I was asked today if I would be willing to share my “coming out story” tomorrow at a meeting where we’ll be discussing Ash Beckham’s awesome TED Talk. I’ve probably shared versions of my coming out story at least a hundred times to friends, family, coworkers, on various LGBTQ panels, and other forums, not thinking much of it. For some reason, today after I said “Sure! I’d love to!” I paused to really think about what I wanted to say.
For the most part, when sharing my story, it’s pretty much been same, formulaic, uneventful story everyone’s heard from people lucky enough to have an uneventful coming out experience: came out to myself; was scared shitless; came out to a few friends to test the waters; eventually came out to my family and lived queerly ever after. That’s the story I’ve tended to default to because it’s neat, linear, not too complicated, has language that everyone understands, and can be told in under 2 minutes. It’s also not entirely true, because my sexual orientation and gender identity don’t really fit that neatly into a binary, and telling the whole truth, and nothing but makes a short story, long. I’ve been pondering what to say all afternoon and decided to just capture what I know to be true, in this very moment, here. So if you care to hear it, here it goes:
Growing up I always identified as a tom-boy. I was never really into things that were stereotypically/explicitly coded as “girly” — from what I can remember and what I’ve been told — and I loved to play sports, climb trees, ride bikes, draw, paint, build things, and take things apart. I also loathed dresses: both because I felt uncomfortable in them and because they got in the way of the things I enjoyed doing.
Fast-forwarding to puberty (that terrible time that spares no one), I had crushes on girls and boys, but I was (and still am) an overweight, socially-awkward nerd and too busy trying to shake off bullying on those fronts to put too much energy into romantic interaction for quite a while. I did know that the “crushes on girls” part was a bit of a problem from what I heard about “homosexuals” in the media, at church, and the almost-uniformly-negative reactions to rumors that one of the girls in my grade was bisexual. Eventually, I mustered up the courage to come out as bisexual to a few close friends — to mild shock — and we came up with a convoluted nickname in the process (bisexual -> bi -> bifocals -> spectacles -> “specs”). On the gender identity front, I was still a tom-boy, priding myself on being able to sing baritone in the choir. My mom pleaded with me to just wear a skirt once a week and I eventually managed to find a long, grey sweat-shirt-like skirt with cargo pockets — the best compromise I could find. One big moment for me was when I got to dress in drag for a U.S. History assignment reenacting the Dred Scott Decision. I remember applying mascara to look like a mustache and beard, wearing an over-sized blazer, and getting double-takes in the hallway when heading back to class. I remember really liking what I saw in the mirror and enjoying being “sir-ed”. I didn’t feel like a boy — and I didn’t have any language for anything but boy or girl — but I did like how I felt.
Middle school was no cakewalk by any means — I probably have the depressed, suicidal journals around somewhere to show it — but being able to come out fairly uneventfully and being able to try on a new gender helped a lot. That is, until I went to church camp and high school and proceeded to re-closet myself. Attempting to “pray the gay away” made me miserable, and so did lying every time someone asked, directly or indirectly, if I was gay. After struggling with self-mutilation, writing shitty poetry, wearing all black, and generally wanting to die, I just decided to stop lying… at least about the gay part. I started going into lesbian chat rooms and trying to get a feel for what this whole “gay” thing meant. I did my best to squeeze myself into the lesbian box since that seemed the most accommodating. Since I identified with masculinity that made me a “dom” or “stud” and completely precluded any inklings of bisexuality, so I shelved that part of my orientation. I wasn’t great at the hypermasculinity that seemed required to be a “real” stud, but I learned that I could throw a “soft” in front of it and leave well enough alone. Soft Stud was the best box I had at the time, and I held on to it tight because it was the closest thing to authenticity I could wrap my arms around. By senior year, I came out as a lesbian to my parents to no surprise — I get the feeling that just about everyone I came out to knew I was queer before I did.
Comfortable in my identity, I headed to college where I finally got the language that made the boxes disappear. After getting involved with my campus LGBTQ organization I learned a bunch of new words, and queer and genderqueer stuck out in particular. I finally had something that seemed to fit just right. The only problem is that when trying to communicate this new-found, well-fitting identity, no one outside of LGBT Studies programs would reliably know what the hell I was talking about.
That brings us to today. I’m a queer, genderqueer, feminist, whovian, skeptic, engineer, who is really good at being snarky, following recipes, and getting into impassioned discussions on the internet. I don’t pass well when I try to. No amount of binding will completely obscure my large breasts, nor will any amount of teeth grinding harden my baby face. I’m comfortable enough in my masculinity to want to play femininity against it, but I get anxious that my body would betray me and make my desired gender transgression read as cisgender femininity. I’ve begun to cringe more and more at every “she” and “young lady”, especially from people who I’ve told my pronoun preferences before (they/them/their btw), but I don’t want to screw up the numbers for “women in engineering” (a ludicrous thing to feel guilty about). I have no desire to swing from one end of a binary to another — in sexual orientation or gender identity — but that seems to be the prevailing expectation to have a legitimate claim to identity. The coming out process never ends. It’s continuous self-discovery and revelation, but at least I’m getting better at the former.