Zizi? Not a Girl, Not an Island: Finding Gender Neutral Words for Family

October 20

Les,

On National Coming Out Day last week, my sister texted me excitedly that her friend came out as genderqueer on Facebook, and that their friend’s new nephew will call them Zizi instead of aunt or uncle. My sister loved the name and wrote that perhaps I’d like to be Zizi Emily or something else one day! Zizi made her smile. I responded yeah, I could maybe be Zizi Em, Zizi Gritz, or just plain Zizi. Her texts gave me some much needed hope and joy.

None of us exists as a complete island in this world. We are connected through bridges, blood, households, offices, teams, and more. Although we are all individuals, we are also defined by who we are to others—who we love, bicker with, tease, and mourn. Our bonds with others and the roles we play in these relationships are integral parts of our identities.

One of the most difficult things about being nonbinary is how quieted I feel when thinking and talking about my family.

I don’t have words—not satisfying words substitutable for gendered ones—when talking about who I am to those I love. Sister and daughter, both important and strong words, make me unsteady.  I may have some attachment to sister, but I can’t place an asterix on it in conversation with a footnote explaining I’m not actually a girl. I don’t want to offer fuel to anybody’s misinterpretation of my gender. Niece and aunt just have no business being used for me, outside of Niece being one of my middle names.

I don’t feel I can ask anyone to restructure their thinking of gender for me, so I spend a lot of my time quiet. As someone who rushes across crosswalks so cars can turn sooner, how am I supposed to feel comfortable asking for spaces made for me in conversation? How can I ask people to accept new words and ways of thinking? New words forged and new fabric sewn, so I can talk about being a child to my parents, sibling to my brother and sister,  _____ to my aunts and uncles, and _____ (zizi?) to my sibling’s children? There are so many things I’d like to talk about sometimes but don’t, including how sometimes I daydream about someday chasing around my sister’s and brother’s future children, teaching them how to use the library and reading with them, and teaching them the names of trees and when different flowers blossom and bloom in spring.

Language is important. I exist and I’m someone to my parents, my siblings, and my aunts and my uncles, and I will be someone to my siblings’ possible future children, regardless of the letters that don’t exist in a dictionary for me. But not having words for who I am to others, and words reflecting the very important relationships between us, renders me invisible to myself and others in conversation sometimes.

My sister’s text touched me both because Zizi is a great possible idea for what my future nieces, nephews, and their possibly nonbinary sibling(s) can call me someday, and because the idea came from my sister. I was touched that my sister saw something she thought we could use, and came to me. It makes it so much easier to navigate the world as nonbinary when I’m not doing it alone. I really love my family, and family of friends, and I like being able to identify myself in relation to them, as do many folks who are trans and nonbinary.

None of us are islands. Not completely.

It’s true sibling is a gender neutral word, but how often does someone introduce you to another as their “sibling”? I’ve always thought it’s a rather strange word with the texture of room temperature wet canned dog food. I’m thankful this gender neutral word exists, but I’m not looking to get cozy with it on a regular basis.

 

On the Boulder

August 11

Les,

This summer of devastating shootings and this tumultuous election season have been enough to throw a person off balance, and after a full year of adulthood post-college living (the most expensive, purpose offering security blanket I’ve ever had), I find myself floundering in both the way I live my life (how does one do it?) and digest the world around me.

This has been a summer of heavy sorrow and celebrations—I’ve seen whales, porpoises, an octopus, prairie dogs, crawled through caves, slept in multiple states, waded in the pool of a waterfall, canoed to hot springs, and walked on pumice and obsidian. Gifts of living.

But outside of those moments or days of vacation, I wonder where and when I’ll unpack my suitcase. I wonder when I will feel free of this suspension. Free from the not yets, maybe laters, shoulds, and if onlys. I wonder when I’ll lean in, and say, “I’m here.”

Life is extra dark chocolate. Sweet, but bitter. Near liquid in hot sunshine, and a rock in the winter. Meant for eating.

I posted the following on Facebook tonight. I think it’s important to acknowledge struggles with mental health. Our great love for life, but also, sometimes, the work it takes to hold onto it.

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Love, I’ve worked a variety of jobs. Refereed soccer, cleaned toilets, changed linens, put mail in mailboxes, scooped ice cream, tutored writers, taken calls for a bookstore and a senator, researched markets, organized events, and opened packages. I can say with confidence the hardest work and best job I’ve ever done has been keeping myself on this planet.

blood in the papers, streets, pumping from our hearts

July 9

Racism is woven into the fabric of our nation.  At no time in our history has there been a national consensus that everyone should be equally valued in all areas of life. We are rooted in racism in spite of the better efforts of Americans of all races to change that.

Because of this legacy of racism, police abuse in black and brown communities is generations old. It is nothing new. It has become more visible to mainstream America largely because of the proliferation of personal recording devices, cellphone cameras, video recorders — they’re everywhere. We need police officers.  We also need them to be held accountable to the communities they serve.  —Reddit Hudson, July 7, “I’m a black ex-cop, and this is the real truth about race and policing”

Les,
From Orlando to Istanbul to Baghdad to Falcon Heights to Baton Rouge to Dallas, I can’t remember a month of such constant, horrific acts of violence from so many corners. This is a time for healing and reconstruction. This is a time to listen to communities tell us what they need, and for us to support them. Black, Native, brown, queer and trans folks all over are hurting. The families and friends of the five slain Dallas officers are hurting. Istanbul and Baghdad have gaping wounds. This is not a time to build higher walls. This is a time to open doors.
 
Love yourself, love your neighbor. Take care of yourself. Take care of your neighbor.
 
There are times I shut my eyes and wish I could split myself into pieces of quartz to send to others for protection (Why have I been so safe thus far- privilege, privilege, privilege and luck. Why can’t I share?). Be safe, I wish. Be well, be well. I would die gladly if I knew no other human would kill another.
 
If only things were so easy. If only systematic oppression and personal prejudices could be solved so quickly. Fortunately, these things are not absolutes. They do not have to be forever.
We do not need to allow ignorance, pride, shame, and greed to keep us from seeing each other.

the marveling

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One day somebody will catch me

below a brick tower

with my right palm and forehead pressed

against cobweb to rectangles of

flaking red, churned purple caught

mid-roil, crisped sienna

turned mirage of tree above water,

melted chocolate,

char from abandoned fire—

 

Somebody will glance at the wildflower weeds

bunched in a tiny bouquet in my left palm,

a blade of grass tying them together,

and say to me,

It’s time you got serious about your life.

Love, I’ll reply mid-marvel,

What ever made you think I wasn’t?

 

 

Confounding Blues: Why My Spirits Fell After Coming Out Even Though it Went Well

July 5

Hey Les,

This will be hopefully be short post because I want to shower then hop in bed with my book (The New Jim Crow) before sleeping.

It’s been a week and a half since I came out to my parents and I’ve been struggling. Rather than feeling emancipated from the stress of not being out to them (and I guess I am free from it now, in big ways), I feel caught in a valley. As if working up to coming out and actually coming out was climbing a mountain, but after catching my breath at the summit and seeing clouds shadow the sun, I realize that I am somehow in a valley alone.

My gender hasn’t really come up in the last week and a half and for the most part my parents haven’t misgendered me—both have had at least a couple of slip-ups, which is to be expected. On the morning of my birthday (the day after coming out), my dad’s first words (sung) to me were: “Happy Birthday to you, Girl.” Not knowing if he knew what he was doing, I kept a blank face and descended the basement stairs to obtain my dog’s morning snack. I didn’t know if he said girl unthinkingly or if it was intentional. He let me correct him during grace, however (my family isn’t really religious but we say grace every night…I leave God out). The correction was a bit abrupt but I wasn’t about to be misgendered during my birthday dinner.

No, other than those fairly isolated events, things have been pretty smooth. I’m thankful for this. A couple of times, I’ve just hugged my parents without explaining why. I’m grateful that conversation went well. So thankful. As well as it went, I don’t feel ashamed of waiting so long or fretting so much in the run-up. If I’d come out earlier, even a few months beforehand, I don’t think it would have gone as well. We all had growing to do. I needed to get myself in a better frame of mind. Previous conversations I’d had with them about P and Ellis, both nonbinary, had helped, whether they knew P and Ellis were actually nonbinary or not. During our conversation in which I came out, my dad asked if Ellis was nonbinary too. Being able to say yes, and talk about the ways in which P, Ellis, and I are similar (in that none of us identify with the gender binary), but also different, because every single human’s experience with gender is different, was very helpful and affirming.

So why have I been subdued? Why have I felt like crying at times or just finding a little nest to curl up in? Why am I sad even though I have a family that loves and supports me, as well as a Facebook community that showered my coming out post with likes, loves, and well wishes?

Here are some reasons I’ve identified:

-Daily anxiety about interpersonal and/or systematic rejection and discrimination due to one’s identity is draining.

Living with concern, for years, that my two biggest supporters would reject the validity of my nonbinary identity/or would otherwise really struggle to accept it was draining.

Not coming out to some other members of my family and other individuals and/or communities because of this was also stressful. I’m a very open person about this kind of thing. I like throwing it on the table then moving onto the next, more important thing.

Surveys, bathrooms, job applications, etc. Gender gender gender. Everywhere. For what reasons?

-After coming out, I’m feeling the weight of that build-up. I feel the weight of what I carried. Systematic stuff sticking around, and there will still be little challenges with my fam, in addition to sharing my gender with other folks and future employers, etc, but now that I can let some of my stress go, I realize how stressed I’ve been as both a nonbinary person and someone who loves and worries about trans folks.

-I expended so much energy preparing to come out to my parents that now that I am finally out to them, I’m left looking at the rest of my life through a magnifying glass. It’s not making me feel that great. It’s sinking in that I only have one part-time job now. I’m underemployed, struggling to identify work I can comfortably commit to and find jobs in, and I live at home at age 24. My city is rapidly gentrifying and even if I obtain full-time employment soon, I’m not sure I’ll find a place to live where I won’t have to live paycheck to paycheck.

-My depression is flaring. I’ve been feeling a little hopeless about not seeing either a short-term or long-term future for myself. Ashamed that after centering my work and studies around communities and social justice for years, now that I’m actually out of school for a time, I haven’t yet felt healthy enough for the work I want to do. Community-oriented work requires a lot of emotional stamina, and I’m an empath. I’m also interested in so many things, I’m not sure what to focus on. Voice in my head says quit dallying, just dive in. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer, apply, dive in. Whom are you serving?

-I didn’t exercise enough this past week. Looking at the fitness tracker on my phone, I realized that for the last week or so, I’ve walked at least half as much as I normally do. I’ve barely biked.

 

How am I lifting my spirits?

-Actually picking up books I’d been excited about but then too blue to read. I’ve been committed to reading The New Jim Crow since I first heard about it and have owned it for a year. Last night, I picked it up and started. It’s time to get myself back into my zone of living, loving, and working with a commitment to helping my local communities. Criminal justice reform, with an emphasis on racial justice, is one of my greatest passions.

-Tonight I ran nearly five miles, and in different neighborhoods. I worked my way to where my great-grandmother lived and where my dad spent much of his childhood, in the Foster-Powell neighborhood. A residential area with mostly single-family homes that doesn’t receive as much support from the city as neighborhoods like mine do, but a comfortable neighborhood that has also undergone much rapid change. I had never run in that area before. I felt like I was running through time. Not knowing that less “inner southeast” area well, I felt my privilege as I ran, I felt the stories the houses and streets told, I felt my roots. I felt the whispers of migrations of people who have been pushed from their homes.

I don’t remember the last time I ran more than 3 miles at a time—and I haven’t even done that much recently. I was extra engaged tonight, though, because I was (re)discovering more of my home on foot. I intend to work up to running further east, and to the north, to where my grandparents lived.

In observing and relearning some of my roots, and in observing the changes Portland has undergone, in addition to what neighborhoods have managed to retain, I imagine I’ll gain greater physical and mental health. I feel a little hope and humility.

This post was a little rambly, but it’s what I’ve got tonight. Time to shower.

 

My Snapchat Story Peptalk Before Coming Out

July 1

Hey Les,

While working up to coming out to my parents as nonbinary last week, I restlessly snapped some photos of my carpet (after a couple of my funny, angsty little face and messy top knot) and gave myself some advice.

I first uploaded that snapstory (a slideshow of those photos with the text I added)to share here, but I just couldn’t keep it. The video was gigantic and I can’t stand the idea of my face taking up someone’s entire screen for a couple photos when my carpet is the real MVP anyway. So I snagged the individual photos and wrangled them together.

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Here is the advice I gave myself:

  1. Collect yourself. Be in a good emotional place
  2. Ask the other party when is a good time for them
  3. Begin with much regard for the wellbeing of everyone in the room
  4. Some casual conversation is good. It’s not the end of the world here.
  5. 4? 5? (I lose track of time so easily on snapchat) Listen to your better instincts
  6. Let’s call this 6: No matter how it goes, love yourself for being brave enough
  7.  No matter how things go, find something to smile and celebrate afterwards [like trees or the moon]
  8. And breathe.

Maybe even laugh at the business carpeting in your bedroom


What advice would you include?

Boob-Bearers, Top Surgery, and the Freedom to Go Shirtless

June 29

Hey Les, the other day, I found a message request on my Facebook. It was from someone named Jess who had just read my Boobed and Not-So-Dangerous piece on Neutrois Nonsense.

Jess wrote:

Hi Emily, this is totally random and maybe a little bit creepy – and I really hope this is the right person, but I’m pretty sure it is..anyway, I’m a queer stranger who just saw your guest post on Neutrois Nonsense from February and I just wanted to say that you’re SO BRAVE and I love you for it. I gave in. I actually had top surgery preeeeetttty much so that I could go publicly topless. And now I do. (Though since I still have a very feminine body, I attract a lot of stares and it always requires a lot of mental energy to do it…) The freedom is great, but I always have a little niggling sense of guilt for having abandoned other boob-bearers for my own selfish plane ticket to freedom in the process. Nobody really talks about this issue much and I wish they would. So that’s it. I just want to say I wish I’d had the courage to just go fuckin’ topless breasts and all, but I didn’t. But you did/do and you’re awesome. Cheers.

I was moved. I know I write letters to you on the Internet and anyone can read them, but it’s still surreal to have strangers reach out and say my writing resonated with them. Because I was still reeling from the hugely positive response to my nonbinary post the previous night (so much love!), I let Jess’ message sit for a day, then responded last night.

Hi Jess, that’s not creepy at all. Thank you for your very kind words!
Also, please don’t feel guilty. You don’t have an obligation to other “boob-bearers” to keep yours if they cause you discomfort. That you had the means to have a surgery you desired and went for is wonderful. It’s incredibly brave and beautiful. I wish you much comfort, confidence, and freedom in your body.
And I may not go topless as often as much as I’d probably prefer (I also just get cold often and shirts are great), but when I do, it is thrilling and sass-inducing. One day, I hope none of us will be made to feel shame for the decisions we make regarding our own bodies. Thanks again and best wishes. Cheers to you!
                                                                            ***
Most important to me was expressing that they shouldn’t feel guilty for decisions they make about their body. Outside of protecting the health and safety of others (through wearing condoms or the like), we don’t owe anyone certain decisions about our body. While Jess may feel that they have “abandoned” other breasted individuals by undergoing top surgery, the truth is that there are multiple ways to arrive at the freedom of topless expression. Most people are physically capable of removing their shirts. The main deterrents are laws, social norms, and discomfort with one’s body—sometimes dysphoria. If this dysphoria extends from having breasts or not being able to go topless because one has breasts, surgery may be a great option if one has the means.
But top surgery just isn’t for everyone. Most ciswomen probably don’t want their breasts removed. Neither do some transmen, or some AFAB nonbinary individuals like myself.  The path to comfortable freedom from shirts for those of us who are fine with our chests most likely lies in changing social norms and laws. That’s something that everyone, including folks who’ve had their breasts removed, can participate in.
At the end of the day, I hope that we can all find some comfort in our bodies in societies that do not marginalize or objectify us for our bodies.

***

Here’s a photo from Portland’s World Naked Bike Ride last Saturday. My sister, a ciswoman with breasts, P, my nonbinary friend who’s had top surgery, and my nonbinary boobed self rode shirtless together. It was excellent.
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What would you say to Jess?

I came out

June 26

Dear Les,

On Friday night, I came out to my parents. So much has happened this week and month, it was difficult for me to write anything anywhere. Tonight I finally shared some words on Facebook. I’ll include them here, but first I want to say thank you to everyone who has offered me support on this blog. Fellow queer and trans bloggers, other writers, and your own life, Les. I’m not quite done here (don’t mean for it to sound that way), but I do want to offer thanks. Writing about gender and sexuality has been a challenge lately, and I still need to respond to a post by Kameron (I appreciate your thoughtful nomination, and I want to do the same when I’m in a better headspace), but I’m grateful to have a place to help process this difficult and rewarding topics.

Below is my Facebook post.


Yesterday was my 24th birthday and yesterday was my first full day out as nonbinary trans to my parents. After years of working up to it, I finally shared that I am not a girl two nights ago. Yesterday was filled with love, sweet sunshine, and a raucous nearly naked bike ride. Yesterday I was on the verge of tears most of the day. I wanted to find a nest in which to curl up and grieve because this month has been filled with joys but also heartache and frustration.

Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend in Seattle with my cousins. On our second night, I scampered down Pike and Broadway ahead of them jumping off steps and yelling “parkour” then giggling. Passing storefront after storefront with Pride flags or safe place stickers, and with much anticipation, I finally got to skip across a rainbow crosswalk. I wasn’t thinking QUEER WONDERLAND because I question the protections afforded to LGBTQ people by corporatization of a movement, but I was celebrating rainbows. What a happy human I was to be laughing on rainbows. My cousins convinced me to remain still for a moment for a couple photos.

The next morning, while looking through those photos, I learned about the shooting in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando on Latin Night. Casualties were still being counted.

When I laid my head to rest the previous night, shots were already being fired.

My first reaction was fear that Muslim communities and brown folks would be targeted. An act of violence by an extremist is not a reason to harass a community that that extremist person claims connection to. One attack does not justify another. Hatred displayed towards one community does not warrant hatred towards another (and no, being queer and being muslim are not mutually exclusive).

In following weeks, I have been in a state of grief. What do queer clubs represent to LGBTQ folks? For some, they are the only place a person can go and feel comfortable in their skin and more safely display affection for those they are attracted to.

Last week I attended PRIDE for the first time in my life. I started coming out as queer when I was 12 but Portland’s PRIDE parade has always been on Father’s Day. Over the years, I learned to not be interested. This year, I told my parents where I needed to be (“because Orlando”), walked out my front door, and bused alone downtown. I stood in a crowd alongside the parade clapping, cheering, and weeping. 8 days prior, the faces in photos had still been breathing.

Being queer means that every time I hold hands with someone I’m sweet on, another person could perceive it as a political act. Ask any queer you know if they feel safe holding hands at night when they see a strange man or group of men in the distance. I know when to let my lovers’ hands drop. Being queer means every time I use “her” or “their” in reference to a lover, I out myself as an other. This means much less to me than it did a few years ago. I don’t care anymore. Largely because I live in a place where I usually don’t have to worry about being mistreated or fired. I also forgot how to give a damn.

Survival means knowing how to adapt.

Spiritual survival is learning how and when to stand up.

While working up to coming out to my parents last week, I read about the attack on Michael Volz, a transgender activist in Seattle. They were leaving a fundraiser for victims of the shooting in Orlando. In Capitol Hill, near rainbow crosswalks and rainbow stickered storefronts I scampered past two weeks ago, their attacker said “Hey, Happy Pride,” made a sexualized slur, then beat them to the ground.

Loving queer and trans people means I constantly pray for their safety. Especially if they are black or brown and/or trans, I wish them protection. I wish them light, love, and safety from bigotry.

I wish my friends and lovers access to restrooms, healthcare, and employment.

Being nonbinary means every time I walk into a women’s restroom, I look at the sign and think “not me.” But I have to pee. I just need a restroom. Being nonbinary but being mistaken for a girl by almost every single person in my life every single day means that I am safer than many trans people. But being mistaken by a girl by almost every single person in my life every single day means that I feel less visible and less human.

I’m human.

Emotional survival is allowing “girl,” “woman,” and “lady,” to slide off me and picking another time and place to correct someone, if at all.

Being a gender other than woman or man means that I have to explain my identity to almost everyone I meet but I do not have the time or strength to explain it to everyone I meet. Being trans means that although my parents’ love for their children is a beautiful force of light, I made sure I had emergency savings before I came out.

Because 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ and I know my parents love me to pieces but transphobia dominates our national history and broad narratives.

Survival means being practical.

I worked full-time for above minimum wages as a white college graduate before being unofficially laid off by one of my jobs a couple weeks ago, and I can’t afford to move into my own place and save for next steps in this rapidly gentrifying Portland. Imagine how greater the challenges are for queer and trans youth of color and youth without high school diplomas or college degrees.

Despite progress for most communities, we are not a postracial, postcolonial, or post any kind of systematic and interpersonal discrimination society.

As a queer and trans person, I struggle to find workplaces where I can dress in a way that does not give me excessive gender dysphoria. I struggle to find work which aligns with my values that will not burn me out.

Last night I biked shirtless in underwear with my sister and first partner/now good friend. I wore shiny green shorts, a fannypack, and a rainbow spinny hat that whirred in the wind.

We were alive and laughing, but much of the time, I was also reserved and distant. I was finally out as trans to my parents and it had gone better than hoped, and I was still grieving.

I’m working for a world in which I do not worry about the wellbeing of my loved ones and loved ones I’ll never meet because they are trans, queer, female, and/or people of color.

Survival means dreaming of and working toward a better future.

We’ve got work to do better loving each other.

We hold each other’s lives in our hands. Every day, we hold each other’s lives in our hands.

I’m out. I’m queer and I’m not a girl or boy.

And I love life. I love life, and I love you.

 

t minus 3 weeks until i finish coming out to the most important people in my life

May 24

Dear Les,

I finally caught up on my reading for all of the blogs I receive email updates from. For three weeks, I took a break from WordPress. It wasn’t premeditated; it just happened, and it was necessary. I had no desire at all to write anything for the ether-net (yourself included), and felt overwhelmed at the prospect of reading anyone else’s work, especially that of fellow queer and trans and/or nonbinary writers—whose blogs I follow most closely, but just couldn’t bring myself to read.

I think I needed some quiet and space for myself. During this period, although it was never a major source of my focus, I realized something: I’m ready to come out to my parents. I need to have the talk. After months/years of fretting what to say and how to do it, I think I’m just going to go for it. I can offer to share nonbinary/transgender informational materials and/or stories with them afterwards, including posts on Neutrois Nonsense, such as guest writer Libby’s “Loving My Agender Child.”

This isn’t as spontaneous of a decision as perhaps it sounds, and it still requires planning. For example, I was tempted to do it a couple of days ago but realized it wasn’t fair to do so right before my mother left for Pennsylvania. She and her sister who is moving to Oregon, are going to roadtrip back here together. I didn’t want to send her off with that huge news. I think it’s important to initiate that conversation when she’s in a comfortable place and when my parents are together. I’m guessing she’ll be home in 2-3 weeks.

Now that about three months have passed since my dad’s heart surgery and recovery has been going very well, I think I can now come out to my parents without worrying about my dad’s health too much. I don’t know if this fear was valid before, but I wasn’t willing to chance triggering another heart event. Telling your parents you don’t identify as the gender they’ve believed you to be since the day you were born (they saw my parts!), and requesting they stop referring to you as “girl,” even to your dog, is big.

I need to do it. I need to finally move on with this part of my life.

It’s unclear why I feel so certain (as certain/calm as I can be, I suppose), that now, or almost now, is the right time to do this. Stuff with FKS and D wasn’t the best the last couple of weeks, and that’s taken a lot of my brain and heart space. FKS bailed on her suggested coffee date two days in a row, and D and I transitioning from a kinda-relationship to friendship hasn’t been as smooth as hoped. Somehow I think these things just helped solidify thoughts on what I need for myself. Coming out to my parents now is one of them.

Also, my birthday is in a month. I considered coming out to my parents for my college graduation/birthday last year (in a “because you asked, this is what I would like” sort of thing), but it never happened. I don’t want another year to pass without telling them.

I’ve realized I’m a very private person—more private than I ever realized, even with my topless photos on the Internet. With my parents, I hold my cards very close to my chest. Largely because of my nonbinary identity, probably.

I think I owe it to all of us to finally start this conversation. It’s time to finally put words to who I am and why I behave/act the way I do sometimes.

Honestly, I think it will help me become a better person and kid.

I hope it’s not too hard on my parents. And I hope that they can eventually comfortably regard and love me as their nonbinary kid.