The conversation about and acceptance of nonbinary (enby) people is still relatively new. People are still learning about nonbinary identities and appropriate gender pronoun usage. Some folks are struggling as they grow accustomed to the taste of inclusion in their mouths, stumbling awkwardly over conjugation and misgendering faux pas. Many have no idea that nonbinary people fall under the transgender umbrella. Preconceived notions run amok and stereotypes abound. Misconceptions and ignorance can lead to violence on one end of the spectrum, and subtle acts of exclusion (SAE), or microaggressions on the other.
I’ve been studying and teaching about diversity for decades, the nonbinary label is only recently embraced nomenclature for me. The reality of who I am has been the only constant. Imagine the plot of a super cheesy romcom that’s trying to cram too many experiences into too few characters; that’s pretty much my life. Reinvention and metamorphosis might be my hobbies. It’s how I learn and grow.
When society doesn’t readily embrace language that encapsulates your experience, it’s not exactly easy to invent it. So here I am minding my 40-something-year-old business when the language of nonbinary identity enters stage left into the play that is my life. It’s hard to be on the earth for any significant length of time without feeling like you’ve got a clue about something. For some people, it’s numbers, for others sports, and for me it’s…well me. At 43 I feel like I certainly have learned a few things about myself. Most importantly that I am largely comfortable in my own skin. I’ve also learned that far too many people are not at ease with themselves, rendering my reality a privilege. My self-assuredness always been the case to some degree, but during the dark times, I’ve hated my body and punished myself for it —nearly costing me my life. Everyone fights their own silent battles at some point. It’s one of the things that can bring us together if we let it. You don’t have to suffer alone or in silence.
Anything that hinders fitting-in, or not calling negative attention to yourself, is a character-building burden. When you’ve been the token, the joke, the outsider, the spectacle, or the diversity hire — you’ve endured a rite of passage worthy of beatification. You are my siblings, my tribe, my people. My in-group. I wrote about in-groups extensively in my first of five books, Overcoming Bias — not to be an exclusionary JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, inclusion) worker. It’s not that we shouldn’t have in-groups, more that we need to know who they are without privileging them indiscriminately. Your job as an ally is to ensure that your in-group expands to include people who don’t share your experiences and perspectives. It’s not an either/or. It’s nonbinary.
My intersectional identities connect me to the fringes of society and alienate me from the mainstream.
Back where we started. As a fully formed adult who has achieved a modicum of success, the new language available to me that describes my truth is on the scene…and it’s making a ruckus. Why am I not surprised. While I’ve always been comfortable in my skin, I’ve never once fit squarely into my environment. By fitting in I mean, I’ve never been able to look around and feel like I had enough in common with anyone around me that my narrative and experiences wouldn’t be a surprise — or elicit a noticeable reaction. I’ve never been a cookie-cutter. I represent several intersectional “marginalized” identities: LGBTQIA+, multilingual, invisible disabilities, and Black AF. My intersectional identities connect me to the fringes of society and alienate me from the mainstream. I’ve always been the odd person out, the misfit, the curiosity. I learned to embrace it.
Blending in is a privilege. People have a bias toward familiarity. Not being visibly transgender confers a modicum of safety.
I feel I have no right to be an ambassador to a community whose members are heavily populated by gender nonconforming, transgender and nonbinary people whose truth causes them daily harm. I’m talking emotional, spiritual, and bodily harm — up to and including loss of life. People all over the world are beaten, shot, and killed for being members of the trans tribe. Yet I don’t experience the abuse that my siblings do every day. My gender is a fact. I never wanted it to be a tool. So since I was given the EZ Pass of transgender experiences, I think it’s imperative that I pay it forward. My age also places me squarely in the category of ‘elder enby’ as many more senior folks don’t feel the need or see the utility in applying labels so late in the game. Older folks also think they have more to lose. Frankly, I don’t care. I am what I am and I have never been one to hide. Please note that my enby experience is far from universal. Some of us are experienced by others as transgender first and mistreated according to society’s biased standards. Blending in is a privilege. People have a bias toward familiarity. Not being visibly transgender confers a modicum of safety.
Whatever you think of when you imagine transgender people, that’s totally me. It’s also not me. Trans identities cover a huge umbrella of elegant possibilities for how a person feels and expresses their spirit/energy experience within their earthen vessel. My favorite nonbinary thinker/artist, Alok Vaud-Menon, asks, “Is [gender] really a choice when you don’t get to select the options you are given to begin with?” Therein lies the root of my recent transformation. The younger generations essentially offered up a free choice of pronouns, thereby posing a question no one else had asked. Namely, which pronouns you would choose if given the choice. Mind blown. All at once it was clear that I would choose neither masculine nor feminine pronouns. They/them were a perfect fit. Yes, I had to do the same awkward research you did to figure out how on earth you conjugate a plurality associated singular pronoun. After much stumbling and failing, I mostly think I’ve got it. JK. I misgender myself often — if that’s even possible, when I technically claim a trifecta of contained energies: masculine, feminine, neutral (divine). I am made of spirit contained within a human spaceship.
If you find yourself accepting, or worse, tolerating, some gender nonconforming identities while scoffing at others — you need to interrogate your allyship. If you’re trying to embrace nonbinary pronouns but still giggling when you see “a hairy man in dress” acknowledge your bias and try to do better. One of the greatest assets of humanity is our stunning diversity. Apples aren’t better than pomegranates, they are just different. Apples are everywhere and they’re great. Pomegranates are more rare and their flavor hasn’t permeated our palate options as ubiquitously. Both are fruits shrouded in allegory. Typically, that which is most rare is most precious. It’s why pomegranates are more expensive than apples — why opals cost more than quartz. Not better, just different.
I never want to communicate that people should exist on a hierarchy. That’s how we landed in the quagmire of racism and transphobia. Just recognize that the under-appreciated, underrepresented people of the world are precious and in so much danger. We must protect them, love them, and learn from the resilient magic that makes them special. Transgender people have existed throughout all of human history and around the globe. We are all special, but taking the time to learn about the experiences of those unlike us sets us apart from other species and unites us in our humanity.