Coming out is a gamble every time. As a poet and English teacher of 5 years, I expected I would have all the synonyms and nuances I needed to come out as queer and non-binary. As a 1st generation Korean-American, the story was quite different. I didn’t know how to talk about queerness in a language where the only words for it were medical ones. I didn’t know how to come out as non-binary in the strict gendered rules of Korean. How do we translate the freedom we feel in one language to another?
I spent a long time reading different articles to share with my family as a way to come out. I wanted a place they could go to with their questions to relieve my anxiety that I’d clumsily or regretfully respond. I needed an article that my mother could understand with her limited English and that my older sister, who lives in Spain, might understand across cultures. I asked my younger 24 year old sister to read it for me before sending it to everyone, including all my in-laws. She was born in an era of more acceptance for LGBTQ+ folks and has ever been ready with encouragement.
Most of the articles I found referenced the high rates of suicide and depression in the transgender community. While this acknowledgement is critically important, I wanted to find a article that talked about the positive aspects of identifying as non-binary and the empowerment therein. I felt more strongly about this as I was providing a resource to people who might be wholly unfamiliar with the words and ideas I was sharing. An article by TIME magazine and Very Well Mind struck the tone I wanted. I wrote this email to them and then tried to not check for a response for at least a few hours. What began in the next weeks was the start to a process for everyone who loves me. While I struggled with what felt like a big ask, sending that email changed everything. I didn’t realize that a part of me, though I had come out everywhere else in my life, was still holding back and hiding.
People say that it’s hard to call you something different. I know it’s taken me time and practice at home or driving when someone changed pronouns or names. But language is a habit, and like all habits, they can be changed. What then, is a pace of change that feels loving to all sides? My mother has told me that she might never get my pronouns right, and I do think it makes sense to give her more time as we do not share the same linguistic home. And yet, something cringes and retracts every time I hear she/her.
I have found that giving her specific examples, such as calling me the parent of my dog instead of his mom, is helpful. I can see the headway it makes to talk about introducing me not as her daughter, but as her middle child, or “Hi, this is my Arhm.” Slowly, we arrive at a shared language. I can see her try, and that effort speaks volumes, makes me feel a very certain tenderness.
If language creates possibility, like tenderness or validation, there is much freedom at the mercy of our words. So much has shifted in the last few years with the public proliferation of words for identity. Words that help people claim their own place on the spectrums of gender and sexuality. Only with the doors that language opened could I find my place. Only then could I develop the self-awareness, then the courage, to name who I authentically am. That this is sometimes a lifetime journey is the cost of living in a sexist and transphobic culture. We know now the violences created by narrow and prescriptive roles. However, despite what bigotry obfuscates, the identities, deviations, and choices of style make a clear stance. I’m thinking specifically of how the New York Times announced they would now capitalize Black in all of their writing, or how it felt when Merriam-Webster included they as a singular pronoun.
Language can crack the clauthophia caused by erasure, can be the start of a bridge across. Claiming my gender identity has been a practice of speaking up, a practice I’ll need for the actions required beyond my words. What am I doing for those whose parents are less willing? How do our words and actions instigate and account for each other? How will the skills I practice coming out over and over again help me speak up against racism? Against anti-Blackness? These questions are the foundation for a lifetime of work and reflection and trying again. The more I can name and speak the truth out loud, the more I practice bending language towards justice, towards accountability, towards the wide expansiveness of a self. Language helps us carve our space, one insistence at a time, with posts and poems and protests to say yes, I too, deserve to be free.
Written by Arhm Choi Wild