I recently attended a writer’s conference targeted to dads. I spoke on a panel about gender, sexuality, and gender expression, and my goal was to give parents the tools and confidence to have meaningful conversations around these topics. My hope was that I could feel confident to be my nonbinary, queer self in a crowd of mostly straight, cisgender men.
I knew my message, and those of the other panelists, was important. There seems to be a shift happening in the desire to understand LGBTQ topics; parents want to raise kids who know they are loved unconditionally. But would these men like me unconditionally? Or at least respect me? Would my presentation, my appearance, stand in the way of them hearing my message?
I worried that my version of masculinity wouldn’t be masculine enough for me to fit in. Or perhaps it would be too much based on what someone with breasts should express. I use they/them pronouns. Would these men willingly and intentionally use these words when referring to me? Or would they only see feminine characteristics and misgender me?
Before leaving my hotel room for the day, I let all of these fears creep in. I told myself I was not enough. I shouldn’t bother. I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t have the right look, the right body to be taken seriously enough to be heard. I cried. I let a friend untangle all of my doubts. I let her help me make a plan to feel better: Gym. Shower. Reach out to another friend. Lead with confidence and my courageous heart. I took a deep breath and then her advice. I left the room and pretended I could make an impact.
When I got to the hotel lobby where the conference was taking place, I sat on a couch and took in the scene. I noticed the layout, the people, and the energy. I instinctively do this. I am always very aware of my surroundings and always have an escape plan in the event of an emergency. As I was watching other conference goers mill about the lobby, I relaxed a bit. I recognized some folks I follow online. I saw the joy and camaraderie old friends shared upon seeing each other again.
And then I saw someone who made me a bit uncomfortable.
He had old, faded tattoos on his exposed arms that were not covered by the sleeveless t-shirt he wore. His leather vest was donned with patches and chains and his goatee and boots solidified his tough guy look—a look that usually accompanies the hate mail, slurs, and death threats I get as a public LGBTQ advocate.
Here we go, I thought.
I assumed he was closed-minded. I figured he wouldn’t like me. I told myself I should stay aware of him. My own internal chatter made me afraid of this man, yet he had not given me a reason to feel this way.
For the next 24 hours, I kept an eye on him. I was trying to figure out my safety level with him. I was waiting for him to prove to me he was a bigoted asshole. Then he sat across the aisle from me during a panel discussion about gender equality. My curiosity spiked. He didn’t seem the type to listen to someone tell him he needed to check his ego and take stock of his toxic masculinity.
When I stood up during the discussion to challenge the notion that gender is binary and to remind the room that equality between the genders can’t be discussed without including nonbinary folks like me, I wondered what he thought.
I got my answer the next day.
I was on my way to the bathroom and he was on his way out. It was just the two of us in a small hallway off of the main ballroom where the bulk of the conference was happening. He approached me, and I tensed.
“I just wanted to thank you for speaking up in that panel yesterday. Everyone should feel included,” he said.
The fuck? He continued to talk to me about how proud he was to be a stay-at-home-dad and to be raising kids who don’t follow gender stereotypes. He takes care of the kids and the house so his wife can carry out her duties as a surgeon. He is a feminist and an ally. Oh, and he had a pink hair bow made out of Legos clipped to the brim of his hat.
My brain was processing so many things. The guy was not at all what I expected based on his appearance, and in that moment it hit me: What I felt about him is what many people often feel about me. Afraid. Uncertain. Jaded.
I felt like a hypocrite for not being more open-minded. I ask this of others; shouldn’t I follow my own advice?
I interrupted him. “Can I just stop you for a second?” I hesitated, then added, “I have been afraid of you for two days.”
He seemed to understand because he nodded and told me he knows the narrative that often goes along with his look. He didn’t want to make me feel uncomfortable, but he wasn’t going to change who he was or how he expressed himself. He was going to keep showing people that the stereotype around bikers and tough-looking guys isn’t always true. We talked for a long time. We were more alike than we were different. At our core was a fear of not being seen. On the surface was nervous authenticity.
My own serum was put on a spoon for me, and it tasted like the dust of crumbling metaphoric walls. In order to really make an impact in this world, I need to lead with confidence and vulnerability. There will always be fear and doubt. There will be biases as well, and I need to keep them in check. Sometimes the message is right there on the surface, making us feel nervous and unsure, begging us to pay attention and to feel an impact.