There are many things about me that are not obvious simply from looking.
I am queer. I am asexual. I am polyamorous. I am non-binary. I am mentally ill/neurodivergent. What do all these things have in common? They are things that people tend to assume I am not, until I tell them otherwise.
The fact that these parts of me are invisible gives me the ability to move through the world as part of the more accepted majority. But this is a passing privilege. It disappears once it is discovered that I do not, in fact, belong to this or that group.
I tend to have to be the one to disabuse others of the notion that I am of the majority. Until I speak up and say something that outs me as not of the same group (whether it’s an obvious “I’m gay” or, more likely, “I’m going to the queer center after class”), people tend to assume that I am straight, that I have had or will have sex, that if I am dating someone, I am only dating one person, that I am cis, and that I am neurotypical.
Since coming out about one of these things usually takes the form of something I’ve said in the course of ordinary conversation, I pay a lot of attention to what I say in different contexts. I’ve noticed myself shying away from coming out, censoring my language to avoid revealing that I’m queer, that I have two partners, or that I struggle with depression. For some people, this approach is an absolutely necessary self-protection strategy. There are certain situations in which it would be damaging or dangerous to come out about an identity that puts one at risk of stigma and oppression.
But in addition to my passing privilege, I hold a lot of privilege that shields me from these dangerous situations. I am white, I go to a liberal college in a liberal town, and I have a supportive family. Many of the situations in which I hide myself are not truly dangerous to me, except perhaps in terms of anxiety, mental stress, or microaggressions.
So I’ve been examining why I trip over the word “partners” when speaking to an acquaintance, or why I avoid telling someone I’m seeing the doctor to get my depression medication refilled. I’ve begun to realize that I’ve internalized a lot of stigma about various marginalized identities. I’ve spent a long time working the process of unlearning the body terrorism that surrounds mental health, sexuality, gender, and romance. It’s difficult for me to accept that I still have so much of it left inside of me that I often hide who I am out of shame.
Of course, avoiding microaggressions and anxiety can be important reasons to skirt difficult topics like gender and sexuality. But I want to work on recognizing when a situation will require work (and evaluate how up I am to such work) versus when a simple signal that I am gay, ace, or trans will be accepted without further discussion necessary. Furthermore, I want to work on strengthening my resolve and my ability to be out even in more difficult situations, as long as it remains safe for me. Despite the fact that other people may be uninformed about or uncomfortable with a part of me, I’m still allowed to be myself. I don’t want to hide who I am to prevent a situation from simply becoming uncomfortable. And although everyone needs a chance to learn, it’s okay if I’m not feeling up to educating. If I declare that I’m non-binary or asexual and someone doesn’t know what that means, they can go home and Google it if I’m not up for explaining.
It’s a difficult line to walk, and I think the pressure to educate is part of why I step around the marginalized parts of me. It can seem reasonable to be expected to explain something if you bring it up and the other party has never heard of it. If you tell your friend you love Steven Universe, and they’ve never heard of it and ask what it’s about, it’s likely that you’ll be willing to explain. But when it comes to integral parts of my identity, it can be exhausting to face the ignorance of the larger world day after day. I am not being trans or ace as a statement or as a chance to educate others (although I am working towards a more accepting world). I’m just trying to exist as myself, and having to give a primer on gender and sexuality every time I try to be true to myself is both exhausting and depressing.
So I reserve the right to be myself without apology or explanation. It’s an easy thing to declare, and a much more difficult goal to live.
I’ve been working towards a place where I feel more comfortable being open about who I am. A year ago, I sat through classes being misgendered and feeling more and more terrible as I let every pronoun wash over me without comment. Now, I feel more comfortable speaking up and letting someone know my pronouns are they/them, thank you. But I also now know with certainty that not speaking up in a situation like that doesn’t make me any less transgender. It’s difficult to decide when you want to declare who you are and when you don’t want to deal with blank looks and well-meaning but ignorant questions. It’s a struggle for every person who deals with it. But I don’t want to censor myself out of shame rather than a sense of self-care.
Someday, I hope to be able to walk through the world being openly who I am, letting others know exactly what that means. In the meantime, I will continue to try to root out the shame that causes me to hide myself, working to become braver while still taking care of myself when I need to.[Headline image: The photograph shows a white person with curly dark hair covering their eyes with their hands. The person appears to the right of the frame.]