A Positive Coming Out Story
Content Notes: being trans non-binary, misgendering, discrimation, self hate
Yesterday, 19th December 2019, was one of the best days in my life! I gained trust and lost fear. I found out that I am not only accepted but I would also get all the support I need. The feeling was relieving and overwhelming and even a day later I am close to tears.
Maybe it is helpful to explain my emotional reaction giving some less encouraging background story.
Acceptance is not something you either get or don't get but there's a whole range in between.
There is just plain hurtful ignorance: “No, non-binary is a fantasy. That does not exist in real life. You have to accept that you are a woman.”
I try to ignore the ignorance in turn but sometimes it is impossible.
Maybe even worse: “I accept that but this works only in this little environment. Out there you cannot expect people to not say ‘woman’. That is too complicated for them. You have to understand. You should not complain. That hurts other people’s feelings and makes them feel insecure around you.” While misgendering me, anyway.
Problem here: it sounds like acceptance. The person has an “excuse” and sounds willing, and all in all pretty understanding. It even sounds as if the person would provide you safe space that you cannot expect, like a gift, and you should be thankful for this special effort. Then also this has some roughly true background. So arguing is hard. Complaining is something (you just were forbidden, anyway) that needs thorough thoughts.
So, what’s so bad about it? Well, it basically says other peoples insecurities about doing things right or wrong is an excuse for them to do things wrong. It means, if you are hitting a person each day and you just don’t know that it hurts then it is a bad idea to tell you because that could make you feel bad.
But most importantly it says there is no hope for the world to change. Since they were misgendering me, anyway, on an everyday basis, it said there is no hope to even have a limited environment were people would see me as who I am. It always took away my strength, my energy to fight and also it took away my breath. People I trust said that to me. People who claim to have a good knowledge of human nature. Meaning, for a long time I believed that I will never find a place where people accept me as the person I am.
(At this point I admit that I am a little afraid to publish this, because it may hurt them. It’s still there. Making other people feel bad on first glimpse is worse to me than saying what I need or being open about my feelings.)
Maybe a little more or less fun story about having the staff department of our institute know that they should change my gender entry in their system:
I went there and said something like: “I am diverse. Meaning neither male nor female. Can you change that in the system.”
The office worker: “Sure, what’s your name?”
Me: “Maren Kaluza”
The office worker: “Sure, Mrs Kaluza, we will just need your birth certificate.”
I was thinking, should I say something about the ‘Mrs’? Or is it just too much right now. I decided to just do the forms.
Me: “I have it with me.”
The office worker took it and said, we needed to copy it, then hesitated and turned around and looked at me again.
The office worker: “I shouldn’t adress you with Mrs, right?”
I nodded, a little surprised in a positive way.
The office worker: “But what should I say then? I also cannot say Mr!”
(Btw: that is my decision. Just in case you would like to know how it would be perfect: Ask the first question. Skip the comment. There are non-binary people who like to be adressed with Mr)
Me: “I prefer no title. My whole name would be nice.”
The office worker: “But that sounds strange, right? If I say ‘Hello Maren Kaluza’ all the time.”
Me: “Do you actually do that? From my point of view you need a name to introduce a person and to talk about that person but you have no need to reference a person all the time when talking to them, do you?”
The office worker thinks for a moment, then agrees.
The office worker: “Well, when automatically mails are generated, do you also prefer to be adressed as ‘Dear Maren Kaluza’ then?”
The office worker: “Okay, the IT needs to work on that but this might take until next year. You have to understand that the system is complicated and cannot adapt so fast. Also you are the first person who is diverse here, and that is not our most urgent problem.”
I nodded, although I have a slightly (not completely) different opinion. I decided to point out just my most important issue:
Me: “Maybe there are more non-binary people who just didn’t choose to make it public or for whom this procedure is exhausting.”
The office worker nods and copies my birth certificate. (By the way, when I applied they didn’t need one to estimate my gender (Yes, I think estimate is a reasonable choice of phrasing)). The office worker turns around and hands me the original birth certificate, looks at me, waits a little moment and then asks:
“But you are a woman, aren’t you?”
(I didn’t take the chance to be all cynical or ironic or something and just said “No”. But discussing that afterwards in my awesome chaos family bubble thingy was gold. So many fun supportive ironic comments. I am not even good with irony but sometimes it helps me coping with such kinds of situations)
The awesome chaos family bubble thingy mentioned above is a group of people I found in my life who are welcoming and always supportive, diverse and accepting. It is not a fix group, more like a continuum and for each person who is part of it there is a more or less fix subgroup.
This was the first environment where I was publicly non-binary and somehow expected full acceptance. I mean, I always have been public. I said that I don’t want to become a woman when people told me about puberty. When people later adressed me with that term or with the whole set of gendered terms that German forces us to use (like Physikerin which basically means female physisist, and you cannot easily say physisist in German without a reference to one specific gender) I always felt uncomfortable and occassionally discussed that. I got a lot of responses like the first two during my life.
But within this family things are simple. You say how you feel and people believe you. You mention a problem and even if they have never heard about such kind of problems before they support you. Interaction is based on the unbelievable assumption that you are not pretending, that you are telling the truth, and that you are a valid human been, no need to fit into patterns.
Within that bubble people ask me how I want to be referred to on a more or less regular basis, with the extra question if it was okay that they ask now and then.
In English I prefer ‘they’ but in German pronouns have a different context to me. A ‘chair’ in German has a pronoun but no gender. It turns out that my preferred way would be to have it changed, to actually be referred to with all the pronouns. But I still have the feeling that this is too much to ask. I usually say, in German I am okay with any pronoun, which is close enough to perfect. (Maybe best would be an established neutral pronoun that is not the German version of ‘it’.)
But at least one of these awesome people from my chaos family bubble thingy does that and it feels so perfect and fitting and warm and, wow! I just feel loved and appreciated.
This bubble is a nice accepting environment that I found at the age of 26. I wish this luck to everyone. My life changed a lot since then. I don’t want to miss it. It is a huge difference to go through life having a supportive circle of friends or not. A home you can rely on. With all the lovely people who all themself were broken by society in their past more or less. The people who I care for so much, that I cry in this moment because I love them and because I am allowed to be a part of it.
Thank you <3
My social bubble I talked about so passionately was informed about LGBTQIA* topics before they even met me. Maybe they learned something new, because I told them. Maybe I got informed about something because they told me. But more or less this bubble reads a lot of information about all different kinds of topics concerning inclusion on an everyday basis.
The same is not true for my working environment and never has been. They know something, have heard of things, of course. They also have experiences I will never have. It is a diverse environment in a broader sense and that is nice.
When I started working there I was afraid to be public about my gender identity. I was afraid to be public about it in many environments. I learned to be afraid as explained above. I also had bad experiences with being somewhat different in other working environments.
I carefully told my collegues who work with me in the same office. They listened. It was new to them but they listened, anyway, and encouraged me to be open. Not just saying, “just be open” or so. More like “I think you can” and “It’s fine if you decide to”, and understanding that this is important to me, that this would change things.
I informed the collegue I was most afraid of telling because that collegue did an (accidentally) sexist statement implying that I was a woman. It took lots of courage, but the collegue also listened and apoligized and also assured to support me. That was not an empty promise. In fact that might have been what encouraged me to make it public in a department meeting.
I planed a little speech, did some notes, a day before. I prepared cake, and finally said something like:
“I would also like to make a little anouncement. I have a new birth certificate now with a diverse entry. That means I am neither male nor female. I would like to celebrate this a little and brought some cake we can have in the afternoon. Also I am okay with any kind of questions.”
(I actually am if the questions are not implying something. If your intentions are good, you might ask me questions if you have some. I will take into account that you maybe do not have much background and might use phrases that are usually considered hurtful for a reason. I will then explain to you why you probably should be more careful in future but in that moment I won’t take it personally. I usually only get hurt by people who are not willing to accept or are not even trying to listen or to adapt.)
There was applause. Not just a little, but like they really cared. And the only question that arose in that very moment was:
“What is your preferred pronoun?”
The best question you could get in that situation I guess. That makes me still happy.
During that little speech I was at least as nervous as I have been the first time speaking in front of all my collegues (which happens regularly in the department meeting). I stopped being able to think clearly and didn’t see my environment. I really had to rely on my notes.
Said collegue sent a message to our department (asking me about the phrasing and if it was fine with me) to invite the others from our department who had not been in the meeting to the little celebration on the diverse entry in my birth certificate.
Later there were more questions and not a single one of them hurtful. They were just curious, asking thoughtfully. The atmosphere was such that I even somehow was open about planned surgery. I was a bit overwhelmed (that is an understatement) and had a self hate phase afterwards which was completely nonsense but I never was so open in front of people I didn’t know so well before. That was just a reflection of the hate or attack I would have received before in other groups (or that I actually received). Nothing happend. It all went well.
Despite this sounding great already, that wasn’t this best day I was talking about in the beginning. Some, including a collegue who often introduces me to other people and speaks about my work in public, at first didn’t respond in person, didn’t say anything for a while. I did not care too much since there also was no negative feedback and no change in the behaviour towards me. Or at least I thought I didn’t care too much. In fact I didn’t even know what not caring means. Then the day came where I wrote a little biography about myself in third person for the 36C3 (36th Chaos Communication Congress) where I am a speaker. I used ‘they’ to reference myself.
Said collegue (C) read it and wrote an email that there were spelling errors in my bio, I should come. I realized I was afraid that C would refer to the pronoun. That actually was the case but only because C didn’t know. C accepted it immediately, promised to train it since in the beginning such things feel unfamiliar. It didn’t sound like “you have to accept that this will not always work out” but more like “This is my task now. I need to do that. Please help me a little getting it right.”
C admitted to actually have wanted to ask me already how to adress me or refer to me. I said, ‘they’ is my prefered pronoun but more importantly I would really like to not be called a woman or lady or something with a gender. C thought for a moment and asked if ‘person’ would be fine. I agreed. C informed me that C admires my courage and is very glad that I am open with it. I admitted that indeed it took some courage. C assured to support me no matter what, and basically was able to convince me that I never need to be afraid again in my working environment. That was never the case in my whole life before. Never ever was I fearless to freely ask people to refer to me in another way. Never before had I not the feeling to ask too much or for something impossible.
C said (and is right about that) that we all are strange in some way (strange not in anyway insulting) and that we in our department try to be open and welcoming that. I think it actually works out! I feel welcome as I am.
I said “You are so encouraging!” and C repeated that sentence highlighting the ‘you’.
I can tell you it makes a huge difference to feel safe. There is so much energy that previuosly was invested into fear that I now acutally can invest into research, into socializing (sometimes, this still is an issue but that is another story and it is also accepted in my working environment), into speaking in public and presenting.
Although it sounds contradicting to the whole message here, gender is of not much importance to me, unless people tell me to care about their gender. The problem is that other people do care. If nobody would care and you were introduced as Mrs XXY or Mr XXY and you just said “No, just XXY, Mrs and Mr are both wrong.” people would just adapt and change the adressing. As long as they don’t, they care. And that results in an uncomfortable feeling. It’s not a nice feeling when people see something in you that you are not and try to pressure you into patterns that just don’t fit.
As I began: There is a whole range of differently uncomfortable and up to hurting szenarios that happen every day. Let it just be that people misgender you. As a single happening now and then this might be a little irritating. But as a person this happened to on a daily basis compared to not having to care because people just get it (I am not there yet but close enough to have a glimpse of that feeling) I can tell you, it makes a huge difference. Because then I can stop caring.
Thank you, all of you who built and build this environment!