I’ve realized something recently, something about the way I handle my true truths and the way I reveal or hide them from others. I’ve had a hard time opening up to some people in my life about what I really want from them with regard to my gender, how I want to be seen and related to. I’ve held back because I’m unsure about the reaction I’ll get and because the people I’ve had the hardest time coming fully out to are also people who are super important to me. In other words, when I have more to lose, I’m reluctant to risk that loss, I’m protective of myself. And yet, these the people I am desperate to have know me fully.
My therapist asked, “What is the worst that could happen?”
Rejection. Disbelief. Dismissal. Abandonment.
“Has any of that happened so far?”
We were specifically talking about my wife and my difficulty opening up to her about my gender, my struggles. Apparently, I can tell my close friends, and all of you readers and all the people on two different Facebook accounts and everyone in twitter… but when it comes to talking to my wife face to face about my gender and my preferred pronouns and what changes I want in my life, I freeze up, freak out and shut down.
This has been a point of pain for both of us, my wife and I. She’s been turning to mutual friends, trying to get some insight on what’s going on with me, frustrated with the way I open up to everyone else but can’t or won’t speak directly to her. She’s felt the distance, felt the space I put between us and felt hurt and also helpless to help since I’m not reaching out to her.
Part of my resistance is fear about what kind of reaction she’d give me, not for a lack of love or respect, but because it’s hard to find out after 20 years that the person you’re married to is …. well… more/different than the person you believed you were making a life with. She hasn’t always reacted in ways I’d hoped for when presented with such revelations. When my therapist asked me to consider the reactions I’d received so far and to really consider the likelihood that my fears would come true, I realized that she wasn’t going to do any of those things, wasn’t likely to break-up with me, or tell me I’m wrong about myself. She has been growing and learning and taking her own journey in response to mine. And when I have opened up to h er, she hasn’t rejected me or dismissed me. She’s asked questions, good ones, pointed ones and at times hard ones. Nothing wrong with that, that’s a part of her process and it’s important for me to respond to her questions, to the difficulties she’s having. My therapist was pointing out that since the world hadn’t ended yet, there was no reason to believe that it would now. Or the next time I had something new to disclose.
During this recent therapy session, I realized there was another element at play here and that is my instinct to protect the people I love, not just from danger but from discomfort. I felt the need to protect others from my complexity, feeling guilty because I don’t have a neat and tidy identity, something easy to recognize and become accustomed to. The changes I’ve been bringing about have created discomfort for her. And thinking ahead, I’m considering my family, my friends, the people I work with. Learning to use a new set of pronouns was probably going to be uncomfortable and challenging for everyone. Learning not to use feminine terms for me, to see me as something other than man or woman is going to be a stretch for a lot of people. I imagine some of them won’t react well to that challenge.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been living a dual life – staying cloaked among the people I’m physically around the most but out to a growing number of people through this blog, public events and social media. The overlap between those two worlds is growing and keeping things separate is less and less practical. I’ve held off bringing all of this to my daily life, partly to protect myself and this new, tender skin I’ve been growing and also to protect all my day-to-day people from the discomfort and challenge of changing the way they interact and talk about me. Protecting them from me, protecting me from what I fear their reactions will be.
As I’ve explored and experimented with different ways to express and talk about my gender, I’ve felt free to switch things up, to change my mind about pronouns and labels, to change my mind about how I describe my sexuality. All of it has basically been one big experiment with myself as the petri dish. Waiting to see what would grow. Not feeling the need to commit to anything to solidly or permanently — it’s easy to change things up online and with a small group of people who know the all-of-me. Not so easy to do it once I’ve brought my whole life into the mix, and so I’ve held back on the bigger coming out event.
As happens sometimes, I wasn’t sure exactly what it was I wanted to come out about until I sat down to talk to my wife about it in that aforementioned conversation. I’d been particularly walled off for several days and things had gotten really tense between us. My interpretation was that she was mad at me, which made me angry. Her interpretation was that I was keeping things from her, which hurt her feelings and made her fearful. A mutual friend, who’d been hearing from both of us finally called us on it and basically ordered us to talk to each other.
It was a very necessary conversation, not easy, but necessary. She asked me to be direct, to not hold back. I was nervous, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but she insisted. She told me she loved me and she knew I’d been holding back and she wanted me to open up to her, she needed me to. We talked about a lot of things and eventually we came around to pronouns. I told her that I preferred he/him or they/them pronouns, that she/her was harder and harder for me to hear. I was worried how she’d respond. ‘She/her’ had been important to her, it was a way to signal her queerness to others when I wasn’t present. I told her that I didn’t want to push her into anything or take anything away from her, but at the same time she/her felt wrong to me now. She thought about it for a moment and said that she’d already started to use pronouns less when referring to me and that she’d start using they/them.
I sat there and smiled. She smiled. We smiled at each other, relieved. It was a big moment. She’d asked me to be direct and the result was that she was supportive and loving. She hadn’t scoffed, she hadn’t tried to argue me out of it. The world had not ended. Instead, we’d taking a big step closer. And I’d taken a big step forward. And with her accepting and loving and supporting me in this, I suddenly felt a weight lift off my shoulders.
The experiment has proceeded and something has grown in the petri dish. I finally know what I want to ask from the rest of the world. I suddenly felt there was no reason to hold back from telling everyone, from letting everyone into my bigger picture. I finally know how to come out about my gender. And I feel much more secure in the process. I came out to my nurse practitioner last week, she knew that I was identifying as genderqueer but I hadn’t talked to her about pronouns. I told her about not being a she/her and my preferences and also that feminine terms didn’t fit me anymore either. She told me that she respected me, thanked me for telling her and that she’d support me in any way she could. She was a friendly audience — my NP is a butch dyke running a women’s health clinic founded by one of the butchest feminist lesbians our town has ever known — but still, my heart was hammering in my throat. I felt so high after that conversation, I wanted to run all over town and tell everyone I knew.
My parents are coming to visit at the end of the month, so I’m going to sit down with them and talk about gender and pronouns. My mom is plugged in to one of my FB pages, so she knows a lot already but they deserve a face-to-face conversation. I want a chance to talk to them, hear their questions, tell my story. I’m nervous but not fearful about their reaction. My brother has been calling me ‘bro’ and using he/him for a while now.
I know that face-to-face works best all around, but there are so many people to come out to, to have that conversation with, that I’m feeling impatient and overwhelmed. I’ve been thinking that coming out to my employers and co-workers (and clients) could come later, but since talking to my wife and coming out to my NP, it’s harder and harder to hear ‘she/her’, ‘woman’, etc. in reference to me. I’ve thrown some things up on Facebook and for some, that’s enough. (my sister-in-law, for example, asked if I’d prefer my nephews call me uncle rather than aunt. I told her I’d love to be called uncle, but being called aunt wouldn’t hurt my feelings… as long as they used he/him or they/them).
I’ve gone from holding back out of nerves and fear, and some protective instinct, to feeling impatient and wishing I had a way to notify everyone at once about what I need from them. And that’s part of the risk, right? When we come out to people, there’s something we want, something we need. Recognition, respect, support, continued friendship and love. Coming out as queer seems simple in comparison (at least from my experience). If I talked about my girlfriend to co-workers, I was coming out. If I walked into a family dinner with her, I was coming out. If I walked down the street holding her hand, I was coming out all over the place.
Coming out trans, especially non-binary identified trans, seems a lot harder. It takes way more talking, I can’t just walk around and have people know that I’m genderqueer, that I identify as both male and female but prefer masculine pronouns. No, that takes conversations, lots of them, one by one, maybe some in groups. And if I want to be sure the message has been delivered, I need to do that delivery face-to-face.
It’s stressful to contemplate, exhausting in advance. And exciting. Really exciting.
I’ve gone from worrying about the worst that could happen to thinking about the best that could happen.
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