t safe yet but that catalyst was all I needed to start myself on the journey to where I am now. Having that person (who is still a dear friend of mine) give me permission to think about the thing I had been avoiding for all my life allowed me to start to think outside the trauma I’d been experiencing.

My ex didn’t like that however. When I came out to her as genderqueer and bi she immediately told me not to tell anyone else because she “didn’t want to have to answer awkward questions.” That was the beginning of the end for our relationship. I had finally taken a huge step forward in becoming myself and all she could think about was herself. She was also deeply biphobic because she was convinced this was me becoming only attracted to men (which doesn’t make sense when I’d wanted sex with her for 7 years).

Shortly after that though I started dating the queer woman who is now my spouse. And she showed me what it felt like to be truly loved FOR who I am, not despite it. She has been the most gender affirming person I have ever met and at each step of my transition she has made it clear that she loves me no matter what direction I go. She doesn’t have a specific outcome in mind for me except that of becoming my most authentic self.

I pretty quickly realized I need to leave my ex so I moved out 4 years ago this month and came out publicly shortly thereafter. I have now filled my life with other wonderful people, cis and trans, queer and straight, who affirm me like that as well. If you had told me only 5 years ago that I would be here now, I would have either laughed or cried. It felt so impossible to imagine ever being on a pathway to happiness at that moment.

So when I see people come out, especially later in life, I feel so much love for them. They have finally broken the chains of their trauma and societal expectations and set themselves free. I don’t hold any judgement for how long it took them because I know that often times that was for their own safety or lack of resources. They had the courage to not let their past define their future. Which is a lesson I think everyone could learn from.

The path to coming out can be long and winding

It’s been 7 years since I finished college but I’ve been thinking recently about why I was so closeted there, even to myself. And I think a lot of it is because my sexuality is so tied up in gender and I didn’t have the words even then to see or describe myself. There were also some major barriers that got in my way.

When I first came to University, I was probably one of the most conservative people there, even at my conservative evangelical college. I was just coming out of my fundamentalist homeschooling experience and starting to actually see parts of the world on my own for the first time. And while I was starting to be a little more open to HEARING new ideas, I definitely wasn’t very open to the prospect of changing what I believed. My parents didn’t want me to attend because it was clearly a “liberal” school where they taught evolution. So I came armed with an entire box of books on how to refute evolutionist teachers and “prove” 7 day creationism.

At that point in my life I had never knowingly met an out gay person and I had never even heard of trans people, much less the concept of nonbinary identity. But I was admittedly a very sensitive and naive kid who in part because I wasn’t exposed to a traditional schooling system, hadn’t had much of my gender nonconformity questioned.

My first year I had many hilarious mishaps because I desperately wanted to be friends with the women around me but every time I tried to get close in what I considered to be platonic ways, people always mistook that for attempts to date. Admittedly asking someone to go sing love songs from musicals in a practice room probably would be a date for most people. And when they found out that I wasn’t interested in dating, most people put that together with my sensitive nature and assumed I was gay. There were apparently bets going on about how long it would be before I came out.

And in some ways they were right. I was very gay but they were assuming I was gay for guys and it turns out I was just very gay for women because I mostly am one. But I sadly didn’t figure that out there.

My second year, I screwed up the courage to attend a couple events at the campus’ controversial LGBT discussion club, mostly because I am insatiably curious. And one of those events was a panel with trans people which is where I met my first out trans person who I am still friends with to this day. My mind was blown by the idea that you could reject the gender you were assigned at birth but still my only exposure at that point was to AFAB transmasculine people and binary trans women. And I didn’t think I could ever get to the point where people would believe I was a woman so I dismissed the idea pretty quickly.

When I joined the club the next year as a regular member I started identifying myself as a gender nonconforming ally since I didn’t know where else I fit. I knew I wasn’t gay for guys and I didn’t really know much about bisexuality so I assumed me being interested in women settled the matter. I also made the very terrible choice to get married to a cis woman the summer before my Junior year, mostly so I could pay for school since my dad was trying to use money as a leverage to keep me from becoming too liberal. And at that point I assumed that your sexuality was defined by who you dated and that marriage made me straight. Being in a marriage that I thought put the questions about my sexuality to bed also helped my confidence in being part of such a controversial group.

The next couple years where very chaotic for me, both as a member of the queer club and for my marriage. This was a campus that banned all “homosexual activity” so the group was constantly at risk of being shut down. My junior year they tried to kick us off campus but we eventually rebelled and kept meeting anyway. My senior year I joined the leadership team and it ended up being a pretty crucial year. They tried to shut us down completely by telling us that we didn’t exist anymore and that we absolutely could not reserve rooms. So of course we met in the common areas which made the group less safe but definitely made our point. We weren’t going away. A 6 week intense struggle with the administration ensued where I became the de facto spokesperson for the group, even as a “ally”, and was on the front page of the school paper 4 weeks in a row and interviewed by several news outlets. Eventually the alumni organized a successful letter writing campaign and once the administration realized there was donor money on both sides they backed off and offered a private apology with the permission to not only meet on campus but advertise for the first time. The focus on our mere existence as a group definitely effected how much we could think about our own identities though.

All that time I was also going through a crisis in my marriage that forced me to put any exploration of my gender and sexuality on the back burner. Since I had come out of fundamentalism I had never dated or even kissed anyone before my ex wife. And while we had experimented with some sexual acts before marriage, that all went away about the time I got engaged. It turns out she was likely somewhere on the asexuality spectrum but didn’t have the self awareness or even willingness to confront that to figure it out. So me, a very allosexual (opposite of asexual) person at the time, was very confused when once we were married we never had sex. (The first time I had “traditional” PIV sex wasn’t until 5 years later).

She also was treating me very poorly during this time and increasingly being emotionally and verbally abusive and controlling. So I focused all my emotional energy onto trying to find the solution to fixing my marriage instead of figuring out who I actually was. After college that kept up for far too long until I eventually had the courage to leave her after 6 years of marriage. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I did finally start to figure myself out and wanted to come out as genderqueer and pansexual and she didn’t want me to tell anyone because she didn’t want to have to answer questions about what that meant for her. She had some very deep set biphobia and it turns out her mom had been whispering in her ear the whole time that I was gay and was eventually going to leave her for a man.

The way I finally figured out my identity was through dating once I became polyamorous as a last ditch attempt to figure out how to make a sexless marriage work. I knew by that point I was not only attracted to women but also to nonbinary people and it was a fellow enby who pushed me to think about how to broaden the definitions of androgyny and think about myself in that context. And by realizing I was attracted to transmasculine people, it helped me unlock my queerness and realize that I was also attracted to a variety of body parts.

Anyway, the point of that story is that there are lots of barriers in life that can prevent you from discovering who you really are. And sometimes it requires addressing those barriers or figuring out the complex intertwining of gender and sex that unlocks that door. I really wish I had figured out who I was sooner but in the end it worked out for me.

Being genderqueer at work

This week I did what felt like a really big thing for me – I asked my supervisor about wearing feminine clothing at work. And while I had built it up in my head as this huge conversation, it was actually very chill and amazing. She was fully supportive of me wearing a diversity of professional clothing that felt comfortable to me and didn’t have gendered expectations of what that looked like. I felt so valued and respected that I walked out of there and immediately gushed on Facebook about how wonderful it was.

This wasn’t the first conversation we had about it but this felt like the biggest deal to me. I started this job 7 weeks ago after leaving a job I had been at for 3 years where I came out slowly while working there. No one at my previous company treated me badly because of my gender and I had several wonderful allies there, but most people didn’t really seem to get it and didn’t ask questions to understand. When I tried wearing more gender affirming clothing I got less compliments and people seemed a little awkward around me. So I eventually gave up trying until my last week when I stopped giving a fuck and came into work in dresses and skirts.

I’m not the greatest about asserting my gender and pronouns and I feel incredibly awkward having the “coming out” conversations at work. My role is very service oriented and the mindset of making everyone else’s job easier is hard to break. I chose when I was interviewing not to come out and I dressed in fairly masculine attire (with purple in my shirt of course) based on the advice of a couple trans women I spoke to who said that getting the job is ultimately more important than being yourself all the time. But when I was starting to be introduced to new colleagues with he/him pronouns it felt really weird. I didn’t want to correct my teammates while they were talking and embarrass them so I didn’t know how to come out tactfully. When I finally had a moment to breathe and sit down at my new desk I decided that I wanted to just get it off my chest and tell all three of my main teammates at the same time.

I sent this email to them on my first day:

I keep forgetting to mention this when we’re talking and I’m a bit shy about correcting people but I thought I should tell you while we’re still doing introductions and meeting new people that I prefer they/them pronouns for myself. I’m genderqueer which is a nonbinary trans identity. Happy to talk about it more but I wanted to let you all know while I’m thinking about it.

Example: This is [Genderbeard]. They are the new support staff for Dr [X].

I was happily surprised to quickly get supportive responses from them AND to have them immediately start using my pronouns in emails and introductions. They stumbled a bit of course in the first few weeks but so do I, even referring to myself in third person sometimes. I’m happy to say that my boss has not only consistently used them for the past few weeks but she corrects others in the office when I’m not there. She said the example sentence was particularly helpful which is something I should keep in mind.

14068270_10154337504049360_7239371262427352616_nThe first few weeks on the job I continued to dress in what most people would perceive as gay male fashion (bright collared shirts, fashionable shoes, colorful pants) partly because I was testing the water of the office culture and mostly because I didn’t have professional level femme clothing yet. But the last couple weeks I have started to incorporate more androgynous blends of colorful “men’s section” pants with blouses. On the quiet summer day I talked with my boss, this is what I was wearing. ->

In our conversation she not only affirmed that the only expectation was a professional level of clothing appropriate to the day’s activities and guests but emphasized the non-gendered nature of our dress code. She told me she already had conversations with HR about how she and them could best support me only to sadly find out that they had no clue and no resources. When they jumped to wanting to use me as a spokesperson for all genderqueer people at the company, she defended me and emphasized her view about treating me with respect and not tokenizing me. Needless to say, I was overjoyed with her response and I feel incredibly lucky to have found this job and this team.

To make an already long story short, the take home message here is that sometimes your own fear is the biggest barrier (and the financial resources to buy new clothes maybe). If you take a risk and put yourself out there you may be pleasantly surprised by the response. I agonized for weeks over how to have these conversations and when I did I was met with only support and respect. I’m so glad I took the risks I have and I’m excited to continue building up a professional wardrobe and sharing it here.