BETH

Philadelphia, PA

What are your pronouns?

I comfortably oscillate between “she/they” and more predominantly “they/them.”

Where do you work?

I changed jobs recently [after this interview took place] and am now a project specialist in data analysis. My background is in fabrication and specifically museum exhibit fabrication, so this has been a pretty dramatic shift. I miss design and feeling really connected to production and making, but was ready to use a different part of my brain, try an industry not dominated by middle-aged white men, as well as give my body a break from physical work.

Do you have any hobbies or special interests? What do you do for fun?

My favorite thing is camping. I would probably camp 50% of my life if I could, and it’s something I share with my partner (who is the best camper I’ve ever met). Stepping away from the city is a really significant experience for me. I like how busy and engaging my city life is, but it’s really nice to take that break to be quiet and feel intentionally alone. I’m kind of an introvert; when I do go out it’s with purpose, and I really like to make it count. I just bought a moped and own my house so always doing house projects. I also bicycle a lot, and volunteer at a co-op that functions mostly to support youth through cycling.  I volunteer on an evening that’s for women, trans and gender nonconforming people where the shop is open to people to can come in and repair their bicycles for free and get assistance.

How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?

I don’t like confrontation, especially when it’s connected to safety or acceptance, and I shy away a lot from potential sources of confrontation. Due to my presentation aesthetic I don’t actually get a lot of strong feedback, to be honest. Nobody is surprised honestly!

Important to me is that folks in my life having an understanding of my person versus my pronouns being this sign over me that everyone needs to be reading. In the past with coworkers, I phrased it [as], “Instead of saying ‘that’s her drill,’ I’d prefer if you said ‘their drill,’ but also you could just say, ‘That’s Beth’s drill.’” Freeing them from the risk of mis-gendering me by using my name made it a lot easier, and they pivoted their language really quickly. I was surprised, but when you drop away the pronoun and you just think about the person, I don’t think it’s that complicated for anyone.

"When the challenge was to stretch the boundaries of being a woman, I lived how I was comfortable existing, putting up horse blinders to keep out the mindless chatter around gender. But then I looked up and realized I was alone and had walked so far away from womanhood that I was in a completely different territory, and could barely make it out in the distance where I’d come from."

What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?

I’m pretty lazy and I like “queer,” to me  it allows movement and makes space for the ebb and flow of identity and how an identity can uphold the personhood behind that.

I lived a huge chunk of my years believing the goal was to expand the boundaries of what a woman could be – and what life as a woman could entail and look like. I still believe that is a really important goal, but it stopped functionally upholding me. When the challenge was to stretch the boundaries of being a woman, I lived how I was comfortable existing, putting up horse blinders to keep out the mindless chatter around gender. But then I looked up and realized I was alone and had walked so far away from womanhood that I was in a completely different territory, and could barely make it out in the distance where I’d come from.

Despite feeling really far away, I still appreciate the tether to womanhood; I am a non-binary person whose access and understanding of the world has been through the lens of girlhood/womanhood. “Women’s issues” still heavily impact me and my sense of security and power in my life. A really lonely part of being non-binary is facing the same discrimination cis-women face, and the frustration of feeling that women’s issues aren’t upholding me, or that I am being left out of a conversation that needs to include issues specific to me and other NB folks. My lived experience is one that was shaped by how society treats AFAB people; those difficulties don’t stop simply because I don’t embrace the word woman as a personal identifier.

Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?

I’m going to use the word “lazy” again to describe the way I dress and prefer to present, and a lot of it’s simplicity and practicality. I enjoy that the way I present is really utilitarian, and that utilitarian things are for everyone. So while I look very androgynous based on the stereotypical aesthetic assigned with androgyny, there isn’t a statement in it but a default.

How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?

I think I understood myself as a “strange woman” way before I had words to assign to my disconnection from the experience of aligning with being a woman. I was probably about 25 when I was an egg donor. People hear this and they [say things like], “Oh, you’re kind of a masculine-of-center person, wasn’t that a weird to do a thing with your body?” But I was really attracted to how the legal documents are set up, and there was no gendering. [It’s] “the donor,” “the recipient.” The legal jargon really upheld that it was an autonomous and transactional thing. How I navigate the world as non-cis person (as I would eventually come to understand) was never brought up.  And that felt awesome. But I didn’t understand why it felt awesome. I think it took 2 or 3 years, and a whole lot of evolved language and unpacking to embrace dismissing a binary (which feels awesome).

Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?

I was raised in rural Pennsylvania, in a very conservative Christian household. As an adult, I can look back and harshly critique so much of that, how culture feeds class privilege and class shame, how isolation feeds fear, how America is mostly monoculture incapable of upholding differences.

But if I were to zoom in and look at the personalities of my parents – my mom’s from Philadelphia and incredibly direct and assertive, and I am really grateful that from a young age I never found assertive women (or assertive non-men) strange. Having this understanding that a person who was assigned female and aligned with womanhood could contain these traits associated with strength and control was really foundational for me. That model shaped me into an independent person that I am proud to be. My dad is incredibly hands-on and was always doing projects, and it’s a similar thing like with my mom, that I had a model for someone who really enjoyed and thrived working independently. Into adulthood, working independently gave me a lot of liberty to feel comfortable and enabled in my body, my presentation, and the way that I identified. Working independently freed me from a lot of social nuances that can quietly infiltrate how you are comfortable being who you are.

As far as the conservative Christian part of my upbringing, that was something I thought I would be undoing the damage of for the rest of my life. Realizing how fucked up doctrine is, and beginning to peel back the depths and permeating effects of shame can be really overwhelming at first. But I believed that I was meant to be who I am, and while coming out as queer was really hard as a young person, that battle of rejection and vulnerability was followed with a process of recovery that showed me, “Oh, if I can survive that, nothing else will probably destroy me. Nothing about my identity is too much”. Embracing myself as a non-binary person definitely fell under, “If I could survive coming out to my conservative Christian parents, this is a fucking stroll in the park.”

"Conventionality will say non-binary looks like me--androgynous. I know that non-binary looks like femme of center persons, and folks with big beards, and someone who looks like a 2nd grade teacher, etc. These individuals  interact with misconceptions more than I do. You don’t get as much flack when you fit the stereotype."

Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?

I actually get one extreme of the range of experiences, which is that people will assume that I am gender nonconforming or non-binary very quickly because of my presentation. Similarly, because I work(ed) in a male-dominated field,  I tend to be perceived as more masculine. Because I don’t take on the trans title, the assumption is that I probably fit into that gray zone somehow. Conventionality will say non-binary looks like me--androgynous. I know that non-binary looks like femme of center persons, and folks with big beards, and someone who looks like a 2nd grade teacher, etc. These individuals interact with misconceptions more than I do. You don’t get as much flack when you fit the stereotype.

In general though, cis-culture views non-binary as confusion, you’re a trans person who doesn’t want commit to transitioning, you’re cis but you need to feel different – that kind of thing. There’s little understanding or urgency – maybe it feels less urgent because we aren’t fulfilling this Hallmark narrative of “born in the wrong body.” And there isn’t this identifiable trauma tied to our bodies; cis-culture loves making it all about bodies.

I like this quote by Ivan E. Coyote; “I am not trapped in the wrong body; I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine.” This resonates in me as, “This isn’t about my body, it is about me, the person inside that isn’t taking my script for existing from my body.”

In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation? Do you think that they ever have an effect on each other or are related to each other at all?

To me, gender identity is a way to regard your own personhood and how you see yourself – how you would encourage others to see you, speak about you, and potentially treat you. Sexual orientation is a way to structure who are you attracted to or interested in pursuing romantic/sexual relationships with.

There’s a lot ways in which the two can inform the other, but to be honest, it can feel messy because each are ultimately self-determined. Traditionally, they functioned as classifications for finding where you fit and who could fit with you.  I feel tension with folks who use sexual orientation in a more strict sense; they perhaps feel really defined by it. Their gender supports their sexual orientation, but what if you don’t have a specific/binary gender? What’s setting the parameters of who you are attracted to? Ambiguity can be scary, especially when culture is comfortable with titles and structure. I would say that for non-binary folks, that ambiguity of filling a gender/gender identity grey space extends into sexual orientation grey space.

How do you feel represented in media and society at large?

I’m only now realizing at the age of 30 how resigned I was to being an outsider. I rarely looked for myself in media because I didn’t think who I was existed beyond, what felt like, my isolated experience. Like, if I didn’t know the words that fit me, how would I know to recognize the people like me?

 The idea of a major film or a major TV show having well-sculpted characters that are as vibrant and interesting as the people in my life doesn’t seem realistic when I have a lifetime of watching media poorly represent women, people of color, and queer people. I understand why representation is important because I was someone who didn’t see myself and that fed the sense of isolation.

"I rarely looked for myself in media because I didn’t think who I was existed beyond, what felt like, my isolated experience. Like, if I didn’t know the words that fit me, how would I know to recognize the people like me?"

Representation is happening – we’re seeing it and it will have really positive effects that ripple through society. But speaking personally, so much of discovering who I was involved looking inward versus looking to models of how to navigate culture.

What improvements would you like to see happen inside your communities, and in society at large?

I live in Philadelphia, which is one of the more protected cities for trans and non-binary people insofar as housing and job discrimination laws, marriage and adoption, etc. Legally speaking, a lot of things are very simple for me in my life here. I own that I don’t fully understand how hard it is probably to not have those protections. So just to know that there are people everywhere protected, basic legal protection would be a great start. I’m pretty psyched for how the kids will shape things; if I could change one thing it would be to give power to the queerest, most gender fluid, most-inclusive generation. Take the reins kiddos – we clearly don’t know how to do this.

Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you?

[This experience happened after this interview]

I called my sister to tell her I was scheduled for top surgery – and I hadn’t talked to her about this as a possibility, or my overall relationship with my body at all until this phone call. I said, “I’m getting top surgery.” She said, “A what?” “It’s basically a double mastectomy so I won’t have breasts anymore.” And she was apparently eating French fries and though a mouth full of French fries said after a moment, “So what, do you need help or something?”

I’m forever relieved that agency over my body wasn’t questioned or a thing I felt I “had to sell” in order to have support from someone I love. In small consistent ways, I experience the significant reminder that the people who love me, want to see me happy. If they value our relationship and want to see our relationship support me, they embrace who I am and make energy to enforce that.

Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?

I keep a pretty small net, actually, of people. If I have friendships, they’re pretty intentional, and my partners are usually ones I like a lot. I don’t consider them casual or frivolous. I try to foster pretty solid work relationships with the people I work immediately with. Because I keep a pretty small circle of folks I support intentionally I can usually expect a pretty consistent return of support.

How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?

Surprisingly little actually. I tend to date and foster relationships with people who identify as queer, and don’t expect me to fit into a box to make our love doable. It’s a nice easy filter when meeting people or adventuring with new people; you don’t have to understand everything about my identity and orientation immediately, but you should have curiosity. You need to be interested in discovering who I am because we are all consistently shifting and evolving beings and I want my relationships to hold space for how we each grow and change. That to me is what an open-hearted and supportive person embodies.

Are you able to find adequate medical care?

I have to level; I’ve only been to Planned Parenthood in the last several years, so I have had to deal with very little. I don’t know what I would do if I had to go see a general doctor that wasn’t competent in the non-binary situation. I’ve had tendencies in the past to dissociate when my body is being viewed or engaged with when I don’t feel like I’m in control. I understand why seeking medical services is hard for NB [non-binary] folks, health and bodies are already such vulnerable things – to feel like the person inside the body isn’t safe either can be too much to handle.

How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?

As a younger person, I couldn’t have understood that my personhood could be so multi-faceted and that it could include so many different elements. As a young person you’re almost just trying to conceptualize how you navigate the world, not necessarily what is happening here inside you. So I spent a long time not even confronting anything I didn’t have to confront. If I could slide by as a cis person in a gay relationship, and that was easy at the moment, that’s probably what I was doing. But I’m here now and I can look back and understand that I wasn’t giving myself a lot of credit to explore certain feelings or assign language to certain feelings. Maybe that language wasn’t there, but I have it now and I can fully acknowledge I’m way more complex than I would’ve ever dreamed.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I used a lot of survival tactics, and existing felt like a lot of, “Survive this thing to get to the next thing.” So it’s always this stepping stone situation, but I never felt like I was stagnant. I was trying to figure out the next thing, and I don’t think that was a bad way to do it. It was rarely overwhelming, and ideally growth happens at the pace you can handle. If it’s beyond what you can handle, it usually leads to some sort of trauma or meltdown or hindrance in some way. I would’ve told myself to embrace discomfort more. Being in uncomfortable situations can usually foster a lot of growth. That would’ve been it. Be okay with discomfort more, it’s usually pointing you to something you didn’t know and should.

This has come up recently for me a lot with my partner’s father passing away, when I have to confront how much time I’ve spent away from my own father because our differences seemed too big to bridge. I could scapegoat and blame it on him being harsh or close-minded, but I know that I also retreat from situations of rejection, whether potential or very actual. I regret cutting myself off from possibilities to regrow and create access points of understanding because it seemed too hard, or I was scared of being hurt again. I think I’m still working on the most important success—I believe reconnecting with him (my father) in a real way will be that said success. 

Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?

My view tends towards anti-nihilist existentialism where nothing matters, but you can assign any meaning you want. The realism that the world is pretty much going up in flames around me, but there is purpose that I can self-determine gets me through a lot.

I have a really simple philosophy; if you don’t like something, figure out how to change it or learn how to live with it. Whenever I hit a challenge or a situation that weighs on me heavily, [I ask myself,] Can I live with this? Yes, but for how long, sustainably? Do I want to live with this? Is there a reason I need to live with this? Well then how do I change this? 

Being able to look at challenges strategically, evaluating the worth of comfort over growth (or visa versa), prioritizing based on those things helps me feel grounded and in control.

Are there any other questions you would have liked me to ask, or anything else you would like to talk about?

I would recommend two authors that write about their own experiences being a trans person and being a non-binary person. To read about the experiences of these people and what difficulty looks like when you are not part of a binary, or when you’re navigating from one end of the binary to the other, I think has a way of really acutely humanizing that experience and making it palpable and accessible.

Thomas McBee, who’s a trans man and a really prominent writer – they write for Vice about masculinity, which is amazing. And then the other one is Ivan E. Coyote, who’s an older gender nonconforming poet and writer who navigated a lot of life as a butch queer person. The evolution of their language around themselves is amazing; they write really beautifully about coming to understand their own person.

I find it so encouraging that older people can come to these understandings themselves. The more language there is, the more they can articulate it. But it’s also kind of tragic in a way that they had to navigate so much of life without that affirming language. Non-binary people aren’t just teenagers and 20-somethings, there’re people who’ve maybe navigated entire lifetimes as ace [asexual] and in a cis relationship, and suddenly they understand, Oh, I wasn’t a freak for not wanting sex, or I wasn’t a freak for not feeling  like a woman or a man. And I find that a really important piece of information to revisit, that non-binary people look so many ways, and our experiences can look all the ways because we come from every walk of life and our experiences are really rich and diverse.

"Non-binary people aren’t just teenagers and 20-somethings ... Non-binary people look so many ways, and our experiences can look all the ways because we come from every walk of life and our experiences are really rich and diverse."