The Indestructable Trans Rep

Around a year ago, I lost my mental health battle and had a hard break from reality. You know, like the kind where you feel like you’re on cloud nine and in hell all at once. It was terrifying for me, and terrifying for those around me, I’m sure. Lots of people have embellished what happened (cause I guess it’s cool now to have a “crazy person” story), but what it came down to was that I cut open my wrist (to the bone!!!) and got to spend more than a month in a psych ward getting on mood stabilizers. Pretty intense, huh?

Zip back a couple of months, though, and one of the things that kept me from admitting, even to myself, that something was off was being a transgender activist. Okay, yeah, leadership roles and such have that effect on people, but even more so in this particular role. You see, nearly every day, I faced the argument that me being transgender was a mental illness. Even within the trans community itself, I got a lot of flack for being a non-binary identified person. It was like not choosing a side of the binary automatically labeled me as unstable.

So as soon as I had any symptoms of actually being unstable, I didn’t go to a counselor. I couldn’t even begin to admit that it wasn’t normal or okay that I wasn’t sleeping for days at a time. And maybe, you know, the paranoid delusions I had about everyone being out to get me weren’t that far off. People were out to get me; or people like me. Violence happens to trans people and visibly queer people every day. But more importantly, I didn’t need one more thing to invalidate who I was for other people.

In a lot of activism, accusations of the other side being “insane” or “delusional” are quick and common cheap shots, but the way they’re met speaks volumes about how activists respect mental illness. Which is wild when you think about how many people, especially in marginalized communities, suffer from mental illness! How can anyone jump back and staunchly deny any mental health issue, like admitting a mental illness is admitting that your viewpoint and your identity isn’t valid?

Of course, these days, I’m faced with the same argument; the idea that I’m mentally ill or sick because of the way I identify. And so what? I have a mental illness. And you know what? I’m still trans and I’m still valid.

Outside the Binary: Not Outside of Harassment

I haven’t covered a night shift at the convenience store in over two months, but I’m the kind of person who returns favors. So when one of the guys (who saved my sanity by covering my shifts when I was double booked) needed a favor, I took a night shift. If you’ve ever been up around 2am in a college town, you know the kind of vibe this area can have.

I was relegated to the register, and things were going swimmingly until a group of young adults got upset over being carded for cigarettes (they turned out to be 18 and 19 across the board. So yeah.) They started with claiming I was being picky, then claimed that I should know them as “regulars” and then finally, moved on to other topics. At one point, one of them declared “Do you like girls? I can just tell that about you.” like my shaved head and rainbow bracelet didn’t make my queerness glaring obvious. Now, when customers get upset over being carded, I’ve learned the best way to counteract their rising energy is to meet it with a calm approach. So I answered with a “Sure, dude.” and he proceeded to tell me he could sexually please me and my hypothetical girlfriend.

It was an awkward situation, and up until that point, I hadn’t felt uncomfortable, but this was a little different. He wasn’t threatening me. I would’ve known how to respond to that. He just started assuring me that we could all “have a good time” and it was one of the weirder flirtations I’ve had in my life. Obviously, I shut that down by giving them an ultimatum on the cigarettes (they found their IDs and bought them).

However, it got me to thinking; not identifying as a woman or a lesbian doesn’t exempt me from the same harassment many women face. It’s a weird sense of solidarity that I can completely relate to the experience of being harassed and propositioned, but I don’t identify with the group that this most affects. Is this something other femme-appearing non-binary people feel?

Semi-stealth: The Non-Binary Experience

At my newest job, they have a clause that protects gender identity. Most would assume that that means you can transition freely. But those of us who are non-binary know that this can be a really different experience for those of us who aren’t clearly one thing or the other.

One of my new coworkers, in a stroke of what I’m sure she thought was being a great ally, asked me in front of an entire line of customers which pronouns I’d “prefer”, then followed up with the fact that she had a non-binary roommate. I chuckled and told her she was nice for asking, but I didn’t have time for it.

It’s true, I’m non-binary, and I’m open about it to those who ask (in a more private setting)…but for work, I let myself appear to be a tomboy, and function as a girl. Not because I’m ashamed of who I am, but because I’ve noticed that openly coming out means constantly arguing or explaining my identity. Talk about exhausting! And customers don’t really care if I prefer gender neutral pronouns; they just want to get their burritos and move on. I don’t consider my work life to be the same as my personal life anyways, so this degree of separation is actually quite good for me.

However, it’s easy for binary trans people to see this as living a lie. They remember trying to force themselves to be one or the other, and how painful it was. And I guess if I did that in every facet of my life and didn’t identify even a little with femininity, that would be an issue for me too. But I’m a mix, and I don’t find womanhood demeaning or insulting. I find it to be a great customer service face. And frankly, I know who I am, and my loved ones know who I am, and that’s what really matters for me.

I think a lot of non-binary people choose to allow people to assume what they want in order to make things simple, and that’s okay. Telling another non-binary person how to live? Not okay.