When I first came out as nonbinary back in September of 2021, I did not know what sort of roller coaster I was jumping onto. All I knew was that I was celebrating six months into my legal name change, starting a career as a full-time ELA instructor, and struggling with exposing my own truth.
The term "agender" (or not feeling attachment to any particular gender) has felt right for me since 2019; long before then, I used the term ‘genderfluid,’ so one can easily see that this has been an ongoing process. Change is supposed to be a beautiful thing, you know? We, as people, develop and grow every day of our lives! However, what never changed in that time frame was the constant feeling of repression, which made all of the other changes increasingly difficult.
The best analogy I have for the experience is that, in my day to day life, I felt like a space creature, hiding away beneath a human visage. I was safe, sure, but I hated every minute of being called ‘human’ when I knew I was meant to be among the stars. I was also hyper aware of the fact that humans generally are comfortable solely with what they know—that’s why the fear of the unknown is so popular in media and literature! I would be stirring discontent among the people who had known me for years, if they knew my true identity, and the resulting guilt kept me in hiding.
Now … throw the responsibilities of being a public service worker into the mix.
I have dedicated myself to my career as a high school teacher for over half a decade. I love the work I do, I love my kids, and I love my content. I was terrified of all of this falling apart the moment I came out, and I wasn't too far from the truth. What I once thought was a safe space for me became a strange new terrain for me to explore with both its blessings and its curses.
My students? They were where I first felt safe. Many of them are open-minded, aware, and understanding, even more so than most of the other adults in my life, and I think that is pretty telling for our youth. They deserve a little more credit than what many give them.
While every experience is going to be different, I can at least give you all an anecdote of my experience in a rural setting. If you are considering coming out in a public service job, you might want to saddle up and be best prepared for the bumpy ride! Here is what I have learned over the past year …
1) Be Prepared for Backlash.
I was aware this was coming since the moment I came out. There aren't many protections for nonbinary employees in public service, and I knew this was going to be the case, if I ever had any problems. Still, I knew what had to be done, and I took a leap of faith. Patience is key here. No one's going to get formalities right overnight, but it would be so much easier if the climate I came out into was a little more accepting. I cannot tell you how demeaning it feels to be told that using Mx. is unprofessional and is a political agenda, especially after expressing the desire to use a gender neutral title and they/them pronouns without an original complaint. To this day, there are people who still use my dead name, ignore my pronouns without correction, and treat me differently; every time, it makes me feel unheard in a system where listening to the needs of others is essential for growth. I still regret nothing, but I easily learned who I should and should not trust.
2) Questions, Questions, Questions: Expect Them
That's what learning is all about, isn't it? Asking questions and answering them is part of our job. Also expected, there were a lot of questions when I first came out, just as there were when I legally changed my name. I don't know why it was viewed as a bad thing that students and parents had questions about my gender identity. Aside from those who are downright intolerant, I would have loved to have been given an opportunity to introduce the concept more so the stigma could gradually fade away. Maybe I am a little naïve and hopeful for better, but I think that is all a part of seeking acceptance in a rural community.
Now, without further ado, here is my list of students' FAQs:
- Why is Mx. on your board? Is that a misspelling?
Nope! It's a title that's gender neutral. I use it like other teachers would use Ms., Mrs., or Mr.!
- What exactly does being nonbinary mean?
Being nonbinary deals with not following the binary gender alignments. If you want to know more, research it!
- Can I call you (last name)?
You bet you can! That shows me you're making an attempt to respect the fact that I don't use Ms., just as I would hope to respect you!
- Will you be upset if I slip up?
Nope! You are still learning, and knowing you are trying makes me happy.
3) Acceptance Comes from Unexpected Places
You know, even with all of the above hurdles, there are beautiful people who are willing to accept and applaud you for being unapologetically you. I had a support system, of students and staff alike, who made frequent attempts to respect my pronouns and use my appropriate title.
Like I said, my students were where I felt safest. They gave me strength like no other and were advocates in their own way. I heard stories of them from other teachers; they made attempts to correct themselves and educate their friends, they made an effort to understand where I was coming from, and … the most touching of all, they stood up for me when I felt broken by the system that made me feel like I was selfish for wanting to live openly.
For anyone who knows me, I am very protective of my kids. In this moment, they were mutually protective of me, and that was something I never once expected. I admit that I cried after seeing all the cards, reading all the emails, and hearing all the spoken words that expressed nothing but kindness and empathy. This will never be forgotten.
4) You Will Build a Safety Net
This is my favorite part of being openly non-binary. This isn't MY safety net I am talking about, even if that concept of safety would be nice. No, I am referring to the one I build for them every day of my life. The LGBTQ+ youth—the ones who don't know who else to turn to when they reside alongside me in this unforgiving society. They know they are safe when in my classroom or in my presence, and because of that, I have had many confide in me about their stories, their struggles, and most frequently, their need to have someone who will listen, provide support, and make them feel unashamed. I even have former students, who have long since graduated, reaching out to me. These are the ones who seek a little support here and there as they learn about themselves or who request advice on how to deal with various aspects of their life. I am always happy to provide a welcome space where they are free to be who they are, for they are and will always be, in some way, my students.
One of the mottos I live by as a teacher is … "Be the teacher you needed when you were a student." Alongside teaching literature, grammar, and writing, I intend to be a pinnacle of love and light, for both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ youth. Some would say I am enforcing a political agenda—what I'm doing, however, is providing a real world experience. I would much rather my students go out into this world—into college, vocational school, the workplace, the world—accepting those who are different from them. It is a much better future than playing witness to a thriving climate of intolerance.
5) Nonbinary Titles are SO Validating!
In lesson #1, I mentioned that there were those who had issues with my use of the Mx. title. From what I gathered, they did not like the idea of me utilizing something they didn't understand, even after I made an attempt to educate them on the subject. However, SEVERAL of my students (and a few colleagues) were happy to oblige in referring to me with my title of choice.
You know, it feels great to be comfortable and confident in your own skin. It feels so validating to be acknowledged in a career path where giving so much of yourself is basically a daily requirement. An appropriate title is the bare minimum of what it means to provide acknowledgement and respect to an instructor, and since Ms. was causing me gender dysphoria, I could no longer comfortably use it. While I wish I had more support when I transitioned to using Mx., the fact that there were those who willingly used it for my comfort speaks words about those who did and did not respect me as a non-binary educator.
I also mentioned in lesson #2 that I was comfortable with allowing students and staff to refer to me by last name only (no title attached). For me, it was a matter of compromise for those who may not be so ready or willing to try the Mx. title. It may not be ideal, but if I'm expecting progress in my rural community, I personally feel it best to be a little flexible and provide other options.
It's been almost one year since I came out as non-binary. Just like most things, there are ups and downs / positives and negatives to being out as a public service worker, and as I have been exploring them, I have learned a lot about myself.
For those of you who are non-binary and are in the education system, regardless as to whether you are out or not, I am here for you. I hear you loud and clear and am fighting alongside you every day for us to be recognized and heard. Don't forget that every step forward makes a difference, no matter how small of one you take.
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