About “coming out”

I recently read Julia Serrano’s Excluded, and it made me think a lot about assumptions, and about “coming out” – which is really only a thing because of other people’s assumptions, as the quote below explains:

When we are marked, unmarked assumption can be endlessly frustrating, as it seems to place the onerous task on us to “come out” to those who misperceive us. “Coming out” results not only in having to deal with the ramifications of being marked, but also with having to overcome the narrative (which exists in the unmarked person’s mind) that we were previously “hiding” or “closeting” ourselves, and are now “revealing” our true identity. Sometimes this narrative holds some truth for the marked person as well – for instance, a gay man who “comes out of the closet” may have felt like he was previously hiding himself but is now revealing the truth that he is gay. But other times, this narrative belies the marked person’s actual experience. For example, I may not be actively hiding the fact that I am transsexual, but when I drop it into casual conversation (e.g., “back when I was in little league,” or “back when I had a penis”) other people may perceive this as a “coming out moment”, rather than recognizing that they were the ones who were projecting cissexual assumption onto me all along. Also, the “revelation” narrative that others project onto me may invalidate my experiences and identity in other ways. For instance, if I tell someone I am transsexual, they may interpret that as me “revealing” that I am “really a man”, rather than accurately seeing me as a woman who has shared the fact that I am transsexual rather than cissexual…

Even if the so-called “revelation” is interpreted accurately, it still pretty much sucks for the marked person. As I have said ad infinitum by this point, when we “reveal” our marked status, we open ourselves up to attention, remarks, questioning, and so on. Further, we can never predict how any given person will react to these supposed “revelations”, so we must always be on guard and prepared for the worst possible negative reaction. Finally, if we are perceived as having just “revealed” our maried status, we may be bombarded by accusations that we have been insincere, inauthentic, manipulative, deceptive, and artificial, even when such allegations are patently untrue.

Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serrano (p. 195-196)

I’ve found the coming out concept irritating for a while: there’s a scene in the movie Love, Simon where Simon, a gay teenager, says that he doesn’t see why he should have to come out when straight people don’t have to. It’s played for laughs – there’s a montage showing scenes of straight teenagers coming out to their parents with a variety of negative reactions from the parents. And hey, I laughed at that scene too; it was well done, and funny. But. He actually has a point. It’s heteronormativity, and cisnormativity, and amatonormativity, that are the reason that people like me have to come out at all. And it’s not a one-and-done process, you’re doing it constantly. And the only reason you have to do it at all is that other people make assumptions about you.

Gender entitlement often takes the form of homogenizing assumptions about who we believe people are and how we expect them to behave in the future. This includes universalizing assumptions, such as expecting everyone we meet to be heterosexual, or cisgender, or monosexual, and so on. Other assumptions will come in the form of stereotypes that we project onto people belonging to a specific group. Sometimes our assumptions may match those commonly made in the culture at large, whereas other times our assumptions may be quite different (e.g., when queer people boast about having “gaydar” – the supposed ability to know for sure whether other people are queer or not without having to ask them). As I have discussed throughout this book, assumptions pretty much suck. Sure, sometimes the assumptions we make are correct, but often they are flat-out incorrect. And unfortunately, the burden always ends up being on the “assumee” (i.e., the person who the assumption is made about) to challenge any incorrect assumptions that are made by the “assumer” (i.e., the person who makes the assumption). Sometimes when I point out the incorrect assumptions that people make about me, it is no big deal. Other times, it can be slightly awkward or time consuming, and in some instances it can be downright awful. Because of horrible negative reactions that I have received in some cases (especially upon coming out to people as trans), I am often hesitant to correct other people’s incorrect assumptions about me. But this also has negative consequences: It forces me to keep quiet about this aspect of myself, which can be both difficult and disempowering. Furthermore, if that information ever comes to light at a later date, I may be accused of hiding the truth or deceiving other people. In other words, incorrect assumptions create a damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t situation for me…

Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serrano (p. 244-5)

For example, I date, or have dated, men, and therefore people often make the assumption that I’m a heterosexual woman. This is their mistake: all I’ve done is date a man, and look the way that I look, and they’ve made a number of assumptions:

  • That I only date men (and I’m therefore straight)
  • That I’m female (and therefore straight)
  • That I’m feel sexual and /or romantic attraction (and I’m therefore allosexual)
  • That I’m only dating that person (and therefore monogamous)

And yes, these assumptions would probably be true of many people who look like me, dating people who appear to be men. But they’re not true of me; some or all of them are not, in fact, true of a lot of people who might superficially resemble me in one way or another.

So there I am, being assumed to be a heterosexual woman by some person. And that means that, if I continue to interact with that person, I have to make a decision: do I “come out” to them? And that’s not an easy question to answer. I have to consider lots of factors:

  • How will they react?
  • Will they be angry or upset?
  • Will they cut contact with me? If so, how much of an issue will that cause?
  • Will they try to use this information against me (e.g. to out me in some situation or to some person that I’m not currently out to)?
  • Will they become violent or abusive?
  • If I live with them or require their financial support, will they throw me out or cut me off?

Every time I choose to come out to someone I’m taking a huge risk, because even if you think you know how someone will react, you can never be sure. (For example, I came out to someone I’d gone to school with, via email, and never heard from her again.) So I often don’t, depending on the situation. If I’m not going to see the person again, I probably won’t bother (the one exception being that I might ask them to use my correct pronouns).

And quite apart from the risk, it’s tiring. Constantly explaining who you are, and as Serrano says, opening yourself up to the questions, often very intrusive, of others, can be exhausting. Sometimes I’ll just let people assume whatever they want to assume, because I just don’t have the energy (physically or emotionally) to deal with it.

On the one hand, these assumptions are not my fault. I am just being myself, living my life, I’m not deceiving anyone. If anything, they’re deceiving themselves. But on the other hand, I’m the one who will suffer if they react badly to learning that I’m not who they assumed I was.

My “coming out” policy has pretty much always been that if someone asks, I will tell them, and if I think it’s relevant, I’ll proactively tell them. These days I’ve expanded that a bit, because I want people to use the correct pronouns for me, so I do tend to point that out without being asked. I’m also a big fan of badges, so I do have a large collection of badges that proclaim various aspects of my identity – which I consider low-key coming out that requires no effort from me apart from wearing the badge.

I do hate the whole “coming out” concept, in part, because it seems to imply that you owe the world the “truth” about your gender, sexuality, etc. It suggests (incorrectly) that you can do it once and then you’re out forever. And it definitely has the implication that if you are not out, you are somehow being deceptive, or you’re ashamed of your identity.

I don’t think that any of that’s true, though. In some circles, I’m very out as queer, as non-binary, as demisexual, and so on. In others, I’m not. But in the places I’m not out, or less vocally out, my gender and/or sexuality is, in my view, not relevant – and if it becomes relevant I’ll mention it. If I’m not romantically or sexually involved with you, is it any of your business what gender(s) of people I’m attracted to, if any?

I’m not a fan of coming out, and in particular, the pressure on people to come out, the belief that if you aren’t out to everyone you know somehow you’re ashamed of yourself or inauthentic. People have their reasons for not being out, some of which I mentioned earlier, and it’s a valid choice to not be out, or only to certain people. Your own safety (in all senses) is the most important thing, not some sense that you “owe” people the “truth”. Yes, it would be great if we could all be completely open about who and what we are, but that’s not the world we live in.

What I’d really prefer is that people in general stop making assumptions, or at least put less moral weight on them – i.e., if I’m not what you thought I was, at least stop thinking that makes me lesser. I realise that would require a complete social and cultural revolution, but why not aim for the stars?

I’ve been trying to do this myself: not assume people’s gender, sexuality, physical ability, etc. It’s hard – it’s pretty engrained to assume all these things, but I try, and the more I try, the less difficult it gets. Maybe we could all just try a little bit more to assume a little bit less.

© bardofupton 2019

Being demisexual and aromantic

It took me a long long time to work out that these words, demisexual and aromantic, described me – far longer than my bisexuality/queerness, longer even than my non-binary gender. But when I finally did, so many things about my sexual and romantic history made so much more sense.

Why I’m not all that into sex as an activity, why I just don’t get this whole “love at first sight” thing, why I generally find romantic fiction boring, it all suddenly clicked.

I think it was a certain type of lack of imagination that caused it to take so long: that, and a lack of role models. I mean, everywhere you look there is romance and sex. No wonder I, like so many of us, assumed that that’s what I should be doing. I thought it was something weird about me, and I suppose it is, but now I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. And that there’s nothing wrong with feeling like this.

For a long time, I thought I had crushes on people, but now I realise they were squishes, which I mentally framed as crushes because I didn’t have any other terminology or way of relating to those feelings. Looking back, when I’ve had what I thought of as a crush, it’s never been about sex; it’s always been about intimacy, about getting to know that person and spending time with them.

And I’ve never been that into sex. I mean, it can feel really good, but I don’t miss it if I’m not having it. And it’s generally always been more about giving my partner pleasure than anything else.

Mostly (as with all my other non-normative identities) I feel a deep sense of relief: I am not, in fact, emotionless or frigid; I’m just different.

And I’m used to that. I mean, if I had to use just one word to describe myself, it would probably be”different”. Or maybe weird. But in either case, I’m just happy to have identified a bit more of myself.

© bardofupton 2019

the box (poem)

This is a new poem.

I have locked myself in a box
it’s a small box
too-small box
gender box
sexuality box
race box
I have locked myself in a box
or was it you?
did you build this box, and stuff me in it?
before I was even born, did you make this box for me?
without asking
without knowing me
you made a box and called it girl
called it straight
called it black
but none of those boxes quite fit me

I have been cramped for years
joints folded tight tight
face pressed into my chest
I have locked myself in a box that you made
I was locked in the box that you made
it was cramped and uncomfortable
I couldn’t breathe
I tried to cut parts of myself off to fit
but they grew back
they wouldn’t go away
eventually I broke the box
I couldn’t fit at all
all the parts I tried to remove are too big for the box
it’s a small box
too-small box
you made me small in the box

sometimes I try to climb back in
it’s not comfortable but some days it feels safe
just my head pokes out
I almost fit
some days I want to fit
it’s easier if you fit in the box
easier if you have the right parts
right face
right brain
right heart
I’m not right
all wrong in fact
that’s why I don’t fit in the box
the small box
the too-small box

I locked myself in a box
as a child
I grew up in a box
a small box
a too-small box
to break the box
I had to learn to see it
I had to feel it crush me as I grew
to feel my breathing constricted
my limbs twisted and bent
I had to let the box damage me
before I could break free

I was locked in a box for years
a small box
a too-small box
and it takes years to break free of the box
it’s always there in the corner of the room
somehow I can never throw it away
the box
the small box
the too-small box
I’d like to throw away the box
but I’m afraid you’ll force me back in it
if you find it lying around outside
so I keep it safe

the too-small box smells of fear
and despair and denial
it smells like where hope goes to die
it smells like where I used to live
but I don’t live there any more
I live outside the box
but I carry it with me
all the time

© bardofupton 2019

Non-binary and disabled

This piece was previously published in September 2018 in the Disgender zine – you can see the zine here, and I encourage you to check it out. There’s lots of cool stuff in it, all themed around being trans/non-binary and disabled/chronically ill.


Becoming (realising I was) non-binary was a lifetime’s process, of fighting a femaleness (femininity) that never belonged to me; of hating the breasts and periods that life burdened me with; of not knowing who I was, what I was, only what I wasn’t, a confusion made worse by growing up in a place and time that barely acknowledged the L and G of LGBT+ (never mind the rest), and so left me bereft of words, of a name for my being, stranding me in a place of “well, female I guess, if I have to choose (but why do I have to choose?)” that never felt right or true; of always wondering why I wasn’t like everyone else, why calling myself female was unsettling, but calling myself male was definitely wrong.

Becoming disabled has been half a lifetime’s process, of injury and illness, of pain and cumulative slow failure of my body’s systems, and yet, I can love my non-binary disabled body in a way I never could love my abled, presumed female body; I can revel in what it can do, appreciate my non-binary self for what it is. Weirdly, it’s illness that taught me to love my body, to appreciate being alive – and it’s illness that finally gave me both the courage and the words to call myself both non-binary and disabled. After years of thinking (insisting) I wasn’t disabled enough to claim that as an identity (because I can x, because I can’t y, because I’m not z) I got cancer, and it was weirdly revelatory in some ways. I had to think about death, and about how having cancer means always having to think about cancer, at least a little bit, even though I’m now in remission, and I thought about what I wanted the rest of my life (however short or long) to look like. And the biggest part of that was I wanted the rest of my life to be mine, to stop being afraid of what people might think of me, and claim myself. And I looked at the mix of physical issues I have and thought, yeah, I’m disabled. I need to own it. I walk with a fucking stick, clearly I’m disabled. Being able to sometimes do without the stick doesn’t make me not disabled, any more than wearing a skirt makes me female. And it was having a mastectomy that made me realise that it’s not that I’m a woman who’s bad at being female, it’s that I’m not a woman at all – which was a deeply and profoundly liberating experience.

The first day I left the house as a newly-identified non-binary person I felt like I owned the world. All the anxiety of a lifetime of faking femaleness fell away from me, and I felt free. I felt like my body finally belonged to me and I could stop caring what other people thought of me; like I could look at myself and not see a failed woman, but see someone who was living on their own terms, someone who belonged not to the world, but to themself – someone who could build their identity from the ground up without any shoulds from society (how to dress, how to act, how to be), someone who could create their own norms – someone who wasn’t an imposter, but who belonged. Someone who could wear a dress if they wanted, or not – but either way it didn’t define them; someone who could be themself, whoever that might be. Someone who is (finally) happy to be themself.

© bardofupton 2019

A new poem

This is a new poem.

zipped into dresses and strapped into shoes
trapped in frills and girly things
but I’m not a girl! I think
or a boy
but unaware of alternatives (then)

without a word for what I am
it would take years to claim it
to know it
to truly become it

every day a little closer
every breath a little freer
with every heartbeat I metamorphose a little
changing into myself

a truer version
more solid more real
more me
carving my way out from the inside
revelation in skin and bones, hair and muscle
slowly rising into view from the depths of myself
sometimes understated sometimes in your face
but always always me

my clothes do not make me
but sometimes they empower me
and sometimes they confine
because society loves its boxes

the message you read is not the message I send
and you cannot speak the dialect I use
if you cannot understand me that does not make me wrong
just different
just other
just me

© bardofupton 2018

Breast cancer – a non-binary perspective

Content note: cancer, surgery

It’s weird, getting breast cancer when you have an ambiguous relationship to your breasts – suddenly you’re thinking about them constantly when you’d managed to largely ignore their existence. I mean, cancer sucks regardless, no doubt about it. But breast cancer is one of those really gendered cancers, and if you’re a person with gender issues anyway, the whole process is very odd. And disconcerting, and very very cisnormative, not to say cissexist.

Continue reading “Breast cancer – a non-binary perspective”

Not courage, but survival

When I told my therapist I was non-binary, she called me brave. I told her it wasn’t courage, it was survival. I don’t think she really got what I meant, and I don’t think I was quite able to fully articulate it at the time. So I’m going to work through it here. I did mention it briefly in a previous post, but I want to unpack it a bit more.

When you have a minority identity, especially around gender or sexuality, you’re often accused of “shoving it in people’s faces” – that is, being queer/trans/non-binary/black/etc in public. Any attempt to say “hey, I live here too and I also have needs, wants and preferences” can be met with hostility or even violence. So why do we persist in expressing our identities when it might seem easier and safer not to?

I can’t answer for anyone else, but for me, there came a point where I was doing more violence to myself (by remaining closeted) than I was avoiding. I simply could not pretend any longer. The fear of losing friends or family, of violence or harassment from others – that was outweighed by the damage I was doing to myself. I had tried pretending to be like everyone else, and it had just made me miserable. So, I simply stopped.

And the relief of it! To be able to say “this is me” and for it to be 100% true, to be able to go outside feeling as though I was showing my true self to the world for possibly the first time, that may have been the most free I have ever felt.

Of course, this makes it sound simple. It wasn’t quite as easy as that, but the core realisation was that trying to be something I’m not not only wouldn’t work but was actually hurting me. It might be more comfortable for other people for me to pretend I was like them, but I’m not. And pretending is exhausting. So much energy spent on trying not to mention certain things to certain people, trying to remember who knows what about you, trying to decide if certain topics give too much away about you, trying to act in the ways I thought I was supposed to.

I don’t think I’m brave; in some ways I am quite lucky. Nobody I’ve told has reacted badly. But I always think of courage as being a positive decision, and this was not that. This was more like despair, more of a desperate last-ditch attempt, fuelled partly by my cancer diagnosis and treatment. This was giving up and letting go of the cliff edge, and then realising that you were only a few inches above the ground. And I am fully aware that it is not that easy for many of us.

I’m not offering advice, just a perspective. For me, it was better to come out; for someone else, the calculation might be different. But remaining closeted isn’t an easy choice either.

© bardofupton 2018