“I often compare it to a teacher getting a student’s name wrong. Of course they would correct themselves immediately, it would seem ridiculous to simply pretend that it hadn’t happened. And yet, that’s exactly what happens with pronouns.” Kaeden, a Canadian teen, inadvertently becomes an advocate after coming out to to their high school.
Coming Out At School as NonBinary
When I was in grade 10, two people in my school knew that I was nonbinary; everyone else thought that I was a cisgender girl. I didn’t intend to tell them otherwise, at least not for a long time, but I ended up coming out to my entire grade over the course of that year.
I was lucky enough to be a member of a relatively accepting and tightly-knit school club that I had been involved with since the start of grade 9. I spent almost every lunch break with them and rarely hung out much with anyone else. I wasn’t sure how they would react if I were to tell them though, and I anticipated it would require a fair amount of explaining, so I wasn’t particularly looking forward to bringing it up. I came out to them mostly by accident when my friends proofread a project I had done discussing nonbinary gender identities. They were slightly confused and asked lots of questions, but in the end I ended up getting everyone to refer to me with “they” pronouns and, beyond some initial difficulties, no one expressed any issues.
I was still going by birth name however, and it was becoming increasingly uncomfortable for me. I had picked out the name Kaeden, which I liked, but I wasn’t 100% sure it would be my final choice, and I hadn’t felt ready to ask people to use it yet. In fact, only one person knew that I was even considering it. One day, while I was complaining to her about how much I disliked my birth name, she asked if I would prefer she use Kaeden when referring to me. I was a bit unsure, but shrugged and agreed.
The next morning when I arrived at school I was greeted by three people, all calling me Kaeden. The rest of our group found out when the same friend used it on a schedule that she was writing for the club, and from that day on I was Kaeden. Emboldened by how smoothly coming out within the club had gone, I was starting to feel more and more comfortable and more confident.
For a few months I was Kaeden and “they” with our club, but I still had not come out to anyone else in my classes or to my teachers. Class was starting to become increasingly uncomfortable as I was referred to by my old name and pronouns. At some point I had made the decision that I would wait until the start of the grade 11 to come out, since it seemed like an easier transition to make, but a conversation with my girlfriend at the time changed my mind. Eventually she pointed out that, although I would be starting different classes in the fall, I attended a relatively small program and most of the students would be the same ones I had been with the last two years. It didn’t seem to make much difference whether I told them all now or waited a few months. As well, coming out now would mean that any new people I did meet in the fall would simply meet me as Kaeden, without the confusion of people who were still trying to get used to the changes. These all seemed like pretty reasonable points, and I was relieved by the idea of being able to come out, and be referred to correctly, sooner.
In the end I decided to use our week-long March break as an opportunity for the news to get out. I visited my guidance counselor (who was also the head of our Rainbow Alliance) the Monday before the break to add my preferred name to the school database and send an email to all of my teachers explaining that I was changing my name, and requesting that they start using the pronoun “they” when referring to me, starting after the break. Over the course of that week I stayed after classes to talk to each of them and ensure that they had gotten the email and to check if they had any questions or concerns. They all seemed outwardly supportive and had no issues or questions for me.
Once school had ended for the break I made a post in our grade’s facebook group explaining to everyone that I was trans and asking that they use the name Kaeden and “they” pronouns to refer to me. This was the nerve-wracking part, as I really had no idea what kind of reaction to expect. The post got 60 likes and a few comments from my close friends and I got a facebook message from another student congratulating me, but otherwise no one said much about it.
Upon starting back at school I did get a few questions from people who hadn’t seen the post asking why the teachers had suddenly begun calling me by a different name. I stumbled through a few brief explanations, but everyone seemed mostly indifferent and with some correcting they adjusted to my new name pretty quickly, which was quite a relief.
Pronouns have been a lot harder. Initially I requested that everyone refer to me as “they,” rather than “she” as they had been previously. Apart from the group that I had told first, only a few people, who were already more familiar with trans identities, changed the pronouns they used for me. A few of my teachers appeared to be making an effort to avoid using pronouns for me at all, but most of them, as well as my peers continued to call me she. I would most often correct people who misgendered me, and my teachers would often apologize to me after class. Each time, I was gracious and asked that next time they correct themselves while speaking, to at least set an example for the class of the appropriate way to refer to me.
I often compare it to a teacher getting a student’s name wrong. Of course they would correct themselves immediately, it would seem ridiculous to simply pretend that it hadn’t happened. And yet, that’s exactly what happens with pronouns.
It’s frustrating not being able to be seen or referred to in a way that feels right by the majority of the people around me at school. For the most part I don’t interact all that much with people outside of my friend group though, so at least it doesn’t come up too often.
Since that first semester, I’ve sent an email through the guidance office to all of my teachers prior to the start of each semester. I’ve started asking teachers to use either “they” or “he” pronouns for me, in the hopes that that will at least prevent them from calling me “she”. For the most part this has been successful, other than with a few teachers who taught me before I had come out. It’s still rare for a teacher to call me “they,” though it does happen occasionally, which I’m grateful for.
A few months ago I also made the decision to change my gender marker to male within the school system. We are extremely lucky in my school board that this is easy to do and doesn’t require any legal changes or paperwork, although due to the current nature of the database there are only the binary options to choose from. I still don’t identify as male, but I decided that I would rather the system support the assumption that I’m male rather than female, until I tell someone otherwise. Given that, this seemed like a reasonable step.
Now that my gender marker is changed, I will likely go back to simply asking that teachers refer to me as “they,” in the hopes that if they don’t their fallback will still be “he.” I will continue to reevaluate depending on how that goes. Sometimes I do dislike having a male gender marker since it contributes to the many people I’ve met this year who continue to assume that I am a cis male, but overall it’s better than the alternative.
And although I’ve thought I had a plan many times throughout this process, it’s consistently continued to change, so I’m prepared for it to do so again.
Kaeden is a nonbinary high school student from Canada with a passion for activism, camping and space travel. They can often be found having climbed to the top of the nearest tree.
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