“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I came out as queer at 17, but came out as non-binary two years ago, at 35. These past couple of years have been much more challenging. I find it harder this time around to advocate for myself, like asking coworkers, acquaintances and especially family to use they/them pronouns. The first time I came out, my parents did not take it well, so this time around I’m more sensitive to the potential for conflict. They know I’m non-binary, but they don’t have much interest in finding out what that means.
I have supportive people in my life, and my partner is an incredibly loving non-binary babe who inspires me every day. But I’m still feeling a little unsure of how to find acceptance. When I talk to queer and trans friends about my situation, some of them insist that anyone who doesn’t use my pronouns or name don’t respect me—period. I end up feeling secretly ashamed that I don’t take a harder line about my pronouns. But even the supportive people at work seem a bit on edge around me, as if they’re worried they’ll make a mistake. It’s just getting me down. How do I find love, acceptance and strength in my non-binary identity while still respecting my own needs?
The Second Coming Out
Dear Second Coming,
As you have no doubt discovered over the past 18 years, “coming out” is a long and winding road that can stretch much further than we first expected. Not only must we come out to family, friends and strangers, we also continually come out to ourselves—as queer, trans or non-binary, certainly, but also as complex and evolving beings growing ever closer to (if never quite reaching) our fully actualized selves. The more we grow, the more we discover who we are and who is willing to follow and nurture us in our life journeys.
So congratulations on coming out as non-binary! While I don’t presume to know you or the details of your life circumstances beyond what you’ve shared here, I sincerely believe that every act of coming out is one of deep courage and resilience—whether you are doing so for the first, second or hundredth time. Unfortunately, we live in a world where not everyone celebrates the beauty and complexity of queer and trans identities. I want you to know, Second Coming, that you deserve no less than this: to be celebrated, in all your flawed yet perfect wholeness.
With that said, you—and only you—get to decide when, where, how and to whom you come out. When it comes to your parents, it sounds like you are rightfully practising caution about engaging in conflict, given your previous experience with them. And perhaps this dynamic is reflected in your workplace, too, as it sounds like you are being careful not to push your coworkers too far past the limits of their comfort. As you say, even the supportive ones are “on edge,” which I imagine may put you on edge or make you feel guilty or anxious.
Caution and sensitivity to conflict are extremely worthwhile, valid survival instincts. This is especially true for queer and trans people—most of us are conditioned from early childhood to be hyper-aware of how our bodies, behaviours and even our very being may provoke offense and aggression in others, including our parents. The impact of this conditioning runs very deep; it shapes the rhythms of our nervous systems, our core beliefs and our internalized perception of ourselves. It’s no wonder, then, that queer children are often stereotyped as being highly sensitive: We have to be to survive.
As we grow into adulthood, conflict-avoidant survival strategies can coalesce into the fundamental patterns of feeling and behaviour that shape how we experience relationships. We might, for example, learn that asserting our needs is dangerous since it so often leads to punishment and disappointment. We might also become overly tapped into the needs and emotions of those around us, taking on too much responsibility for feelings in others that we cannot control.
Does any of this sound familiar, Second Coming? I’m curious because you mention feeling ashamed after talking to your queer and trans friends who insist that you should take a harder stance on having your pronouns respected. Yet you also mention worrying that you’re making your coworkers nervous, even though you haven’t yet advocated for yourself in such a strong way. It seems like you’re trapped between the needs and feelings of other people—and yours might be getting lost in the shuffle.
In an earlier column, I wrote about how interpersonal boundaries are the difference between our own needs and those of others. However, boundaries are also very much about the difference between your feelings and others’. Your query is about your coming out, your pronouns, your life, your feelings—yours and no one else’s. Friends, coworkers and parents can (and will) have their own feelings about your choices. But you are not responsible for managing the feelings, projections or traumas of others.
Second Coming, I wonder what might emerge if you took some time to reflect on your own feelings and needs? If you practised—even if only for a moment—letting go of the needs, worries and opinions of all those people?
A somatic ritual or practice that you may (or may not!) find useful for locating your emotional boundary is to create an actual, physical boundary around yourself in a private space (such as your home). You can use string, chalk, a collection of special objects or anything you like, as long as your whole body is enclosed within the boundary. Sitting, standing or lying down, just feel what it’s like to be alone inside your boundary. You might try saying: “This is my body, and no one else’s body. This is my space, and no one else’s space. I am here. Here I am. Every part of me is welcome.”
What comes up? How does it feel? If you are so moved, perhaps try reaching into the question of what support you want from others in your coming-out process and write down the answers, freestyle, while inside your boundary. This is just one of many practices—others being meditation, breath work, tarot-reading, attending coaching or counselling—that might help clarify your boundaries and strengthen your connection to your inner warrior, the part of you that is confident and strong in self-advocacy.
Whatever practice or care strategy you choose, you may find that your personal needs around coming out this time are quite different from what your friends think you should want. Or perhaps you will find that you completely agree with them. What’s important is that the path you take comes from within, just as I imagine your decision to come out as queer at 17, and then non-binary at 35, came from your own deep truth.
If following your inner truth does lead you to become more assertive about your needs, remember that we can’t control how people react. It may be that correcting your loved ones and coworkers when they misgender you means they become defensive or collapse into shame. Here, we come back to the importance of boundary work: You are not responsible for how others feel about your needs.
That’s not to say you have to be harsh in your assertions or cut people out of your life if they make a mistake once or twice—once again, you get to decide how you express your needs, and when and to whom. Sometimes setting a boundary with someone can be an invitation for them to strengthen their relationship with you. An example from my own life is that when someone I really care about misgenders me by mistake, I like to say “It would make me feel better if you remembered that I use she and her pronouns.”
On the other hand, if the person misgendering me is doing so callously, or they’ve done it so much that I no longer wish to maintain a close relationship, I might say, “You need to remember my pronouns if we’re going to continue talking.” And if they still misgender me, I stop talking to them.
Asserting your needs and boundaries doesn’t always have to end in ultimatums or relationship cut-offs. Sometimes, it can be as simple as sending someone a link to an article or video that might help them understand better. (There are so many great resources online these days—you don’t need to do all the work of educating by yourself!) Indeed, you may find that some people in your life are actually very appreciative of greater assertiveness, because they understand that you are offering them a chance to be truly supportive. Those are people worth investing in.
And sometimes, of course, you may choose to compromise—to make do with the less-than-ideal because there are some people that we need to keep in our lives, as long as they aren’t actively harming us. Parents and other family members often fall into this category for us queer and trans people. Even in this tricky dynamic, though, there are still choices we can make.
We can take breaks from our parents, for example. We can choose our battles, saving our strength for the most important ones. For me, that’s helping my parents get my name right and letting fairly frequent misgendering slide. Or, if it’s safe (enough), we can choose to put all our cards on the table and tell our parents exactly how much better our relationship would be if only they tried to understand.
The most important thing, Second Coming, is that you get to exercise choice and agency over how you do any and all of this. You get to take your time to figure out exactly what it is you need and want, and exactly how and when you want to ask for those things. This is an essential part of stepping into liberation that we all must learn over and over again throughout our lives: Learning to know and love ourselves, and teaching others to love us better. This will always be challenging, but I believe you can do it. After all, you’ve already done it once before.