Article Thumbnail

What It’s Like to Come Out to Your Parents as Non-Binary

‘My mom’s first reaction was something along the lines of, ‘Are you gay? Aren’t you proud to be a woman?’’

Melo, a 26-year-old economics student from L.A., is non-binary. That is, they understand their gender as an amalgamation of male and female qualities but not as “male” or “female.” While assigned female at birth, for the last few years Melo has lived their life as a genderqueer person. Now, upon recently receiving their date for top surgery, which is aimed at alleviating some of their body dysmorphia related to their breasts, Melo once again feels the need to come out to family and friends — this time as non-binary, or genderqueer.

* * * * *

I’ve only come out to my family once — as queer — when I was 16. I specifically named what queerness meant, like the X, Y, Z of it all, and gave it to them in a letter. In it, I was naming that queerness opens me up to this spectrum of possibilities. In terms of my sexual orientation, I knew I wasn’t a lesbian because I was attracted to a lot of different people. I didn’t identify as bisexual either, though. I didn’t have a lot of context or understanding of other identities that relate to sexual orientation, but I knew I was attracted to both butch people and femme people of all gender expressions — that whole spectrum of femininity and masculinity, you know? 

Honestly, at the moment, I was still really young and still trying to figure out my gender. So to an extent, I think I was trying to leave the conversation open. My parents did their best to grasp it all. It was certainly hard to write that letter. I definitely left it on their bed, and waited for them to say something to me. To their credit, it was an immediate conversation. They read the letter, and we talked about it that night. 

My dad was clearly supportive from the start. He was like, “I love you. I’m not going to say I’m completely surprised.” He didn’t say, “It’s chill,” but that’s the impression I got — that he was going to love me regardless. 

My mom had a more interesting reaction. First of all, she’s very liberal. My parents are both very leftist, so it caught me off guard when her first reaction was something along the lines of, “Are you gay? Aren’t you proud to be a woman?”

That comment made me think, I’m definitely not going to talk about gender-queerness. It would have maybe felt more complete to have had that conversation at that moment, but I don’t think it would’ve gone too well. My mom wasn’t wrong that I was questioning my gender identity, but I’m not ashamed of who I was raised to be either. 

That said, I don’t think it was a harsh reaction, especially compared to what a lot of folks experience. My family has fought really intensely and always said “hi” to each other the next morning, regardless of what happened the night before. If anything, that’s probably why it was weird for my mom not to speak to me for a week and a half following the letter. In the larger scheme of things, that doesn’t sound so bad, but at the time — when I’ve never had my mom go a day without talking to me — I was like, “What the hell? You don’t love me? What’s happening?”

Eventually, it was fine. We had a follow-up conversation, and she told me she was processing everything. I knew my mom as such a liberal, political activist that I wanted her to get on board with queer issues right away, but it took some time. I feel like now when the word “queer” is in the news, or there’s more conversation around trans folk, my mom pays attention. She’s aware of queer things because very early I was like, “I identify as queer.”

Since then, my family has mostly begun calling me Melo instead of my birth name, which is more feminine, but we haven’t really had any other specific coming out conversation about me being genderqueer.

I haven’t necessarily hidden it, though, either. Namely, a few years ago, a reporter interviewed me about a new restaurant I opened in L.A. called Canela, in which we discussed gender politics within the restaurant industry. I told the reporter up front that I was genderqueer and asked that the pronoun “they” be used. When the story came out, I shot it over to my parents like, “Hopefully, they’re going to read this” and understand why I want to use “they” and “their” pronouns instead of “she” and “her.” I know they did, because they passed it on to my aunts. It’s very clear — two full-ass paragraphs breaking down what it means to identify as more gender neutral. But that’s the extent of the conversations I’ve had with my family about my own gender-queerness. 

Now that I’m getting top surgery in early October, however, I’m going to have a more explicit conversation with them because I don’t want to lie about it. The same for my big extended family. With them, I feel like it took a couple years of being with my partner for my parents to actually acknowledge my gayness to the rest of the family directly. So that’s a big concern of mine now: I don’t just have to come out to my nuclear family, I have to come out to my tias and my cousins. Cousins are accepting because we come from a relatively liberal family, as well as some of my closest aunts who I’ve told, “I’m genderqueer.” But I have a lot of extended family that I’m not as close to, but who I still see pretty regularly.

Either way, no letter this time — it’s going to be a conversation. 

I’ll definitely feel relief after we talk. Honestly, I’m going to leave it open-ended. I go back and forth a lot about testosterone, for instance, and I think that’s what gives me the most anxiety about everything. Top surgery is top surgery. That’s going to affect me and my dysphoria. People aren’t really going to go around asking, “What happened to your tits?” But I feel like if I take testosterone, those are extremely visible changes that people aren’t shy asking questions about. Basically, I want my parents and family to know that top surgery might be one of many steps.

Just allowing them a little bit into that process for the first time makes me feel relieved. (I chose not to tell them about any of the logistics of top surgery until it was official because I can be easily influenced; I don’t think I would’ve changed my mind or anything, but just in case.) It also makes me aware of how far I’ve come with my family since initially coming out as queer. Not to mention, I work at the family business right now; so when I have all of these preparatory appointments with doctors and psychiatrists, I have to be very vague about what I’m doing. It does feel a little like I’m lying to them, which doesn’t feel good.

Soon I’m going to straight up be like, “Oh, I have to take the day off.”

My larger struggle with being a non-binary person is people trying to place me in the binary. I identify more with masculinity, regardless of being gender nonconforming, so I think top surgery will definitely help people perceive me correctly. It will at least decrease people seeing me as feminine and misidentifying me in that way. 

Still, while I’d love my body to have more of a masculine build, the idea of presenting as a man — and the idea of passing as a man — terrifies me. I don’t want to be misgendered in that way either. I don’t identify with that. I was raised in a very particular way; I was raised socially as a woman. I wouldn’t want that to be erased. Hence my uncertainty around hormones. Gender-queerness isn’t about wanting to get rid of how you were raised or all of your gendered experiences — at least not for me. It’s about being seen the way I want to be seen.

In some ways, what pushes me to want to take hormones is that if I were able to present more masculine in certain ways, I’d feel more comfortable bringing out some of the more feminine things about me that I don’t feel comfortable doing right now because I don’t want to be identified as a female. For example, there are certain outfits or types of clothing I wouldn’t dare wear now, but if I had a mustache or a more masculine physique, I might be down to rock. Like crop tops. I’d love to be a dude in a crop top, but I don’t want to be a girl in a crop top. 

That’s the beauty of gender-queerness. Even if I get to the point of completely passing as masculine, I can still do all kinds of things in terms of my body or attire that will present me as queer and non-binary. 

A lot of my friends are like, “Deep down, you’re a gay boy.” 

I laugh, but I know what they mean.