KAREN

Medford, MA

What are your pronouns?

I use “they/them” and also “she/her.”

Where do you work?

I work at Sonos in downtown Boston. It’s a music technology company. We make speakers that you can use in your house in all sorts of different rooms. I do software testing for various things there.

Do you have any hobbies or special interests?

Way too many to list. I feel like I’m always going through hobbies, and then get really excited and research them and get all the things and do them several times, and then I find another one. So I do music, I play piano, I do cooking and baking… I just made a fig and an apricot pie – two separate pies – over the weekend. I do gardening. I tinker with electronic stuff. I do art. I build things. I like writing and talking about things.

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

I usually haven’t bothered correcting people unless it’s specifically a space where I’m asked. It’s not necessarily super uncomfortable for me to be called [any] pronoun, as long as they’re not like, “Hey…It,” or something really offensive.

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

Curious. I like to explore a lot of different things, like my hobbies, and people, and figuring out how things work, and playing with that, and I feel like that extends to gender as well. “How does this work?” “How does that feel?” As long as I’m not endangering anyone, and being compassionate about how I’m doing that, it feels good to experiment and find out things about people or myself.

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

That’s been a hard one. I feel like I present as fairly normal, like female-presenting. But also, I have this habit of dressing sort of gender-ambiguous as much as I can, without physically altering the shape of my body. So I wear pants and T-shirts, or things like that, that don’t really draw attention to it. I have gotten more comfortable with wearing more feminine attire as I’ve aged. I wasn’t for a long time, because it was difficult in technology, and sciences in particular, to feel like I was taken seriously. That’s a different issue. I don’t know, it’s hard to know how to dress in a way that communicates anything about my gender because it’s so confused sometimes. It’s ambiguous. But my body is still the shape it is, and I don’t necessarily want to go through changing that.

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

I feel like I didn’t know there was anything else until at least college. But I felt like I didn’t fit into either at a very young age, I just didn’t know what to call it or what it was. I always had friends who were both guys and girls, and felt like I didn’t quite fit into either. So at least elementary school. But I didn’t actually know the term or start referring to myself as non-binary until late college or just out of it. I think [I started hearing the words for it] from friends and acquaintances in more sex-positive communities. People that I knew, basically, were identifying as that. And I was like, “Ooh, what’s that?” and then I looked it up, and the Internet is useful.

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

I’m not really sure. I grew up in the Midwest in a fairly Protestant, religious family, but we weren’t super repressed or Catholic or anything. Not to be offensive. [laughs] I don’t think that I was very exposed to a lot of different sexual identities until high school, and we had a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance). That was the first time that anyone had ever brought that up. I lived in a fairly liberal city, so that definitely helped. I didn’t feel like, “If you’re this way, you’re bad.” There was still pressure in the community to be normal – where normal is heteronormativity – but there wasn’t a huge backlash, either. So I’m not really sure how that plays out.

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

I feel like some people feel like they should be able to tell from the way you look or act that you are not gender-binary, and a lot of people could be surprised by that, because people can look all sorts of ways and have all sorts of identities. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a lot more than that, because people just don’t talk about it that often. I feel like a binary way of looking at things is pretty baked into culture in the U.S., and people don’t generally tend to talk about gender very much outside of certain spaces that are focused on it.

I think one [misconception] that I just remembered is: people think that you’re trying to tear down society or re-make it or threaten their worldview for the hell of it and because it’s fun. They get sort of scared that it’s changing everything, and it’s sort of arbitrary, and why can’t they just go with whatever is existing? Why do we have to change everything? It’s a lot of work to remember pronouns, it’s a lot of work to not just know from the way somebody looks, what their gender is. And we’ve had that sort of implicit assumption for so long, that you look at somebody or you hear their name in a certain cultural context, and [you say], “Oh, well, that person’s identified as female,” and it comes with all of this context socially. This sort of strips that away. So I’ve encountered people who sort of get frustrated or scared. I myself have been frustrated at trying to remember to not mis-pronoun somebody. It’s another thing. I’m bad at remembering names already. And I really don’t want to offend people. And that can feel hard. “Oh great, there’s another thing I have to remember, and I don’t want to offend you.” So there’s a couple of layers of interesting social behavior in there. It can feel threatening, or people have told me they feel threatened, or that it’s too much to remember and it feels arbitrary and unimportant. Not necessarily that they’re saying it feels unimportant to me, but it doesn’t feel important to them.

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

Gender identity is an identity. It’s something you associate your self-image with. So your sexual identity is totally de-coupled from that. Who you’re attracted to, or who you’re not attracted to, or whatnot. That doesn’t have any relationship necessarily with how you identify with your gender. They’re sort of two separate variables. You don’t have to have this sexual identity to also have this gender identity. Just because you have red hair, doesn’t mean you’re attracted to girls or guys or not. It’s a trait. You can’t see it necessarily, but it’s similar to that.

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

Pretty crappily. There’s not a lot of media portrayal. A lot of it is sensationalist or just non-existent. I feel that way about women already, and they’re part of the gender binary. So as part of the non-gender-binary, it’s worse. And it feels like there’s maybe a handful of people that I’ve ever seen in movies that might be non-gender or of different genders. I can’t think of anyone who’s come out openly and identified as genderqueer, but I know that there are gender-fluid-ish type characters that I’ve seen. In things like sci-fi, it’s more prevalent, because it’s people experimenting with ideas. But other than that, unless you’re looking for something – like a blog or forum or something that’s specifically targeted toward a genderqueer audience – it’s not something that I think, anyone [could] just stumble into a box office and hey, there’s a genderqueer hero playing in this film, and how awesome! We’re lucky right now if there’s a woman or a person of color anywhere in a movie at all who speaks and is not just a romantic or token interest. So I feel like we’re not even there yet. It can feel like you’re kind of invisible. Even though I realize it’s a minority of people who identify that way right now, I feel like there should be some representation in culture.

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

I would like to see people have more compassion in general, is the number one, because I think that leads to a lot of other traits and behaviors that I value. Like having compassion for understanding other people’s experiences, even if they’re not the same as yours. And I would like to see people be more supportive of people experimenting and trying and failing at things. I feel like a lot of people’s anxiety and feeling trapped is feeling like they’re going to fail, and so not trying. And like anything else, learning who you are is about experimenting. And most people, myself included, didn’t have a lot of encouragement to try on different identities or try on different ways of thinking about people or how they tick. And when you come into adulthood, you kind of do, but by then you’re shaped by your culture and your peers and you’re more molded already. So I’d like to see more acceptance of people shaping their identities from an earlier age and having less pressure to fit in or having fewer assigned identities by other people or your culture. I feel like that would be useful in this context.

Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

I think a lot of my most profound moments have come just when I’ve sat and had time to think and reflect and had a lot of creativity around me and encouragement around me in places. Some events I’ve gone to have had that sort of atmosphere [of], “Hey, you have an idea, that’s awesome, and we’ll help you, and what can we do?” and it’s been really positive. And those have been really great experiences for me in terms of, it grows your self-confidence, it builds community, you can help people with their things, they can help you with your things. If you have the craziest idea ever, and it’s going to hurt people, people will tell you, and you can think through those consequences – but in general, that sort of event has been useful in figuring out what I like to do and what kind of people I like to be around and just giving myself space to reflect and think about what I want to do in life and the bigger picture, which unfortunately always lashes out against the realities of having to work a job and juggle rent payments and whatever. But I think when [I’ve been] given time and supportive social space and resources, [those] have been the most positive experiences that I’ve had.

Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

There’s been a lot of time in my life where I’ve felt alone and pretty vulnerable. I think right outside of college was one of those. All your friends go away, and I moved out to Newton and didn’t really know anyone except my partner at the time, and didn’t have a job yet. So I just spent my days looking for free stuff on Craigslist to furnish our apartment, and jobs, and wrote a lot. I didn’t have a car so I couldn’t really get many places. So I wrote, and took walks, and tried my best to get through that. It felt really hard. I tried aerial acrobatics for the first time, which, for my body shape, most people don’t do unless they’re a certain weight ratio I would say. I was usually one of the heaviest people in my class. This gave me something to focus on while I was trying to find new friends and meet community. In the beginning it was pretty hard. I couldn’t even get off the ground. And I just worked at it, and ended up being able to climb up and down to the ceiling. And even just the first time I was able to climb a little bit off the ground was really awesome, and through that I got back into the city, and I could meet people afterwards, and it ended up being really good for me. So just finding anything and trying it out, even when it doesn’t feel worth it or good, usually you’ll meet people you never would, and chance encounters happen. The first class I ever had was at Esh (eshcircusarts.com), and it was really awesome, and I liked it a lot. Then I did some at AirCraft (aircraftaerialarts.com) too, which is right in the same area.

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

I have a pretty core group of friends here in Boston now that have become sort of my de facto family. Not that I always see them as much as I would like, but I feel like I can depend on them for things like if I really needed a place to stay, or if I needed help moving, or if I was throwing a dinner party, they would come. I also have a partner who’s really rock-solid and steady, and a couple of people who are – I’m not sure what they are in relationship to me, but really important. And I have my biological family back in Minnesota that I can also talk to and rely on even though they’re far away. I have some friends in different cities as well.

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

I feel like it definitely comes up and is a thing to talk about, which is good, [to] have things to talk about when you’re meeting people. And it can be interesting to figure out how they identify, and how you identify, and how you see the world, and changing each other for it. It’s hard to say how it impacts my relationship with other people, just because I don’t know any different. How I would feel if I identified differently towards these people is kind of a hard question to answer. As far as gender identity, I’ve been lucky in that. I didn’t date anyone until I was in college, and my first serious relationship lasted about six years. And I don’t remember if we talked about gender identity that much because it wasn’t a super important thing to me at the time – it’s still not the most important thing to me. But I’m sure we talked about it at some point, and it wasn’t an issue. I don’t think I’ve ever had a partner who wasn’t okay at least talking about it. I’ve definitely had people not totally understand it or not feel totally comfortable. But it’s never been like, “Oh my gosh, we can never talk about this again.” I feel like I sort of self-select for the group of friends I have, and then out of those people I pick partners. So it’s been more open than I would’ve expected years ago.

Are you able to find adequate medical care?

I would say no to the majority of cases. I started going to a clinic that does actually recognize that people might not be male or female, but it’s still hard. The majority of the medical industry is set up for binary identities, and insurance and all that, so you still have to check off the forms even if you’re not identifying as that way, even in those offices. I feel like there are at least a couple of clinics in Massachusetts you can go to where that’s recognized, but they’re kind of niche, and they’re kind of inaccessible for people depending on where you live. I feel like medical care in general is pretty crappy at recognizing people in their identities and who they are, and actually even asking that question, because they only have 15 minutes to see you. I’ve had great doctors and terrible doctors, and even the great ones, you just never have enough time. Identity doesn’t even come up most of the time.

It’s not even just your gender identity or your sexual orientation, it’s, “Have you had more than one partner in the past x years, and if you have, oh my god, you’re promiscuous, and we must do all these tests.” I’ve had a lot of disrespect about how I handle my own health. I’ve had a lot of experience with the medical industry. I know how it works, I take care of myself, and I appreciate people trying to look out for me, but there’s a lot of moral judgement that I’ve had, either openly or hinted at by various providers that I see. [In] Massachusetts, it’s kind of surprising how many negative experiences I’ve had.

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

I feel like it’s probably changed a lot at various points, so it’s hard to say when I would compare to, and that would make a big difference. Because when I was really young, you know, everything is possible, and you’re really happy, and you know your place in the world. It’s just sort of like, “I’m gonna pick out these two mis-matched socks, and this awesome stripey legging, and this crazy polka-dot T-shirt, and everything’s awesome, and it’s great,” because you don’t know anyone’s judging you yet. And then you grow up, and are trying to figure yourself out, and everything’s terrible, and then you get to college, and it’s sort of like, “Okay, I’m finally on my own, I can figure it out.”

I feel like I haven’t changed that much in terms of how I feel about myself, but I know that what I’m capable of has changed. I’m able to affect my surroundings in a way that I couldn’t when I was younger, to give myself the experiences that I want. You don’t have that option when you’re a child, because you’re protected by your parents and you live with them and you do what they like, and school’s the same. I also feel a lot more open to be myself, because I don’t have anyone around who would try to change that. Just like I’ve moved to this place, and there’s literally nobody who knew me from high school or before that I ever run into here. And you know, I miss people, but I also have freedom to shape my own identity now, where I didn’t before, at least not overtly. So I feel like that’s most of what’s changed; I feel free to express how I am and find other people who do that too, and that’s been pretty awesome.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I feel like trying to be less worried about what people think of you is good, but also it’s hard to survive like that as a kid. People are vicious. Just maybe cultivating more of what I was interested in and not focusing always on doing what everybody else wanted. Even though that would’ve been harder, I feel like it would’ve been more valuable in the long term. It’s hard to say. I don’t really know what would’ve been helpful.

What are your concerns for the future?

I feel like one concern is worrying that people will continue to be unaccepting of each other, because it’s historically happened for all of history that I know of. And that doesn’t usually lead to anything useful, at least for the losing side. I feel like figuring out who I am in other ways; figuring out what sort of career do I want to do eventually, and what sort of family do I want to have, and wondering where we’ll do that, and how that’ll affect our experiences. If I were to settle down with a male partner and have kids, nobody would bat an eyelash, but if I were to settle down with my girlfriend and their boyfriend and another person and then try and have kids, there’s a lot of legal bullshit that I would have to jump through in order to even have custody. God forbid something goes wrong and somebody gets divorced – if you’re all living together, who knows if you can even get legally married to your spouse based on their gender, and how would that get dealt with? Various things like that.

I feel like familial structure is very hard to deal with in the U.S. and many other countries, in terms of not being able to deal with different familial structures and the legal process. Having the parents’ and kids’ best interests at heart doesn’t seem to be happening a lot of the time. And people are worrying, “Oh, okay, if I have this situation and this happens, then I’ll lose my kids,” and I wonder sometimes if I’ll end up in that position, because that sounds really stressful and horrible. I feel like I’m lucky to live in Massachusetts, where we at least can say, “Hey, I’m openly queer,” and I won’t generally get attacked or anything. So picking where to live based on some cultural values is good. I have a lot of environmental concerns and concerns about people fighting each other and locking people up and mistreating each other. But I feel like that’s pretty universal. Unless you’re pretending it’s not happening.

What do you look forward to in the future?

I look forward to seeing how culture shifts and how inventions shift with culture. Cellphones shifted culture a lot. The Internet shifted culture a lot. All of these things happened in my lifetime, which has been not that long. I’m looking forward to electric cars that self-drive, and how does that transform suburban culture, which is all about driving. Or does that enable people to live in a place and not worry about public transit being inaccessible because you have cars everywhere? I’m hopeful that people will continue to be ingenious and think of awesome solutions, even though we have global warming and people without food. It can be really depressing to think about and realize that this is stuff that we’ve caused and we could fix, but it’s also stuff that we’ve caused and we could fix, so there’s hope in that.

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

Important frustrations: finding a job and figuring out what I wanted to do. And then finding a job that I really like, and I feel like I’m good at, and not feeling like an impostor. I feel like that’s been a success that I’ve achieved in the past year. Living in situations where I’m comfortable, and it feels like home, and I can be who I am and create things and find a group of people that I really connect with and share values with. I don’t spend nearly enough time with a lot of them, but I still appreciate the heck out of them. And encountering ideas through people or books or the Internet or libraries. All those things.

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

I feel like encouraging one another to do things that we already would like to do, but need that extra hand to hold, or somebody who has your back – it’s really fun to encourage other people and watch them blossom in different interests, and to find somebody who can do that for you, and to try and not shy away from those things just because you need extra help getting started or if you’re worried about failing at something. I feel like people are worried about failure, either for their self-image, or how other people see them, or that there will actually be a bad thing that happens, and I wish we had more freedom to fail. And helping people try new things, way more often than not, I’ve seen people succeed, even if [they thought they were going to be terrible]. You put some time into a skill or an experience, and maybe it’s a crappy day at the beach and it rains, but you did what you wanted to be doing, and you can try it again and learn more. Just wanting to have more of that mindset rather than competitive, “Oh yeah, you better not try that thing, because somebody else has done it, and it’s better than you.” Or just quietly sitting on the sidelines and wishing you could do that thing. Or thinking it’s impossible, or thinking it’s magic. You don’t need to have a certain skill set already.