How ‘Booksmart’ Helped Me Come Out as Nonbinary

Of all the places to come out as nonbinary, my Brooklyn-based self did it in Texas around my 21st birthday in 2019. You might be wondering, “What?” Isn’t NYC the most inclusive city in America? The center of gay culture even? What would a New Yorker find in Texas to help them come out? The answer: the Austin-based festival South By Southwest, where I saw a particularly beloved teen comedy.

Growing up, I was a weird, feminine kid. Instead of traditional boyish activities like sports, I liked staying inside playing Mario while listening to girly pop songs on Radio Disney sung by Raven, Aly & AJ, and Hilary Duff. For Pete’s sake, my first celebrity crush was Alyson Stoner, starting with their Cheaper By the Dozen/Missy Elliot music video era.

Throughout my upbringing, the boys at school and some of my family members tried to impose masculinity on me. I was criticized for having my hip out and knee bent as my default stance. Whenever any dominant force told me to be a man or man up, I would adamantly refuse. I did have a great source of manliness through my late affectionate father, and it was through his acceptance of my idiosyncrasies I felt comfortable being myself — even with no self-awareness. Imagine being in eighth grade in a predominately Black middle school, interpretive dancing to Taylor Swift’s “Safe and Sound” during the Friday morning assembly just because you were excited about The Hunger Games coming.

As I entered college, self-awareness was installed into my mental software, lending to aggressive anxiety attacks. (Yay!) There was even a brief moment when I pledged to a fraternity because I was in need of brotherly guidance. Thankfully, that short haze, I mean phase, came and went.

Amid academia and identity tribulations, my main solace was running my self-published independent outlet, Rendy Reviews, where I would write — surprise, surprise — movie reviews. Every day after school, you’d see me in a long line at a free advanced screening, waiting patiently for access to see the latest release. Then, at the tail end of the summer of 2018, Rotten Tomatoes integrated me into their database at 20, making me their youngest critic and the first Gen Z critic in their database. That spawned some life-changing opportunities… and some conflict with my schooling.

Early in my Spring 2019 semester, I had a film professor who wasn’t impressed with my critical efforts. He was one of those curmudgeon, failed filmmaker-type professors who had his class watch movies he worked on. Some of them were Woody Allen flicks — not even good ones — and he also assigned Allen’s biography for required reading. In the year of our Lord 2019! The film department had a rule: If you’re absent more than twice a semester, you must drop the class, or it will be an automatic withdrawal. I abused that rule every semester and all my other professors didn’t give a damn. They were adjuncts so they knew the struggle of my hustling. This professor didn’t.

I was absent from my first two weeks of classes because I was covering my first Sundance Film Festival — my second time traveling solo. Upon landing in Utah for Sundance, I received an accredited press email for SXSW. At the time, Austin was the dream place I always wanted to travel to. Since it rolled around my 21st birthday, going there was a once-in-a-lifetime moment I didn’t want to miss.

When I asked that professor if there was anything I could do to go without dropping the class, he declined and said, “You must choose between your education and your career.” At that moment, in anger and shock, I responded with, “Okay,” and was instructed not to attend any further classes.

Immediately after, I dropped the class and it affected my full ride. Thanks to that professor, I have to pay student loans. While stressed on my flight, wondering if I made the right decision, I received an invite to attend the premiere and after-party for Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart. I’d never received an invite to a premiere before, and that good news took my mind off the anxiety of becoming a part-time student.

During Booksmart, I quickly identified with Kaitlyn Dever’s character, Amy. She was the safeguarded, deadpan, lesbian best friend to Beanie Feldstein’s Molly. They may be besties, but Amy plays second fiddle to Molly the entire time. She follows Molly’s lead rather than showing off her individuality. I saw so much of myself in her, especially during high school, where I was attached to the hip and second in command to my best friend. Our film-centric high school prepared us for the film industry, and we both aspired to become directors. By the time it became junior year, he was placed in the directing cohort while I was set in post-production. It was like the universe telling me, “Give up, kid, you’ll only be the supporting character.”

At first, I was confused. Why was I, a Black man, identifying hard with a white teen lesbian girl? My initial connection to Amy puzzled me, but it was her “leap of faith” moment where everything clicked. During Amy and Molly’s escapades to attend their class party, Amy is motivated to impress her skater crush, Ryan. When separated from Molly, she thrives alone, doing karaoke with her peers and killing it on Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.”

She’s then led to the backyard pool, and in a rush of joy, she jumps in as Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away” plays in the background. The visual language of that moment was perfect at conveying Amy’s joy. Although she was swimming, I knew she was soaring. To see her comfortable in her skin and happy with who she was at that moment was so important to me.

The scene expresses a joyous freedom and I felt it in every fiber of my being. After a few days of the gender attack, it hit me that I didn’t feel like a man at all, nor did I want that to define my being. I loved being right in the middle, existing in a world surrounded by others where I could fly high no matter what.

And so, on the heels of 21 in Austin, Texas, I came out as nonbinary. (Well, not publicly yet, but you get it.) I decided to use they/them pronouns — eventually, they/he cause I like identifying as a short king. Every time I return to SXSW, it’s like a homecoming to the place where I found my sense of belonging and was reborn.

Five years later, I’ve been more confident and carefree than I’d ever been before. I’m unapologetic about my identity and don’t second guess who I am and how I navigate the world. Upon every SXSW, I see different facets of myself through the friends I’ve made and the memories we’ve created

When I first dropped that class with the asshole professor, I was in a state of doubt and regret, but if I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Okay, probably rent at a cheaper Airbnb, but other than that, NOTHING!

Booksmart is currently streaming on Peacock

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Rendy Jones

Rendy Jones (they/he) is a film and television journalist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. They are the world's first gwen-z film journalist and owner of self-published independent outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics' Choice Association, GALECA, and a screenwriter. They have been seen in Vanity Fair, Them,, Rolling Stone, and Paste.

Rendy has written 10 articles for us.

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