A Few Questions About Myself

Throughout my life, I’ve learned from the experiences of those around me to broaden my understanding of the world and to help develop empathy. As a white and mostly able-bodied person who has long understood themselves to be cis, male, and straight, working to understand the lived experiences of people of color, those with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ people has helped me to understand how my own privilege has shaped my own experiences. That understanding has in turn helped me to be a better ally for those around me.

The work to understand the lived experiences of those around me has had another effect, however, that I’d like to take a few moments to explore today. In particular, I’ve been working to understand myself and my own gender lately in ways that I haven’t thought to understand before. Just as the openness with which my friends and my peers has helped me in doing so, I’d like to be open with my own questions and understanding to help others in turn.

Taking a few steps back, then, one thing that quarantine and social distancing has made very clear to me over the past few months is the subtle pressure that I have felt throughout my life to perform my gender in a particular way, and within particular constraints. Distancing from society except through remote channels where I appear as a really neat icon (thank you again, @DataErase!), I haven’t felt that same pressure, and have come to understand that pressure better in its absence.

For as long as I remember, I’ve been confident enough in my masculinity to break with convention by having long hair, getting every random object that I can to be pink, carrying a purse when it suits me, and so forth. Absent that pressure to conform, though, has left me asking another question entirely about myself: am I confident enough to not be masculine at all. At one point, I found myself looking in the mirror and asking myself how I even knew that I was cis and male, and for the first time in my life, not having an answer. In the past two months since that moment, I’ve reexamined a lot of my life up until now, connecting dots between memories and re-interpreting my experiences without forcing those experiences into a cisgender-shaped box.

That process of questioning myself and my gender has been on one hand liberating and self-actualizing, and also quite scary — what will happen if someone sees me in a dress or a skirt as I explore different ways to present myself, or how do I allow myself to explore my gender when I look in the mirror only to get stuck on seeing my facial hair? What comments will people make when I turn on my camera in meetings if I decide to change my appearance even a little bit to try and explore how my appearance and gender relate to each other? How will toxic individuals — the same people who delight in misgendering my peers — respond to my exploration? What does it mean for me to be an LGBTQIA+ ally, especially during Pride month!, if I can’t even say definitively what my own gender is?

The cognitive dissonance as I unambiguously declare that I’m a cis white man so as to be honest about my own privilege has made otherwise ordinary discussions feel all the more surreal. In my uncertainty about my own self, any label feels like a costume that doesn’t quite fit right; that itches when I think too hard about it. I can feel like an imposter if I present as anything other than cis and male, or that I’m in denial if I define myself only in terms of my previous certainty.

To be sure, I don’t mean to claim that I am non-binary, that I am trans, or that I am cis; only that I’m working to understand myself in ways I never allowed myself to before, and that society at large continues to discourage. I have no idea where that will land, but in the meantime, I’m exceptionally grateful for the support of the people around me. It has been amazingly helpful to talk to my wife, Sarah Kaiser, and to have her along my journey, just as I was there for her journey towards coming out as bisexual. Knowing that my parents and brother are there and love me no matter where this journey goes has helped to create a safe space in which I can understand myself. Support, advice, and understanding from peers and colleagues has helped me to find a community in which I can express myself whomever I can. I’m grateful as well for the many trans and/or non-binary people who have made shared their experiences with gender; these examples have helped me feel like I’m not alone as I work to understand myself. I also have to acknowledge the privilege inherent in the fact that I have access to inclusive therapy.

Asking questions and working to understand myself is the start of something, not the end, and I’m thankful for the community around me as I start that work.