Jonathan Van Ness, hair stylist, comedian, and Queer Eye scene-stealer, is non-binary.
He publicly came out Monday morning in an interview with Fran Tirado for Out, discussing Pride, his new partnership with essie, and his relationship to femininity. When I first saw this on Twitter I felt the usual happiness of seeing a public figure come out, but I didn’t think much beyond that. It wasn’t until I saw my sister liked the article on Instagram that I realized the impact this would have.
My sister, like a lot of cis straight people I interact with, has previously responded to non-binary gender identities with a mix of annoyance and confusion. The gender binary is so deeply ingrained in our culture (contemporary America, white) it’s incredibly difficult to educate anyone who isn’t invested in rewiring their understanding of our world. I often hear many a good liberal say something like, “Well I’m very accepting, but I’ll never understand it.” It’s why the binary trans “trapped in the wrong body” narrative is so popular. It’s only slightly challenging their understanding of gender. There are still men and women. Some people just want to switch.
As more and more people publicly identify as non-binary, a new grasp has begun. Cis straight people are trying to understand non-binary as right in between man and woman. This is still, of course, an over-simplification. Non-binary is not a code word for androgynous white AFAB people who use they/them pronouns. That describes some non-binary people, but it’s an incredibly limited description of a spectrum that ranges across so many. Non-binary people use a variety of pronouns including she/her and he/him. Non-binary people can still identify as men and/or women. Non-binary people can be in between genders or outside gender altogether. Non-binary people can look all sorts of ways. I, personally, identify as a non-binary trans woman and use she/her pronouns. But, like all people, knowing my pronouns is just the first step in understanding me and my gender. If you struggle with someone’s pronouns, take a minute and reflect. Are you actually seeing that person for who they are or are you just memorizing?
It’s exciting to me that Jonathan Van Ness is using the words non-binary and genderqueer and gender nonconforming. It’s exciting to me that he’s still using he/him pronouns. It’s exciting to me that he’s speaking publicly in a way that’s complicated and messy with a fluidity in language to match his fluidity in identity. It’s exciting to me because cis straight people love Queer Eye.
Across both iterations, Queer Eye has existed for a cis straight audience. While the original mostly used queers for laughs and superficial pointers, the reboot has used queers for laughs and superficial pointers and queer education. Either way it’s still for straight people. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Cishet palatable queer content isn’t going to start a revolution, but it can increase tolerance. It can start discussions and make the discussions we’ve already started a bit easier. It’s easy to be dogmatic in theory, but the reality is most queer and trans people in 2019 continue to have friendships, familial relationships, and even romantic partnerships with straight and cis people who fall short of total acceptance.
Queer Eye is a lot of cis straight people’s main source of education, which is why it can feel so tense when certain identities are relegated to one very special episode. It’s a lot of pressure on one individual’s experience to represent all of transness in a heavily edited 50-minute episode. But Jonathan Van Ness is already a star. He’s not just in every episode of the show, he is the show. And his continued presence and his candor about his identity will allow nuanced discussion (and hopefully nuanced understanding) around gender that most cis straight people have previously scoffed at.
Jonathan Van Ness is one person. But the possibility that the Queer Eye audience will see him as just that, a person, is exciting to me as someone whose gender falls outside the binary.
Maybe it’s a coincidence but a few hours after he posted the interview on Instagram my sister correctly used they/them pronouns for the first time. It wasn’t a perfect discussion but I felt a desire to learn that I’d never sensed before. We shouldn’t need Queer Eye to be treated with respect. We shouldn’t need a funny and fabulous essie spokesperson for cis people to truly see us. But if that’s what it takes, and Van Ness gets to publicly be himself in the process, I’d say that’s worth a small celebration.