What are your pronouns?
If I could have none, I would, but it’s whatever people use. My fiancé uses “they,” and most of my close friends switch between “he” and “she” in the same sentence.
Where do you work?
I am disabled, and cannot work even part-time, but what I do is I farm some land nearby. That’s kind of work-ish. [laughs] Originally it started to keep myself busy, but as I started getting more into it… My goal this year is to see how much of our food I can grow, and eventually I want to be self-sufficient in that regard. So I can’t contribute financially the same way I’d like to, but this way I can contribute.
Do you have any hobbies or special interests? What do you do for fun?
Being outside on the land is a really big one, so gardening and beekeeping. I love my bees. There are not any there right now, I get the new hive at the end of May. But spending time with my people, spending time with my cat. I haven’t hiked in a while but I used to like that, or just sitting and watching TV, or cooking.
Being outside on the land is a really big one, so gardening and beekeeping. I love my bees. There are not any there right now, I get the new hive at the end of May. But spending time with my people, spending time with my cat. I haven’t hiked in a while but I used to like that, or just sitting and watching TV, or cooking. Food is a big hobby. It used to be comic-ing and art. We’re hopefully getting back into that as my brain heals [from a traumatic brain injury I received a few years ago] eventually, maybe, possibly not, we’ll see.
How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?
With strangers I just kind of let it go, because I know I look ambiguous to femme. Although sometimes I get gendered masculine, and that gives me a little thrill, I’m not gonna lie. Because you get really sick of being shoved in a box in one direction. And since I really don’t care pronoun-wise for the most part, strangers don’t really bother me. If someone does use “they,” or asks, I thank them enthusiastically. But with mixed company, it depends on how often I’m around them, and if someone else has corrected them. My fiancé consistently uses “they” to help other people catch on. If somebody that I care about who I think will understand, or who I know I’ll be spending a whole lot of time with, consistently genders me as female, I might be like, “Hey, just so you know, I am non-binary, I am trans, so I don’t mind if you keep using ‘she,’ but I just wanted to let you know that I also use ‘he’ and ‘they.’” So with pronouns, I’ve become so detached from pronouns that on the one hand, I kind of wish there was just a way to not have to use them at all, and then on the other I’ve noticed increasingly that I really do like hearing “they” or hearing the mix-up. If someone’s constantly gendering me as female with other language, not just pronouns but assumptions or words like “wife” or “daughter” or “lady” or things like that, that’ll get to me, and I’ll speak up just because that gets a little overwhelming.
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?
Luckily Jo is a nickname I already had with everybody, and I ended up thinking it feels more comfortable, and a lot of times I’ll shorten it to Jo on anything that lets me that’s not legal, just because it already is an identity that I had that felt better. My full name feels weird.
What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?
We were doing a panel on trans health access in the area, and they were doing a screening call yesterday, and so I realized – okay, trans, and then under that is non-binary, and then under that, I’m agender. It’s really like taxonomy almost, like the categorization of a plant or an animal. So as far as gender identity, I use agender, but I’ll also use non-binary, and I’ll also use trans, because I’m all of them technically. But other than that, I used to very much identify with “artist.” I may or may not have had a mental breakdown after a little bit of recovery in that my occipital lobe bumped up against the back of my skull, and so a lot of the ways I used to make art I can’t anymore. But I can still make some art, I just have to adapt, and it takes a lot out of me. Every couple of months I can do one piece. So, everybody around me insists that I am still an artist. I don’t feel like one anymore, because I can’t sit down and sketch. My understanding of space is not the same. So I want to be an artist, and other people identify me as an artist, but I have a hard time calling myself an artist now that I can’t make that kind of art. I used to do full-on comic-ing, and so now I literally can’t. And figure drawing. My big thing was I loved figure drawing. It was a huge joy, getting to stare at a human body for a long time and just figure out where to emphasize it, and now I can’t process and then re-process and put on paper where someone’s shoulder blade is in relation to the small of their back. So we’ll see. I used to be “artist,” and we’re still working on that one.
"Everyone can be scientists ... Really all [science] is is just observing and experimenting. If experimenting means dropping something on the floor 6 times because you’re a toddler, or seeing if you’re allergic to a new food, or testing to see if your microwave can handle this thing. ... I think we’re scientists every day all the time. Science is a wonderful thing and I feel like more people need to embrace it."
And I sometimes say farmer, but I always feel like I’m in the little leagues, like am I a farmer or a gardener? And everyone’s like, “You’re a farmer. How many plants have you started? How much food did you buy last summer? You’re a farmer.” In some company I’ll [call myself] a farmer, but around actual farmers I’m like, “I grow some things.” And “queer” probably works. I used to say “gay/lesbian” because we joked that my gender is gay for a while. Because in a binary sense when I didn’t have the language to describe it otherwise, when I am with a woman, I’m like, yeah I’m a lesbian, I feel like I’m butch or androgynous, but I’m a woman. But when I am with someone who is a guy, I’m like, Oh I’m a gay man. I’m the gayest gay man you’ll ever meet. So that also sort of is a coin flipper. Although then I found out that there’s an option to be neither. Oh, okay. Opt out. Check box.
Scientist. Definitely scientist, always and forever. Because I used to teach, and that was almost what I went into. I was going to be an elementary teacher, but my focus was really on science. I have a very passionate belief that everyone can be scientists, that all children are naturally scientists, and that science, all it really is is something that people think of as something “other” or elitist or whatever, and really all it is is just observing and experimenting.
If experimenting means dropping something on the floor 6 times because you’re a toddler, or seeing if you’re allergic to a new food, or testing to see if your microwave can handle this thing. If you put a frozen pizza in the oven at 350˚ and it came out not quite done at 20 minutes, and the next time you try [longer], then you’re a scientist. I think we’re scientists every day all the time. Science is a wonderful thing and I feel like more people need to embrace it.
And other than that and in line with that, I’d also consider myself – I’m never sure if it’s Pagan, or witchy, or apparently “druid” fits very well I guess in the way that you hear someone describe something and you’re like, “Oh, I guess that’s me.” But I very much think of us as animals, in that when we talk about the environment, we should be talking about our environment because we’re part of it. So I feel like I identify as not animal, but part of the environment. Which seems like it would be common sense, but it feels like everyone’s very removed from it.
Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?
Today I’m wearing a skirt, because I’ve noticed in representation of androgynous non-binary folks there is a lot of masculine-as-default androgynous. So today I’m doing that, just to make sure there’s somebody that people can look at and go, “Oh, okay, I can do this too.” But otherwise, for the most part, I really like shirts that fit in a way that you can’t tell that I have an AFAB [assigned female at birth] chest – which is actually getting removed some time in the next year, thank god. But other than that, because slouching’s really bad for your back and I hate being identified by that part of my body that I don’t really want people looking at anyway, I usually just dress for comfort and function. For my own whims, I’ll be like, “Oh, I feel like sparkling today, so I’m gonna put gold dust all over my face and wear the most floral things I own – I like plants, I like flowers, let’s cover myself in them.” So for the most part I just dress for function and whim. I’ve learned to enjoy clothing. Actually, I guess “brain injury survivor” should’ve been in [the identity answer], but it was such a mild one – that is something that let me weirdly do that. Because before that I was working with kids and families, and so I had to dress a certain way. I would code myself very specifically if I was working with families that had queer kids, or I just kind of let it all out with queer families. Then I’d wear a tie sometimes or whatever I wanted. But after the head injury I was like, you know what, I’m just going to wear whatever I enjoy, for the most part. Acting-wise, sometimes I end up either acting sort of overly macho to avoid certain assumptions about who I am in terms of gender because I do wear things like skirts and dresses a lot, or to be able to move more safely or more freely in situations where I’m already dressed in sort of an ambiguous way but I know being read as femme would be restrictive - it’s bad, I feel like it might be bad to admit that I try to sort of take advantage of “passing privilege” in situations where I can be read as masculine but I also try to be extra vocal in those situations too about speaking up or standing up for women and not let anyone take advantage of anybody or pull any bullshit - it still doesn’t mean I always “pass” as male but I got so spoiled being around mechanics and stuff all the time when I was still working with my dad’s auto glass business being read as just one of the guys so sometimes it’s almost like a default, when I feel small or unheard I try to act large and I guess in a lot of spaces that means masculine. It’s not the best practice.
How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?
I had no idea, and I also knew at the same time. My family was very much – I wouldn’t say gender-free because it wasn’t in a formal way, but my mom and dad met in the military, and mom helped dad fix cars, dad made Sunday breakfast and wore aprons. I had two younger brothers, I would play with their G.I. Joes, they would play with my Barbies. And mom was kind of a kick-ass tomboy, but also super into flirting when she was younger. So no one batted an eye that I liked everything pink but also liked crawling in the mud, but also had crushes on girls and stuff. Or wore men’s clothes. I helped dad with his glass business, and frequently the clothes I wore were just his, because they happened to fit. So I literally didn’t understand that there was an option like that until a couple years ago. Even though I had been exposed to it a little sooner by somebody who was non-binary in a way that I didn’t understand, and I didn’t express it to them, but I was very close-minded about it. And then two years later I saw a design for a T-shirt that was under some website for people who were non-binary that had definitions, because I had started thinking maybe I was genderfluid or bi-gender, but those didn’t quite fit either. And it described agender, which I had heard before, but didn’t understand what it was, and there was a photo of this t-shirt design, and it had the checkboxes for male and female and underneath; instead of having “other,” it had “Opt Out” or “N/A” and it was checked. And I was like, wait, I can do that? So it’s only actually in the past like, three years that I had become aware of this as an option. That’s exactly me.
I feel like non-binary is just a bigger term. I feel like agender is or can be non-binary the same way that non-binary can be trans but folks don’t necessarily identify as both. I do fit as non-binary, but I feel like I can use agender as a slightly more specific term. Because I know I have friends who are non-binary in the sense that they feel more fluid, and one day they’ll feel like male and one day they’ll feel like female. And I have friends that are non-binary in a “gender should be flushed down the drain, period, and nobody’s really gendered” [kind of way]. All the terms are so personal to people. I feel like for me non-binary is a bigger umbrella term. But I also know for some other people it’s very specific. I don’t know what that would mean to them.
Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?
God yes. “Gender wonky” is a phrase I had been using for a long time, before I had found a term – but I was raised in a very gender wonky household. I was lucky in that respect. My parents were very much of the idea that anybody could do and be anything, so there was significantly less imposition, particularly because my dad is not masculine in that sort of stereotypical TV machismo [way]. He wasn’t really into fishing, and he wasn’t really a big sports guy, there wasn’t a “man cave.” He very much could do the home improvement grunt, but it wasn’t like a men thing – I also was invited to do the home improvement grunt and work in the garage. And I actually liked to get my hands dirty and get more physical more than my brothers did, just in terms of whether it was work or play - they were more into computers and I was into actual dirt and moving heavy objects and just a sort of general wanting to feel physically powerful in that literal sense, and we were all into literature and musicals and art which I think can be coded as these “softer” things, and so there really wasn’t any indication of a binary in my house. Which is part of why I was lucky enough to be who I am, and also why it took me so long to figure out what exactly what I am is. But I think if I had been raised in a different situation then I don’t know what I would be. But you know, mom was the last separate women’s unit at Fort Bragg before they integrated it all. (Integrated in terms of doing activities and drills together.) Mom is a very, very big feminist, of the idea that women can do and should do anything men do, and believes the other way around too. So it was kind of a “screw that bullshit” take on gender roles. So there really weren’t gender roles in our house
Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?
I don’t know if it’s up there with that millennial snowflake thing, but so many people seem to think that people who are non-binary or androgynous seem to think they’re very special and are very sensitive about it. Even in a supportive way, I’ve had people apologize really profusely for something and then get stuck on apologizing for it until I tell them it’s okay, and it’s literally something I won’t have noticed, because I really don’t give a shit. Like if I could be a Ken doll, essentially, of gender, that would be great. So people think that it means a lot to me, and so if someone asks my pronouns, I’ll [say], “It doesn’t really matter to me, I don’t care, you can use whatever,” because I know it’s a short-term situation, or I know that they’re conscious enough about it to have asked, so I don’t expect to be aggressively feminized. They’ll be like, “Oh, okay. But what do you prefer?” “I literally have no preference. There is no preference, I don’t care.” “Okay, but what feels best?” “I don’t care. Whatever. You can pick one. Go ahead and pick one right now.” I won’t actually put someone on the spot that way, but if they can’t pick, if they’re too afraid to pick, I’ll [say], “My fiancé calls me ‘they.’” “Okay, ‘they.’” And then they’ll apologize if they don’t do it. Or people will either tiptoe, or they’ll mock you. “Oh, but I guess that’s offensive, huh?” “I guess I can’t do this or say that.” And you kind of just want to say, “Fuck off.”
In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation? Do you think that they ever affect each other or are related?
So considering that we jokingly said like a minute ago that my gender is gay, it still actually completely blows my mind – and I should specify, I say this with respect and don’t mean this to be any kind of shaming for people who don’t know this yet, but it’s so strange to think about sexual orientation and gender identity being confused, just because it’s to me a little like if you were confusing broccoli with apple. Like, if you’ve never really eaten healthy food before, or if you were raised in an urban setting and you have no idea how things grow, or something, I can see how you would [think], “Okay, these are both healthy foods, these are both from plants.” I’m trying to wrap my mind around it, I’m trying so hard to be open and non-judgmental; I’m not judging, I just don’t understand confusing the two.
In absolutely crude terms, I would say gender identity is about who you are, sexual orientation is, for folks who are explicitly sexual, about who you want to bang. Or there’s an ongoing joke, I don’t know how widespread it is: that idea of do I want to be them, or do I want to be with them that I think a lot of queer kids experience, and is how I had all of my early crushes on women. I [thought], Man, I really like them, they’re so cool. …Do I think they’re cool because I want to be like that person, or do I wanna smooch them? And so I think, in less crude terms, gender identity is who you want to be, and sexual orientation is who you want to be with. And again, even though I joked that my gender identity was a sexual orientation, it’s just so strange thinking about them being confused. Because they are such different things.
How do you feel represented in media and society at large?
Ya know, a couple weeks ago, I would’ve said I don’t. We’ve been watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It’s very campy. I think the second season is less about the camp, I think they set up that context with that tone, and now you’re getting into the deeper story stuff. Season two, there is a conversation about [the non-binary character on the show] being not the gender they’re assigned. And it is the simplest conversation, and the two characters react really well to it. And I cry really easily when I see representation that wasn’t there. We saw Beauty and the Beast [the live-action new one] and in the opening scene, I saw a couple of people of color and started crying. And then at the end there is some stuff with representation of someone who, if I had to explain my gender in the binary, the closest I could even come was a really effeminate gay man, and so I saw myself in something there, and cried. There’s representation in it. In a Disney movie. I worked in an all-black district in Arkansas for a year, and so after that I started noticing that none of the kids in children’s books are black. That was over 10 years ago. So now when I see things happen, and I see main characters of color, I cry. Because look at this thing that they get to see. So for the most part, I’d say I don’t feel represented. But, it is slowly getting better, and the little blips of it for the most part when they shine through, it makes me very happy. The other problem is that you do have that “oh they’re special” or “there’s something wrong with them.”
So I feel like either I don’t see myself in media, or I’m supposed to see myself in media and the examples that I get, I look and I’m like, “That’s how you see me?” It feels a little like if you’re in an area where there aren’t many queer people… I identified as a lesbian [in high school], and a friend [said], “I met somebody that would be perfect for you, you guys should go on a date,” and I [said], “Oh, tell me about her,” and she goes, “She’s gay.” “Okay, tell me – more about her?” “Well she has a great big pink mohawk, and she’s in a metal band,” and she was describing all these things, and I [said], “What would we talk about? Why would we be good together?” “Well she’s gay.” That’s what it feels like for representation. Queer in terms of sexuality – [that] representation has gotten a little better, but for non-binary stuff – no, good luck, have fun. And if you do see it there’s a 90% chance that the tiny slim portion you’re going to see, you’ll look at it and go, “I don’t know who you think is that, I don’t know if you maybe met one person who identified this way and also had a lot of other stuff going on, but I don’t know anybody in our community that would necessarily look at this and say ‘This is me.’”
What improvements would you like to see happen inside your communities, and in society at large?
One of the reasons that I moved here [to Greenfield] is that the community here is really great. If you ever want to feel better about the universe, I would check out the Wikipedia article for [Question] 3 [about upholding trans rights in MA]. Because we [my fiancé and I] were both feeling really discouraged – he moved out here from Colorado Springs, which is a military area where he was getting stuff thrown at him and things shouted at him and somebody chased him off a bus once – so we were really, really dismayed when [Question] 3 happened. And [after] it passed, I was curious, because the local numbers were 40/60, and Mike was like, “That still means 40% of the population, now I’m going to be looking around and wondering who it was.” So I was curious, and since those were the statewide numbers, I wanted to see what it was locally to make him feel better. And if you look at the Wikipedia page, it has two lines about who was against it, and it has like a full paragraph that’s just a list of all the people who were for it, and it includes pretty much every town in our area. So locally, the reason that we stay here, is because we’re both really tired of being the ambassadors.
And you can be out and be the person people know, and they’re like, “Oh, I know a ‘blank’ person,” but you burn out. And we both burned out. Because I’m originally from New York, but I’m from Long Island. Not New York City. Not the Village. It is very different. And I’m not from Nassau County, I’m from Suffolk County, where people think it’s country and everyone wants a pickup truck. It was bad. It wasn’t the worst place, but it was not good. So we were both really really burnt out and exhausted, and we love where we live. We still get a little giddy about being able to hold hands in public. Every once in a while, we’ll be going towards a building, and he’ll just gravitate a little closer and hold my hand. Which makes me want to tear up a little, because that was a thing that he did not feel safe doing. Maybe on Long Island it would be safe doing that, but if I take the ferry down to visit my parents, I get a lot of stares going to the bathroom. Depending on which side you’re coming from; it’s mostly higher-income Republican white folks from Long Island. There were people giving me very threatening looks and almost following me to the bathroom at a Denny’s in Connecticut. So gender-wise, society can do better.
I’ve had folks say, “We should just abolish gender, period.” That’s not the solution. So I don’t know what I’d want to see, because society as a whole is so far from being there yet. People still have a very difficult time understanding what being trans is for folks who are on the binary. I almost feel like there needs to be – I was going to joke and say some kind of mandatory science education, but that was supposed to be health class and science. Even in science there are people who [argue], “It’s nature, it’s natural, it’s science,” and I’m like, no, it’s not science. The binary is not science. There is no binary. I remember this Twitter post series that I was sharing around by a gentleman who worked in natural sciences and research and was saying, “This is why we say ‘male’ and ‘female’ in science. It’s because when you’re doing any kind of research, you need to have discrete groups. And this whole stuff in the middle, there’s a ton of it. It’s an outlier. Because we need to have two discrete groups.” Then he explained bell curves, and spikes, and things, and gave tons of examples of things that do not have a binary, and situations where humans aren’t binary. And he listed all of the genetic variances and stuff. I feel like the first big step is to understand that we don’t exist on a binary. That is not how it works.
I have a friend who now would be considered intersex, and they were very relieved, because they are non-binary, but now they are like, “Oh I can say this now, and it will make people understand that I’m not just being special, I’m not choosing to be weird or whatever.” It was recently considered intersex, because the condition wasn’t before, but people are like, “Well, I guess if an organ that’s meant to make this hormone is actually making too much of what we consider is literally an opposite hormone, yeah, I guess that’s considered intersex.” But the idea of trying to get an entire society to understand that something they thought was a basic fundamental tenet of early education is wrong, is just too overwhelming. I don’t know where we’d start. But I think that’s where we have to start.
I feel like a lot of it is also based on xenophobia, and also a general closing out of global ideas. Because there are so many other cultures that don’t have two genders. They have five genders, they have three genders, they have seven genders – but I think in this country especially, we look at other things like that and go, “Well that’s primitive. We know better. We have science.” Or, “Well yeah, they have this god that represents this and that,” or certain Native American tribes have folks that are revered because they represent both, but we want to consider ourselves “enlightened” as a culture. There’s this idea that America is the best country in the world, and I think that’s a terrible way to look at anything because then you’re going to dismiss anything else. I think that actually has a huge impact on how we view gender, because when you’re primed to view things that are outside of your country’s viewpoint as wrong or less than, especially in the way it interacts with things like racism and stuff like that, you’re going to look at this, and if you give examples of, “No, this can exist this way,” they [say], “Okay, but that’s wrong and bad. We are better. This must be better.” So even if you’re aware of it, you reject it. It’s ridiculous and unhelpful.
Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you?
I got my head injury through work, so I was on worker’s comp. They had me on half-time and then they had me come back, and I couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t multitask, I couldn’t work with families anymore. So I was trying to do stuff in the office, and I couldn’t understand stuff I was looking at. I would look at this and go, “I know I worked on this program and this spreadsheet two months ago and completely understood it.” And now I literally couldn’t make heads or tails of it. And I realized I wouldn’t be able to do that work anymore, and that I was going to need to find another option. So I ended up finding a different job and leaving that one. I let them know I couldn’t do it anymore, and they were not taking that for an answer. They were saying, “You’ll get better.” Okay but I’m not.
So the job that I was doing was very part-time, which worked better for my brain, and I was working for a hotline for preventing child sexual abuse. And at some point during training for answering emails, I was asking my supervisor too many questions to confirm that what I was doing was right, I guess. She sat me down and said, “We need to talk. You need to see somebody about your anxiety. I hired you because you could do this on your own, and right now you’re not. So you need to get this under control because I know you have this ability, but you’re not functioning.” So I ended up doing partial hospitalization, and it was kind of insane at the time, because I had just started online grad school, and I am very much somebody who is an overachiever, so I managed to get them to let me leave ten minutes early at the end of two days a week. So I would go to partial hospitalization and go straight from there to my shift at the hotline, and then I’d go home and do schoolwork.
Obviously that fuse burned real quick, because that was not something that I was able to really do for very long, but partial hospitalization definitely changed my life. Because it put into a completely different context so many things that I had been thinking and feeling and doing as all of these symptoms. It was the first time somebody said, “Have you ever been diagnosed with PTSD?” And I was like, “PTSD is something war vets have. I do not have that.” Turns out I did, and I do, and learning what Complex PTSD is and how it affects everything I have done in my life to a really kind of outsized degree until I got a hold on it helped me completely re-contextualize and understand myself better. It helped me be healthier to myself and kinder to myself. And I ended up dealing with gender identity there, that I didn’t think I was going to end up dealing with, and this feeling of needing to do and be more than any one person can be. I was raised with a lot of media where you’re showing revolutions in a really great light and where you have a lot of martyrs. And I was hitting this point in my life where I [thought], I haven’t martyred myself for a cause, what am I doing. I moved to an area that was queer-friendly because it’s less exhausting and safer, so I’ve taken myself out of the line of martyrdom. I didn’t realize this, but I had always imagined that I’d probably either burn out or die before I hit a certain point. So really having to face a lot of these things – I can’t go forward with my life if I’m sitting here thinking that if I’m not putting myself directly in harm’s way, I’m not doing enough. So you could probably see how that would definitely change and affect things like my identity. And honestly putting it in the context of PTSD helped me understand parts of my identity that I didn’t need to hold on to anymore, and just led to me shifting to be a healthier more accepting person, and to pursue the parts of my identity that are good for me. So that’s probably one of the biggest things.
And then also, you know, [my fiancé]. That relationship definitely changed my life and the way I see myself a lot. I became much more comfortable with my own gender identity and my own sexual identity, and also he had not known me before my brain injury, and he still thought I was awesome. So it made me start having to look at myself as maybe not a lesser version of myself or broken or needing to get back to this to be good. So those are two big ones.
Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it?
I mean, the [traumatic brain injury] in general – I’ve had to completely reshape my life and how I do things. Literally the way my brain works has changed. I used to do a lot of reading and multi-tasking projects. I literally had to re-learn how to function. It was strange because a lot of the people in support groups and stuff I was going to, they had been in comas, people had thought they were dead, they had had significantly more intense experiences than I had. Mine was just a concussion that didn’t go away. So it was really hard to connect with the fact that my brain has changed as much as it did, until someone put it in very much brain anatomy – because I did study that and was very fascinated by it – okay, your prefrontal cortex bumped the front of your skull. Your occipital lobe bumped the back of your skull. Oh, our brains are jello, I see now. It’s been I think 4 years now – I finally got to the point where I’m not sure, because I stopped counting. It used to be I would know the anniversary, and I would count, and I would cry a lot. I’ve had to do physical therapy, I’ve had to do speech therapy, I’ve had to do all these things, and I still tell myself, “But did you really need all that? Because it was just a concussion.” And literally the way I function has changed.
It’s a term that several professionals have gotten me out of the habit of using, because it isn’t that case, but it is a little bit like learning how to be a “different person.” Because I used to be able to write scripts and essays and things; I would literally be able to picture essentially like a Word document and what it said, and just figure out what it would say, and then just put it down. It was the way I saw art too. It turns out my brain didn’t necessarily work in a “normal” way before the brain injury either. But that was my normal. So the other thing too is that not knowing my normal wasn’t “normal,” you go to people and say, “Well this is frustrating because now I have do this, and now this is how this works,” and they say, “Well that’s normal.” And it would be both unintentionally minimizing and also – how do you say that’s bad to somebody where that’s how they function? So there was a lot of stuff I had to come to terms with, and not knowing if you’ll ever be able to do the stuff that you’re primed to do… I spent all these years getting all these degrees, I sunk all this money into this stuff, I had finally gotten myself to a point where I was thinking it was a straight trajectory to this life I had imagined for myself. And I had to stop pursuing my Master’s, I can’t use my degree anymore – so it was very hard figuring out that that had changed my life, and to accept that it had changed my life as much as it had, even if I wasn’t in a coma or anything like that, and to move on from that. I’m still working on it. It’s tricky, but I’ve got good people.
Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?
My fiancé. And I have amazing friends. My brothers are great. I can depend on them for some things. I can depend on my parents for some things. I feel like I need to specify that I mean that in the way that, you know, some people just get some things better than others. Like I wouldn’t have a conversation about big emotions with my dad, it would go he’s the kind of person who used to say, “Why are you crying? Stop crying.” But when I’m trying to get out of my head and just hang out he’s where I’d go. I love my mom, there are some things that don’t necessarily make sense to talk to her about or go to her about, but she can be almost like stubbornly supportive about other things which sometimes that’s what you’re looking for when you can’t be kind to yourself. But I feel abundantly supported by a combination of people I have in my life. I have incredible friends, I have a really amazing chosen family. We have a “daughter,” she’s a chosen daughter in Ohio that I talk with frequently and is coming to our wedding. I have a daughter of choice in Michigan, too. We don’t talk as much, but she knows I’m here if she needs me, and I check in every once in a while. They make me feel supported and they also make me feel like I’m helpful, too. I’m really lucky to have the people in my life that I do. And in general, you know, I’ve built a pretty incredible chosen family, and I feel very happy about that.
How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?
I think that my friendships ended up kind of getting weeded through as I was figuring out who I was, based on who not necessarily understood, because you can not understand but go along with it, but who thought it was important. I’ve lost a couple of friends. One, I would definitely consider her a TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist], I think she would consider herself a TERF. And when I was realizing I was definitely trans but not what a medical trans supporter would consider actually trans – although now, hilariously enough, I am, but I still hate all of that – she didn’t get it. She turned out to be a TERF, and that was not something that would work. I had another friend who at one point said to me that one of the reasons that conversations are always so focused on him was because all I wanted to talk about was gender and sexuality stuff, which was not the case, I just hadn’t seen a lot of local movies and had changed a lot of interests because of the brain injury. So it was either talking about the brain injury, which is depressing, or the fact that I’m figuring out my gender identity, which is huge. And he said that he didn’t really get it, so all he could really do was nod and smile. So it’s one of those things where you kind of figure out who your friends are when you start being real. But it has brought me closer to a lot of my friends unintentionally, because I am now the person that some people will come to when they’re questioning their own gender identity. I’m like the mom-dad in that sense. So it makes me feel really honored that I get to be there for them and I get to be that safe person. So I think it’s deepened a lot of relationships.
As far as family relationships, it’s almost been a non-issue because the long-term joke was that in terms of stereotypes – because otherwise without that context it sounds terrible – but I’m more of a guy than my brothers. I was more of the son than the boys were, which again, that sounds really terrible, but they meant very specifically in the context of the things that people think of as “sons doing with their dads.” So no one was particularly surprised at all. One of my brothers said, “Hell yeah, that’s awesome, gender should be abolished.” The other one was like, “Oh, okay. So is it ‘they’?” I’m like, “Yeah, it could be. No big deal.” And then my parents literally [said], “Okay.” And I thought maybe they didn’t get it, so I was like, “Yeah? So you guys know it means – ” and they [said], “Yeah. Is there something we should be doing differently or saying differently?” “…No.” So for the most part it’s been positive. I feel like I can be more myself, and people who are having questions can come to me, and that’s kind of cool.
Are you able to find adequate medical care?
This has been a hilarious saga over the past – four? – years, because it turns out, when you have a brain injury, your perception of things is a little blurry, so you think, This is going great, and then you recommend that same doctor who’s really with it to your fiancé, who [says], “Babe, this is terrible.” And you’re like, “Oh?” And then they list things, and you’re like, “Oh wow, that’s really bad. Yeah.” And it turns out you just weren’t aware of or didn’t remember them. So recently we found out that one of the leading people on trans primary healthcare is nearby, and so he’s seeing them now. We just changed medical homes, you’d call it. The place we were with, you had a lot of people who had even self-identified to a local organization that was taking a survey as “trans-experienced,” but their idea of “trans-experienced,” turns out, is: they had a trans friend, or they went to a conference workshop once. And they ended up being unintentionally really invalidating or belittling, or they were using you as their primary source of information because you were their first trans patient. My primary care [doctor] would ask me questions. They needed to write me a recommendation or a referral for top surgery out in Boston. Now I can get it here because I have different health insurance, but it was a really big deal, and they literally could not seem to get the thing right, even though I showed them a template and walked them through the terminology. It just wasn’t on their radar.
So it’s here, there’s amazing care here, but if you don’t know where to go, you don’t know where to go, and you could end up being really discouraged. I have learned from the head injury that you can fire your doctor. You can go to different medical people, and you will find the right person, but it’s really easy after two or three people to go, Oh, the problem must be me. So the medical care is here. There’s somebody whose literal specialization is making sure that trans folks have what they need. We are going to a focus group on Monday that is run in partnership by Fenway Health out in Boston and the hospital system out here on how to improve the health services here. So I think the biggest problem out here is that you have a lot of people that appear to be in the know and think of themselves in the know, and they’re not. It’s a little like when a substance gets legalized as something that would be useful, and everybody’s saying that they have it and that it works for every problem, and it turns out that’s not the case. So the biggest issue out here I think is actually connecting to the good people, because everyone thinks they’re great because they’re out here and they won’t discriminate, and it’s like, no, that’s the baseline for being a decent human being, not a trans-experienced medical provider.
How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?
Drastically in some ways, and then not at all in others. I think I have a deepened respect for and understanding of parts of myself now that I was aware of but wouldn’t think about very much. But my younger self was also very focused on the idea that external achievements and actions were basically a sign of who you were as a person. And that was one of those things I had to come to terms with very seriously after the brain injury and I couldn’t do the same things anymore. So now I’m able to be more focused on thoughts and intention and whether that makes you a good person versus, I’m not doing all these things all the time. I’m not changing the world. I was obsessed with this idea that I had to do all these things to change the world. And now I have a better understanding that people genuinely can change things in small ways by existing, which then change things in big ways. So I think I’m able to be more confident in myself than when I was younger because I was a gifted kid, and so everybody was like, “This person’s good at everything.” They would be very externally validating. So I don’t know that I had confidence so much as I had a lot of people telling me that I was good at things, which set up very big expectations for myself that were too big, and then when you don’t meet them the first time around, you hate yourself.
So it literally took a brain injury and not being able to do any of those things to be able to have a reckoning of, You can’t hold yourself to this to demonstrate who you are as a person. So I think I’m more confident than I was when I was younger, even though when I was younger I had constant validation from all these sources. They would say things like, “You’re gonna change the world.” “You’re gonna write for the Post.” “You’re gonna be this kind of artist.” “You’re gonna run this that and the other thing.” And when you don’t, because no one can do all those things at once, and because external factors have tons to do with that kind of shit, you hate yourself a lot. So I think I love myself a lot more than I did when I was younger. And I also lost a lot of things that I loved about myself when I was younger, but have learned to accept myself anyway.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
It’s okay. It is going to be okay. There was a lot of chaos in the house. Mom has some problems with emotional extremes. I was pretty convinced that if I was perfect, it would fix it, because in some moments, nothing you did was good enough, and you were told that you were selfish and awful and lazy.
So I was like, I have to do all of these things to show that I’m not. And then it wouldn’t matter, because it would be a matter of someone else’s emotional state, and have nothing to really do with you. So I’d let them know it’s okay. This is not your fault, and being perfect will not fix anything. In fact it might break a few things, so you should probably chill out, and also embrace parts of yourself that you’re not fully embracing. It’s okay to love yourself.
What are your concerns for the future?
We’ve actually hit a pretty good place right now. It’s funny because on the one hand I’m like, We’ve hit a good place, which means that I don’t know if I have any really big [concerns], and at the same time it means I have tons of big ones, because everything’s going so well, everything must go wrong. I think just staying on track. [My fiancé] got a job change that means a lot, literally life-changing change in terms of – we lucked out, we have some opportunities to rent to own and we’re figuring out our finances so in a few years we can get a mortgage and find a place that’s ours, so mostly it’s going to be staying on track and keeping things at where we’re hoping they’re going to be. My big concerns for the future personally are...I want to be a parent. I want to do things in my life where I do worry that not being able to function for more than X amount of time a day, or for more than X days a week at a higher level – it scares me a little. I don’t want my life to be limited. So I think my biggest concern is that my life might be limited in the future. I want to be able to do big things on a small scale, and I don’t know if I can do them. We’re on a good path, and I just really worry about how I can continue to function as a human being and have a full-time life. I don’t want a part-time life anymore.
What do you look forward to in the future?
Everything. I look forward to being able to do all the things to the house that we want when we buy it. We have plans. I want to be able to make the house feel like ours. I want to have kids. I want to be a parent. I want to change some kids’ lives. I want to give them the home that they couldn’t have before. And I want to have a happy life with [my fiance], and see all the good things happen to him that I want to happen to him. I look forward to paying off our debt. That’s a really big one. In three years we will be out of our biggest loan, and I think in 3 ½ years all the debt will be paid and we’ll be ready to take the mortgage on. I am honestly looking forward to maybe possibly a Socialist Democratic revolution in this country so that people don’t have to do things like figure out if they can afford groceries and medication. That’s sort of only partly a joke because I don’t know how realistic it is but I want it to happen. And honestly, stability. I look forward to stability. And also some chaos. The good big kind, not the unexpected obstacles panic-inducing kind. I want so badly to bring kids into our home, and to just give them so much love, and to give them all the things they need. So I definitely look forward to that. And there’s this piece of land fifteen minutes away and I just want it, so badly, just to have some piece of something that’s mine that maybe also won’t have as much poison ivy on it, because the land I’ve been working on has been just a series of small disasters without the ability to make any real decisions because it isn’t mine. So I’m looking forward to maybe having land that’s really ours.
What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?
Important success: not hating myself completely. I still have moments, but for the most part I don’t hate myself all the time, and that’s honestly one of the biggest successes I could ask for. Frustrations – probably everything related to the brain injury. And anxiety too. PTSD-type stuff. But success is being able to name things, and by naming the monster being able to tame it. That’s also really good. There is that part of me that [thinks], Well you didn’t do this thing, so it wasn’t enough. I feel like because I kind of got knocked off my game in the middle of the game, I feel like there are a lot of things I would’ve liked to say, “Oh this is my success, I did this,” but I can’t, and I don’t know if I ever can. And that’s okay, I say, theoretically. I’m working on it. I have a therapist. [laughs] I did at one point vend these little terrible doodle comics at a table with a friend at a major convention, and I sold it to another comic artist that I literally could not make words to, and actually fumbled the order to because I was gawking. So I feel like that was a pretty cool success, that I was able to put myself into that semi-professional arena alongside professionals. And I reached a knowledge of all things child sexual abuse that made me, not an expert in the field, but somebody in the field that was higher-level. And that was really cool. I had always dreamed of being the person other people go to for reference for something. That wasn’t exactly what I had dreamed of being the reference point to, but I was able to help a lot of people, and I was able to do something a lot of people couldn’t handle. And I still have a lot of that knowledge there. If I was able to still work, I would be doing it. But people still will come to me with information or refer people to me for information. So that’s a good feeling. So I’d consider that a success.
Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?
You don’t have to do everything at once. I think the big thing I would tell somebody is that just because you haven’t reached the level you think you should be at, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You are always growing, it is never too late to change something, it is never too late to do more. There are people who pick something up when they’re 50 to start. So I think not feeling like if you haven’t done everything right away, you’re a failure. You have time. [That] would probably be it. And also, to be kind. There’s that quote about [how] you never know if someone might be fighting a hard battle, but also, even beyond that, just be known for your kindness. You could end up in a history book for something, but it could be because you’re a dictator. Your history and your legacy is in individual people. It might not survive you beyond stories somebody tells about you to their grandkids, but isn’t that a nice one? Don’t you want to be the person someone tells their grandkids about?
Are there any other questions you would have liked me to ask, or anything else you would like to talk about?
We’re part of our environment. And I don’t mean ecologically, but thinking of yourself as part of the world around you, and as a factor in it, is so important. Because when you think of it as acting on you or as you being separate from it, you end up feeling really hopeless. Or you could end up unintentionally being really cruel to things around you that you didn’t realize. So imagine yourself as part of the web, not looking at it. It puts things into a different perspective which is kind of a tired phrase but it really does help. I got very spiritual after the brain injury. [laughs]