You Need Help: Coming Out as Non-Binary in High School

Q:

Firstly, I’m still a student and I go to a relatively progressive school. Recently, I came to the realization that I’m non-binary and I want to come out as such and feel like it won’t be a problem at my school apart from not having gender-neutral toilets which sucks because I don’t know what to do with that. My bigger problem is that so far I have been involved in competitive sports at school both in teams and running, but I don’t know what to do when they eventually ask me which category to compete in because I don’t feel like I belong in either male or female sports. There has been a trans boy at my school who was allowed to play in teams for boys but I don’t know what I will do as a non-binary person.

The second part of my question is that I am only attracted to girls (not boys, not other nb people) but I don’t know how to identify my sexuality. Is it based on my sex characteristics if I am gay or straight? I need help and any advice is really appreciated especially if any other nb people reading this can leave advice in the comments on my above questions as I don’t know any nb people. Thanks!

Non-binary teenager

A:

Hi non-binary teenager!

We love you too! Congrats on starting to figure your gender stuff out. It can sometimes be a long, confusing road. Make sure you’re compassionate with yourself and give yourself plenty of time to think about who you are and what you want to do.

With that in mind: coming out is NOT something anyone ever has to do! You said that you go to a progressive school, but your safety and security is super important. If coming out would make your life more difficult due to things like bathrooms and sports teams, it’s totally OK to not “come out” officially, or to school administrators, or to anyone other than folks you trust and who have your best interests in mind.

It’s common to want to tell everyone about your newfound realization about your identity, so that you can feel like you’re living authentically and with integrity. But you get to do whatever feels best to you! Coming out can be a wonderful, important step in your life, but it is not in any way mandatory now or ever. You didn’t say how old or close to graduation you are, but if you feel like it will be easier to get through school in a safe and comfortable way by not dealing with the struggle that will accompany coming out, that’s your right and it’s a totally valid choice!

That being said: if you do choose to come out “officially,” much of what will happen depends on how your school/school district reacts. As a former high school teacher, I know how much bureaucracy there is and how deeply embedded the gender binary is in schools.

If you’re comfortable with competing on the same teams and using the same bathrooms you already are, and the school’s OK with it (they should be), then that seems like the safest, simplest option. You’ll have to deal with being misgendered, but as a non-binary person in a binary culture, you’re probably going to have to deal with that throughout your school experience and, honestly, for many years beyond school.

If you feel like you’d be more comfortable on the “other” team, there’s probably going to be a LOT of pushback from students, parents, and the school administration, especially because competing in sports can include using locker rooms and such. If you want to switch teams, your best bet is to talk to a trusted teacher or coach and explore what your options are. Make sure you check in with your parents too before making any big moves — they’ll definitely have to get involved if it becomes a big deal with the school or district.

If you don’t feel comfortable using the same bathrooms you’re already using, or if your gender presentation changes to the degree that this starts to raise some eyebrows, you can ask a trusted teacher or school admin about whether there are any gender-neutral restrooms on campus. Usually the teachers’ restrooms are “unisex” or single-stall, and you might have a teacher or admin who will be cool with you using that one (I’ve done this before when I had non-binary students).

I’m personally of the opinion that the trouble it takes to shift the culture in a school isn’t worth the emotional cost, but you have to weigh that against the cost of keeping your identity a “secret” and/or living “inauthentically,” as it were. Ultimately, the choice is up to you — if you have the energy, resources, and support to fight an uphill battle against a deeply entrenched system, go for it! If not, no shade. You have to do what’s right for you. Your education and safety are paramount here.

Part 2: Identifying your sexuality with the perfect right word/label can be somewhat overrated! Sexualities shift and change constantly and you do NOT have to figure out how you identify sexually right now if you’re still working it out. As progressive as our language has gotten in respects to queer/trans/non-binary identities, our words aren’t perfect. In my opinion, human sexuality is too varied and idiosyncratic for any term to accurately cover most people’s experiences.

With all that said: “sexual orientation” is generally a lot more about gender than people’s “sex characteristics.” Most people tend to know when they first look at or chat with someone whether they’re sexually attracted to them, way before they know the other person’s gender identity or “sex characteristics” anyway!

We usually say “lesbian” when a woman is attracted to or dates only women, and “pansexual” when someone of any gender is into people of any gender, for example, which means the terms tend to be about the gender identities of the person compared to the people they’re into.

A lot of people only want to date or have sex with people of a certain gender identity, which is OK if that’s what you want to do! Other people only want to date or have sex with people who have a particular set of genitals, which can be OK, but that’s very different than gender, and is tricky because genitals come in all kinds of different configurations and aren’t directly linked to someone’s gender or presentation or identity. And some people are attracted to certain types of people but only date a subset of them, either for political or safety/comfort reasons — “sexual” orientation can be different from “relationship” or “romantic” orientation! Basically: humans are suuuuper complex! Especially when it comes to sex and love.

And unfortunately, the ways we talk about sexuality don’t really take into account all of this complexity and are still pretty much based on binary gender identity. “Gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “straight” are terms that used to indicate “sex characteristics,” and have shifted in recent years to instead indicate gender, but only for folks who identify as “men” or “women,” really. We don’t have commonly-accepted words that fully encapsulate the non-binary experience. “Queer,” however, does a decent job of being a sort of umbrella term for folks who aren’t standard binary straight/gay, but it isn’t perfect (as no words really are).

To be honest, I think we put a bit too much emphasis on this in Western queer and trans culture. I believe that our over-emphasis on having the “correct” labels, and policing the labels’ boundaries, can sow division instead of build community. Identifying with a certain gender or sexuality should, in my opinion, be about finding affinity with folks who have similar experiences and/or have been through similar forms of marginalization that we have, so that we can connect over shared experiences and build power to fight against that marginalization.

So if you find — or create — a label/community that works for you, amazing! It can be so important, especially when you’re young — and especially since you mentioned that you don’t know any other non-binary folks — to find resources and community with other people who get what you’re going through and can commiserate and offer advice, resources, and community. I would just say, don’t be too worried if you don’t find one that “fits” right away! You’re part of the Autostraddle family no matter how you end up identifying.

Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA. Follow her art on Instagram @abeni.jones or check out her website at abenijones.net. Got a music recommendation, a positive trans woman story/news item, or wanna book me for something? e-mail me by clicking here!

Abeni has written 28 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. I have nothing profound to add to this but I’d like to second this sentiment
    “You’re part of the Autostraddle family no matter how you end up identifying.”
    Welcome to the family.

  2. Great, thoughtful advice! I had never as a cis person considered how tied sexuality terms are to gender identity. I hope the question asker finds whatever words, friends, and community they need to feel loved and recognized <3

  3. Yay for baby enbies!!!

    This is all such great advice, especially about the choice of whether to be out (and what level of out) in a strict binary institution like a school. It took me a while to figure out that none of my friends were gonna call me a fake for being agender and still pretending to be binary for the sake of my professors.

  4. Hey NB friend! First off, big big cheers for you figuring some things out, what a journey this is! From someone who is bio-female and identifies as NB, plays sports, and is only attracted to women, hi hello I see you!

    Since you’re in high school, the binary is usually unfortunately harder to navigate and harder to create change within (in sports especially!). My partner is a teacher and runs the GSA at her high school, and she advocates for her students on these topics. Do you have a teacher you trust or a GSA at your school? I’m not sure whereabouts you are (we are in Canada), but finding LBGTQ laws etc. for your city/province/state/country can be helpful. Also, public school vs private school can be a factor, as the guidelines for GSAs, one-stall bathrooms, etc. may be different. But knowing what your rights are, and then determining if the emotional and mental “cost” of taking steps forward are things you can manage, is a great first step. I recommend not going this alone, as it sucks feeling alone without someone to help; I hope you have a friend or a parent or a teacher who you trust and is safe to talk to and supports you. It’s also helpful to have someone who is able to speak when you feel you can’t, or the emotional/mental cost is too high at the moment. If your school has a GSA, and you haven’t gone to it, and you feel safe attending, that might be a good place to connect with those who in some way share what you’re going through.

    I was female-identifying when I started playing my sport (as an adult), and it’s a women’s sport- that being said, our community and organization has shifted to roll with the times and has changed gender policies to something along the lines of “if this version of the sport is the one that you most closely identify with, have at er”, and specifically says that it’s for female and “gender expansive participants”. BUT that’s not to say it hasn’t been difficult- my team knew me as her/she and it’s been hard for them to switch their words. Also, a lot of the terms we use to communicate are so ingrained that the switch is hard- and I don’t take that personally even though it makes me feel weird sometimes I know they’re not doing it to be mean, and in regular conversation if they slip up I do correct them and they’re usually pretty mortified they’ve misgendered me. I guess what I’m saying is, sports after high school exist, and they exist for NB people and there are sports communities for us folk; determining which “binary” aspect of the sport you feel most comfortable with is the key if you’re stuck choosing (i.e. gendered hockey teams, gendered volleyball teams, etc., though co-ed adult sports teams DO exist, don’t worry!). For me, I would never ever want to play my sport with the men’s league, it weirds me out as I don’t want to have physical contact with men. Depending on the sports you love, the physical aspect may not be a factor, and instead might be more about the team camaraderie and atmosphere, which are completely valid things to consider. Take some time to figure out what aspects of each call to you, being stuck choosing between the binaries in sport can be hard, but knowing what you want and expect of your team or your coach or your level of play can be helpful in making the choice if you have to.

    Sorry my post was so long! I hope some of my rambling was helpful <3

    • Well put! As another AFAB NB college athlete who is attracted to women, I have had similar experiences, but my school is not quite as “current” when it comes to trans people. They aren’t hostile or anything, but they really just don’t know what to do when someone who plays sports identifies as nb or trans, so for me I am not out to my coach, teammates, or school admin as nb (though they know I’m gay). I might end up telling my teammates but tbh I think only about 1/2 would get it and my coach certainly would not. That being said, that’s just my experience and there are plenty of schools that are much more accommodating out there (I didn’t realize I was NB till my 2nd year of college).

      OP, as far as terms to define your sexuality, it’s really up to what feels good and fits for you! Everyone is different and there’s not “right” or “wrong” way to sexually identify. I am nb and I typically use “lesbian”, “gay”, or “queer” to describe myself. Try out some of them and see what you prefer! Best of luck to you, and know that you always have the support of this community when you need it! <3

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