I Wanted To Be My Hometown's "Cool Girl" — Until I Came Out As Non-Binary
I've never felt connected to the gender I was assigned to at birth, but learning to talk about my gender (or lack thereof), and living as a genderless person (ahem, genderless angel), took me close to 20 years. Now, after high school, college, two cross-country moves, and coming out as non-binary, I'm finally starting to feel comfortable when I visit my hometown.
I always knew I was different. The way I related to the other girls in my class, and moreover, the way I related to other boys, was unlike that of my peers. Like most teens, I dealt with body weirdness, self-doubt, and general insecurity, but for me, it manifested differently than I think it did for my female classmates. I never cared about makeup, but I was really consumed with hair — mainly, I wanted it gone and would ponder head shaves frequently. I wore giant maxi-dresses and sweaters, partially because I wanted to be Janis Joplin, but mainly because I had no idea what my body looked like and it seemed easier to wear oversized things than to understand why I felt so disoriented when I was dressed super femme.
I began to mainly hang out with young men, and would notice at parties or bigger hangouts that when "the girls" came over, the energy in the room seemed to shift. Suddenly, what seemed to be casual and platonic felt flirtatious and sexualized. Video games were turned off, jokes were muted. Additionally, my guy friends would ask me to bring girls over, as though I didn't count as one. But, it didn't hurt my feelings: Honestly, to them, and to myself, I didn't. And I still don't.
Before I understood the internalized misogyny implicit in statements like “I’m not like other girls,” I clung to them, idolizing Reggie Rocket and telling myself I was a “cool girl:” a girl that's chill, that won't call you on your bullsh*t, doesn't want to be demanding, and eats pizza in her underwear all day (but is still thin and conventionally good-looking). Boys didn't see me like other girls, and rather than feel rejected, I took it as a compliment. I felt validated in my gender, or lack thereof.
It took me years to understand that I am, in fact, not like other girls — because I'm literally not a girl. I can stand with women, but at the end of the day, I do not feel connected to my body in the lens of femininity or womanhood —and that's OK.
Growing up, I associated queerness almost exclusively with a narrow understanding of “gayness.” I knew that I was attracted to men and masc-presenting people — which confused me even more. I knew I wasn't straight, but I felt like a phony saying I was gay. I felt so lonely, misunderstood, and trapped in my body. I found it impossible to talk about with my friends, especially my friends from home, who I only saw a few times a year. And though I was blessed to have some gay/lesbian/pan/other sexually queer friends, at the time I didn't know anyone trans, genderqueer, or non-binary. I didn't know anyone else who used they pronouns, I didn't know anyone else who wore a chest binder. It was difficult to articulate what I was feeling or what I needed from them, because I hadn't even figured it out myself.
I had always planned on changing my name. Ever since I could talk, I had told strangers that I had several different names. When I began applying to colleges, and the Common App asked for “preferred name,” I made the conscious decision to write Griffin for the very first time. I didn't fully understand why it felt better than writing my now-dead name; I only knew that it did.
I felt a sort of pressure to capitalize on the aspects of my identity that made me different, but not so much as to isolate others. I aimed to be stylish, but not too bold — to be queer, but not too political. This ideation, mixed with the "cool girl” mentality I still toted closely, made for a hot mess and lots of nights crying to Bikini Kill. I didn't know how to express myself and hold room for all the identities that made up my existence. I felt being "non-binary," having a new name, and living in a new place meant taking on a new me. Leaving my old self, back in New England, was harder than I thought.
After coming out, it felt natural to separate from my hometown. I dealt with my gender dysphoria, depression, and loneliness by priding myself on being the one who moved away to LA for college. This gave me a superiority complex of sorts: I felt better, smarter, and more progressive than those I left behind. I took comfort in this, in having a new name and a new life. I wanted to keep my new identity locked up tight, and leave the first 18 years of my life behind. Trips home were short. I rolled my eyes a lot, acted really defensively, and was quick to criticize something or someone before risking being insulted myself.
Meanwhile, my high school friends and family were confused. I felt too afraid to try to explain everything, worried I'd be met with a lack of support. I didn't know what I needed, and I didn't know how to ask for it. My parents had no idea what was happening, and although they always made it clear they loved me (a huge privilege) they didn't really get what I was doing. There's no other way to say it: Sh*t was hard. Since I never officially "came out" to those from my hometown, my friends would dead-name me (a big no-no, unless you have permission), which caused tension between us all. I felt like my community believed that I was doing all of this for attention, or that I was making gender-queerness up. I resolved to never move back home and to limit even quick trips. I didn't want to look back.
Racial, economic, geographic, and so many other privileges allow me to feel physically safe in my hometown in Massachusetts. The overwhelming majority of trans and non-binary people are at high risk for violence and harassment everywhere, according to the ACLU. These threats are especially high in our hometowns — communities we have chosen to leave or spaces we have been forced out of.
And yet, the East Coast has found it's way back into my heart. It started as any love affair always does: with food. My parents would make my favorite East Coast meals (hello, steamers) when I was home, and we'd go to local breweries together. I realized how much I missed these shared moments. Then, I took my favorite high school activity back up — driving around the coast listening to Tom Petty. This gave me a comfort I hadn't felt in years. I started reconnecting with friends I'd lost touch with, finding a couple other old pals that are queer, and lots were making cool art. I got better at telling them who I am, and they got better at listening. Being able to share space and common interests with my family, my dad started reading up and listening to podcasts on everything related to gender. It took years. It took so much crying. It took fighting, and months of not talking to those I love the most. It took therapy and mediation. But it ultimately took moving closer to home, but still a comfortable six-to-eight-hour drive away, to realize that I kind of loved my hometown. I even felt comforted by it, and that was OK.
After years of pressuring myself to completely cut off everything about who I was before, I had unknowingly given up on the possibility that the positive effects that education and representation (again, privilege) can have when speaking to your loved ones about your identity. I wrote everyone off before giving them a chance to understand.
To me, being non-binary is a personal and political rejection of the way gender is conditioned and policed in our society. It’s a way to exist without needing to quantify or prove anything I’m doing or being to others. It’s having room for the townie bars and Red Sox games and the smell of the ocean on the wind that raised me and for the experimental drag theater, time spent in Buddhist monasteries, and writing about sex that sustains me now. To live without gender is to make space for the old yous, and current yous, and new yous to come — which often feel so overwhelming and so at odds with each other, no matter where you are.
After graduating school and moving to Philly, a city that's both comfortably close and comfortably far away from home, I began to see being non-binary as a way of opening my identity up, not closing it off.