It’s “non-binary awareness week”! In fact, Happy International Non-Binary People’s Day! Who knew there even was such a thing? Cool, right? One thing I’ve recently begun to notice as I learn more about who I am is that while great swaths of humanity seem to, and may, fit into the generalized gender binary, there are also many of us who do not. I always felt so alone. Everywhere I looked I saw the beautiful people, the boys and the girls, men and women who were, by the very simple fact of their existence, “right”. In Hebrew one might say, “kosher”. Right. Fitting. Legitimate. But not me. I was always the consummate polygon attempting to fit into a pin-point circle or a mailbox-shaped rectangle. One of these things is not like the other, that one thing always being me. I don’t often see other people like me; either or, neither nor. As I get older it bothers me less. Though that doesn’t mean I notice it less or yearn for it less.
Cleo recently went through a period of refusing to eat her food. While her behavior was fine – she was acting like herself, happy and playful – she would not even approach her bowls. She would take treats from me when she visited someone or responded to a command at work, but otherwise she was not eating. Her energy and peeing and pooping were normal as well. By the 4th day I was nervous. At dinner the children looked worriedly at me, “DO something” their pleading eyes begged. I decided to go to a pet store and get a new food. Maybe she was just being a picky eater and needed a new flavor? Hey, I’m not a veterinarian, it was the best I could come up with in the moment. The only pet store open after 8pm was in a nearby town I am not familiar with, a store itself I don’t know well even though it is a fairly well-known pet store. The dread of having to be out in public and having to go somewhere new crept over me. This is something people like Emily simply do not understand, think about or ever experience. She is cis-gendered, clearly female, attractive, and white. Normal. Regular. Kosher. People don’t stare at her, wrinkle their noses or brows at her, treat her suspectly or with distaste, disdain or contempt. She is not an oddity, a curiosity, a freak of nature to be befuddled by and judged. I have long stopped trying to convince “regular” people that I am not paranoid and that this experience is real. I have long stopped trying to explain to “regular” people that I am viewed and therefore treated differently, usually less kindly. I don’t look forward to visiting new places or being in the company of people I don’t know. When I have to go outside my familiar zone, I am nervous, cautious, on edge. I am fearful and my emotional armor is heavy. It is both frightening and draining, not to be too dramatic about it.
The store was in a little strip-mall between a GNC (not as in gender non-conforming, but as in the nutrition and wellness vitamin store) and a sub shop. I was on high alert. The burly bearded man who joyfully greeted me as I entered the store was lovely, not that it lowered my anxiety any. He listened to my telling of Cleo’s recent hunger-strike with interest as he moved us to the dog food aisle. Another store employee walked by us and past the aisle we entered no fewer than 6 times. I could see in my peripheral vision that it was also someone stocky and with a beard. But this guy was barely 5 feet tall. By the fifth pass by I wondered if that employee might be a trans-man. Might his radar have alerted him and might he be trying to get a read on me? I admit I was completely distracted from the poor guy trying to explain canine palates to me. The thought that I might not “be alone”, “be the only one”, bumped up against my fear and made me curious.
When I walked out into the main section of the store carrying my new venison delight, a cashier was waving cheerfully at me. She was a tall plump woman with large brightly colored glasses and her energy was simply exuberant. As I got closer, adding my selection to the conveyor belt and she began to make small talk with me I noticed the distinct appearance of 5-O’clock shadow under a healthy dose of base makeup. She saw me looking. She knew I noticed. Just like I know when others see something in me that they weren’t expecting to see and notice. I made sure to look her straight in the eye and smile with my whole being (under my mask) and without judgment. I literally saw her release her breath in so pointed a way that her shoulders relaxed before my eyes. I purposely made small-talk back (something I am neither good at nor comfortable with), asking her name and thanking her (and through her, her coworkers) for the kind welcome and treatment. She smiled knowingly and my shoulders relaxed too. Indeed I was not alone, nor the only one. It still took some time for the adrenaline to leave my system, but not being singularly odd was comforting.
I arrived at work the other day and was greeted by a very energetic friendly guy who was desperate to pet Cleo. He was there to visit his father, a man I know from my pastoral care. When I said I was familiar with his dad he introduced himself to me as “his very gay son” (said in an exaggerated self-deprecating way). We chatted another few minutes about the pandemic and how hard it was to not have visitors and he said something to the effect of, “well as his very gay son, he probably didn’t mind that I wasn’t able to visit”. After the third or fourth time he told me that he was this guy’s “very gay son”, taking it as a hint that he was looking to connect, I said something like, “well, I’m his very gay chaplain”. To which he responded (without hesitation), “Oh yeah, but you’re transitioning right?” Why oh why can I never be prepared for things like this?! I mean, really, what the actual fuck?
My equilibrium was completely thrown off. Assuming that he was trying to find a sameness and connection with me, I offered what I thought was likeness, connection, using “gay” in its broadest sense. My defenses were lowered and I was unprepared for his response. His response, which took me by surprise and felt too familiar, bordering on intrusive. In the time it took me to catch my breath, and unfold the neat emotional origami I like to believe I have created within myself, the awkward silence had stretched way too long. The space in my head filled with the sound of stormy ocean waves pounding against the shore and I couldn’t think. I could see, while pointedly not making eye contact, that the man kneeling down petting Cleo was staring at me, saying something, awaiting my response. His lips were moving and yet I couldn’t hear a word he was saying. His expression grew puzzled and, knowing I had to say something, I mumbled, “yeah, sort of. something to that effect.” and literally walked away. I could not have been more maladroit. Thankfully, my ever-faithful companion, Cleo, trotted up to walk at my side.
What is wrong with me?! I know, I could, (and maybe should), be asking, “what is wrong with him?” too, for having asked so personal a question to a total stranger. But I can only consider and hope to answer the first question. That’s the only one I have any possibility of learning from or effecting any change over. How is it that my facade of equilibrium can so easily be thrown so far off? That my presentation of a together person can shatter so quickly, so easily, into an inestimable number of tiny shards that inflict death by a million paper cuts? Perhaps the answer lies in that deep well of shame I possess. Though I’ve worked hard to grow and nurture a protective covering, it is still just that. A thin veneer of new skin stretched taut over a bottomless abyss of bubbling, roiling, shame. And as soon as the fragile layers are pierced, the geyser lets loose. At one time I might have said my shame was endless, infinite. I was ashamed of my shame. And though they are teeny tiny baby steps, I do see that I have given it boundaries, a container even if I sometimes find it uncontainable. Like this time. These times getting less and less frequent. In general, I am no longer ashamed of my shame. I am, more and more often, annoyed by it. Which I think is a step in the right direction.
* for those of you wondering/worried about Cleo: I gave her the venison and I gave her salmon flavors. She simply would not go near any of it. She does follow me, like a shadow, around the house and one day while I was getting into the shower, I decided to bring her bowls into the bathroom with us. That way I could be close by but not watching and she could have time to relax and eat without commotion or monitoring. She ate like, well, like a dog who hadn’t eaten in a week! The thought of anyone eating in a bathroom made me gag. So I moved her bowls to my bedroom the following day. And she ate there too. Seems she needed a new venue for eating. Not the same old food, but the same old restaurant she had a problem with.