A Year Of Living Visibly

A Year Of Living Visibly

A year ago yesterday, I publicly came out as nonbinary. Now, a year on, I wanted to talk about what it’s been like to live visibly.

I have not been unapologetic about my identity, and the extent to which I’ve been ‘out’ varies hugely by context. On the internet, I’m public about it: I list my pronouns in all my social media bios and I don’t shy away from mentioning that I’m nonbinary when it seems relevant. I also sometime correct people on pronouns, such as in reviews of my poetry or replies to my posts. In real life, it’s a little different.

My friends know, and with them I’m out. Some of them call me Finn, some of them call me Miriam — I don’t really have a preference in those settings, so I let people go with whatever they feel suits me best. When I hear my friends making an effort to use they/them pronouns, I’m secretly pleased about it.

My lecturers and supervisors don’t know, though. It’s never come up naturally, and I didn’t want the fuss of insisting on pronouns. Occasionally I regret that, when I get a supervision report that uses she/her pronouns the entire way through and makes me feel icky, but it would be too much fuss to change things now. It doesn’t help that I’m at a women’s college and while I know a number of other nonbinary people at Newnham, I’m still not really sure of the policy.

Dance has been the most mixed, not in response but in my own behaviour. My dance blog (fianaigecht.tumblr.com) is literally titled “the nonbinary Irish dancer”. When we ran our taster sessions with CUIDS, I introduced myself as Finn and told people my pronouns, and I make an effort not to gender choreography so that nobody has to pick a side. At my dance school back home, everybody knows me as Finn, even if some of them are vaguely aware that my legal name is Miriam because they follow me on Instagram. Finn is the name I competed under, and I wore trousers because it’s how I felt more comfortable.

But… I’m still not actually out to them. I’ve mentioned it to a few other adult dancers in my class, mostly when discussing costumes, and my Instagram profile mentions that I use they/them pronouns. At class, though, I’ve never brought it up, never made a point of it, so while I’m Finn to my teachers and classmates, I’m also “she”. (I occasionally get asked if it’s short for Fionnuala.) In group dances, I’m small, so I end up dancing the women’s parts, and I’ve never known how to articulate that this makes me uncomfortable. (After all, it’s not like the people dancing the men’s parts are literally men, and they don’t seem to mind being addressed that way.)

I’m not really sure why I haven’t actively come out. My teachers have never given me reason to believe they’d have a problem with it. They never questioned my decision to wear trousers to compete, or even seem surprised by it — I didn’t discuss it beforehand, but they didn’t comment when they saw, and one was telling me about several other dancers she knows of who wear trousers. It doesn’t seem like a hostile environment.

But the area I live in is… not massively LGBTQ-friendly. It’s not actively unfriendly that I know of, but there’s no visible queer communities. I mean, it’s a UKIP-voting borough, so what do you expect? And my dance school isn’t overly local — it’s a substantial bus journey away — but I’m still not sure what the overall attitude is.

Cambridge is a very queer-friendly city, and universities tend to be more liberal than the rest. So when I’m teaching classes with CUIDS, I don’t feel afraid to say, “By the way, I’m nonbinary, please use they/them pronouns.” Self-conscious, yes, and maybe a little anxious, because it was the first place I actively started introducing myself that way, but not scared.

Sometimes I teach in a onesie and they don’t judge me for that either.

At home it’s different, and at dance… well, I guess I’m less fearing hostility and more just incomprehension. I don’t expect people to be overly familiar with nonbinary identities; until I came to uni, I knew very few trans people in real life, and it was only through the internet that I became familiar with terminology. I get too anxious about the idea of having to play educator and I’m not sure it’s really worth it, so I just put up with misgendering. I don’t hide who I am — like I said, it’s in my Instagram bio, and people from my dance school follow me there. But unless they already know what it means for me to say “they/them pronouns”, it’d be easy to overlook.

Occasionally I’ve had messages on Tumblr from other queer dancers saying, “I really admire how open you are about this,” and I feel like a coward. Yes, it’s in my blog title. Yes, I tag things as #nonbinarydancer. But most of the time, the closest I come to being out is wearing trousers to compete, and that’s not exactly unambiguous.

On the internet and in Cambridge, I’ve been gradually learning to live more visibly. To correct people on pronouns, to make jokes about it, to not be silent. With my family, I’ve got over some of my anxieties and started actively correcting gendered language and so on, even if I don’t ask my parents to change the pronouns they use for me. (I can live with she/her, but being referred to as a girl just bothers me.)

I talk more openly about my gender presentation and the particularly masculine phase I’m going through at the moment. I don’t know how long it’ll last. Maybe this is me now, or maybe I’ll go back to being able to wear dresses without feeling intensely uncomfortable. When filling in job applications, I wrote “Mx.” as my title, not because I particularly like it or relate to it, but because it might save me from getting misgendered.

Three action shots of a short haired Irish dancer (me) wearing a green and white dress against an orange background.
I wore my old dress to film some dance stuff yesterday. With opaque tights and almost no audience besides the people helping with music and cameras, it was okay. But it still wasn’t entirely ME.

I’ve become more determined to change my professional name, which I’ve been talking about doing for years, and I’ve fairly much settled on using Finn because it makes sense, since I use it so much. My stumbling block remains what surname to use, especially now that I use Finn for dance — if I want to maintain distance between my writing and personal life, I’ll need to choose a different surname than the one I regularly use. I want to make this decision soon, though, as the longer I go writing as Miriam Joy, the harder the transition will be.

So yes, coming out changed things. It’s been a relief. I don’t have to be afraid of people finding my alternate social media accounts (the only place I was previously out) and exposing me — I don’t have secrets anymore, and I’m freer because of it.

But it’ll be a while before I feel comfortable living that openly everywhere, and sometimes I do question whether it’s worth making a fuss or whether I should just put up with it. Nobody is ever going to default to “they” when looking at me. Culturally that’s just not how it works. People guess, and make assumptions. Do I want to correct literally everyone I meet? What’s the best case scenario here? (I mean, ideally to achieve peak androgyny so that nobody can work out what pronouns to use. But I’d settle for people guessing he/him occasionally.)

It’s been a year. I don’t regret coming out; I hate feeling like I’m hiding something, and while it’s been scary, it was the right decision to make. But coming out is never something you get to do just once. It’s every time you meet a new person, join a new group, take up a new hobby. It’s a thousand decisions about what name to use, whether to bring up pronouns, how to handle gendered sports and so on. You never stop having to come out.

Sometimes I decide to do it. Sometimes, I hide. I hope in future there’ll be more of the former and less of the latter — and that there’ll be fewer social and cultural assumptions making it difficult.

8 thoughts on “A Year Of Living Visibly

  1. Pronouns and assumptions matter. But why do they matter to you? Perhaps a good start in working out whether to make a fuss and which fusses to make, is working out what matters most if you can’t have everyone instinctively see and accept you as non-binary.

    For example, is it more important that you wear the clothes you want to wear and so forth, or have strangers be more likely to guess male?

    I, for example, grow a beard that pleases me, so – barring a large shift in society – would need to make a significant sacrifice to avoid strangers being certain I was a man of manly mannishness.

    While an ideal world wouldn’t call upon you to compromise, working out which are the most important things for you might help in deciding which efforts are worth making first; and might also mean you have a solid core of “at least X gets it’s right” to offset the wrongness of less significant figures getting it wrong.

    While it’s hard to get rid of foreknowledge, a quick thumb-crop of the waistcoat photo suggested you don’t look girly in head shot, so – while you might look younger than a “man” of your age – readers could go with male or uncertain from an author bio.

    1. Part of the reason I get antsy about people’s assumptions is because of societal attitudes towards women, in particular the way that female bodies are constantly sexualised. As I said in my coming out post, as an asexual person I’m extremely uncomfortable being perceived as sexual in any way, and that has caused me to retreat from being seen as a woman. I wouldn’t say it’s the reason I’m nonbinary, but it’s a big part of why I present the way I do. Having people unable to determine my gender, or guessing that I’m male, makes it more difficult to be objectified. As society changes for the better, and as I become more settled in my own skin, perhaps that won’t be such a big deal for me anymore, but it has definitely shaped my clothing choices in recent years.

      This is why in some ways it doesn’t matter if, say, my dance teachers see me as female, because I know they’re also seeing me as a person. I’ll wear more feminine clothes around my friends, because I know that they see me first and my body second. But a stranger categorises me by surface appearance, and that’s why I try and present in a more androgynous manner, forcing people to see me just as a person because they don’t know what box I belong in.

  2. (I really enjoyed reading this post!! I just enjoy your writing let’s be real.) Also you look so happy in your dance photos, haha, it’s so great!

    I’ll definitely not pretend to know what you’re going through with all of this, but I do understand a little because I kind of struggle with a few of those questions with knowing whether to talk about being autistic or not. (The having to then do the educating/teaching part IS exhausting.) It’s so much easier online?! But IRL I’m more likely to just say I’m shy. I feel like it’s easier to find people on the internet who care/listen/understand to things like this. I’m glad you have friends who’ll go right to using they/them though! Anyway *sends virtual cake of good wishes* Also good luck with deciding on your name. That must be really hard (decisions are haaaard).

    1. Decisions are terrible, especially ones that feel permanent :( At least I know what URL I’ll use if I go for Finn (fianaigecht, to match my dance Tumblr) — though no one will ever be able to spell it, haha.

      Dance makes me happy :) Or more importantly, dance makes me feel fully present in my own skin, which is too rare, tbh. But also I tend to make myself laugh while taking dance pictures so there’s that.

  3. Can I ask a question about pronouns? Queer and trans people I knew in the early 2000s were using the pronouns ze and zir. A few years back I was doing my “google every single question that pops into my head”. In this case, a coworker and I had been discussing an old movie called “The Three Faces of Eve” so I wanted to learn more about what is now known as dissociative identity disorder. I ran across a support group for people with DID and they were using the pronouns they and them and we. That made perfect sense to me. So it was startling – and still is – to see they and them used as pronouns for people who do not have DID. Do you have any idea what happened to ze and zir? Have you ever heard of these words? Was it USA only?
    Ze and zir sounded like good pronoun choices to me; easy to remember, and impossible to get confused with anything else.

    1. I know a fair few people who use ze/zir and similar neopronouns like xe/xir, but I find they/them grammatically easier for me and for other people. I think British English has more of a culture of singular they for an unspecified person (rather than “he or she”), so maybe that’s a factor. Societally, people seem reluctant to bring neopronouns like ze or xe into the mainstream, so at this point in time it would probably involve way too much explanation every time I introduced myself. But I just kind of prefer they. Others differ. (Also when I first started questioning my gender I felt like I had a distinct masculine persona, so maybe that’s a factor even though I don’t feel like that anymore?)

      1. Thanks for the explanation. I love learning more about this topic.

        You’re right in that this probably is a difference between British and USA English. I don’t recall hearing they and them used as singular pronouns in regular conversations, and I trip over that usage every time I’ve seen it in fiction. I’ve had to reread paragraphs just to determine that, yes, there’s no extra person in that scene.

        I would absolutely love to see a neopronoun come into general usage. Languages change and grow. New words come into the language all the time. Old words disappear.

        It has, for example, been literally decades since I was called “Miss” (except by elderly people – and I am rapidly approaching that state). I always loathed “Miss”, and was happy when Ms. came into general usage, though I would personally prefer no title at all and never check any titles when I’m filling out forms.

        (I’m not going to claim I’m not “neurotypical”, as usage of that word belongs, IMO, to people on the Spectrum. I just know I don’t think like most of the people I’ve ever met. And I took one of those admittedly dubious internet quizzes as to “what gender are you?” and got 50% male and 50% female. Personally, I feel I’m wholly “other”.)

        Another reason I would like to see a nongender pronoun come into usage: Part of my work (social work) involves retyping and editing and researching reports written by field workers who frequently do not refer to the gender of medical professionals and other professionals our clients see. Typing these reports without reference to any pronouns makes for some horribly ungrammatical sentences. I am obliged to follow a company-set style sheet, so using “they” and “them” is not possible. It doesn’t matter what gender “Dr. Lopez” is, so why not have a neutral pronoun to suit?

        1. That’s an interesting point. I think people use “they” unconsciously — “My friend’s coming over tonight” “oh do they want to stay for dinner?” But perhaps only in spoken speech rather than written? It does take some adjusting to and it can get confusing in scenes with lots of characters.

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