For the most part it was a lot of confusion. I actually really struggled at the start because I went to an all-girls school and didn’t really fit in and just thought it was because I was weird. I couldn’t relate to a lot of the people I was in school with for one reason or another. But as I got older and became more active on social media I came in contact with these communities online, specifically the trans community on Tumblr and I was like “that sounds like me!” and I spent a couple of years trying to figure that out.
Just goes to show how important conversations around this topic are. They enable people to put a name to what they’re experiencing and help reduce stigma, so people feel like they can talk about it openly. It helps to know that they don’t have to be alone while going through it and to see that there are others like them out there. I think attitudes are changing, but some people do have an archaic way of thinking of these things – which is why we still need LGBT+ societies that push and protest for change and legislation in support of the community.
I saw someone say once that the end goal is to be invisible, as that would mean that we are treated just the same as everyone else and no one would feel the need to advocate for themselves out loud just because they’re different. Some of it boils down to bad education as well – there are a lot of people that think pronouns are just a transgender thing and so “they don’t have them” when in reality everybody has pronouns, just some are the expected ones and some aren’t.
What was your coming out like?
It was very casual, I didn’t do any coming out party or announcement, but more because it didn’t occur to me at the time. I like the idea though and I am on the waiting list for going to see a psychologist to talk about hormones and surgery, so maybe when I get closer to making those decisions I’ll make a bigger deal out of it then. But beyond telling my family and friends, I didn’t do anything massive. For me it really wasn’t a big thing – it was more like “oh, that makes sense” and my name is gender neutral anyway so I don’t have to change my name, which I wouldn’t want to change anyway.
When did you tell your family?
In 2013, I was 19 and it was just before I went to university and I decided that I’m going to tell my Mum – and the idea behind the timing of it was that I’m going to go to university anyway, so if she hates me for it she’s not going to see me anyways since I was going to a completely different city. Thankfully it worked out okay – my Mom was like, “Oh, I thought you were going to tell me you were a lesbian and I was prepared for that anyways, so it’s all good”. She genuinely didn’t care. My dad took some time to get his head around it, but he wasn’t present all the time and lived in a different city, so he hadn’t had the same experiences with me that my mom had. Now he’s good with it though, it just took him some time to get used to it.
There was a time my grandmother really struggled to get her head around it as well and she lived with one of my aunts, and my aunt was very defensive of me, making sure to remind her when she got my pronouns wrong and that was really nice to hear. Now my grandma is great with it, and I think the time it took her was more of a reflection of her generation than anything else.
Something I was always worried about in how they would react was that I didn’t want them to think I am like this because they “failed” me in some way or something, but instead they were both like “we sort of saw this coming” and my sister was like “duh, it took you this long to figure it out?” She’s also really protective of me and won’t stand for anyone’s disrespect of me – it’s really nice to know that she’s always in my corner.
How did friends react?
I recently made a post of Facebook, openly letting people know my pronouns and that I am nonbinary and transgender. After that, a friend of mine reached out and said he was really sorry if he’d ever referred to me as female in conversations – which I don’t think he has – but then he said that he’s going to make an effort in conversations with others to use the correct pronouns, and that really meant a lot to me. The fact that you’re going to work on it in private when I can’t hear you is actually really respectful and kind. To not only apologize but to make a point of trying to do better – it’s reflective of the kind of person he is and the kind of friends I have.
What was your experience of being nonbinary and transgender in academia?
University seemed to be alright with it. I had lots of provisions in place and they were really good with remembering to address me properly and use the correct pronouns which was great. I’m still at the same university for my PhD, and I wouldn’t have come back here if they weren’t accepting, so that’s good.
On the enrollment forms there was even the option to specify your pronouns as nonbinary and it’s on my ID cards as well, so it’s been on my university records the whole time which is really considerate. I remember doing the forms and thinking “Oh my God! they actually include people like me, this is amazing!” Beyond that, I had a couple of lecturers who habitually refer to people by name instead of pronouns/prefixes and I think that goes a long way toward inclusivity as well.
My field is in Materials Engineering, which is a more niche area within engineering and is pretty cis-male dominated. My current supervisors are two academics that I’ve known since the start of my university journey through my bachelors and postgrad. The fact that I knew them and that they have always been really respectful of me was definitely a deciding factor for me.
Did being nonbinary and transgender influence friend groups or your social circles?
I’ve never had a bad experience based on my gender identity, but I’m also a pretty introverted person, so I didn’t have much of a social life in school. There was nobody like me in my accommodations or courses, but I don’t think it affected me socially. I did join the LGBT society, but that was really it, in terms of influence it had on my social life.
I was also dealing with my mental health, not related to my gender identity at that time. I have BPD and was pretty symptomatic back then, with bad mood swings, and so I wasn’t very social. Dysphoria probably came into it a little bit, but it wasn’t a huge factor.
How has being nonbinary, transgender, as well as having BPD affected your mental health?
When I first came across terms, such as nonbinary and transgender, that felt like they fit me I had moments where I cried because there was a word for how I feel, and if there is a word for it than it means other people feel the same way and that enough people have thought about it to come up with a way to describe it and that’s really reaffirming.
When I had my BPD diagnosis as well, to have someone say yeah there is a word for how you feel, it means you can take actual actionable steps to feel better. The same for gender identity, once you have a name for it, you can begin to look into other people’s experiences and learn from them, and allow them to help you find yourself and express yourself in a way that’s authentic to you.
I got my BPD diagnosis in 2018, but in general with people who are assigned female at birth, autism is very often misdiagnosed as BPD – so now we’re actually doubting the diagnosis. Women with autism don’t present the same way as men do, with the classic social withdrawal, clever loner archetype. Instead they mask in public and are often overly social, but then have meltdowns in private due to the strain of masking all day. So autism in women is very underdiagnosed, and it’s mainly because all the original research on autism was done in males of course. The same is true for ADD and ADHD in women as well and there too the signs in women are often written off as “typical girl behavior” because they present differently than boys.
That beings said, although it would be annoying if I was misdiagnosed, with that diagnosis I was given access to help which has been very helpful in terms of finding healthy coping mechanisms. I’ve had days where I’ve been so stressed out but masked it and acted like it was fine, and then when I got home had an almost complete breakdown because I’ve spent all day trying to mask that the sensory overload is getting to me. It would be so much better, if I could just be me in public and not have to mask for the benefit of other people. It’s not nice to have to pretend you’re feeling one thing, when you’re really feeling another. I shouldn’t feel like I have to hide who I am to make other people feel more comfortable.
It’s the same with gender identity – people feel like they have to conform to other people’s expectations of what their gender presentation should look like – and it’s so stifling. Other people shouldn’t have a say in the way you choose to express yourself. Expression is a deeply personal thing, and it isn’t really something other people should have an input on.
In that vein, I really don’t understand why traditional femininity is still pushed on women in the first place. To some degree, the idea that women have to be feminine or they’re not real women is probably rooted in internalized misogyny. Even so, it really has an impact on the trans community which has members that might want to dress less feminine but then have to worry that they won’t be seen as “real women” if they do.
Has being openly nonbinary helped you with your self-expression?
I definitely have gotten really comfortable with dressing however I want now, without feeling like I have to pass as a specific gender. If it makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself then that’s the only thing that should really matter. Those realizations were really liberating for me. Getting older has helped with too – I’m the one who buys my clothes, I’m almost 30, I should be able to wear whatever I want!
It all boils down to disregarding the traditional expectations of gender, and the roles that society puts on them. When it comes to figuring out who you are, there really are no rules besides don’t push change on someone else and don’t hurt anyone.