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.
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.
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.