A gender journey: Navigating non-binary identities around the holidays

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Eloise Ayotte

I wear my pronouns boldly on my work nametag as a badge of pride.

Each day, when I clock into work at my local pet store, I wear a nametag with pronouns that read “THEY/SHE.” If you visit my public Instagram profile, you will see that right next to my name are the same pronouns. I am proud of my non-binary identity and happy to live a life of honest expression.

However, it did take time to get to this space of comfort. It took effort, research, explaining, and teaching to finally say that I am a publicly proud non-binary person. 

Yet, I am still unfinished. 

I am fortunate to have a supportive immediate family and friends made up of fellow queer* people and genuine allies with whom I had no issue sharing my non-binary identity. But my extended family is a different story. 

My extended family’s more conservative and religious-leaning ideologies make it difficult for me to find the confidence to be my authentic self around them. While I recognize and am grateful that I do not fear for my physical safety – a fear many queer people, unfortunately, face every day – I do feel acute anxiety that if I make my extended family aware of my preferred identity, I will be ostracized and judged. 

Sure, I guess I could avoid my fears and anxieties by simply avoiding my extended family. But I am a teenager, and it’s the holiday season, so I’m not left with much choice. Instead, I will see them all the time. For extended periods of time. This keeps leading me back to my nervousness over how I will handle the weeks ahead.  

And I know I am not the only person who deals with this internal struggle. According to the UCLA School of Law, it is estimated that 1.2 million people identify as non-binary in the United States. “Nonbinary people make up a substantial part of the LGBTQ community, and they appear to experience similar kinds of vulnerabilities…,” highlights Bianca D.M. Wilson, a Williams Institute Senior Public Policy scholar.

Despite non-binary people representing a hardy population, we still face issues of visibility and validation. An anonymous non-binary writer for Stuff Nation summed up my dread quite well: 

Other people should not feel the need to tell me that my identity isn’t real, that my experience is not valid… However, this is the society that we are living in, a society that has been created around the majority. A society that needs to change.”

We, as a society, have not yet reached a point where members of the LGBTQIA+ community can feel comfortable and unjudged sharing who we are with everyone. Life today is very gender oriented. From how people view household roles to the blue and pink baby colors, society loves to put everything in a gender-binary box. 

Meaghan Davis of Forbes expands on this issue in her article, “5 Ways to Deconstruct the Gender Binary in Gender Equity.” She writes, “There are many stereotypes associated with these two genders (women and men). To name a few, women always want to be parents…and they are too emotional. On the other hand, men don’t cry; they are the breadwinners…. These stereotypes put humans into boxes that only serve our division or our erasure.” 

Forcing people to fit into boxes they may be uncomfortable in has yet to be challenged in our world despite its harmful effects. Much of my anxiety around sharing my pronouns with my extended family stems from my fear of being forced into these uncomfortable gender boxes. I identify as non-binary to break free of these boxes, so being pushed back into them profoundly distresses me. 

And that is a burden my community and I must bear.

So even though I know I am not alone in my anxieties, and my extended family aren’t outright villains but just a product of hundreds of years of gender stereotypes gone unchallenged, it still remains a source of great struggle for me. 

I feel as if I’m being forced to choose between the lesser of two evils: sacrifice a part of my identity to avoid being invalidated by my extended family or risk backlash by being my truest self. Neither choice allows space for complete comfort.

And if you know me, you’d know that I am never one to stifle my voice. I lead our school’s Feminist Coalition Club; I have been involved in a group at Planned Parenthood working to provide inclusive sex-ed to teens; I’m no stranger to protests and marches. In short, I take pride in my ability to practice honest expression. Yet, now that I’ve experienced this fear of sharing my gender identity with my extended family, I feel like I’m letting myself down. 

This leads me back to my original conundrum: For those of us who aren’t entirely out to our extended families but know we will be around them A LOT over the holidays, what are our options? Let’s break them down.

The way I see it, one can make two general choices when determining how to handle a queer holiday season. You can either:

– Avoid the topic of your identity altogether

or,

– Make the bold decision to bring up the matter and make your family members aware of your identity. 

The first option is the one I’ve been drawn to lately. I’ve been too anxious to tell my extended family about my pronouns because it’s never felt like the right time; I’ve been weary of how they’d react and because, in the past, they’ve shown that they’re not the most progressive individuals so therefore, I’ve kept quiet to avoid the risk. Many other queer people will choose this path, too. It’s easy, it’s safe, and it’s usually comfortable. If your leaning toward this option, know that this is completely valid.

But for me, I think I’m ready to try option 2. For me, taking the path of avoidance has caused me to feel like I’m neglecting a huge part of my identity. It feels fake and, instead of comfortable, it’s been making me feel quite the opposite actually. This is why I’ve been battling the anxiety of coming out to my extended family. This discomfort is why I hope this holiday season will be different, and I’ll finally choose the second option.

The second option is what I consider to be the bold one. In this situation, you liberate yourself from the shackles of fear and wear your identity on your sleeve. Maybe you stand up at the dinner table and announce your pronouns to the world or pull all your family members aside to chat more intimately with them. However this option looks for you, it is certainly a brave choice.

However, this option can also be very complicated for many people. This option can be risky for those who go against your religion by being queer or for those those with homophobic families. It is bold, brave, and commendable but should not be blindly run into. If this is the choice you wish to make, I strongly suggest you consider it seriously in the interest of safety.

This is where I am right now. I want to choose option two so badly. I want to get past my nervousness around my extended family, so I can stop feeling like I’m letting myself down. But I also want to protect myself from hate and ignorance. So I’ve been thinking a lot in preparation for this holiday season. I’ve been considering the aspects of safety, how I’d make my family aware of my identity, and all the other things holding me back.

With all these strategies and options in mind, I went into the holiday season confidently.

Since I was so wrapped up in these thoughts around this season, I figured it would be useful to gently test out what I was going to do over Thanksgiving so then I would be able to report back as we all prepare for the next bigger holiday season. Kind of like a Thanksgiving test run to get a sense of how I would need to adjust for the weeks to come so I could share some experience-based insight, too.

Before attending the events with my extended family, I decided to brief my nuclear family on my plan. I didn’t want my identity to be a spectacle, so I asked that the four members of my immediate family continue to use my preferred pronouns, even around those who were unaware of them and that if this raised any questions, to please direct the people with the questions to me.

At each Thanksgiving dinner I attended, my siblings and parents referred to me as “they” or “them” organically and frequently. I was expecting this strategy to raise some questions while naturally inserting my preferred pronouns into the conversation. And it worked practically exactly how I was expecting it to.

This method rarely raised questions while making everyone involved aware that I was to be referred to in a genderless way. 

The response was generally pretty neutral. My family members either didn’t care, didn’t notice, or just silently accepted this new knowledge. This was a great way to handle that tricky balance of discomfort and complete expression. I never felt ostracized at any of the events, but I did feel comfortable with the fact that people were aware of or using my preferred pronouns.

I was happily surprised at the way my family handled my identity. It was so validating to put my worries to rest in a way that didn’t make me feel ostracized or unloved. I’m glad that the situation played out smoothly, but, in the end, I’m even more glad that my nervousness and caution around this topic led to me finding a comfortable way to bring this up with my family. All in all, my anxieties played out in my favor and helped me to feel more comfortable with myself and my entire family.

My situation played out very well, and I wholeheartedly hope you are as fortunate as I have been for those who decide to wear your non-binary pronouns on your sleeve. 

I can’t give all queer people a catch-all way to come out, but I can offer some solace and comfort in knowing that you matter, you are seen, and you are perfect. And even if you feel like keeping to yourself is your best option this holiday season, you are still exactly who you need to be.