JAE

Boston, MA

What are your pronouns?

They/them.

Where do you work?

Right now I work at an ecommerce company, which is a block from here. It is a young company filled with young people. I’m the token non-binary Employee Resource Group co-lead. I’ve done really well there professionally, partly because of the visibility I have being the token non-binary co-lead for the LGBTQIA+ ERG. [laughs] And there’s the corporate side of the company, and then there’s like the on-site side, and so I’ve had to travel to our sites as part of my job, and there’s definitely not the same kind of vibe when I’m in Kentucky as when I’m in Boston proper. . It’s a good company, though, I get a good discount, and the stock’s been doing really well because of the pandemic. But – it’s a younger company, with younger people, and it’s a very high performing kind of competitive [place to work] – not like a ruthless tech bro vibe, but everyone’s sort of looking to be promoted within 12 – 18 months. So it’s just a lot of intensity.

No matter where I go, no matter what job I had, I know that I would try to be the CEO. I would want to be the person running it. Which is annoying, because it takes the fun out of things. [laughs] At one point I was a vet tech, before I started my career, like 10 years ago, before I went to grad school, and I’ve toyed with becoming a veterinarian, or starting a business involving animals. But I think I need to get to a certain age where I just don’t have the energy to give a shit about being in charge. [laughs] And after being on a manager track, I actually am like, “I don’t know if I want that.” I like building things, I like seeing things happen. I think what I like about being the CEO is I have this delusion that I’d just be able to do the things I like and not have to do the things I don’t like doing, or the things I’m not particularly good at. I think there’s adulting, right, as I get older, things I have to do, where I have to advocate for myself, and I have to be the not-popular person in the room or not saying the popular thing. So I’m getting more experience with that as I get older. It’s very uncomfortable. And I’ve spent most of my life pairing myself up with friends, relationships, even bosses, with people that are much more domineering and much more confrontational, really good with boundaries, [who] say no a lot. I can’t even return soup if it’s not the thing I ordered. But I don’t do that anymore, I don’t pair myself up with people like that anymore. So I’ve spent at least the last 3 or 4 years learning how to be that for myself.

And it is very tiring – Trans Day of Visibility was in March, and they were like, “You’re the most senior person in the company right now who identifies [this way], can you be on this panel?” I think I cried at one point during the panel, and I remember thinking as I started crying, This is a collision of parts of my life.

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And we’ve done things through the ERG [Employee Resource Group] that are cool, like non-gendered bathrooms, and making sure whether you’re at a site or at corporate, healthcare coverage is the same, and pronouns in emails, and stuff like that. But we don’t have anybody who’s a director-level or above that identifies as part of the LGBTQIA community. There was a minute there where I was like, maybe that could be my career. Maybe I could go to tech companies and talk about DEI and my experience, but I’m not like a change agent in the company. Like we had that happen,  we had somebody who came from a German company as a trans tech person, and I listened to them, and it was awesome, but I was like, this doesn’t change my experience at work at all. [laughs] Because you don’t work here. You work somewhere else. And then it caused the people that I report in to, every one-on-one I had with them for the next two weeks, they were like, “So I went to that trans thing – can you help me – ” I was like, oh my god. I didn’t know this was gonna be a thing that I was going to have to [deal with].

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

So I am obsessed with CrossFit, and I do that six times a week. And then the second thing I’m about to say will help explain that. I’m also sober and in recovery, so I’m also very like – I don’t really do anything a little bit. [laughs] The way I think about my alcoholism is mental, physical, spiritual. So I have a therapist for the mental part, I have a program for the spiritual part, and then CrossFit helps with the physical part. It’s certainly something that I can do because I’m sober. I don’t think I could wake up at 4:30 in the morning and go to the gym. I’m also uber-competitive. I don’t know how to do anything a little bit. And CrossFit’s one of those things where no matter how competitive I am, I’m never really gonna be that great at it. I’m not gonna be elite, I can’t get promoted in CrossFit. But it’s a fun challenge, and it’s been cool to see my body change doing it for the last few years, and finding more time for it in my life. I started out doing it two days a week, then three days a week, [and so on]. But I do that, and I go to meetings a lot, and I’m active in the program that I’m in, and I live with my platonic best friend and soulmate. So I think if I wasn’t living with Megan over the last year plus [during the pandemic], I don’t know. Wouldn’t have been good. I don’t know, of the two things I just said I do in my free time, I don’t know which of those two I would still be doing if I was all by myself.

I spent a lot of time working a lot, and now that I don’t really have to do that anymore - I have some financial freedom - I’m looking forward to traveling again. So Megan are going to South Carolina for my birthday next week. Her grandmother is lending us her van – I don’t know anything about the van, I don’t know if it’s like Dumb and Dumber, or if it’s a travel van. I have absolutely no idea what to expect. [My dog] Doodle’s coming. I basically Googled gay places in between P-Town and Miami. Folly Beach, South Carolina. It’s by Hilton Head, but not as expensive, and it’s not North Carolina, so I don’t have to worry about using a bathroom in a public place. And then my family of origin, I have three older brothers and they each have two kids, and my brothers are 12, 10, and 7 years older than me. So I’m turning 40, Mike is turning 50 in July, so we’re going to Disney. Cause that’s what he picked. So those are two things coming up that I’m excited about. And then Megan and I are moving back to JP in August. Right now we’re in Fenway. 

What I liked about CrossFit - I was introduced to it in JP, so it was super queer and not a pretentious place, and lots of trans athletes, so it was more about the community than it was about being gym rats. Everything is scalable. I’m paying attention to what I’m eating. So that was a fun journey, when I saw that picture [of myself at the gym]. It was a very powerful strong body that I was proud of, that I had worked hard for, and also it looked like things had changed, and I was just like, hmmm, I don’t know what that’s about. And if that’s what I’m gonna look like when I bulk up, I don’t really know if I wanna bulk up then. And I was doing a pull-up, which was really exciting because it was the first time I was able to do that, so it was this weird combination of being super proud of this strength that I had, and also being like, “That’s what I look like?” [laughs] I like that I have shoulders, and a neck, and I like how my arms are. There isn’t much I can do about my legs, I think as a get more strength in them, they’re gonna bulk up however they are. But it’s mostly chest, stomach, butt. Is there a way I can just – move it around? I’m like, how androgynous can I be? It turns out that it’s actually a lot of work. That’s where I’m at now, is incorporating the diet part – it’s not dieting, it’s just eating differently. It’s a constant battle. And also being an addict and alcoholic, there’s also this strong desire always in my brain to be like, you’re uncomfortable, you should fill that with something that’s a good or a substance of some kind. So there’s also a lesson in there for me to sit with the thing that’s happening, and choose a thing that will actually help me. 

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

Well, I’ve identified the spaces where I think it’s safe, which are few. The company I am at now is the first place I’ve gone by my preferred name, and where I’ve gone by my pronouns professionally. Up until two years ago I was Jenny at work. So I would say at work now – and in interviewing, I’ve been interviewing as they/them, Jae – recovery, fitness, and the queer community all feel like places where, when I introduce myself, I introduce myself with my name and my pronouns. My family still calls me Jenny. I compare it to a period in my life where I was vegan. [laughs] And I learned a lot about who could handle that. Like somehow me being vegan was like this huge inconvenience for everyone else, for other people, and my family I would say was the toughest. I learned I needed to bring my own food for things, and there was always a topic of conversation around, was I still vegan, and how did I live.

And I didn’t come out until I was in my early 30s, and I didn’t really come out to my family, I just kind of one day was no longer married to a man, cut my hair, and had a girlfriend named Michelle. All those things sort of happened. And we didn’t really talk about it. I think I came out to my parents when I was still married. I think I said something about my sexuality, and not being attracted to my husband, and was also getting sober around the same time, so it was all very much related.

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So for me, my name and my pronouns – those are the two things that still kind of get to be a secret; I still get to have anonymity about it when it comes to my sexuality and my gender. Because I look a certain way. I don’t pass as anything, really. I am in this weird androgynous place where most often I can tell when someone’s looking at me and trying to figure out what box to put me in, and so I get to decide what I feel comfortable sharing. Because I think, when I first came out, and I was still married to my ex-husband, and I was more feminine presenting, it felt really important to me that people knew I was queer, you know? And they couldn’t tell by looking at me. I looked like I could pass as a straight person. So now it’s just more like the way that I’ve handled it, is I get to choose who I say it to, and when someone calls me “she,” I don’t correct them. I’m not pronoun police. Mostly because every time someone calls me “she,” or someone doesn’t ask me what my pronouns are, or doesn’t share theirs when they introduce themselves… I already have a family where maybe some day it’ll be a thing they can do, or be interested in, and so – if I’m not gonna correct them, or tell them this is a thing we’re doing now, then if some fuckin’ stranger… Because the people in my life where I’m not anonymous about that are the places in my life that are important to me and my authenticity is important to me, and I think that as I progress through this journey, I’m hopeful that those spaces will become bigger and bigger and bigger.

With my family, there’s already parts of me that I have to turn off. My name, there’s something about pronouns where I can handle my family or other people calling me Jenny, and I can handle it if “queer” is too much for them, but there’s something about pronouns, for right now anyway, that feels like a level of rejection that I don’t think that I can handle. And I feel like it’s such an “other” thing, like I’m niche. [laughs] And I just don’t wanna be niche. My mom passed away a couple years ago, but my dad’s 72. And then my brothers are like 52, 50, and 46. When I first changed my name, I changed it on Facebook, and my mom called me furious, just screaming at me, like how could I do this to her, she gave me that name… And my mom died on January 29th, and that Christmas, she had gotten me a present, and the tag on the present said “Jae.” My mom was in the first class of women New York City firefighters. So I grew up with super progressive, feminist – and I’m the youngest of 4, the only girl – but my mom, when my mom wasn’t working, was very feminine. You know, she would say things to me like, “Always have on a fresh clean pair of underwear, you never know who you might meet.” “You never know, you might get in an accident, and the paramedic might be cute.” “Always have your nails done.” As I started dating women, every woman I dated was like, “Your mom’s super gay.” [laughs] I remember the first time I went to P-Town, I wanted to buy my dad a shirt that said “No one knows my wife is gay.” And yeah, I grew up surrounded by queer people. All these women, a lot of whom now don’t identify as female anymore – I grew up with these FDNY women that just were strong and powerful and “F you to the patriarchy,” and stuff like that. But when it came to her daughter, [it was] super super super hard.

So I think where recovery has helped me, is when it comes to my family, I know they love me. And I can see the ways in which they show me that they do. And thankfully I have a community and a family of choice where I can be loved in all the ways that I need to feel whole, and that I don’t just have my family and they’re the only sources of that. So I cut them some slack. They’re certainly doing better than I thought they would. I haven’t subscribed to the Lohan family checklist of things. I’m the only one that doesn’t have two kids, you know. I have a Trump-supporting brother that lives in South Texas, and I go visit. And he will never understand, ever - and I have no interest in convincing him of this - but he will never understand that when I get off the plane in Corpus Christi Texas, I am scared until I’m back on a plane. Like the moment [I touch down] I’m like, Oh I have less rights here. And my family doesn’t get that. And that’s not their story. So if I were to open Pandora’s box, what would be the part of it that I would open? But everybody in my life calls me Jae. My dad and I have gone places, and the reservation’s been under Jae. He’s introduced me to people and been like, “This is my daughter Jenny,” and I’ll be like, “You can call me Jae.” And it reminds me of when I was vegan. That’s what it feels like. It feels like [they think] this is a phase. I’m not vegan anymore, right? And I learned during that time period – and coming out as sober in an Irish Catholic family, that’s another thing – “And then she was sober! And then she was ‘they!’ And then she was Jae!” You know? And, the reason why I stopped being vegan was because of CrossFit, where I had to choose one or the other. But there’s still things I don’t eat because I cry. And if I am gonna eat meat, it can’t be on a bone, there can be no distinguishing thing that lets me know that it was alive at some point.

I have to trust the person. So my friend asked me, “Do you want me to tell my mom about your pronouns?” And I was like, sure, but I’m under no pretense that this person who thinks the world is too politically correct is actually going to [use them]. And it’s a different kind of problem, where I want to say to this woman, “My pronouns have nothing to do with you.” So there’s all this energy now – – “Well, she’s so stressed out, because she’s  afraid they’re gonna get it wrong, and she’s  afraid they’re gonna upset you,” and I’m like, this has nothing to do with her! Just let her know that what I do ask, is that I’m trusting them with this information, and if they do screw up, please don’t make it my problem. I don’t wanna have to make you feel better about getting my pronouns wrong. So if you get them wrong, after you’ve asked me what they are, we’ll just roll with it. But please don’t make me make you feel better. It’s just tiring.

And the gender stuff feels like I need more time before I can be okay with me being authentic and people [responding with], “No, that’s not real.” Because I have had members of my family come up to me and preemptively tell me they will not call me Jae. And I wanna be like, that’s funny, because when I got married, I wasn’t even married a whole day, and you wrote me a check with a whole different last name. Which was tough to spell, and pretty long, and the opposite of my current one. [laughs] And you got that right. And what I don’t wanna have is a chip on my shoulder. And I have 6 nieces and nephews that I get to provide visibility for, and they get to watch me. And I’m Aunt Jenny to them, because for a 4-year-old – they’d call me Tow Truck. It doesn’t mean anything. And so them calling me Aunt Jenny, there’s nothing tied to that. So I’m like, when you’re older, if you have questions, we can talk about it, but you can call me whatever you want. So that’s how I handle that heavy weighted subject.

Have you had difficulties with changing your name and the way it affects you moving through the world, being recognized how you want, or being mis-gendered?

What I didn’t know, is that Jae is a predominantly male Korean name. So I also often will apologize for unintentional cultural appropriation. Did not mean to do that. I put “J” into Facebook, just the letter, and the Facebook bot told me that wasn’t a real name, they wouldn’t accept it. So I wrote “Jay,” and that didn’t feel right, and then I tried “Jae” and it was the only time in my life that I saw something and was like, “That’s my name.” I think using it professionally has been a big deal for me. I probably won’t go to my 25-year reunion. Every once in a while I’ll get a little bit [uncomfortable] if people from my past [pop up] – every once in a while I’ll think, I wonder what that person thinks of me when they see me. They knew me in high school, or they knew me in college… So I have that every once in a while, I have that insecurity. I think because I subscribed to the heteronormative thing for so long, and it was so ingrained in me, and I really thought that if I followed that, that I would win the game of life. And then spent the last 10 years doing the opposite of that in incremental ways. Sometimes when I look back to those old relationships, and those people who did do all of those checklist items, there are some times where I have that Popular Kid Table at High School feeling. But, in terms of regular everyday life, I’m the most confident and most authentic I’ve ever been.

The first time I went to Kentucky I was in the hotel getting breakfast - and it doesn’t happen here that often, if it does I don’t notice it, but I noticed it there - but it was a hotel where, normally when I travel for work, I’m in a metropolitan area so it’s just business travelers. But because this was Hebron, Kentucky, people were on vacation. And it was a dad and his daughter, and they had the Confederate flag T-shirt on. And kids will look at me sometimes, but they don’t have a judgmental look, they just have like a “I haven’t seen something like you before” look. But the dad looked at me in a way [said], I ruined your morning. Seeing me ruined your day. And most often I take that as like – there’s a baby queer here somewhere that’s seeing this, and seeing me, and seeing me interact and be a full human in this world, that I can do comfortably now. And that’s kind of how I take those instances.

I had an interview with an executive two weeks ago. And I had met with the HR person at the beginning of the Zoom call, and [they were] so gay. I was like, this is great! Woohoo! This never happens! And immediately, I’m comfortable, I can see how gay they are because of all the rainbows in the background, they are just bringing it all full force, it was just Gay Central. And then she’s asking about my pronouns, shares hers, having the whole DEI conversation, it’s all fantastic. Then she’s like, “Okay, well, next up will be an interview with the person that you’ll be reporting in to.” And so I get the meeting invite, and it’s for Jason Lohan. So my first thought was, Huh. They just assumed I was like, a white bro. And for a moment I was like, I feel kind of powerful, and I can ask for more right now. And I might get paid more. Because my name is Jason. And then there was a part of me that was like, do I want this job bad enough to be Jason? And then I sent the email to this person, and I said, “Hey, got the meeting invite, and it’s for Jason. And I just wanna make sure they’re expecting a Jae.” I had to write that email. And this was an email to a queer person, and I wrote that email like four different times. Because I was like, how do I professionally say, this is awkward? And they were horrified that this had happened, and they were like, “We are so inclusive, their assistant must’ve made some assumptions,” and I was like, yeah.

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When I passed as female, the microaggressions that I experienced as someone who passed as female – I have way less of those now, actually. So [the wrong name in an interview], I can fix that, but… The female-centric microaggressions, those were constant and came from every area of the universe. It was like everything I read, everything I saw, every experience I had, was a female-bodied person engaging with a patriarchal world. This is different. There are moments, though, where – and I was talking about this with one of my other non-binary friends – where what I experience now vs. what I didn’t experience when I was female-presenting, is what does my non-binary-ness do to a macho type? Because I have seen guys – there is an inherent fear that I feel when they think that I’m a dude, and then they realize I’m not, and that pisses them off. And that’s wrapped up in all of the things. Like when I’m by myself, when it’s just me, that’s one thing. In my last relationship I dated a very feminine-presenting person, and it happened more, because not only was I threatening their manhood, I guess, but I was with someone that I was taking from them, apparently. So those types of things where it’s like sexuality and gender and patriarchy – in those times, it’s like, I don’t care what name you call me. Maybe I shouldn’t be on a train platform. It’s just a different kind of assessment. And I think that level of physical safety concerns - I have been so well-trained as someone who walked around this world as a female-presenting person, I’m so well-trained to pick up on that, to know where the exits are. But it’s a different experience now where I feel like I’m threatening men in a way that I didn’t before. So when the four men in my life in my family love me and aren’t total douchebags, but don’t get my name right, I’m like, eh. [laughs] I’ll take this step by step.

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

Queer has always felt good for all the things. When I describe myself, I saw I’m a non-binary queer sober human. Those are the words. Those are the parts of me that seem important. I am a person of extremes. I’m either all in or not at all, I hate something or I love something. My thinking is pretty black and white, which I’m growing out of and recovering out of. So especially with gender, this gray area that I live in, is incredibly uncomfortable, and I’m not psyched. I’m embracing it, and I’m grateful for it, and I’m grateful that there are some words that I can use, but if I could pick, gray area is not my thing. I don’t like it, and I’ve spent most of my life trying not to be in it. I wish gender didn’t exist, to be honest. I think it’s annoying. I think the other words that I use to try to describe myself are the experiences that I’ve had being queer, and not fitting in a box, is I have a lot more empathy for people of color. Just these things about me that I can’t change about the way I look, and how that impacts my abilities and my experience walking around this planet. I still have privilege, even considering how hard it is, I still have privilege, I still have access to things because of the color of my skin, because of the way my voice sounds on the phone. Even if I get pulled over by a cop, my experience will probably still be very different. So those are the things that I think – this is the spot I’m in, and I’m not gonna avoid it, and also what am I going to do with it?

And that’s another thing - if I was gonna start picking things with my family to talk to them about, I don’t even know if I would talk to them about gender and my name. I think I would be like, “What are you doing for people of color? Who did you vote for? ” Those things. So I think it’s less about what words do I choose for myself, and [more] what are the actions that I choose, and are they consistent with my values and my principles. When Megan and I are going to be driving to South Carolina – we had to look at places and be like, where is it cool to be? It’s scary. I think that’s the hard part too, is that the more out I am, and then I find out how people vote… I used to not care. Back in the day, I worked on GW’s campaign and was a hella Republican. I mean I really tried to be straight. I must’ve read a Cosmo magazine and seen “Men love Republicans!” I don’t know.

My brother called me recently, and he was like, “One of my best friends just told me that his wife is gay.” And this is Fancyville CT, like this doesn’t happen there apparently. And he said, “And I just – I thought to call you.” I’m the only one he knows. He said, “I told this guy I’ll call my sister, because she was married to a guy, and then cut her hair, and then had a girlfriend named Michelle.” I talked about being queer, and I talked about being non-binary, and how important community is and stuff like that, and at the end of that conversation he said, “I had no idea what you went through, and that you went through it all on your own, and I’m really proud of you.”

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

It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I only wear things that I’m comfortable in. A bridge that I haven’t crossed yet is binding. I’ve talked about that a lot with my friends. There’s dysphoria for sure, but I don’t do anything now to [deal with it]. I did for a while; when I first came out I wasn’t sure, I just tried a whole bunch of different things. I think I’ve thrown out and bought men’s clothes like three times. But when I first came out as gay, I was on a chairlift with my two non-binary friends. And I was really lucky that I came out in a community where nobody asked me if I was a lesbian, if I liked femme or butch [folks], they didn’t ask me any of those things. They were just like, “Cool, welcome.” There wasn’t any labeling, there wasn’t anything like that. So we were sitting on a chairlift, and I was sitting in between them, and they’re so cool. They’re just cool queers, in cool clothes, and they’ve got their snowboards – and I’m feeling like, I just told them this on a chairlift, and I’m freaking out. And then a little while later, on the chairlift, I said, “I should tell you guys my butt’s really cold,” and they were like, “Why’s your butt cold?” and I said, “I’m wearin’ a thong.” - “Why?” - “That’s the only underwear that I have.” - “Why?” - “Dudes like thongs.” So long as that’s not where I’m at. Am I wearing the underwear I wanna wear, am I wearing the pants I wanna wear, and am I saying to myself I can or can’t wear something based on where I’m going. And I don’t do that anymore.

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I have a wedding in October, and I’m the bride’s butch. There’s a ton of bridesmaids and me. And I’m getting my first suit made, and that feels like a big deal. If I’m gonna be in a wedding, I’m gonna wear the thing that I wanna wear. I bought the most expensive shirt I’ve ever bought from Dapper Boi, it was a flannel, and they have snaps, and I measured myself for it, and I wanna be buried in that thing. I put it on and I was like, “Oh! Oh. Okay.” And I think as I find clothing like that – some days I’m fine having a chest, other days I’m not. I haven’t quite gotten to a place where I wanna do anything about that just yet, and I’m just really glad that I have people in my life who use “she” pronouns and had top surgery. It’s just like, who cares. But I don’t wanna do the recovery part. I don’t wanna be uncomfortable, I don’t take pain meds… And it never occurred to me that if I had top surgery, that I would not wear a shirt. Cause I don’t wanna be on T, but if I had top surgery and then I still had a woman’s ass, and then I went into a female bathroom… Because that’s what people do – they look at my butt, and then they look at my chest, and they’re like, okay, you get to be in here. But they’re confused and upset about it. And I have friends that navigate that, and have been doing so for a very long time, and they are happy and adjusted to that it seems.

So yeah, the outside stuff – that’s just been a fuckin’ journey. There was a point where I threw out everything and was like, “I’m wearing wedges!” If I get this job I’ve been interviewing for, I’ll be client-facing, and in the past when I was client-facing, it was confusing. It felt scary. I didn’t have a suit… None of it felt authentic. It just felt like I went into somebody else’s closet and put stuff on. But where I am now, in the interview that I had with the HR person, I was like, “You guys are gonna be cool with me being non-binary with clients, correct?” And these are clients who knew me as Jenny when I worked with them in this industry previously.

I have a cousin who’s on the more masculine side, uses “she” pronouns, identifies as a lesbian – but first person in our family to “Ellen,” you know? And I remember 15 years ago when my other cousin got married, this [lesbian] cousin, was asked to be in the wedding, and I was asked to be in the wedding, and she had her wear a dress. And I didn’t know anything at that point about anything, I was a baby, and I just said, “Hey, how does it feel to be wearing a dress today?” And I don’t know why I asked her this, and she said, “I feel like I’m in drag." And now, I would not [wear that]. Now that I know what it’s like to be comfortable, and to feel confident, and to feel like myself – I can’t undo that. I’ve spent almost 40 years trying to get to this place. And there’s still more to come, so I really don’t want to go backwards.

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

So, when I was on that trans panel at work at the end of March, I was thinking about that question because I thought I might get asked it. I grew up with 3 older brothers, and there’s two favorite pictures of me as a kid, and they both involve me wearing football pads. There’s one where I’m wearing just football pads and a dress, and I’m like 18 months old, and I look like I ate my twin in the womb. Just rolly-polly. I look like a weeble-wobble. And I’m looking at the camera, wearing football pads that are off my shoulder and not fitting me well, but I’m fucking owning it. And then there’s a picture of me in football pads, and a football jersey, and a football helmet at like age 5 or 6 in my play kitchen. And I distinctly remember wearing my brothers’ bathing suits, and the pain when my mom told me I had to start wearing a one-piece bathing suit because I was a girl. People would say I was a tomboy, and it was something I was probably going to grow out of. So I think I’ve always known, but then at some point I got messaging that it wasn’t okay. And I didn’t start to climb out of that until I was like 31. And even telling my husband at the time, “I don’t think I’m attracted to men, and I think I might be more masculine than feminine,” he was like, “Oh yeah, absolutely.” And I was like, why was no one talking about this? Was everyone just signing up for this parade? This little production of “Jae Tries to be Straight?” So I think always, but at some point the world was just like, “You don’t get to do that anymore.”

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

I grew up in a Catholic environment. I got confirmed, I got married in a Catholic church. I think being older, I look back – my mom was 19 when she had her first kid, and was like 32 when she had me. And I think by the time they got to me, I was two months early, the birth almost killed my mom, I almost died… I just think my parents were just tired and glad I wasn’t dead. Anything else was just kind of a non-starter. And there was [the idea of], “You’re gonna go to college, and you’re gonna meet a nice boy, and you’re gonna give me grandkids.” There wasn’t any point where they said no to anything, but it was just a shit ton of messaging about what’s right and what’s wrong. And I think growing up in a Catholic environment, my sense of sexuality, gender, and morality was taught to me by the Catholic church. It wasn’t taught to me by my parents. And then I saw my mom as a firefighter and being really proud of that, but she retired when I was 13. By then my brothers were out of the house and I was an only child. I started drinking. So my own stuff picked up then. I think that’s why visibility’s so important. That’s why I wanted to do this, especially. I just didn’t see other options. I think that there’s also a point where I kind of am responsible for my own education and my own seeking out of things. I do wish it was easier to find. I remember being maybe in second grade, and I was just learning about things like sex, and I knew there were certain TV shows and movies that I couldn’t watch.

But I grew up in New York City, so there was a lot of diversity, and I remember two car rides with my parents. The first car ride, I asked, “Can you guys read my mind?” and my mom said, “Are you thinking about something you shouldn’t be thinking about?” And it was the first time I thought, I don’t know. And then another instance was around the same age, I asked, “Am I allowed to have a black boyfriend?” I think I had seen a billboard or something about a movie that had come out at that time that was a white person and a black person in a relationship together – Jungle Fever. And I saw the billboard while driving in Queens, and asked if I was allowed to have a black boyfriend. So it was more like questions. And they never said no, there was never any indoctrination or dogmatic kind of stuff, but – I’ve gotten divorced, I’ve had an abortion, I’m queer – there’s all sorts of things in the Catholicism realm; I’m not gettin’ into that heaven. That’s a hard no. And even still, my dad will say, “You know you can go to church, right?” and I’m like, “Why? Why would I go somewhere where all of me isn’t welcome?” which is something I can do as an adult. But if I didn’t go to church when I was a kid I was grounded for the whole next week. So it wasn’t that they told me no, there just wasn’t an alternative presented. You either did it or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, you were grounded.

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

So when I did that thing at work for trans day, the question that they asked me that made me cry was, “What do you wish your co-workers knew?” And if I think about it from that lens, and the way I answered it then, was, “I’m just tired. It’s just tiring.” Working in corporate, the way I described it was: I’ve had a full morning by the time you see me at my desk. Because I walk to work. And how I am when I get to my desk at 9 AM is wholly dependent on what happened on my walk to work. Did I get to use a bathroom I was comfortable using? Do I feel safe? By the time I get to work I’ve had experiences that will shape how I feel, and how confident I feel. And I have to compartmentalize. I’ve talked about doing that with my family. If I’m in an environment where nobody looks like me, nobody has my pronouns, and there are like 4 people named John – I’m reading the room constantly, [asking whether or not this is a safe space]. So I think the misconception too that it’s like trendy also is kind of annoying. I accept it, and I’m as authentic as I can be in this moment, and I hope to be more authentic over time, and also I’m not like, “Whoo!” The hardest part about coming out as non-binary is that even though I came out to people who were not into labels, invisibility is real, and even in the queer community it can be exhausting.

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And then in relationships, people I’ve dated and stuff like that – I’ve dated more masculine-presenting people, more feminine-presenting people, and the fucking heteronormative bullshit exists there as well. And misogyny exists there as well. Where just because I’m more masculine-presenting, I’m constantly asking myself, "Am I being misogynistic? Are they asking me to be misogynistic? What’s happening here?" And then I’ve been in relationships with people that presented more masculine and it was hard for them. They wanted a butch lesbian. So that kind of misconception that we’re one or the other – it’d be cool if there was a bigger pool to swim in. My brother was like, “So, 40 and single, huh?” I’m not intentionally single – I don’t really know what that means – but I think as I become more authentic and more out and lean into the aspects of my gender and my sexuality, the complement to that, the Venn diagram, has just gotten a lot smaller. People tell me I’m cute and funny, but I’m specific. When I first came out, I didn’t know - I was like, “Vaginas. That’s where I’m starting. I don’t know. I’ve been with penis for a really long time. I just know that’s not it. Anything other than that would be great.” [laughs] And there’s Ellen and Portia, you know, just people’s understanding [is very basic]. So family and friends are just like, “What’s that about?”

In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?

I have a story that’s funny now but was very sad at the time. So my mom – because she’s dead, I have a lot more sensitivity to her approach to this – the last conversation she and I had before she died where she was still coherent and had all of her faculties [was about] one of her good friends from the fire department who had transitioned, and Patty was now Brody. And it was very clear that my mom had read some articles about transitioning, and being trans, and stuff like that. And I was laying in bed with her and we were watching TV, and I did something and she said, “You’re my best daughter,” and I said, “Well I hope so, I’m your only daughter.” And she goes, “For now.” In my mind I was like, Dun dun duunn! I said, “What are you talking about? What do you mean?” She said, “Well you could be trans, and you could be my fourth son.” And I was immediately very uncomfortable. There’s some things that I just don’t want my mom to dictate. I don’t want it to be my mom’s call. That’s kind of how I felt in that moment. I was like, you don’t actually get to decide this. And she described what it felt like when I had come home, I had cut my hair, I was dressing [more] masculine, and I realized as she was talking that she had been trying over this period of time, these 8 or so years, she had been trying to process all of this and we had never talked about it. What she didn’t say was that when she did see me, she tackled me to the ground, pulled my shirt up, and said, “I wanted to see if you were binding.” So this is when I first came out, first time I had come home. I decided to do it at a family reunion, so like 100 people were there, and I had my new undercut haircut. I was fly as fuck. I looked like a completely different person.

So in this conversation, I’m remembering this moment – but she had just put “Jae” on my Christmas present, and she’s dying. So I was like, “Yeah… Well gender and sex are different.” And she goes, “So you like boobies and vaginas?” So homegirl heard “sex” and thought “intercourse.” Not like “sex” like biological, the thing you check off on a medical form, and that gender is unrelated. So immediately I’m like, oh, this is terrible. Also, “boobies and vaginas,” helps explain so much about me. And I was like, do I teach my mom about what these words mean? And I just said to her, “I didn’t consent to this conversation. This isn’t a conversation I wanna be having.” And then she started crying, and then I started crying, and then we actually ended up having this beautiful end-of-life talk about us and how much we love each other, and how sad I was gonna be when she was no longer here. But it was so weird that it was through this lens of trans-ness, and confusing [terms]. So when you asked that question the first thing I think of is, “You mean like boobies and vaginas?” [laughs]

It was very confusing for me when I first came out because I’m so black and white in my thinking, I didn’t know that they were different. And I didn’t understand that I had been living in a binary and that my world was just about to be blown up. Binary in terms of sex, binary in terms of gender; I just thought you were either straight or you were gay, and you were either male or you were female. During the pandemic, my bestie came out as pansexual, and I was like, fuck yeah! Awesome! Good for you! 

Again, when it comes to labels and binaries, I just wish it didn’t exist. If I’m going on a dating site and I’m making my profile, I hate the questions. I hate the options. I’m glad that they’re there, I’m glad that there are so many choices, but – it’s overwhelming, and it’s exhausting, and none of those words feel right to me. And I don’t know if they mean something to someone else. If I put “non-binary” or “trans,” does that mean something to the person that’s seeing this? I think too, when I first came out, I had deep feelings of not being gay enough. I hadn’t been out for that long, and I had been with dudes, and didn’t have the gay hair, and so even with gender and sexuality now, it’s like, of the thing I’m saying I am, am I enough of that to be able to have that? It sucks. And there’s other people walking around the world who feel that way, which is cool.

So I’m excited to see like, 10 years from now what the answers to these questions would be, and the things that I just give zero shits about that I still give a shit about now. But – I turn 40 on Friday, and I’m gonna think about how I started my 30s and how I’m ending my 30s. It’s pretty cool. A lot of changes.

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

Oh, not at all. [laughs] Oh my god, the closest is gay men. Women’s basketball and gay men are probably it, that’s it for me. Yeah, I get super psyched if I see a non-binary person; like Jonathan Van Ness on Queer Eye is pretty cool. But um, that’s been an evolution for them and I don’t see them on TV and go “That’s me!” I get super excited when I see someone that looks like us in the wild and I try to be cool about it. I get so excited and immediately feel a bit like, Ugh, am I cool enough? Am I gay enough?

So, pre-pandemic, I would go places to speak about being in recovery. Coming out is a big part of it. I was very lucky when I was getting sober that I could hear people talk from the podium. I didn’t hear my particular story. I didn’t know my specific story at the time but I heard women talk from the podium and say things like, “I came into AA married to a man and now I’m married to a woman.” So I was at least seeing that and I was like, Okay, that’s cool. And then after a few years in the program I haven’t really seen an elder version. I was talking to one of my friends about this - because of our age, we’re often sought out as elders. But I’ve only been doing this for like 10 years. I’m like, uh… No, nope, no, don’t even. It’s not even that long ago that I was wearing thongs. So to come at me and be like, “You’re representing, so what is it like?” I mean, I have friends that I talk to that grew up in South Carolina and, you know, they have been gay since the 80s. And I’m like, “You’re my elder. You’re my age, but you’re my elder.” I don’t know, I just don’t feel like I have the street cred.

What has happened is that who I am today is because I saw a piece of this somewhere and I saw that it was possible and that it existed and that I could claim it as mine as well. I feel like the reason I don’t feel settled is because I haven’t seen all of it yet. I haven’t seen all the examples. It sucks. I wish that I was flooded with it. It’s why I don’t know that I could live in like, North Dakota. I couldn’t. I definitely feel very privileged and lucky, where I live, certainly. And even here, I don’t feel fully represented. It does give me a little bit of a sense of responsibility to not shy away from it and describe the things. Even my hair! This is the hair I wanted forever, but it’s only been in the last 4 years and it’s been like an evolution. Part of it was because I hadn’t seen it and I didn’t know it was a possibility. And part of it was because I didn’t feel like I was safe.

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

Way less polarization. I mean, I care about queer community stuff, I care about people of color - just things are so polarized, and I think that being non-binary, maybe, I feel that or see that more that others. Even Democrats, you know, I certainly feel safer on that ticket but, it just feels so extreme, very polarized, and that just makes me feel very, very, very scared because it just means that, yes there’s somebody in office right now that I feel that I have “human” status with. But it’s going to swing. I also have a problem with “cancel culture.” I got my Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and I think there’s a lot to gain when opposing sides are brought together. Like, you can’t cancel Israeli/Palestinian conflict, you just can’t cancel it. You can’t just be like, “This thing doesn’t happen anymore; Israel is cancelled.”  Or, in instances where that’s happened, where Israel cancelled the West Bank. Israel doesn’t recognize it as a state and vice versa.

So, then, with cancel culture, it just feels like there’s no conversation happening at all which feels like a kind of added polarization piece. I think if things are super polarized and we’re just canceling stuff, then nothing’s changing. Like what we do in the spring, when we turn the dirt over. Nothing new grows in that environment. I think it puts a lot of pressure onto marginalized folks to be that. I don’t see our community getting bigger in that world. I see our community getting smaller in that world. I see our spaces that are important to us going away. Visibility is so important. Like, “I didn’t know you could look like that and have that job! I didn’t know that families looked that way.” And if those spaces don’t exist, then I feel like, walking around the world for long enough now feeling like not enough of something, I don’t want to be cancelled for not doing it right, or for making a mistake. I can’t cancel my family. They’re not doing it particularly well, but they’re doing it as best they can, and I know that. I know they are doing the best they can and they’re showing up as much as they are humanly capable of. So when I don’t see that in the world, when I see people intentionally turning things off or intentionally walking away, or intentionally picking a side, that makes me super nervous.

That’s sort of the ethos or paradigm of how I view the world. Also, can we just stop being shitty? Like, can we not have trans bills? It would be cool if the church I grew up in accepted all of me. Like, if I went up to the priest that married me and I told him my whole story, then I’m out. So, it would be cool if that wasn’t a thing. And if there wasn’t active legislation to create criteria for humanness. As a female person for most of my life, my femaleness was legislated and my access was determined, and now I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding, we’re still doing this? I remember when affirmative action was a big deal and there were all these changes so women and people of color could be hired and stuff. That’s what I grew up with, right? If you cut the soda can things, you’ll save turtles. There’ll be more jobs for women. That’s basically what I grew up with and I was like, Cool! And now I’m looking around and I’m like, Fuuuuck. I think it’s actually getting worse. [laughs]

Just walking down the street is a political act for me. So sometimes it’s like, how much more do I have in me? Do I want to march? Do I want to make a financial sacrifice and not work for a company? Where am I being a sell-out, where am I not? It’s like, it’s a Tuesday morning and me just being me is… I’m a political act, whether I wanted to be or not. Sometimes I vacillate between what I can do at the interpersonal level vs. wide change. And it feels more like the interpersonal level, my little sphere of influence, that there’s a baby dyke out there watching this, and that’s going to leave more of an impression. I don’t know if they would have seen me or heard me if I was on a bullhorn.

There have been times when I have participated at that level. I also had an internship at the State Senate when I was an undergrad, and no one’s making a dent. I remember feeling like, you do not get to participate at all. It’s slow-moving. It takes forever for anything to happen. While I was doing the internship, the senator from my town had said that they weren’t running for re-election. This was while I was doing the internship, so I was like “I’m gonna run, bitches!” So I went to the senator who I was interning for and I said, “My senator’s not returning, I should run.” And that’s where I learned about “heir apparent.” He was like, “Oh no, the person that gets that seat was decided a long time ago.” Not even the person that goes into the election but, the person who ultimately gets elected and gets that seat had been decided. I had made a button design, and I was all excited. And then…  There’s also just the politics piece of it where it’s like, what privilege do I have? How do I use that privilege? And less about what I expect the rest of the world to do or how I expect the rest of the world to change, because I don’t actually. I do continue to see hopeful expansion of spaces and I hope that there isn’t some point that it just gets put into this “one or the other” extreme kind of polarization.

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

I was in a meeting yesterday and the topic was grief, and I realized how much grief and trauma are related. So when I think of something impactful the first thing that comes to mind is trauma, and I can’t list just one thing because there’s been a lot of it. I think that it’s just like, things that have been impactful to me have been when I’ve experienced trauma and come out the other side. Whether that’s a sudden death, a tragedy, or before I got sober, it was not great and I was like, I might die. For me, it’s when I look back at something, when I look back at the last decade, when I look at my 30s, it feels like an impactful time. Everything about me is different. Everything. My name is different, my gender is different, the way I dress is different, my job is different, where I live is different, my friends are different. It was just really hard, and really tiring, but wonderful. So yeah, I’d say my 30s, just as a lump sum, ten years of tragedy and trauma, and triumph and change.

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

So, there’s certain clubs that I don’t want to be a member of. One club is the “My Dog Died” club. I’m not looking forward to it, and I will be in that club and I don’t want to be in that club. And then there’s the “Dead Parent” club and I don’t know, I think 37 is a bit young for a mom to die, and I think I would have liked more time with her. That was a club that I knew I didn’t want to be a part of and I would hear people talk about how their mom or dad had died, and I was just like, No. I really thought that the death of a parent would kill me, that the pain of that would kill me. For all of the challenges and imperfections in that relationship, there’s something about not having a mom that’s on this earth anymore that’s very disorienting and a very orphan-y kind of feeling. I had a lot of resentment towards her around her own alcoholism, around her own gender and sexuality. You know, just all the resentment around the things she could have done to make things easier for me, but she didn’t. I would say that’s an anger, but I held her hand when she took her last breath and wrote and read her eulogy.

I think seeing my relationship with her change now, I have such empathy and such understanding. And things I’ve learned about her, about the fire department, that I didn’t know what that was like for her. And that level of pain, that loss, didn’t kill me and it also gave me this freedom. There was a feeling after she died, like my perspective shifted enough about what was important and the understanding that I don’t actually have that much time on this planet. It’s a really small amount of time and how I choose to spend it is really important and ultimately up to me. So it changed me in that way. It was gratitude and this change with the relationship with me and my mom from a tumultuous, resentful kind of place to just feeling really proud.

She used to say something to me when I was young: “Stand up for something or you’ll fall for anything.” And I think about that constantly. I have a long history of staying in relationships for way too long. And now I’m like, what do I deserve, what space am I going to take up, what permission am I going to give myself?  I think losing her at this age, there’s a lot more cool shit in my life that’s going to happen that she’s not going to see. She got to see a lot of the hard stuff and there’s still evolutions of me that she’s not going to bear witness to. Homegirl was right, which is so fucking annoying. Like in that conversation that I didn’t want to have with her. I go back to that conversation a fair amount. I used to be was so annoyed that she would “trans” me, she would “non-binary” me. I was like, “How dare you, you don’t get to decide that for me.” She could see something in me that I wasn’t willing to see yet. This leaves me now in this place of, oh, the story will all unfold. Not having that pain and anger and resentment has freed me up to just be open to things more than I was, maybe, when she was still alive. So, it’s not a fun club. I remember when my mom died, you find out who else’s mom died, across the universe. You just get random postcards from someone named Joe who’s like, “My mom also died!” It’s pretty life-altering. And then you meet other people who have gone through it and you get it. And that’s the designation, forever. So yeah, I’d say that was the hardest thing and the way it changed me, in my adult life anyway.

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

I have “family of choice” designated people. So I have a sponsor that’s been my sponsor for eight years that is also on every piece of paperwork where I have to put a beneficiary or point of contact. So if something happens to me, this person is getting a ton of money and has to make a lot of decisions that maybe they didn’t sign up for. And then I have close friends that have been with me throughout this whole getting sober and coming out journey. My bestie, who I live with, we’ve talked about having a baby together, creating this family that doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever known. I like the idea of having a kid with someone I’m not sleeping with, because I probably wouldn’t want to murder them. I’ve never been in a relationship with someone where I was like, “You know what’s going to help here? A kid.” [laughs] But with her, we’re besties.  We’re good at different things so I feel like this would be fun, and I don’t have to worry about the other parts of that relationship. Just the us being friends together and raising a kid part. So that seems like fun. I have sponsees that I‘ve had for a while, for many years, that are incredibly important to my sobriety. They have told me time and time again that they appreciate that I come to those relationships with no pretense of having any of this figured out. So the people in my life that are the most important to me are the ones that are also doing the work of growing and evolving and figuring out the blind spots that they have about themselves and learning about them. The relationships with my family, they are important to me, they just serve a different purpose and I’m very grateful that I can love them and I can see how they love me and I am also grateful that they are not my primary source. It takes a ton of pressure off.

Another important person to me, when I think of heroes and idols and stuff like that is… I would probably scream, faint, poop myself and then just be overjoyed if Michelle Obama walked into this park. I’d probably be like, “The Queen is here!” It’s that same thing; being non-binary, being queer, being “other,” I’m just always on the hunt for anyone or anything that has that semblance of home. Like, is that where I belong? Are you my home? Are you my family? Are you my people? I’m lucky that I have real-life humans, on the daily, that fit that bill; but I’m always like, who’s slaying it right now? Who’s powerful? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I wanna be like that. That’s a power I wanna have. I don’t want this other power that I’m being sold over here in this other area but that power, that’s cool. There’s communities that I’m in around things relating with my dog and gym and stuff like that where it’s less about the people. Thank god that space exists and I can go and enjoy doing the things I enjoy doing.

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

The first relationship I was in when I came out as queer, the first serious relationship I was in after I was married, this person called me a femme, and I hated it. There was masculine or feminine and that was it.

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It felt so like what I had been in for so long but it was also kind of comfortable too. When I came out, most people were like, “That makes sense.” When I started going by “they” and non-binary, it doesn’t seem nearly as surprising to everyone else as it has felt to me. I would say that with romantic relationships, it’s still tricky. I still feels like there’s - and maybe on both sides - there’s still a prescribed binary kind of top/bottom, butch/femme. And I’m just the type of person that, when it comes to sex, I just don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to talk about any of it. I just want to have sex, I want it to work and I don’t want to talk about it. [laughs] I just want to be in a relationship and I just want it to work. I don’t want to talk about it and there’s so much talking about it and it’s exhausting. And it’s usually more about me having to explain and describe and that’s, you know, just exhausting. I also haven’t yet found a person who has the same vocabulary.

And again, in friendships I’m just really lucky that I landed in a pond full of lily pads, of just queer and non-binary people being like, “You know who sucks? Ellen! You know who else sucks? HRC!” And I was like, “Why? Okay, okay, tell me more.” I learned about consent and I learned about all these things. I never heard about those things before. I didn’t know that you talked about stuff and that people had different words for things. In recovery, there’s this concept about how we are always looking for an easier, softer way. And I think in my relationships, I’m looking for an easier, softer way and it’s just not there. Usually that’s fine. And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just a bit of a burden to be like, Okay, where does the education begin? Then there’s that feeling that, if I’m going to be non-binary, I have to be one hundred percent non-binary like there’s a gold star non-binary and I gotta be real sure. And there’s another part that’s like, can I change my mind? Can I let other people change their mind? The fluidity of it can also be very difficult. I’m a Taurus, I like routines and structure and pretty things. And none of this is routine, structure, or pretty. It’s messy and exhausting. The other thing that I’ve learned from the relationships in my life, even the harder ones, even the ones where there doesn’t feel like there’s much room, is that I am loved an incredible amount. It’s probably more than I do myself and that’s probably why a lot of this is so painful because it ultimately has me looking at me. Seeing the ways I’ve abandoned myself and the ways I’ve put other people, places and things as more important, and relationships as more important than myself. Most people are like, “We just want you to be happy, we’ll love you, whatever.” These restrictions and rules, they’re all self-imposed, mostly. And trusting relationships where I feel there’s more room for growth on both sides.

Are you able to find adequate medical care?

Yes, I’m very very lucky. I have PMDD which basically means, getting my period is the absolute worst thing ever, every month. I was talking to my primary care provider who starts every visit with, “How are you feeling?” and then when I talk about something, he asks me what I’m most afraid of which I’ve never heard a doctor ask before. So, we were talking about this thing and I was like, “Is the end of this thing, is it menopause? Is it just terrible, like thirty or forty years and then menopause?” And then he said, “Yeah, and then after menopause it’s actually kind of fun. You could try this, or you could try that.” But it’s all just calibrating different knobs of things like antidepressants or birth control. Being on birth control does not feel gender affirming at all. So I asked him, “If I was transitioning, would this be an issue?” and he said, “We’ll talk about transitioning when that’s a thing that we’re talking about, for reasons other than the fact that you don’t like your period.” I was like, “Solid, that was a test, you passed.” Yeah, so he was like, “We can talk about transitioning, we can do that, if you want to talk about it but this situation is not why we are going to talk about transitioning.” I was like, “Can we just take out things? I’m definitely not using it.”

In my early 20s, I got married. And once I got married, everyone had a lot of feelings about my uterus and what should be happening in there. That’s actually bean a really fun thing about being non-binary. It’s been years, years, since someone has asked me when I’m gonna have a baby. It’s like I’m uterus-free. Strangers - if I had a wedding ring on, long blonde hair: ”Oh, you’re married? How long have you been married? Two years? Oh my god, are you trying? Are you having a baby? When are you having a baby?” And I’m like, I don’t know you! We are at the deli counter! [laughs] So that doesn’t happen anymore.

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

I’m working on getting closer to viewing myself the way I viewed myself as a kid. It was before I was bullied. It was before I had trauma. I let myself try things. I let myself be confident. I didn’t have hang-ups. I looked at myself and thought I was the shit, not in an arrogant way. I knew what I had to offer and flaunted that. I was sincere, and cute, and intense, and I could be alone with myself. Basically, from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed it’s just constant mental gymnastics of, “No, you be nice to yourself!” I have hang-ups now. I have regrets. It’s harder to see myself in that way, of someone trying to do their best, having a blast and learning as they go.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t drink. Or…do, and then stop and then very quickly get into a program. [laughs] I don’t think I would have known I was an alcoholic if I didn’t drink. I was always looking outside of myself and I was always looking for someone else to tell me who to be and what I should do and all that stuff. I would just say: Naw, it’s not worth it. Go talk to that weird kid in the leather jacket, go talk to that kid. Or Sam, who might be gay but couldn’t be out. You couldn’t be out in the 90s in high school. That wasn’t allowed. No one was gay in the 90s in high school, except maybe Sam. I think when I look back at my younger self, the things that I was afraid of and the people that scared me and the people that I judged, if you put them all up in a lineup, are all pieces of who I am today. Also, the advice I would give my younger self would be around money and career, and it’s really not that important. Care more about the experiences and the people and less about the cash and prizes. Because I got the cash and prizes and I’m like, eh, I’m good. I don’t want them anymore.

What are your concerns for the future?

Well, every once in a while I’m like, Clearly, I’m going to die alone. [laughs] So that’s a concern. I don’t know. Loss. I’m afraid of grief. That’s a feeling that I don’t particularly want to seek out. I think every once in a while, I look at the outside stuff, and then I look at someone else’s outside stuff, and I’m like, I don’t have that outside stuff.  I have a fear of scarcity. Abundance is a drug I’ve been chasing probably my whole adult life.  I figured all this out too late and I missed my opportunity - you know, “destiny.”  And that I’m preventing myself from true vulnerability and intimacy in relationships. That that will be a thing where I will continuously put a wall up. The walls are getting lower and less, but that would be a fear. That I won’t break that and I will miss out on true vulnerability and intimacy. And then, usually when I’m getting my period, I just cry because I know [Doodle’s] going to die.

What do you look forward to in the future?

Progress? So, something about being in program is, we talk a lot about how there’s no “arriving.” There’s no arrival. We don’t just sort of land somewhere and be like, “We’re done now!” So I don’t have this end point. I look forward to my new apartment. It’s ginormous and I look forward to it being filled with people. And I’ve been on this quest for a family, whatever that looks like. I’m looking forward to a family and just having lots of people around. And I look forward to just giving less fucks, zero shits. I’m looking forward to being 40, because everyone I’ve talked to in that phase of their life is like, This is me, I am me, certain things just aren’t going to change. And when I cross that point, there’s going to be a point in time where my body is just not going to change anymore. Between my age and my lifestyle or whatever, I will not have a six-pack. It’s just not going to happen for me. There’s going to be a peak, and when I hit it, that’s it. When you are in your 20s, you can move the peak. There are things you can do. I think that the combination of optimism and hopefulness and also, I’m just really looking forward to a point where I just don’t care as much. That will be exciting. I just imagine I’m going to wake up one morning and be like, Naw…I don’t care. [singing] I don’t care what you, or you, or you think! I don’t care! [laughs] I don’t care. I’m fine. Everything’s fine. I’m full. I’m abundant. I have all the things.

What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?

I’m like a real gold star co-dependent partly because of the family I grew up in and the dynamics of growing up in an alcoholic home. One of the biggest frustrations is seeing where I’ve done the same things over and over again. I feel like I’ve dated the same person a hundred times. I’ve had the same job, the same boss, just the scenery has been different. Being in recovery, there’s this sentiment that pain is a real big motivator for change. Usually for me, it’s frustration that comes out of anger, like I’m angry and I’m frustrated because I can’t do anything about being angry. And then I’m in pain, and then good things come from there. I think that the awareness about having to do something about it sucks. Sometimes it’s hard to see something and then be like, Shit, I’ve been here before, why am I doing this again, why am I here again? I’m super frustrated that I can’t control the things that I want to control and that I don’t get to dictate how this goes. It’s really frustrating for a control freak and for a co-dependent. The attempts to abandon myself or get out of myself have been unsuccessful. It would’ve been cool if that worked. I mean, in the long term it would’ve sucked, but it’s just frustrating because then there’s just more work to do. I have to do things to learn about myself and to not be in pain. I think that’s tied to successes. I am real hard to keep down because pain is a motivator, frustration is a motivator, it’s real hard to deter me from something once I see it. So once I knew I was an alcoholic, then okay, what do I do about that? Once I knew that I was not attracted to men, then okay, what do I do about that? Once I accept that part of myself, then I’m not getting rid of it. So that’s a success part of it. But they’re very related.

It used to be promotion, house, money - that was the success stuff. When my mom died, I had this thought - which is probably pretty weird but I’m going to tell you anyway - I had this thought that, if somebody went to a medium, and the medium was describing me to this person, how would that person know it was me? What would be the descriptions of me that they would be like, “Oh, that’s Jae! I know Jae, great!” You know? And it would be like: can eat their body weight in jelly beans, loves animals, authentic, unique, didn’t take shit, brave, always pushing themselves to be better. I think frustration, success, hard stuff, all that’s kind of rolled up into - what? What would be the words that would be used? What would make them be like, “Yeah, I know them, that must be Jae! I mean, I wasn’t sure, but then you said the jelly beans thing…” Yeah, a little morbid but… [laughs]

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

Don’t be a douchebag? Just don’t be an asshole. So there’s some slogans in program that help me. Some of them are: Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy? Another one: I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, I can’t control it. That’s pretty helpful when I’m dealing with other people’s shit. And then there’s THINK, which is before I say something, is it Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, Necessary, or Kind? Then there’s another one that’s called WAIT, which [stands for] Why Am I Talking? So, yeah, just don’t be a dick and, I just try and be as honest as I can. 

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

I share my story, whether it’s here, or whether it’s in recovery, or whether it’s partly to take up space and provide validity. And also, identifying is really important and, if people are saying words that help you find words, then that makes anybody sharing anything important. Because then what would we be doing otherwise?

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