A year ago, at the age of 23, I came out as non-binary.
If you’re expecting a long story about the hardships of my adolescence, how hard it was to come out, this may disappoint you. It’s true that I struggled with my identity. I was so scared of coming out that the first person I told was a random stranger while drunk at a party. But to be honest, until less than a year before I came out, I never really questioned my gender, or sexuality for that matter. I only gained that privilege when I stumbled into a class at my university that covered gender-nonconforming narratives. The reason for my relatively late questioning was simply because until then I hadn’t known that the gender binary was something that could be questioned. The concept had successfully eluded me for most of my life.
It’s clear that we need more representations of gender-nonconforming identities within our stories, but more importantly, we need good representations. At Blue Mesa Review, we receive few submissions that tell these stories, and there are two common problems that prevent them from publication.
There seems to be an unwritten rule in these stories that gender-nonconforming characters are required to come out, and they often explain their identity with a dictionary-type monologue. Statements like, “I am non-binary, which means that I am not exclusively male or female” or “I am genderqueer, which means I don’t conform to social norms of gender,” sound clumsy and aren’t helpful. Anyone can Google non-binary or genderqueer, but it’s more difficult to find accounts of actual lived experiences. Ready-made definitions also imply that these characters fully know who they are, when in reality most gender-nonconforming people are struggling to understand what that means even after coming out. The last problem is that these characters would likely not blurt out their identity all the time. For most people, it remains scary to come out, and even when there’s not the risk of being shamed, harassed, or worse, it can be incredibly tedious to have to come out again and again and again, to the point that sometimes makes it feel like it’s not worth the effort. All of these things make characters who come out like this less believable.
Many stories also portray gender-nonconforming characters in a way that borders on cliché. For example, not every non-binary person looks or acts androgynous. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I look very much like a straight white male. That was a huge issue in my questioning process. Could I really be non-binary if I don’t even feel the need to look more feminine? This is just one aspect of how most gender-nonconforming individuals have very different ideas of what that actually means. To portray gender-nonconforming characters as representative of the whole community, and in a way that checks all these boxes, actually misses the point that gender-noncomforming is an umbrella term itself.
If we ever want to change society’s perception of gender as a rigid, invariable thing, we can’t do it by presenting another norm. Instead, we need to establish pluralistic narratives that actively challenge existing norms and complicate common gender-narratives. That’s the only way gender will cease to be the restrictive monster it currently is for many of us, whether we know it yet or not.
We need you to tell us your stories, not the ones that represent the entire community or the ones that explain what they are, but the ones that reflect what it means to be gender-nonconforming in a world that hasn’t accepted us yet. We need your experiences, your voices and your characters, idiosyncratic as they may be, to help us publish stories that acknowledge our existence and give people like me a way to make sense of our identities.
So please, send us your stories and poems.
Editor’s Note: Have a piece that you’re ready to submit? We’d love to read it, and we’re still accepting poetry and prose (fiction and nonfiction) for our spring issue of Blue Mesa Review through tomorrow night at midnight (February 28)! We also offer an expedited service for reading poetry, fiction, and nonfiction submissions open through tomorrow. Check out our Submittable page for more details.