Last July, V Rogers decided to take the plunge.
V, who shares an apartment with three friends in Overland Park, was back home in the Northland to visit family. V’s dad was in the kitchen pounding out pork tenderloins with a cast iron skillet to make schnitzel — V’s favorite.
It was V’s 19th birthday, and parents have to be nice to you on your birthday, V thought. What could go wrong?
“So, Mom,” V said. “I’m genderfluid.”
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V’s mom asked calmly, “Well, what does that mean?”
V explained it meant being not a boy or a girl, sometimes dressing and feeling more like one than the other and sometimes not like either.
“Well that’s kind of weird,” V’s mom replied.
V’s dad came back in the room, everybody sat down to eat, and somewhere between the schnitzel and the cake, it all came apart. V doesn’t remember exactly how, but Alex, 14 at the time, started repeating, “You’re my sister! You’re my sister! My sister!”
Raking fingers through a short, newly blond (previously red), Elvis-type do, V exhales and says, “Then my mom and I were yelling at each other, and I stormed out.”
Things have improved a bit since, although Mom and Dad, who are Mormon, have not yet switched to V’s preferred name.
“I’m giving them a pass on that, after almost 20 years of calling me by a particular name, they’re trying to support me and trying to figure out how to balance that with their religious beliefs, and they are not quite sure what they are doing. It’s a ride,” V says.
Growing up, V loved pink and Barbies, and also blue and “Star Wars.” Boys and girls at school were accepting and the only isolation V felt was more based on being bookish and not having a lot of kids their age on the block to play with.
At Staley High School, V fell in with a pack of kids who all viewed themselves as regular suburban cisgender (the opposite of transgender, meaning you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth) teenagers. It turns out they had something in common. Today, they have all come out as transgender and/or gay.
“When we hit sophomore and junior year, everybody was like, ‘Maybe I’m bisexual, maybe I’m gay.’ We still loved and supported each other and just wanted to learn about it.”
At Staley as at other high schools, the Gay-Straight Alliance was an easy way for kids to explore identity without having to come out before they were ready. When V’s circle told their parents they had a GSA meeting after school and the parents asked, “Are you gay?,” the kids could answer, “No, we’re straight allies.”
Coming out is a long and painful process, V says, because nonbinary gender identity isn’t something bored young people cook up to be different. It’s a condition they were born with that has a medical diagnosis, gender dysphoria, and it is often the source of depression and anxiety.
Listening to people at GSA meetings and online trans groups, V felt relief knowing others experienced gender queerness. V likes the term genderqueer better than descriptors like demi-girl or demi-boy or androgyne because of the vagueness.
If pressed to choose a more specific descriptor, V goes with agender transmasculine: “I’d like to appear more masculine. I want to start hormone therapy. I bind my breasts when I go out and even when I am at home, because I am more comfortable looking more masculine.”
And yet, V didn’t feel like a trans guy. Being called “sir” in a restaurant or “he” or “him” feels wrong. It isn’t upsetting, it just doesn’t fit.
“I like the label queer because it’s not clear-cut. It’s a cute word. I like the way it sounds, the way it looks,” V says. V also identifies as queer sexually, meaning gender doesn’t factor into sexual attraction.
When it comes to relationships, V is open to any gender and any sexual orientation. “I’ve dated people who are guys, people who are girls, people who are neither and people who are both. So long as we get along and have that thing that makes people click, that’s all that matters.”
After coming out to the family, V came out at work. V works at the Disney Store during the day and Applebee’s at night. At both places, co-workers have been mostly supportive. V says younger people get the “my pronouns are they/them” right away and older people are usually puzzled but accepting after V explains it.
At Applebee’s one co-worker challenged V in front of customers at the bar, saying, “I’m not going to call you that.”
V, not confrontational by nature, recalls trembling while responding, “Yes, you are, or I’m not going to respond.” The co-worker gave in.
While V insists co-workers use “V” and “they/them,” customers get a pass. It would be too exhausting going through the spiel with every table of guests.
And it’s hard enough fielding “dumb questions” from friends and co-workers, without opening yourself up to that from every person you encounter each day, V says.
In case you are wondering, here are the top questions/comments V would like to put the kabosh on:
“You’re making this stuff up. Why can’t you just pick one (male or female)?”
V says there have always been genderqueer people just like there have always been gay people; there just wasn’t language to express that identity before.
As to the notion that being genderqueer is a “choice,” V says, “I don’t think anybody would look at societal expectations and the potential backlash from family, friends and employers and check ‘yes’ on that box.”
“What’s your real name?”
Nonbinary people who take on a gender neutral name call their previous name their dead name. Being asked to divulge it is viewed as disrespectful and nosy.
“Are those words real or made up?” (To people who use ze, xir, hir, etc.)
They are as real as any other words, V says. “They are all sounds we have made up to communicate what we are thinking.”
“Have you had the surgery yet?” or “Are you on hormones?”
You wouldn’t ask anyone else about their medical history, V says, so don’t ask trans or nonbinary people. It’s simply none of your business.
“How do you have sex?”
Just no, V says, because, again — you wouldn’t ask anyone else that question.
“So you must be really excited about this Caitlyn Jenner thing.”
While it’s affirming to see a trans person in the media, Jenner’s transformation is atypical, V says. “Everyday trans people don’t disappear for three months and come back as this beautiful woman or handsome man. It is a long and difficult and painful and expensive process to medically transition to what society thinks men and women should look like. It’s practically impossible for a lot of people to transform their appearance to the level a lot of cis (nontrangender) people seem to expect.”
“But you’re so pretty as a girl!”
V knows this one is meant as a compliment, but it rankles. “I’m attractive regardless of gender. Am I a girl? Am I a boy? I don’t know but everybody thinks I’m cute, which kind of makes everybody gay,” V says, laughing.
But more than abstaining from prying questions, V wishes straight people would model accepting behavior by adding their preferred pronouns whenever they introduce themselves, in any situation.
For example: “Hi, I’m Susie and my pronouns are she/her.” Straight people might think it’s odd at first, but it will signal to any trans people that you are a safe person for them to be around, V says.
It also normalizes nonbinary identities. “If you don’t say what your pronouns are and I do, it means you are normal and I’m weird.”