CARLY

Cambridge, MA

What are your pronouns?

They/them.

Where do you work?

I have a bunch of different jobs, but I am a social worker and therapist. I work at a bunch of different places. It’s been a patchwork of trying to piece together jobs that pay enough. I didn’t know what I wanted to be for a long time, but I’m so happy I found clinical work, I really enjoy it.

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

I guess I have lots! The hobbies I think of are art, specifically paper collages, and also writing. I think of hobbies as fun, but I maybe pursue them with a little more discipline than some of the things that I do just for fun. Writing sometimes overlaps with work, since I do write social work stuff. I recently had a paper published about fashion and the ways that it helps us create ourselves, how fashion is this site of intersection between our internal identity and our external context. The outside and the inside are sort of colliding in fashion. So that was really exciting. For fun I like anything to do with the water. Rowing, swimming, canoeing, and, yeah, just hanging out with my partner, cats, friends. And I love reading.

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

I definitely haven’t figured out how to handle that yet. It feels very – unfinished. I’m not super out at work. Well, it depends on the job. Some I’m more, some I’m less. Some friends know that my pronouns are “they/them,” but I also don’t push too hard to have them use those pronouns when I’m around mixed company and other people, because – at this point I feel really uncomfortable with the amount of attention that would bring me in certain settings, one of my jobs in particular. I haven’t really figured out a way that actually works yet. I’m getting there.

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

I feel like that’s why I like writing, because I don’t like having to do it in a list! I need a whole essay for that. [laughs] There are so many identities that are important to me, but two really big ones are identifying as non-binary, and identifying as a Third Culture Kid (TCK), which in my experience not a lot of people know what that means. I don’t know if it’s familiar to you. It had always been an important identity to me, although I didn’t discover a name for it until I was in college.

I grew up moving all around the world and moved a lot. Always having to adjust to new cultures and settings all the time, and also not feeling a sense of belonging very often. The TCK identity, once I discovered that there was a name for that, it was this huge lightbulb moment. And it’s a weird one because a lot of people don’t know what a TCK is, so I often don’t feel like I can tell people that I’m a TCK because it wont mean anything to them. Which I often feel about being non-binary, too. It can feel strange that a lot of people don’t know these huge important chunks of my identity, because they’re not the most recognizable identity markers, not always that easy to talk about.  

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

Yeah. Again, could have a whole essay on that. That’s one of the reasons I write about fashion. Definitely yes, sometimes there are things that I do that are very intentionally for the for the purpose of letting other people know things about me. But a lot of the time it’s more, How do I put together a look that feels authentically me and seems to pull together a lot of the pieces of identity that are important to me? And then people can see that, see how I present, and make what they will of it. But yeah, I do spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff, and it feels empowering and good.

For example, it was really important to me to wear this outfit for our photos – because to me it feels like a good mixture of my non-binary and TCK [Third Culture Kid] identity. This shirt, it’s Indonesian batik. I bought the fabric in Singapore, which is where I was born, and then a local queer tailor sewed it for me here in Boston. So this shirt feels like a connection to – “home” is a really elusive concept – but a connection to places that are important to me. I imagine if people see this shirt they’re just like, “Oh, funky pattern, cool,” but for me it has this deeper connection of, This is a way that I hold on to and feel solid in my queer TCK self. I also like that this outfit is femme and not femme at the same time, and so it feels like it sits in all those right places for me.

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

Pretty early. I couldn’t have articulated that I didn’t identify with the binary – I didn’t know what the binary was. I probably couldn’t have put words to it, but yeah, just feeling a sense of gender discomfort or not fitting. I would say probably like second grade-ish, but could’ve been before then. Definitely early on in elementary school.

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

One that I’ve run into lately is the idea that people who are outside the binary are living in a fantasy world, or they’re engaging in magical thinking. I find it so profoundly dismissive and invalidating. Another misconception that bothers me a lot because it intersects with my own insecurities, is the assumption that people who are outside the binary are being too demanding. That it’s too needy to ask that other people accept your identities, or ask for different pronouns, or to be called by a different name. That you should just shut up and accept male or female, this kind of “If it’s good enough for everyone else, why isn’t it good enough for you?” mentality. That one is really a tough one for me because that just fits a lot with my own neuroses. [laughs] It feels so important to me to eventually get to a place where it can just be normal and accepted to be non-binary. One thing that happened at one of my jobs last year is that we were told we couldn’t put our preferred pronouns in our email signature. In my field it’s pretty common that people list their pronouns. And that wasn’t even anything around using non-binary pronouns. It was just an issue of can we even talk about pronouns or can we identify ourselves publicly, and it was very strictly prohibited. That left a bad taste.  

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

I don’t know, I guess certain aspects of my identity I don’t see represented a lot. When I do find art and media that represent non-binary people, it’s so amazing. It’s so validating and wonderful and those things become so special. Representation is important in so many different ways, but for me I’ve representation has been really important in just being able to hold onto myself and not fall apart throughout my life. I think that I was more desperate to see my Third Culture Kid self represented, actually, than I was to see my non-binary self represented. At least, when I was younger that TCK part of me was in a lot of turmoil and pain and not knowing who I was. In high school I started to find some immigrant authors who were writing about things that resonated with my TCK experience, and that’s what allowed me to put myself together. I just felt so fragmented before that, and finding these books was life-saving. Really life-saving. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.

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

There are so many things, but I think one thing I could talk about is just feeling so very seen and accepted by my partner. I think that’s really special. It allows me to feel so supported, and we have a good partnership. Just feeling like you have a solid somebody at your side opens up so much space to be and act in a way that’s more lively and vivid and bold than you can when you don’t have that support, and I really, really appreciate that.

Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it?

There’s lots of those difficult things. It took me a long time to make sense of moving so often through so many different types of schools and communities and cultures when I was growing up, and not really having anyone to help me make sense of any of it. I mean my parents care about me a lot, but they’re not the kind of people that I could talk through things with or make sense of confusing parts of life, whether that was cultural identity or gender identity, or depression, or understanding what’s going on around you when your world is changing all the time. I wasn’t aware of it at all at the time, but not having anyone to help me make sense of things was a really difficult experience. I think that that’s something really important in life, having whatever it is – people, or a community, or social media, or books/movies/TV – things that provide context to help you make sense of your life. Things that can help you contextualize how you fit into the world, and what’s going on around you. And for me it was books that ended up helping me do that, but that was a pretty lonely way to do it.

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

My partner, my really close friends.

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

I definitely think that my gender non-conformity has sometimes made romantic relationships difficult. I’m thinking about an ex who felt pretty threatened by my gender expression. That experience made it clear to me that I really value romantic partners and friends who can think about gender—and other things—in a nuanced way, who are just be very accepting and get it.

Are you able to find adequate medical care?

Umm… well, my physical health has been pretty straightforward so far, so I’m grateful, I know things could be much more complicated there. But I have a lot of strong feelings about how difficult mental health care is to access in the US. Any mental health care, let alone gender-competent care. It's been a struggle for me. Being an early-career social worker, making very little money, never having a job with benefits, made it really hard to afford my own mental health care. Accessing mental health care through the MassHealth system is really difficult with long waits and all sorts of bureaucratic hoops, I have some ridiculous stories that I won’t get into. There’s something deeply frustrating about a system where you work all day as a therapist for other people and you still struggle to afford adequate mental health care for yourself. That’s really fucked up. But, at the end of the day, I’m lucky that I’ve been able to afford to see the same therapist for a long time and she’s great, she’s helped me so, so much. The situation is better for me now that I’m a little more advanced in my own career, and now I’m married so I can use my partner’s insurance. But I still have a lot of anger about how badly the mental health system works, and it’s painful to see how it lets people down, I see it a lot with my clients. The system needs to be dismantled and rebuilt in such different ways, it can feel pretty overwhelming.  

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

I think I can actually think about myself and make sense of myself now, which I couldn’t before. Everything just felt so chaotic and fragmented before. I didn’t feel like I had a very strong sense of self, it was very diffuse. But I do more now.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Oh man… Go to therapy way earlier. [laughs] Maybe also, don’t stop doing art. I stopped for a long time and would definitely say, don’t stop!