This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!
Nonbinary survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault are asked to find safety in seemingly impossible places—the home and the body. As people in the galaxy between the binaries of man and woman, we are often not treated as “real” or believable. And, at the same time, survivors are rarely believed in their stories, boundaries, and ability to say yes or no. Those of us living at the intersection of nonbinary and survivor are forced to reconcile with others reshaping our bodies and needs. It takes work to know that society’s and our abusers’ destinations and imaginations are not our own.
My name is Lexie. For the past few months, I have been curating an anthology called enough / enough, filled with letters that trans and nonbinary survivors have written to their body parts. I sat down with four nonbinary friends and contributors—Chris Segal, Sonia, Babs, and Rowan—to discuss the complications of coming out, feeling seen, writing, and other outlets.
What were the initial reactions you received when you came out as a survivor?
Sonia: People in that initial conversation said a lot of supportive things. After the conversation was over though, I felt so much silence from everyone. I think a huge part of that is that I wasn’t able to more publicly name my relationship as abusive until almost four years after it happened. And another big factor is that my ex-boyfriend is so woven into my life: We’ve been friends since we were 5 years old, so we went to school together every grade, had almost all the same friends, and so on. It took leaving a space I so intrinsically associated with that person and relationship to be able to name what it was.
Chris Segal: I’ve gotten a lot of people asking why I didn’t say anything sooner or why I hid or I why I stayed so long. People have been mostly supportive and comforting when I finally open up about everything, but even opening up to people seems hard. Most people have trouble seeing my ex as being abusive when they’ve known him for so long.
Sonia: Coming out shook up a lot of my perceptions about my home community, and could have shaken up my home community’s perceptions of itself if people had been willing to really hear me. Instead I felt this massive wave of silence. My parents wanted to be supportive and in many ways have been, but we’ve had some similar struggles where I can tell they would be happier if I didn’t talk about it.
Babs: All my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comes out of childhood, and the word survivor doesn’t resonate with my experience. When I came back to school after treatment, I was really worried that my friends would treat me with kid gloves once I told them because child abuse can make people feel sorry for and distant from you. I was really lucky that didn’t happen. Obviously things are more complicated with my family. I was put on academic leave for failing my first semester at college, and they were incredibly supportive in helping me seek treatment. I’m lucky that we were able to pay for rehab, transitional living, and college. Since they were part of my treatment team, my family therapist and I would talk them through my diagnoses. My mom has read the books recommended to her. She is trying to understand even though I doubt she fully grasps the extent to which my childhood impacted me, which mainly comes up when she gets frustrated that I avoid contact with her. I think my extended family is weary of me, and they don’t really know what to do.
Rowan: I’ve had some beautiful talks with my mom, especially about consent and loving your body. I recognize this is a stroke of luck—so many survivors are met with disbelief, suspicion, shame. I know there are people out there who wouldn’t believe me; people who would tell me to man up.
Paradoxically I have felt less comfortable in spaces specifically designated as survivors’ spaces a couple times. As a bearded person who has sometimes identified as a cis man while talking about my experience as a survivor, I’ve felt rooms go cold when I take up space. This feels particularly icky because the year of abuse I endured as a teenager was deeply tied up with expectations of masculinity—at that time I didn’t even know that rape and psychological/sexual abuse were things that could happen to me. Entering a space of vulnerability and healing, only to feel invalidated based on perceptions and expectations of my gender, makes that vulnerability and healing impossible.
What were the intial reactions you received when you came out as nonbinary?
Rowan: I haven’t found the right words yet, but I know me. With friends, coming out has been casual and the reactions celebratory. But then, I’ve only come out to friends who I knew would be supportive, many of whom are nonbinary themselves. One friend said, “Yeah, I kinda figured,” which felt nice, in a way. He can be emotionally reserved, and it felt good to be known by him.
Babs: I talk gender with my main bitches most of the time. At school, I tend to be read as a they person (short hair plus a loud affinity for dad style) and always introduce myself with my pronouns (she or them). Because the spaces I’m in tend to be hella queer, most people don’t presume womanhood for me.
At my summer jobs, I haven’t pushed too hard. There had been out nonbinary and trans staff and campers throughout the years, but there were still a lot of gender assumptions and “ladies and gentlemen.” I touched base with one of my superiors, but felt pretty shut down. It felt really incongruous when the camp celebrated two campers leading a Trans Day of Silence a few weeks after I had voiced my concerns. It wasn’t something that I felt comfortable fully pushing as a new employee, and I’m nervous about what coming out is going to look like when I’m in the workforce.
Chris Segal: The environment I am in with my job makes it a difficult place to navigate as genderqueer. I don’t mind my students calling me Mr. Segal, but friends who are close to me know about my preference for they/them rather than he/him. Some of my students have dropped the prefix entirely and just refer to me as my last name, Segal, and I find that to be the most comfortable. I never had a big coming out with my gender identity, people just noticed that I would fluctuate from masculine presentations to feminine presentations. I feel more comfortable going out with makeup and wearing more tight, feminine clothing, but unfortunately, I can’t do that with my job as much as I would like, or at all. My identity is genderqueer, but my presentation is mostly masculine just because of my job.
Rowan: Publicly: I haven’t done much coming out yet. I’m not sure if or when I will. Like Chris, I’m going into education. I don’t yet know how I’ll respond to being called “Mr. __________.”
Sonia: Like Chris and Rowan, I haven’t come out to a lot of people—and also like Chris and Rowan, I work in a school, which limits a lot of the ways I feel I can present. This implication that I feel so heavily is that my identity is somehow inappropriate for or harmful to young people. And it’s like, I know what harmed me when I was a young person and it was the abuse I experienced, so to feel like my identities are shameful or some secret that children should be spared from makes me feel like the problem.
I also haven’t come out to a lot of people in my personal life, and honestly a big reason why is that I’m tired. This is my third round of coming out: as a survivor when I was 19, as queer when I was 20 or 21, and now again. Vulnerability is really beautiful, but the process of coming out—especially to folks who don’t share that identity—is such a forced vulnerability and one that happens on the terms of othering yourself rather than your own terms, at least in my experience. I think that’s why I’m waiting. I want to find a way to do it that’s for me, not for the people who have decided they know who I am already.
How does this all affect your relationship with your body?
Rowan: I often feel trapped, obsessing over the veracity of my emotions, especially romantic emotions. Combine being a nonbinary survivor with this obsessive meta-thinking and sometimes, in sexual situations, I have no idea which of my own emotions are coming from me, which are coming from my partner (or what I feel I ought to do to please them), and which are coming from everything I’ve absorbed about masculinity and what I “must” want. That spiraling doubt can be paralyzing, and deeply frightening. I feel outside of my body at these times and, invariably, cold.
Chris Segal: My identity was fetishized in a way that made me feel more like an object to be owned than a real person. It caused me to hate the form I had and to starve myself into a form that he wanted and idealized. If I looked the way he wanted, I was a good partner. I got better at covering things with clothes and makeup so people couldn’t see when I had been crying or had a new bruise. Every day is a battle with getting comfortable with my weight, where muscles are, what areas stick out, everything. Even now I can’t find the motivation to make the changes I want to make to my body to be happy. My identity has always been a juxtaposition of masculine and feminine, and I feel like the abuse I went through made that juxtaposition of gender a place I could never reach, like cookies that were too high on my grandma’s shelf.
Babs: I was a binge eater from middle school onward, and one of the large messages that I got growing up was that I was undisciplined, that I should just do my homework, try harder at school, exercise, lose some weight, eat fewer carbs. I definitely felt that I was at fault for not having the will to control an unruly body. Growing up, I had this nagging fear in the back of my brain that people would think I was a lesbian or mannish in some way. A large part of me feels as if I should have been this perfect, desirable girl before being nonbinary, or that I’m nonbinary because I couldn’t be that small-framed, slender, tall image of whiteness.
Sonia: There are so many things about my body I have wanted to shrink or erase or reject. There are so many ways I have seen my body as responsible for the violence that happened to it: too big, too curvy, too muscular, not delicate enough to be handled with care. The process of healing from all of those intersecting wounds has so often been to learn to listen to my body. It’s still an ongoing process, but I’m putting in the work of learning to listen, to see my body not as a place of violence but as a place of healing and a place of joy.
When do you feel seen?
Chris Segal: Right now. When I write. Online. When I am able to present in the way that I perceive myself. My partner does a great job with supporting me and he is the one who really helps me through things.
Rowan: When I’ve made, or am making, art that comes out right. Writing, music, dancing, and in these forms, when I come untethered from gender expectation and express myself fully. When I sing in a falsetto. When I write lyrically. When I dance fluidly. When those things are celebrated by others.
When I know that I don’t have to carry all of this guilt.
Sonia: I feel seen when I am able to be fully present with myself, to extend into all the places in myself that I’m sometimes afraid to go to and say, “I live here. I love living here.” I feel seen when my loved ones remind me that they love me not for what I give to them but just because I am here. There’s a part of me that believes it’s too much to ask for other people to do the work of seeing me as I am. I’m trying to start by learning to see myself, and by asking the people who love me for that self to walk with me on that road in whatever ways they can.
What does writing do for you?
Sonia: I decided to be a writer when I was 5 years old. “Writer” is probably the only word of my most important identities now that my 5-year-old self even knew, but it hasn’t changed. I’ve always loved fantasy, and I think the ability to bring another person into or close to your world or a world you made is a magical act in and of itself. It’s magical and deeply real and concrete, because so often the stories people tell are the things that outlive us.
As someone who has always been verbal and struggled so much with silence and being silenced in her journey to become who they are, I write to affirm my own existence. I write to tell my own story instead of letting other people impose narratives onto me, onto my body. I write to bridge the space between myself and people who can take things from what I write and use them as tools for their own survival.
Rowan: When I journal, I allow myself a private space to express myself free of expectation. It’s like an extension of my head—of my body, really. I get to see my words there on the page, coming out of me, and this gives me clarity and courage. I get to keep them safe, and I get to refer back to them days, weeks, years later. I have a personal record.
Chris Segal: Sometimes I find myself strapped to my bed by my depression replaying thoughts and experiences in my head. It isn’t until I’m able to get everything out that I start to feel better. And that, typically, is through writing. It’s something I recommend all of my students do and something I think everyone should do. Make a folder deep in your computer that no one can find and start typing up documents.
Babs: Right now, journaling is basically excavation. When I’m feeling depressed, out of touch, overwhelmed, or like I’m experiencing something and can’t find the edges, usually some chunk of feeling or memory has broken off the yikesburg and is trying to thaw. If I keep putting words on paper, whatever deep thing that’s ricocheting around my nervous system usually melts and I can figure out its contours. I didn’t have to take in everyone else’s reactions. I could be angry, hurt, and loud.
Even now, creative writing is a pain. I pushed myself into two creative writing classes at Oberlin. Most of my time was spent dissociating, crying in professors’ offices, and spitting out shitty writing that I wasn’t invested in for my midterm and final portfolios. I realized at some point that one of my main stories was that I would find some way of solving my trauma and then be perfect in every way. I’m just trying to keep my gaze small to help nurture my own process.
What do you want to share with other survivors who also identify as nonbinary?
Sonia: You did not cause this. Your gender did not cause this. Your body did not cause this. The fact that you don’t feel like there is space enough in the world for all of you is the world’s damage, not yours. I love you. I want to see you because you are worth the work of seeing. I want good, whole things for you, and I hope that when they come you can believe you deserve them just by being who you are.
Rowan: It is okay not to know. It is always okay to ask for help.
What do you want to say to everyone else?
Rowan: Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Please keep doing that. Hold people if they want to be held, give them space if they want space. Call people what they want to be called. The golden rule is kind of messed up: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a good start, but I prefer “do to others what they want you to do.” Keep listening.
Chris Segal: Just listen to people. Don’t judge them for how long they dealt with their abuse before they left. If someone says another person abused them, believe them. Don’t make excuses for the abuser. Accept that they did something awful and hold them accountable for it.
Sonia: We live in a world that teaches us that violence—interpersonal violence, systemic violence—is the fault of the people who experience it. That we can recognize abusers because they are not like us, they are only ever monstrous men waiting in alleys. That if someone you love hurts you, you can’t love them anymore, but also that hurt is love, and it’s okay for love to be possessive, demanding, and refusing to hear no. Believing those things makes us feel safe, but the price of that false sense of safety is a body count and more violence inflicted upon people trying to survive something the world says they were too foolish or too broken to avoid—or that it never really happened. That price is too high. That price is unacceptable. We have to learn to stop paying it and we have to start with our own communities.