Coming out as nonbinary

Hey everyone! 👋 I’m writing to you today to come out to you as gender nonbinary. Chances are you’ve heard this term before. But in case you haven’t, here’s what it means as it applies to me:

  • I no longer consider myself male.
  • I’d like to be referred to using they/them pronouns.

Although this has been a complicated and difficult process for me, I’m aware that I have many privileges. Many people who have been through worse will not think much of my little struggles. But I’m sharing my story because it’s one that would have helped me to have heard from another person.

This process has also made me realize a lot of things about myself, things that maybe you’d like to know too. So if you’re curious, please read on.

Note: I’ll be using the less precise term “straight man” to mean “straight cisgender man”, because it’s familiar to more people. But I encourage you to learn the difference if you haven’t already.

I grew up as the only child of a dance choreographer and a therapist, and I feel proud and lucky that my parents modeled anything but traditional masculinity for me. They nurtured the sensitivity, expressiveness, gentleness, and vulnerability that I’ve always been inclined toward. That’s rare, and I’m grateful to them for it.

But outside our household, as far back as I can remember, when I behaved in ways that came naturally to me, I was regularly ridiculed, bullied, and threatened by boys and men around me, in various ways and to varying degrees. I think these types of experiences are common, and not many instances stand out to me as obvious sources of trauma. But as they built up over time, I think they affected me in two significant ways:

One is that I became conflicted and ambivalent about expressing myself. I learned that as a straight man, my creativity, openness, and vulnerability were always subject to threats from other men, that I could not help but be sensitive to. I felt conflicted and self-censoring in social situations, simultaneously wanting to express myself to others and feeling afraid of the embarrassment and shame that might result. Though I was friendly, I was deeply distrustful, constantly looking for the insult hidden in any compliment I might receive. I isolated my friend groups from each other, afraid of what they might share about me that might cause them to reject or ridicule me.

This mirrored my creative life, where in my musical and artistic projects, I avoided direct expressions of my personal feelings. I became neurotic and self-critical about the creative process in general. I tended toward rigid structures and formalism in my work, and I held myself to perfectionistic standards. These are behaviors that I now recognize as elaborate forms of self-defense.

The other effect is that I developed a sense of need for emotional community with my friends that seemed largely impossible to fulfill. Our society tells us that straight men are mostly supposed to be friends with other straight men. But, with few exceptions, my male friends didn’t seem comfortable opening up to me about their emotional lives.

I looked at the friendships between women and between queer people I knew, who seemed in general to know more about each other’s feelings and be more involved in each other’s lives. I wondered why I couldn’t have that with my friends. This led to lasting feelings of isolation and loneliness.

I think these feelings of isolation and fear were interrelated, that they reinforced each other. Maybe my male friends were afraid to open up because they had been bullied the way I had been. I have since learned that vulnerability is the basis of community, and that, to the extent that straight men cannot allow themselves to be vulnerable, they are not capable of community with each other.

I’ve struggled to relate to maleness and male gender roles because I resent how they have isolated me and made me afraid to share myself with others. Like many of us these days, I am critical of masculinity in its toxic forms. And although I am working to integrate masculinity into my life in a constructive way, I continue to hold onto negative associations between maleness and aggression, emotional repression, and fear.

I have never been interested in being a “man” as our society defines it, and I have never made any serious effort to do so. But, when I have thought of myself as a straight man, I have still felt the pressure to conform, limiting how I could feel about myself and behave around others.

In February of this year, during the peak of isolation in New York and away from the policing of social norms, I began to feel increasingly conscious of and uncomfortable with my role as a straight man. I wanted to explore other identities that might be available to me.

The world of gender is complicated, and its terms can be overwhelming and frighteningly alien to a newcomer. I wasn’t sure what label felt right, so I did a kind of experiment: what would happen if I thought of myself as simply “not a man”?

Although I looked the same and nothing had changed about my body, the effects of my experiment on my inner world were surprising and turbulent, like a brief and intense second adolescence. I found myself feeling my emotions more strongly, crying more often, and writing diligently in my diary like an angsty teen.

Within days, I found myself feeling more vulnerable, more humble, less entitled. Unburdened of the pressure to be an authority, I felt more willing to speak from the relativeness of my own experiences. I navigated situations with fewer assumptions and fewer demands. I more often handled conflict sensitively, with kind communication. Experiences of all kinds felt fuller and more vivid.

Feeling encouraged and eager for personal growth in the pandemic winter, I sought out more queer media to learn about nonbinary and other trans identities. I found, among others, the gender-nonconforming activist Alok Vaid-Menon, whose talent for speaking the truth I found beautiful and visionary; Jeffrey Marsh, whose disarmingly radical openness I admired; and the Gender Reveal podcast, which informed me on trans issues through its in-depth interviews with trans people.

Gradually this exposure encouraged me to take categories less seriously, and to accept myself as a person whose identity is fluid and constantly evolving. I began to find the term “trans” less alien and more of a symbol of truth. I grew to feel more comfortable with the label “nonbinary” for myself.

This year a friend of mine described himself to me as a “rule-follower”. I could immediately relate to this label because I have had struggles with people-pleasing behavior and conflict avoidance. But if I was a rule-follower, having a queer identity gave me a new set of rules to follow, rules that were kinder, more permissive, and fewer in number. I imagined myself feeling at home as queer, more open to the life-affirming possibilities of relationships with others.

And yet, still distrustful of others and fearing rejection, I struggled with what I came to know as “queer impostor syndrome”: the feeling that my queerness was somehow fake, misappropriated, or invalid. I was afraid of being stuck in the middle, neither straight enough nor queer enough for either group to accept, at a time when I felt vulnerable and needed the support of a community. I was surprised to learn that many queer people I’ve talked to have felt the same way.

Gradually over the course of several months, I came out to my therapist, to my partner Caitlin, one by one to a series of friends, and eventually to my parents. Each person I came out to, without exception, was kind, understanding, and supportive. I began to trust more in my friends’ acceptance of me; if they could accept me, then maybe I could accept myself.

In June on Pride weekend, I marched at the Queer Liberation March with a friend and shared drinks with his friends afterward. This was, for me, a test of whether my impostor syndrome was warranted, and I was visibly anxious. But to my relief, on the queerest day of the year, I was accepted by everyone at the table. No one judged me or questioned my validity as I had feared for months that they might.

Owning my queerness has knocked things loose in my psychology that I could never have anticipated. I’ve found myself more willing to engage with people and open up to them more freely, to risk embarrassment by being myself. I have reconnected with old friends, tried to be more active in sharing things about myself that I once would have anxiously guarded, and have felt excited to mix social groups together.

I have allowed myself to gradually loosen my self-imposed restrictions on my music, I have written poetry to express my personal life, and I have embraced improvisation and gradual improvement over perfectionism. My improvised musical piece “Moon Practice” from earlier this year is an example of this, and is in many ways an expression of my coming-out process.

I’ve often seen the slogan “trans is beautiful” on social media. At first it simply seemed to me like a necessary affirmation of a group who are constantly marginalized and attacked. I had never thought more deeply about what else it might mean.

The process of coming out has taught me that the categories “man” and “woman” our society places us into have real power to restrict the ways we allow ourselves to feel, behave, and think about ourselves. Transness and trans people are beautiful to me because they affirm the truth that, through understanding ourselves, we are capable of defying the arbitrary and limiting power of categories.

Looking back on how straight maleness has affected me, I have little doubt that if I had not felt forced into that category, I would have had a happier life. It might have been a life with more confidence, more intimate friendships through my young adulthood, and more freedom from fear. It saddens me that this could not have been. But I am grateful to be discovering myself now, and I am excited for this next phase of my life.

I am also hopeful for the future of gender in younger generations, and I admire their growing skepticism of normative gender in our society. I may be a “later-in-life nonbinary”, but with more young people identifying this way every day, that may not be a phenomenon for much longer.

I’ve found that the term “nonbinary” is vast and means many different things to different people. Its inclusivity is one of the things I love most about it; it’s a label with room for practically anyone. For me, it means the ability to step outside my category, and to embody more aspects of myself, masculine, feminine, and everything else, with confidence, knowing that I am not alone.