Coming Out Genderqueer: An Open Letter to My Family & Friends

November 26, 2013  |  journal entries

As published on Facebook, where I could tag at least 20 of ‘em.

Dear family & friends,

Especially friends from my childhood and high school years who have found me for whatever reasons on Facebook, and family with whom I’m not particularly close, and coworkers from previous jobs who I have perhaps never had this chat with:

THE “GENDERQUEER COMING OUT” PART

I have something to tell you: I’m genderqueer. That means I live my day-to-day life somewhere between “man” and “woman,” often facing all sorts of daily interactions where the general public doesn’t “get” my gender, from kids in the grocery store asking, “are you a boy or a girl?” and their mom hushing them and turning away, to little old ladies in the women’s room staring wide-eyed and backing out of the restroom slowly, only to then return with a confused and self-protective look on their face, to service industry folks saying, “Can I help you, sir? Uh, ma’am? Uh … ?”

That confusion, that in-between state, is precisely it. That’s who I am. I’m neither, and both. I’m in-between.

You may already know this about me, just from following me on Facebook and doing whatever sleuthing you’ve done about my projects. You probably know I’m queer. But, if you want to know, I’m going to explain a few more things about my gender for a minute.

ON GENDER

If you want to delve a little deeper into my particular gender, I consider myself butch, I identify as masculine, and I consider genderqueer part of the “trans*” communities, using trans-asterisk as the umbrella term to encompass, well, anybody who feels in-between. I’ve been identifying as “butch” for a long time—perhaps you’ve heard me use this word, an identity I consider to mean a masculine-identified person who was assigned female at birth. I consider myself masculine, but as I delve further into gender politics and theory and communities, the boxes of “woman” and “man” feel too constricting and limiting for me to occupy them comfortably.

I have for years thought that it was extremely important for people like me—masculine people with a fluid sense of gender and personality traits, who don’t feel limited by gender roles or restricted by gender policing—should continue to identify as women as a political act, as a way to increase the possibilities of what “woman” can be. That’s really important. And I still believe that is true, and heavily support that category.

Problem is, “woman” has never fit me. I had bottomless depression as a teenager (perhaps some of you remember I was sent to the principal’s office once for “wearing too much black”), plagued often by the idea of “woman” and adult womanhood. I could not understand who I would be in that context. And honestly, I still can’t.

But—even though it is in some ways harder, living outside of the gender norms—this in-between makes so much sense to me.

ON PRONOUNS (This part is important.)

For a few years now, I’ve been stating, when asked, that I prefer the third-person pronouns they and them when referring to me. That means, if you’re speaking of me in a sentence, you’d say, “They are about to walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail, it’s true,” or “Did you hear they just published another book?” or, “I really like spending time with them.”

See? Easy.

Lately, when people ask what my preferred pronoun is, I have been saying, “I prefer they and them, but all of them are fine and I don’t correct anybody.” I don’t mind the other pronouns. They don’t irk me. But when someone “gets” it, and honors the they/them request, it makes me feel seen and understood.

There are other options for third-person pronouns which are gender neutral—or rather, not he or she. “They” is the one that I think, as a writer, is the easiest for me to integrate into sentences. I completely believe in calling people what they want to be called (that has always been one of my mom’s great mom-isms), so I always do my best to respect pronouns, but I still struggle with the conjugations and the way those words fit in a sentence.

Some people—particularly those (ahem like me) who were English majors and for whom grammar rules are exciting—think the “singular they,” as it’s called, is grammatically incorrect. But it’s not. It’s actually been used in literature for hundreds of years. Here’s one particular article on the Singular They and the Many Reasons Why It Is Correct. Read up, if that intrigues you.

WHY THE BIG DEAL?

I haven’t sat any of my family—immediate or extended—down and said, Hi, I’d like you to use they/them pronouns for me. I don’t generally tell people that unless they ask. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I haven’t told you, what I’m afraid of, and what is keeping me from this conversation.

I’m not particularly afraid that you won’t “get it” or that you won’t honor it. If you don’t, that’s actually okay. I am part of some amazing trans* and genderqueer and gender-forward communities full of activism, respect, advocacy, and understanding, and I’m very lucky to feel whole and respected in that work.

And really, I believe that the very vast majority of you actually really wants to know, wants to honor my choices. I think you are probably curious about this. But for whatever reason, my (and probably your) west coast sensibilities are keeping us from having a direct conversation.

So, here ya go. It’s not particularly personal, but it’s the beginnings of something, and it’s my offering to you to talk about this, if you want to.

See the thing is, by not having this conversation with you, by not giving you the opportunity to respect my gender and pronouns (even if you think it’s weird-ass and strange and don’t get it), I’m limiting our intimacy. I’m not giving you all the chance to really know me. And maybe … you want to. Maybe this will open up something new between us.

Or maybe you’ll just go, “Huh. Okay. Whatever.” That’s fine too.

If you have questions, or want to talk about all this gender stuff, I am open to that. Ask away. (You don’t always get a free pass to ask weird questions, so you might want to utilize this opportunity.) But before you do, you might want to check out The Gender Book for some basic terminology, concepts, and ideas.

Sorry I haven’t told you yet. I’ve been telling myself that it “isn’t that important,” but actually it’s been a barrier between us, in some minor big ways.

Sincerely,

That kid who was in English class with you in high school,
Your former coworker,
Your cousin,
Your nibling (did you know that’s the gender neutral term for neice or nephew??),
Your grandkid,
The older sibling of your childhood friend,
Your best friend from 6th grade,
That queer who was crushed on you before they knew they were queer,

Sinclair

PS: Feel free to steal this idea for your own Facebook pages.

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23 Comments


  1. Brilliant! Thank you so much for this.

  2. Well said.

    I think if people matter to us then what they call us and/or how they refer to us matters. Pronouns, pet names, whatever.

  3. What an excellent and timely topic! Thank you for sharing and for explaining so clearly what genderqueer and trans* mean. I’ll be keeping a copy of this for my own social networks. :)

  4. hi! i identify as genderqueer myself, and i’ve really been thinking about the entire coming out thing as of late (or maybe forever) too! i was really contemplating a fb post, & i’ve discarded several drafts already. part of the reason why i haven’t really come out as genderqueer (or queer) is because i don’t have the courage to put such an integral part of myself out there, and because i really don’t know anyone who’s doing the same. reading your post makes me feel as though i know, for sure, that i’m sure as hell not alone, and not weird. thank you so much for posting this – you’ve definitely made my day. <3

    • Hi kay, thanks for your note.

      I totally understand it’s an integral part of yourself and it’s hard to put out there … I feel really lucky to be so deeply involved in queer and genderqueer communities, where I feel like that’s my “real life” with my “real friends,” so when I started thinking about doing this, it was clear that the worst things that could possibly happen (that they’d harass me? disown me? unfriend me?) were not scary. Anybody who would respond with that, I wouldn’t really want to be friends with anyway.

      So I got it in my head that I would write this note, and did, and the response has been great. But what I didn’t anticipate was that as soon as I published it, I got really nervous! It was scarier than I expected. I have gotten really comfortable at keeping my childhood friends/family/former coworkers OUT of my queer/genderqueer life. There’s a pretty strong separation between them, even. And while I post all kinds of things on Facebook, and am out as Sinclair and post all the time about gender/queer things, but I don’t usually talk to any of them *directly* about that stuff. I’m not sure if they just ignore that part of my Facebook feed, or have me muted, or are fascinated, or who knows.

      It’s definitely been more vulnerable than I expected. Still, I like to do this kind of thing, to push edges. And I do think that my family & (old) friends are genuinely curious about it, and want to respect people’s wishes and gender and pronouns and etc, but most of us are just too polite or nervous or uncertain or scared to say the wrong thing to ask. So I hope it opens up some conversations.

  5. This. Thank you so much for this.

  6. I had a moment of relief and recognition reading your words. The part that went right to my pubic bone was what you said about being plagued by the idea of “woman” and adult womanhood: “I could not understand who I would be in that context. And honestly, I still can’t.” I don’t know why but that sweet pair of sentences just entered me and felt good. Thank you.

  7. I really wish I could come out like this, but I feel like I can’t really do that until I have a more concrete way to describe my identity, and am able to answer any questions people will throw at me.

    I’m also scared that I’ll cause rifts within my extended family, which are already a little tenuous as it is. I want to not care, but the truth is, we’ve been working to repair those relationships, and I don’t want to mess things up further.

    • Wow, Miss Tom, sounds like two very clear barriers to coming out about gender—clarity around description and gender identity, and also tenuous extended family relationships. I totally respect that. I don’t mean any pressure for you to do the same thing by describing my own path … I can understand how both of those would make it harder. I’m lucky to both have some language and a relatively stable extended family (whose opinions mostly don’t affect me).

      Regardless of your journey, hope it goes the best it can along the way.

      • I’d like to respond to Miss Tom as well. I also held back for a long time because I had a hard time figuring out how to describe myself and what I wanted from people in clear, easy to digest terms. At some point I realized that this is who I am, that I am not black and white or concrete easy to understand definitions. There is some fluidity to my identity and definitely some cognitive dissonance around the pronouns I prefer and the way I look to other people’s eyes. So I’ve been going with what I know at the moment. When people ask me what my preferred pronouns are, I tell them what they are for me in that moment. I also thank them for asking. I tell people that my identity has been in the works for a long time and even though it’s firming up more in the last few years, there still may be changes in how I communicate who I am going forward. And I thank them for their friendship and support and patience.

        • Thank you both for taking the time to respond to my comments.

          I am definitely okay with a certain amount of fluidity in myself, but I’ve never been sure how to convey that fluidity to people in a non-confusing way. Maybe there isn’t a perfect way to do this. I’ve sometimes thought about going back and forth between pronouns, but it would just cause more problems than it would solve. Plus, I really love being a “she” with a name like Tom.

          Maybe part of my reluctance to come out on such a grand scale is more due to fear of what people will think about me (and I will freely admit that some of this might be anxious over-worrying). Not only do I want anything bad to happen to me, but I don’t want my (straight male) partner to be hurt as a result of this unless he feels ready to deal with it. I don’t want to throw anything at him that he can’t handle.

          Sorry for rambling, and thank you again for listening.

          • As sure as I am about my fluidity and who I am, I’m still unsure about how much “trouble” to cause others, you know? And by ‘trouble’ I mean, inconvenience, confusion, doubt, insecurities, etc. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m worth those side-effects. So are you :-)

  8. *massive applause* Congratulations Sinclair!!! What a wonderful and beautifully written letter. It is people like you, and letters like this, that make the differences in the world. How can we erase invisibility when it is ourselves that choose to remain unseen? I hope you have had nothing but positive reactions and responses to this, and that you are getting all the props and lovin you deserve. :)

  9. We already know how much alike we are but major portions of this post could have come, almost directly, from posts I’ve written and discussions I’ve had on Facebook and in person. It’s frustrating, to me, to not have a clear easily digested identity. That’s my hang-up and I’m working on it. I’m working to embrace myself as a middle-grounder, gray rather than black and white, someone who embraces ‘and’ rather than ‘or’.

    I’ve done a lot of posting on my identity and preferred pronouns on Facebook, within full view of my mom and family and co-workers and parents of my kid’s classmates and the whole community. That has prompted some friends to ask me about my preferred pronouns. As I mentioned in the response to Miss Toms, I always thank them for asking. It’s not easy to ask and I feel it’s important to acknowledge that they might have their hearts hammering in their chests when they ask and be afraid of a negative response. I have yet to sit down with my mom and dad and close family and talk about my gender identity (except for my brother, who knows everything). I have an opportunity to come out as trans* and genderqueer to my parents over Christmas week, I just haven’t decided if I will or not. But I’m getting closer and it does really help to see you take your steps in disclosure, Sinclair. We all have reasons for holding back and some of us aren’t in situations that are safe for disclosure. That’s why it matters when any of us come out, because not all of us can.

    much love to you, brother, hoping your holidays are sweet and you start the new year with an even stronger sense of self. namaste.

  10. Hi Sinclair,
    Thank you for sharing this. I am communications director for Reconciling Ministries Network, an independent non-profit working to make The United Methodist Church fully inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ persons. We have a growing number of people in our network who identify as trans* and genderqueer. I shared your story on our facebook page. If you would ever be interested in writing something for our blog (rmnblog.org) I would love to feature a story by you.

    Peace,
    Andy

  11. Thank you for this opportunity to learn a bit more about queer culture. A friend is gender queer, and i’ve been alternating pronouns, never feeling comfortable with either. Since THEY never specified their preference, (and i was embarassed to ask) I simply fumbled along. I was taught “they” is improper. Now i can freely use the word and have a comeback for the grammar police. :-)

    Blessings!

    • Hi Beth! Thanks for your comment. I would definitely encourage you to ask, rather than fill in a pronoun, even a “neutral” one like they/them. In lots of genderqueer communities, asking has become a really common practice, in the way that you’d say, “How ya doing?” Just as ease-ful: “Oh, hey, I don’t think I know—what pronouns do you prefer?” And then do your best to actually USE the pronouns they say. Some of them (like they/them or ze/hir) can be really awkward in speech, I find, so do your best to practice saying them so they fall out of your mouth easier. Glad to open up another possibility for you!

  12. So intelligently written. I love your discussion about grammar. (The nerd in me) As an old fashioned gay man I’m just recently trying to understand the trans issues with the many members within “our” community. I wish you all the best and in many ways you are more ahead of the curve in gender issues than I am. Thank you.

  13. Hi Sinclair, this whole concept is so new to me. I guess I’ve lived a sheltered life. Also I’ve been conditioned to not say ‘queer’ since in the past was considered derogatory. A question. If you insider yourself ‘butch’ doesn’t that mean that your not ‘both’?

    • hi Elaine,

      Thank you for commenting, and for asking. “Queer” definitely used to be a derogatory word, and many people in the LGBTQIAA (or QUILTBAG or TBGLMNOP) worlds still really dislike that word and don’t use it themselves. But it is growing significantly in popularity and usage, even to the point where some universities have “Queer Studies” programs. In my take on things, it’s become a pretty excellent umbrella term for any and all folks in the LGBTQIAA worlds. To some, it defines a lifestyle or sense of self much more than it defines who or what gender(s) the person may be sexually and/or romantically attracted to. I just think it’s way easier to say “queer” than to list off all those letters in the acronym.

      But, when it comes to talking about a particular individual, I think it’s important to use the word that THEY want you to use for them. If someone identifies as lesbian, use that. If they use gay, use that. As an outsider to the queer worlds, it’s much harder to use the “reclaimed” words—like queer, or fag, or dyke.

      So that brings me to the word “butch.” I love the word and identity label of butch because, while it’s been traditionally a word to describe a “masculine woman,” it has been evolving in the last 20+ years to include a variety of genders. I think there can be genderqueer butches, trans butches, male butches, female butches—any kind, really. Also, I really like placing myself in the lineage, in the legacy of female butches. That is very much where I come from, who my foremothers are, and I am so incredibly lucky to have the gifted life I have in part because of what all of those people did through activism and visibility in the past.

      I do consider myself “female,” which is my biological sex, but not a “woman,” which is a gender identity. I do consider myself masculine (as opposed to feminine), but still, not a woman. I consider my gender presentation to be butch. All of these—biological sex, gender identity, and gender presentation—can be the same, or can be slightly different. Take a look at The Gingerbread Person depiction of gender for more of an elementary breakdown about that.

      Also, in addition to those other things I identify as (female, butch, masculine) I also identify as trans and genderqueer. I think I “queer gender” by occupying a place that is not female-woman-feminine, which is the basic “cisgender” way of occupying gender. I consider myself trans because I don’t feel that the identities of “man” or “woman” fit me.

      I hope that clarifies a few things … feel free to ask more questions! And thanks for reading.

      Sinclair

  14. Thanks for your explanation and sharing your personal situation. I am straight but have contact with several people in the LBGTQ community, and I always fell hesitant about using pronouns when talking with them. Now I will ask what they prefer I use and it will increase my comfort level when we talk.

    • Carol— Asking is great! It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just slipping into regular conversation something like, “Oh sorry, I’m not sure I know your pronouns. What do you go by?” And then doing your best to use the ones that they state is enough. If you mess up (which you might—I do sometimes!) just make a brief apology and do better in the future. If you need to, practice talking about them and using their pronoun. Maybe that seems weird (talking about someone behind their back, for example) but it can be really useful to make non-ordinary pronouns like they/them or ze/hir start to sound more normal.

  15. Question: if you had been assigned male at birth, all else remaining constant, do you still think you would have identified as genderqueer? i.e. how much of it do you think is an innate identity inherent to who you are, and how much of it political? In a hypothetical society where we actually had full gender equality and the boxes of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ were much wider than they currently are, do you think you would still consider yourself genderqueer, or would you then be comfortable being one or the other?

    I’m a trans guy who used to identify as genderqueer, but for me it was more of a stepping stone because I was afraid to come out all the way (like gays who falsely identify as bi at first). A lot of what you’re saying resonances with my own gender history, so I’m curious where the difference lies, given that I’m someone who continues to be uncomfortable with misogyny and male privilege but still wants very much to be seen and treated as male. Or is *that* the difference?

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