Procrastination, introspection and shoes: from cis gay to non-binary queer

I procrastinate. I’m a procrastinator. I leave things until I have no choice but to do them, then regret not having done them earlier. I’ve been thinking about writing this article, for example, for several weeks, but it’s taken the intense boredom of an immobilising back injury to force me into actually doing it. I procrastinate.

I also did this before coming out as gay, nearly six years ago, at the age of 37. My procrastination at that point wasn’t entirely voluntary, of course, and it was a deep denial of myself that kept me from acknowledging my sexuality when I was 30 or 25 or 20. Nonetheless, despite the regret of not having found my way out of the closet sooner, there was a palpable sense of relief that I’d finally looked this hidden, forbidden part of myself in the eye and said its name. It felt better, undeniably, a lot better, but there was something that was still not completely right.

I suppose it’s a bit like shoes. Ok, fine, it’s fuck all like shoes, but I’ve started the comparison now, so bear with me. For the first 37 years of my life, my shoes sucked. They didn’t fit. They were tight, restrictive, ugly, I thought: they weren’t me. Walking around in shoes like this for such a long time is bound to fuck you up, and it seems easy after the fact to think I could have just taken them off, but that simply didn’t seem like an option at the time. Then I found some better shoes. Gay shoes. Most days, they were pretty comfortable. I wore them all the time, and they were much better suited to who I was. But every now and again, they pinched a bit. They pinched in a way I noticed but tried to ignore. It was easy to ignore it at first, but over time, the pinching became more obvious, more insistent. So I began looking at the non-binary shoes, knowing on some instinctive level that they were the shoes for me, but resisting putting them on.

I resisted for all sorts of reasons. To begin with, I thought I’d left it too late. Looking back, I see how stupid that sounds, but my first conscious thought surrounding my gender identity (that wasn’t some nebulous, half-arsed shoe metaphor) was, “If I’d got to dealing with all this stuff in my late teens or early twenties, I would definitely be non-binary.” I realise now that what I was saying was, “I am non-binary, but I’m choosing to ignore that fact for some reason because I’m in my forties.” Like I said, it seems stupid now, but at the time it made perfect sense. Being comfortable with your gender identity was for the young people.

A large part of this feeling, I think, stemmed from concerns about the impact such a revelation would have on my family, my wife in particular. In 2003, she married what she thought was a straight man, then, in 2016, I was all like, “Surprise! I’m gay now!” Those of you who have been following/reading my stuff for a while will know that she was immediately supportive when I came out (the first time), but I was still concerned about how she’d feel about me going from ‘straight man’ to ‘gay man’ to ‘not a man’ in just a few short years. About the impact this would have on her sense of self, her identity. 

I needn’t have worried, of course. She accepted this new part of me without hesitation – it made perfect sense to her, I think. She switched as seamlessly as could be expected to they/them pronouns and carried on supporting me as she always has. 

The other, big reason I was so hesitant to go public with my gender was because (and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this) the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is quite the transphobic shithole. I already got quite a lot of online hate for being a ‘cis gay’ who campaigned for trans rights, but I knew that would ramp up massively if I was open about my gender identity as well.

So I kept quiet about it, for ages. I feel like I owe the rest of my trans and NB friends an apology for this in many ways, because, in retrospect, it feels like an act of cowardice. I have a not-insignificant platform available to me, and the visibility of me being out had the potential to help someone else who maybe doesn’t have the same platform, and also to strengthen my advocacy for the wider community. I failed to take that opportunity for too long, and I’m sorry for that.

The thing that finally gave me the kick up the arse I needed, some of you may recall, was the infinitely cunty ‘Gender Critical Coming Out Day’ in December of last year, where cock-obsessed transphobic bigots made a mockery of the coming out process to say, “Hey, everyone, I’m a hateful fucking twat.”

Yeah, we fucking knew, Graham.

This got me to thinking that I’d be fucked if I was going to hide such an important part of who I am for fear of backlash from people whose entire lives revolve around shitting on an abused minority based solely on some irrational, genital-based terror they’ve invented in their own minds.

So I just did it, a bit spur of the moment, I suppose, but it felt like the right thing to do. My friends, family and most of my Twitter followers were supportive, because they (you) are largely fucking brilliant. I have lost well over a thousand followers since that day, which is a little disappointing, but I suppose I don’t really know the reasons for that. I mean, they might not have fucked off because I added ‘non-binary’ and ‘they/them’ to my profile and significantly scaled up my ranting about trans issues. They might have just decided I’m an arsehole, a viewpoint that is not without merit. I’ve always been an arsehole though, so the timing seems a little coincidental. Either way, it is was it is, and if they have left because of my gender ramblings, I’d rather not have them around.

Of course, the online hate did, as expected, ramp up significantly after adding ‘pRoNoUnS’ to my Twitter handle, hate which has ranged from ‘mildly amusing’ through ‘fuck, that’s grim’ right up to ‘this person is a danger to all trans people and shouldn’t be allowed out in public’. I won’t repeat any of the more violent stuff, but I will say it’s interesting how, when I presented as a cis gay, I would have countless trolls telling me I was ‘not a real man’, and then, mere seconds after I began to publicly agree that assessment, they broke their necks pivoting to, “No wait, you’re a man! A big, manly, masculine, penis-having man! Look at you! The manliest man who ever manned! MAN!” I’m practically Brian Blessed now, if you listen to half the cunts who slide into my DMs. Almost as though they don’t believe most of the shit they say about gender, and just use it as a stick with which to beat those don’t conform, because they hate anything they don’t understand.

Before I go any further, I would just like to pause a moment and acknowledge my immense privilege. I’m white, AMAB, able-bodied and without significant dysphoria. There is some dysphoria, and I don’t really feel ready to discuss it here, but suffice to say it’s likely nowhere near the level experienced by lots of binary trans people. I have a strong support network, and a reasonably secure financial situation. I know others have things much worse than I do, and I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m seeking to minimise or overlook that with what’s to follow.

Because what’s to follow is this: it’s been a fucking hard few months. Stating publicly that I’m non-binary was undoubtedly helpful on some level, but saying that out loud ought to have meant I could really start to explore what ‘non-binary’ means to me (for those of you who are unaware, ‘non-binary’ is an umbrella term that covers a range of gender identities). The reality is, it’s been quite difficult to do that with the constant fucking noise.

I found the unrelenting transphobia of the UK media landscape tiring when I was only ‘out’ to myself, but it’s been fucking exhausting since I stated it publicly. Every day there’s some new horror to digest, some new attack on our rights, our identities, our existence. Some hateful shitbag making more coin at our expense, some manipulative turd on a new ‘CANCELLED’ tour. 

Just this week alone we’ve had the entire media establishment shrieking incessantly about PENISES! every time an opposition MP has ventured within ten feet of a microphone, we’ve had a Tory MP coming out as trans along with all the disingenuous, opportunistic posturing from his (he’s still using he/him pronouns for now) parliamentary colleagues, and we’ve had the Prime Minister’s announcement that the proposed ban on LGBTQ conversion ‘therapy’ will now specifically exclude trans people. That’s just a few examples from one week, a week like every other week, expect for it culminating in the government deciding that trans people are fair game for state-sanctioned torture.

How the fuck am I (or anyone who sits under the wider trans umbrella) supposed to find the headspace for peaceful introspection about my own identity with this constant, incessant barrage of vitriolic bollocks, this daily diet of howling abuse?

And there are questions to answer, for me, at least. There’s stuff I still need to make sense of in terms of where I sit under the umbrella, but I’m trying to be more patient with myself about that. I think ‘neither man nor woman’ is sufficient for now, and it’s actually less important for me to put a comprehensive description of my own gender together than it is to be mindful of not stepping on the toes of those who have occupied this space for longer than I have.

When I first came out, for example, I was really worried about whether I could still identify as gay. Did I have to give up this label that had served as something of an anchor after 30+ years of oppressive denial? I was quite attached to it, but being ‘gay’ means you’re a man who is attracted to other men, so if I’m not a man, how can I be gay? And if I still identify as such, does this look like I’m being dishonest about my gender? Like I’m actually just a cis gay who is cosplaying as non-binary for some self-serving reason? It seems crazy writing that down, but these are the ridiculous knots we tie ourselves into as a result of external judgement.

As it happens, I’ve felt progressively less attachment to this label in the weeks since I came out, and I’m perfectly happy with ‘queer’ now. I don’t specifically reject ‘gay’ (though maybe I will in time, I dunno) or find it offensive if someone else applies it to me as shorthand for ‘an AMAB non-binary person who is attracted to cis men, trans men and masc non-binary people’, but I don’t feel like I need it in the same way, and wouldn’t necessarily apply it to myself.

This in itself has provided more red meat for the trolls over the past few weeks, who seem to think it’s an absolutely brilliant gotcha. “Lol, first you’re gay, then you’re non-binary! Make your mind up, Max!” they will chant, in fluent dickhead, as though sexuality and gender identity are one and the same, and as though coming out as NB presents some kind of contradiction to my earlier coming out. I shouldn’t need to point this out (or maybe I do), but who I’m attracted to hasn’t changed, just the words I use to describe that.

Another thing I struggled with in the early stages was the idea of identifying as trans. Not because I wouldn’t be proud to wear that label, but because I was terrified of taking up space that should rightly be reserved for binary trans people, whose struggles often far exceed my own. I worried that I would be seen to be co-opting their oppression, claiming victimhood that didn’t belong to me. Again though, over time, this has largely resolved itself. I do identify as trans in the sense that I’m not cisgender (i.e. I do not identify with the gender I was assigned at birth), whilst recognising (and publicly stating) that, as far as trans people go, I’ve got it better than most.

Maybe in more time, I will also resolve my exact position under the non-binary umbrella, but if that never happens, I think I’m probably ok with that. In some ways, after seeking the comfort of a particular box for so long, it feels good not to have to define this too narrowly. It would be nice to be able to choose not to define it, though, rather than having that forced upon me by the inability to think clearly for two fucking minutes because of…[plaintive gesturing at TERF Island].

So it’s a pretty weird situation in which I now find myself, and one any LGBTQ+ person who has resolved their identity (to whatever degree) will understand completely. I know who I am, I’ve accepted myself as I am, I have no desire to change who I am, and yet, I can’t be completely comfortable in who I am because of how cis-het society reacts to who I am. How they treat people who don’t fit obediently into the neat little boxes they have assigned to them. I’m Max. I’m queer, I’m trans and I’m non-binary. I’m wearing the right shoes, but I’m gonna need you to stop stamping on my fucking feet.

Pride Month 2021: Step the fuck up or fuck the fuck off

We did it, queers! We solved homophobia! Transphobia no longer exists and biphobia is a thing of the past! Praise be to Billy Porter that we can now put the long fight for LGBTQ equality behind us and focus on more important things. Like brunch. And interior design.

Yes, this Pride Month has seen almost unanimous appropriation of the rainbow flag by governments, charities, public bodies and private businesses alike, which must mean they all unequivocally support our community and every individual of which it is comprised. Except when doing the absolute bare fucking minimum is a bit difficult for them, of course, in which case they promptly release a statement saying, “Fuck this, homos, you’re on your own.”

I wrote last year about how challenging Pride Month had been for LGBTQ people, how many of us were isolated from our support networks, cut off from our friends and those we might think of more as family than the people with whom we share our DNA, excluded from the only spaces in which we can really be our whole selves. That remains true this year for those of us who have resisted the urge to throw caution to the wind as a more transmissible and at least partially vaccine-resistant Covid-19 variant spreads through the population, but even with the relaxation of the rules some of us have enjoyed, this year’s Pride Month seems even more bleak and depressing than the last.

At the time of writing, we still have nearly a week of June left, and we’ve already seen a seemingly interminable parade of performative allyship that folds in the face of even mild resistance from those who would do us harm. Company after charity after governing body after politician, lining up to demonstrate that they care about us deeply, but only when it’s easy or convenient for them to do so.

It goes without saying that corporate rainbow-washing during Pride Month is nothing new – it’s the same every year – but it feels like there’s been a fairly significant shift this year. Like we’re slipping backwards. Like the examples of organisations using us to tick a diversity box then shitting on us from an orbital height seconds later have been so relentless and egregious that it’s hard to believe they’ve all been crammed into the same month.

Earlier in the month, the official Twitter account of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme tweeted a supportive message to LGBTQ youth, in which they posted links to some charities where they could seek help and advice if they needed it. Charities including Stonewall and Mermaids, for example. Needless to say, this prompted a fierce backlash from the fundamentally evil but well-coordinated transphobes of social media, whereupon @DofE decided to quietly delete their tweet, thereby clearly articulating how much they really value the young queer people on their scheme.

A few days later, after tweeting a message about how much they respect and cherish their LGBTQ students, it emerged that academics employed by the Open University had set up something called the ‘OU Gender Critical Research Network’. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the terminology, ‘gender critical’ is a term transphobic bigots have ascribed to themselves to lend their hateful bullshit a veneer of respectability. And with some success, it has to be said. Whether or not the OU have officially sanctioned this network is unclear, but they have not, to the best of my knowledge, taken any steps to distance themselves from it.

The Royal Academy, their official Twitter account replete with rainbowy loveliness, announced a couple of weeks ago that they would not be restocking the work of a particular artist in their gift shop following concerns about transphobic content on her social media pages. Cue the howls of indignation from those who spend their entire lives trying to strip rights, dignity and appropriate healthcare options away from trans people, followed by the Royal Academy folding like a fucking deckchair and issuing an apology that they had compromised the bigots’ right to free speech.

UEFA, after insisting from their Pride-pigmented Twitter account that football is ‘everyone’s game’, launched an investigation into German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for wearing a rainbow armband during one of their Euro 2020 group games. They eventually backed down on this after a fairly significant public outcry, accepting that the armband was a symbol of diversity, and therefore not political.

Which made it all the more enraging when they refused a request from the Mayor of Munich for the Allianz Stadium to be lit up in rainbow colours for Germany’s match against Hungary. Their reasoning, somewhat fucking perplexingly, was that such a gesture would indeed be political because Hungary’s government is so proudly and vocally homophobic.

So we’re left with the situation whereby UEFA are expecting us to accept that a symbol of support for human rights is not political, but where that same symbol might upset those who seek to deny us those rights, it becomes political and is therefore impermissible. This is, of course, an entirely coherent and legitimate position, much like, for example, “Yes, we obviously agree murder is wrong, but please keep those opinions to yourself in the presence of my friend, the murderer.”

I’ve heard lots of people saying over the past few days that human rights are never political, but I’m not sure I agree. I tend to think such issues are inherently political, they’re just not remotely fucking complicated. There’s a right side and a wrong side, and it ought to be very simple for anyone with a shred of basic decency to decide which is which.

Everything we do – or, equally importantly, do not do – where equality is concerned is a political act. Choosing, for example, to allow a country with an authoritarian, homophobic, transphobic government to host games in your football tournament is a political act. Refusing to allow another country to respond by saying, “We support the LGBTQ community even if you don’t,” is a political act. So-called neutrality on matters of human rights is never that – it’s simply a means of enabling those who would oppress others to carry out that oppression. Silence is complicity, inaction is tacit support.

This applies across the board, whether you’re the governing body of European football bowing to pressure from a homophobic government, a charity claiming to defend a persecuted minority then backing down because it’s too difficult for you to stand up to ‘gender critical’ trolls, or an individual deciding to stay out of the ‘transgender debate’ (ugh) because it’s ‘too complicated’ or ‘too controversial’.

We face this shit every day of our lives. For some of us, it is our lives. We don’t get to opt out.

I have every possible Twitter filter dialled up to 11, but I still receive daily homophobic abuse. Vile comments equating me to a paedophile, doubting my suitability to parent my own child, wishing me dead. And that’s just the stuff that makes it through the ‘quality filter’. And the thing is, I’m one of the lucky ones. For all the toxicity I deal with every day, it’s but a fraction of that experienced by the average trans person. By choosing to ‘stay out of it’, you are making a conscious decision to allow that abuse to continue, and to continue with your silent blessing. If that’s not a political act, nothing is.

The days of performative allyship have to come to an end. If a rainbow flag and a ‘Happy Pride’ is the best you can manage, we don’t need you. It is utterly fucking exhausting to have to sit here every June and watch organisations and individuals cosplaying support for our rights without lifting a single finger to advance them in any meaningful way. And it’s as infuriating as it is exhausting to see the creeping normalisation of attacks on our community, sheathed in the language of ‘free speech’ and ‘legitimate concerns’, while those who profess to have our backs passively allow (or actively encourage) it to happen.

It falls to all of us to do better. This is especially true for those who seek to profit from the use our symbols – whether financially, professionally or politically – but there’s also plenty we can do as individuals to ensure our allyship is more than just lip service.

Educate yourselves. ‘It’s complicated’ is not an excuse. Follow trans, non-binary and other queer accounts on social media. Listen – really fucking listen – to what those accounts are saying about their lives, their rights and the abuse they face just for existing. Do a fucking Google. Donate to LGBTQ charities, and call out those who profess to support us but fail to do so when the going gets tough. Write to your MP to express your support for GRA reform and a conversion therapy ban. Don’t buy, subscribe to, or visit the websites of newspapers that promote anti-LGBTQ content (this includes the fucking Guardian). Resolve to never, ever vote Conservative (though I accept that certain other parties aren’t much better in this regard). Refuse to back down in the face of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic hate. Don’t raise the profile of hateful people by arguing with them online. Block the bigots and post something positive on your own account in response. Speak out in your homes, workplaces and friendship groups. Make it clear that you are someone who will always strive to promote the rights of LGBTQ people, and that you will not tolerate those who wish us ill. Lose friends, if you have to. Saying, “Julie is a really nice person who helps me with the kids, she just doesn’t want trans women in ladies’ toilets,” doesn’t cut it. Pick a fucking side. Pick a side and fight for what’s right, even when it’s difficult, because that’s what it means to be an ally. 

If it’s easy, you’re fucking doing it wrong.