Season 2 Episode 3:
Nonbinary Voices

Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne…

Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you’re listening to…

Both: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast.

Phil: On today’s show, we hear from Jacob and Erin, who both share stories about living outside the gender binary.

Erin: My name is Erin from Cleveland Ohio.

Jacob: My name is Jacob and I’m from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Erin: Six years old, I was at a playground or a park and I’m playing with the kid there and their parent comes over and introduces themselves to me and is like, “Hey, little guy, like, what’s your name?” And I tell them Erin. And you know, he continues on this conversation with me and I knew that he thought that I was a boy and I was really happy with that.

Jacob: By the time I was around 16, I came out to my parents as gay, right? Like I thought I was done. That was it. And then I started doing a bunch of gay activism. And as part of that, I started going to some local LGBT events.

Erin: When I was like around middle school, I kind of had my first realization that people are going to judge me by the way that I dress, or that the way that I look could say something about like, sexuality. And so I definitely went through a much more like feminine phase at that time until I ended up coming out in high school.

Jacob: One of the things I went to because I grew up in Raleigh and Chapel Hill is like a 40 minute drive away or so. And so I went to this conference called the Unity conference. The workshop was facilitated by this person, Terry Phoenix, who is the director of the LGBT center at UNC Chapel Hill. And one of the things I learned at the very beginning was that not all people use the pronouns, he or she Some people use the pronoun, they, or Ze, or here. I didn’t know that there were even options that I could choose from. And so Terry used the pronoun “they” for the whole workshop.

They were saying, like, I play with gender. Gender is this thing that I play with. It’s like this game and, you know, some days I’m more masculine and some days I’m more feminine and that’s…that’s okay. And that’s part of the fun. And I had never thought about gender as something fun before.

Alex: It’s funny. I’ve interviewed Jacob in the past and now if you know, or see Jacob, they are, like, well known for being very active in this space and making art and writing books and doing all sorts of cool stuff related to nonbinary identity.

Phil: Oh, I love that. It’s so nice to see someone coming into themselves like that. It’s incredible. It just makes me so happy.

Alex: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and also somebody who is, like, now a leader in this, like, it’s so cool to go back and get to watch their early story about this.

Erin: When I was about 15 years old, I had just come out to my dad. We were in the basement talking and, you know, initially his response was pretty positive. He was asking me questions about, you know, saying that maybe he had thought about it before. And he also asked me if I wanted to be a boy. I said, no, pretty matter of factly, the conversation continued and he just told me that he loved me and. He just wanted me to be safe. He was worried about how much harder life would be for me, but he loved me regardless. He cried as well, which is the first time I’d ever seen my dad cry. So it was an emotional moment.

Jacob: And I went into school the next day or the next week and talked to some of my friends who are also organizing in the GSA with me, the Gay Straight Alliance. And I talked to them about like, I learned all these things at this conference. I learned that, you know, gender is this spectrum, not this binary, that you can play with gender. And I think we should encourage people at our school to do that. We should have a gender bender day or, or a gender nonconforming day. Let’s have a gender nonconforming day. That would be so cool, right? And the two people who are most excited about it with me were these two friends that I had who were dating at the time. And they were like, you know, a heterosexual couple, but they were super jazzed about this gender nonconforming idea.

Erin: So when I got to college during freshman orientation, actually, you know, we were staying in the dorm and, you know, going around. I met this guy and we were hanging out the whole time. We got really cool. Probably day two into the orientation and, you know, hanging out that day and we made a stop to go to the bathroom.

You know, I got a little bit nervous and he heads into the bathroom and he’s like, “Oh, are you coming? Do you have to go?”

And I was like, “Oh no, I’m fine.” And then in that moment, I was like complete panic because I’m like, he thinks I’m a guy. And we’re really far in right now. So like, how do I backtrack out of this?

So I think it might’ve been around like lunchtime that day. I know we were sitting down and we just kind of had an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation. I was just like, “By the way, I’m a girl.”

He was just like, “I’m sorry.” And then that was it. And then from then on. We just continued our interactions the same way. He just knew not to invite me into the men’s bathroom anymore.

It was at that moment where I realized like, Oh, this is going to be an issue. I had like recently kinda cut my hair. So it was not completely short, but had these little like twists that were like some Kris Kross 90s twists in my hair.

And so I was like, Oh, if I want people to see me as a woman, I’m going to have to do something different with my hair. I’m going to need it to be longer. Because at that time I was pretty much like I know what clothes I’m comfortable in, what I want to wear, but I just have to present, you know, my face and my actual, like, my body more femininely.

At this time, I’m still deciding that I’m identifying as a woman and I want people to see me that way. And then somebody, like, saying, like, Hey sir, how are you? And it just catches me off guard because I’m like, How do I interact with you? Like, what do I do now?

Phil: What Erin realizes that at that moment is that this is something that they are going to have to deal with over and over again. And they need to find a way to navigate it. When that happens, it is something that throws them off and they need to figure out How am I going to be in a way that feels right to me and not being mistaken for a gender that I’m not? 

Jacob: Then a week later, I was hanging out with one of my friends who was the male counterpart of the couple. And we were hanging out at the mall and we were talking about the idea that we had. And, you know, he says to me, “Do you think we should just buy some high heels?”

Like I didn’t even have the script to like, respond ‘cause I was like, Well, I have to say no, because I’m supposed to say no. Like, I’m supposed to brush that idea off as stupid. But I don’t want to say no. Like, I want to say yes. And so I said yes.

Erin: So in that process, I had to start, I think like, Whoa, should I just transition? Kind of, am I transgender? Like, what does this mean? Do I want to be a man? And so I really, like, did a lot of research. I was looking up, like, surgeries and hormones and what all of it meant and what parts were reversible. And I knew that I never… for me, it wasn’t an issue of like having an issue with my body or, you know, feeling like I needed to actually change anything, but I was more so responding to the world outside of me. Like, okay, if I just fully present in this way, then everything will be fine.

Jacob: And so we went to Charlotte Russe. And we go into the store and it’s an all women’s store. So immediately I’m like, I’m terrified. And so we’re sort of breezing past all this various anxiety and the other shoppers and we go to the clearance rack of shoes. I find a size 10, a pair of black leather pumps that are about five inches. I grabbed them off the shelf and I try them on. And they hurt like hell and they – getting my feet in them is a big challenge, but they went on and they were the only pair of shoes in the whole store that went on my feet. I found that pair of shoes. And then my friend found this pair of, like purple velvet, like, I think they had Velcro. They were really weird.

And so we’re walking around with our newly acquired purchase and about 20 or 30 minutes later, his girlfriend picks us up. And so we drive to a McDonald’s, as one is wont to do. We got some food. So we were telling her all about the process of buying the… sort of the, you know, the trials and tribulations of the store and how people were looking at us or whatever.

And then we both realized, like, we don’t know how to walk in these things. Like we’d never actually walked up and down, you know, more than three yards in them. And so we decide let’s learn, right? Because she can teach us.

Erin: For about the last decade or so, my dad has worked in shelters around Cleveland, working with the homeless population and people dealing with housing insecurity.

And he recently was recruited to start doing these trainings for mediation around the country. And that turned into doing trainings around kind of LGBTQ competency within your shelter and within your space. And he had a training earlier this year and he called me and he’s like, “Hey, I want you to give me some feedback.”

And as we started to have that conversation, he just started telling me about the things that he was learning about gender. And he was like, you know, “I realized that I never asked you, how do you identify and what pronouns do you use?”

And I was just like, Who am I talking to? I mean, it was like, I just… just smiled. Like I couldn’t stop smiling. I was just like, “Well, you know, this is how I identify. And, you know, it’s like sometimes as a woman, sometimes it’s not as either. And I use “they/them” pronouns when I can, and some people will use “he” pronouns. I mean, I kind of just like explained it out to him.

And he was like, Okay, all right.

And that was it. I mean, he was the first person in my family that I’ve ever told that to. So…. it’s pretty amazing.

Jacob: And so we have this kind of runway coaching moment in the parking lot of this McDonald’s in North Raleigh and I’m pretty sure I was terrible. I can’t decide if I was terrible, just because I know I wasn’t that good and I had to get used to them, or if I was just so giddy that I couldn’t focus, you know, I was like an overachieving high school student.

And so I was staying up late to do homework and my parents would always go to bed before me. And so after my parents would go to bed, I would like scurry up to my room and I would grab these shoes and I would go back downstairs and I would just sit on the couch, like in my heels doing, like, my US history homework and just sitting, you know, like, in these shoes that I realize now were too small for me. Like, by a lot. It was so empowering to be in my home space finally, letting myself feel a little more like me.

Phil: I have a weird story and it’s going to be weird. It’s like, I’m a Trekkie and I love Star Trek. So people are going to be like, That’s weird. You’re going off on a tangent. But stay with me.

Alex: I’m here for the tangent. I’m especially here for the Star Trek tangent.

Phil: It will make sense in just two seconds. Okay. So I love Star Trek and there is this one sort of character and one of the Star Treks, Deep Space Nine, which is, you know, if you’re a Trekkie, you… Deep Space Nine is going down the rabbit holes of Trekkie… of Star Trek.

It – there’s this one character who is in, in his natural state, a liquid. He’s a liquid. He is not a solid. He’s not a human.  He’s… he can make himself humanoid with his liquid state. And what I found interesting about that story, which reminds me about this, it was like, at the end of the day, he would have to go back to his quarters and liquefy. And I think that what I… what I think about with the story of Jacob is that if Jacob is in their natural environment, a place where it feels safe and it’s it’s home, and then they can also bring that part of themselves, which is new and they’re exploring and it feels safe to do that, even if the parents were away, that is a powerful coupling that I think cannot – that you really have to look at.

Like many of us don’t, when we’re navigating an identity, don’t have that option of expressing identity at home because you just don’t know how it’s going to go. I know I couldn’t. I had to be careful with it. I did more of that once I moved out, but like being at home, I mean, I think I would have done it to some extent, but I still… I would have gotten a little flack for it, right?

But I love the idea that they were in their home. Yes, the parents had gone to bed. They weren’t, like, they weren’t doing it when the parents were awake, but there was something to me about the home and the identity that is authentic, and being able to express that in that environment that is so important and powerful.

Alex: I wish that more people were open to the idea that your gender identity could be whatever it feels like. And they kind of remind me of having… being in a space where you can experiment with that, and that,like, everyone should have that kind of safe space where they can be experimenting and figuring it out.

When I was thinking about this one of the most impactful things… statements that I learned about gender was Janet Mock was doing an interview once where she, somebody asked her like, “Do you think there are more than two gender identities or more than three?” Or whatever… however they phrased the question. And she said something to be effective that she thinks there are, like, infinite numbers of gender identities and genders that we don’t even know about.

And I just so strongly believe that. And I feel like a lot of times we hear these conversations about, like, just these dominant media narratives that are, you know, of course, like, so binary. But I dunno, I just, I want to live in a world where like, there are, people can be whatever infinite gender identity they feel themselves to be and that it can change and that, like, they have a place to experiment.

Phil: I love it so much. And for me, I would also want to live in a world where that’s possible, but I also want to live in a world where gender is shifting. People are shifting their genders at such a pace that it’s basically like, if someone’s like, “What’s your identity?” They’re like, “What time is it?” They’re like looking at their watch. They were like, “I’ll get back to you. Like, at the top of the hour things might shift.”

Alex: This is the forecast. “5pm’s gender will be…”

Phil: I have no idea. Right? So it’s 3:30 right now. At four, maybe talking about something different. And you know what? I’m here for all of that.

Alex: Do you remember the first time you learned about non-binary identities?

Phil: You know, I don’t think I remember it. I think that when I think about gender, it’s such a personal thing for me, because I’ve had to think so much about my gender and where I am with it that I think… I don’t remember the first time. But I will say this. I will say that there can be a pressure. I actually experienced this. This is weird. I never really spoke to anyone about this, but I experienced pressure from some of my friends to be, like, non-binary, in some ways.

They were like, “But wait, do you really want to use she/her pronouns? Shouldn’t you be…” You know, and I was like, wow. Like, it was like, they were so… they were there before I was, and I was just like, I feel like I was being carried along by this current, like okay. But like, you guys have to let me work this out.

And they’re like, “But shouldn’t you be…?”

I’m like, “Shouldn’t I decide it though?” You know, it’s this thing. And I mean, luckily, I mean, I did, I got there, but like, there was definitely this thing of like, Well, you look like this and you dress like this, so shouldn’t you…

And I’m like, we gotta make room for all of it. We gotta make room for all of it. Like there are people, you know, who consider themselves women and they, you know, she/her and they want to wear men’s clothing. And I’m like, we have to make room for all of this. We cannot define what people’s experience is going to be. We have to let them define it. And then we have to believe them when they, like I said, we have to believe them at 3:30, at 4 o’clock, at 4:30. We got to believe them. Yeah.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: That’s how I feel about it.

Alex: What you were bringing up about people kind of like pushing your… or deciding your identity for you or telling you this reminded me of the other story.

People interpreted them as being male. They’re assigned female at birth. People perceived them as being male. And then that perception outside of them made them then question their own gender identity and made them wonder like, Am I trans? Where should I be going with my own identity? And it just reminded me of what you said, because it’s like just how the impact of what other people can say or think, how that can have an impact on you. And for Erin, they said that like, ultimately they identify as non-binary, as somewhere in the middle. Identifying as trans along the binary – that wasn’t right for them. They didn’t feel that way.

Phil: It is… it speaks to kind of what we were just talking about, right, Alex, which is, this is a very personal journey and it’s going to look so many different ways. And I think what you said about Janet Mock earlier and how there are infinite genders, I think that’s true. Because everyone’s going to refine that dial in a way that feels right to them.

Alex: It’s a funny thing, like both for me as a queer femme, for example, sometimes I find myself very empowered by the traditional markers of femininity. You know, like, I’m playing with those things. But also at the same time, and to me, in some ways like owning that stuff feels transgressive because I identify as LGBTQ. So much of, I think, what we’re navigating is what people presume about us and who we are and what we’re trying to signal to them about who we are. And I don’t even know what it would look like if we didn’t have to do that or grew up in a world that had, you know, was less binary. What do you think this all looks like for Gen Z? I feel like I do see younger people being really open about gender identity. And I even feel like the reason that I now put my pronouns in my bios and stuff like that is because I’ve seen younger people do it. So do you have hopes for the next generation and their perception and experience of gender?

Phil: Well, you know, being very far removed from Gen Z, I feel like… I think the thing that I like about it is that I love that it’s just become so normalized. I love it. Like at some point, this is not going to be really much of a conversation to be having. I think in that, we will see it more normalized in corporate culture in society in general. Like we’re just going to see a shift, But it’s, you know, it’s a gradual shift, but I think Gen Z is doing their part to really make that happen. And I love that.

Alex: I mean, you can get a non-binary ID in certain states now, so there definitely has been progress.

Erin: After some time, I just kind of got to a place where I was like, I know this isn’t it. Like, I know that I don’t identify as trans specifically in a way that makes me want to, like, make any physical transition. And I was just like, I could just be whatever I can be in the middle. I can be sometimes I’m woman, sometimes I’m man, most of the time I’m neither, sometimes I’m both at the same time.

So being okay and kind of coming to terms with that, then I just got to a point where I realized, like, gender is a performance and I can perform it how I want. And so I don’t have to fit into one side or another, and I recognize how I can, like, play around with it for myself and what I can do to make myself comfortable.

So for me, it was a relief to just be able to go into the world and just exist and not really worry about what people saw or what people thought.

Jacob: I wish I could show myself at 13 who I am now and be like, You’re going to wear gowns. Like, you’re not just going to wear heels. You’re not just going to paint your nails once. You’re not just going to put your mom’s lipstick on. You are going to wear a gown at a fancy event and at a dinner, and you’re going to turn heads in it. Like that’s, what’s in store for you kid, You know, just embrace this faster. Don’t be afraid of it. Love it. 

Alex: I think something that happens with people around gender identity or the alphabet soup of LGBTQIA+ et cetera is that people get really overwhelmed. Just people who haven’t been, like, really enmeshed in the community, or haven’t been having these kinds of conversations and I totally get why it can be overwhelming. It’s a lot of information, a lot of it’s – it can feel very like philosophical in some ways. But I actually think there are super concrete ways that we can get at this just by instituting in our workplaces or communities, just making it normal to say what your pronoun is, or like putting it on your Twitter account. It just becomes something we all do. And then we never have to have another conversation where somebody has to apologize and somebody else has to react. And it feels like maybe we’re moving – maybe with Gen Z, we’re like moving towards a place where this will be less common.

Phil: Coming from a background of, you know, in a family, like my mom was not particularly happy about my gender expression. Like, for me to be able to express it, there’s a freedom in that. It’s very much this idea of like, I get to do whatever feels right to me. Being able to express myself authentically in my gender. It just feels like… it just feels like there are no limits. And I think that for lack of putting in a better way, it’s like I can be as masculine leaning as I want or pull it back if I want, and no one gets to say how I do that.

Phil:  The I’m From Driftwood Podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne

Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Andy Egan-Thorpe.

Phil: It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit LGBTQAI+ story archive.

Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s Founder and Executive Director is Nathan Manske. It’s Program Director is Damien Mittlefehldt.

Phil: I’m From Driftwood is a nonprofit organization, and this Podcast was funded in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Alex: Additional funding is provided by TD Bank and Heritage of Pride New York.

Phil: I’m From Driftwood was created to help queer and trans people learn more about their community…

Alex: Help straight people learn more about their neighbors…

Phil: And help everyone learn more about themselves…

Alex: All through the power of storytelling.

Phil: Our score is provided by Elevate Audio.

Alex: The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more. And

Phil:. You can also follow I’m From Driftwood on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Or subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

Alex: Thanks for listening y’all.

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