“Hey there! So I’ve been identifying as bi/pan for the past three years, and recently I realized that I’m also genderqueer. I’m 15, in HS and live at home. I have no intention of ever telling my mom or the rest of my family as they proved that it really isn’t worth it when I came out as bisexual. But I want to tell my friends. I want to be out to the people I interact with in school. I hate my “real name” and I don’t want to be referred to with the wrong pronouns at school anymore. What do I do?”
I’m very sorry to hear that you had a difficult experience with a sexuality-related coming out to your family. I can certainly understand why you don’t want to go there again with gender. If you’re interested in keeping your genderqueerness, pronoun preference and chosen name a secret from your family, this introduces another level of consideration beyond how to tell friends. I have a few prior posts that might be helpful on my mirror WordPress site under the tag ‘coming out’ but these don’t get at the secret aspect, which I will focus on here.
If keeping your gender (which I’ll use throughout as a shorthand term for your identity, pronoun and name) a school-only thing is your goal, you will have to make decisions around who to tell and what to tell them. Will you tell in-school adults (teachers, counsellors, etc.) and/or classmates, or only your friends?
The more people who know, the greater the risk that your family will find out. This is particularly true of teachers who may not understand how parental rights/authority do not always trump your confidentiality, safety and well-being. In different jurisdications your teachers are legally required to disclose particular things about you to your parents, and although gender identity/pronoun/name do not generally fall into that category (unless you are the target of homophobic or other bullying as is the case in Ontario), many teachers are ill-equipped with knowledge about these fine lines: what they are and are not obligated to disclose to parents. However, what is legally required depends on where you live.
My advice is to contact a local youth hotline – try Kids Help Phone, which in Canada is awesome about gender and sexuality issues and has a lovely online forum in addition to a toll free phone number you may be able to access internationally. You can ask about your right to privacy vs. your teachers’ or other schools adults’ duty to report in the state or province where you go to school. There is also the Trans Lifeline (now available in Canada as well as in the US) which is staffed by trans* volunteers. Even if the people who pick up don’t have the exact answers to your questions, they will be able to refer you to other sources of information.
If you’re in the US, you could also get in touch with the Gay-Straight Alliance Network and ask your questions or for a resource with local information. You should also check out your school board or district’s website, or Google things like your school district’s name and ‘diversity’ or ‘equity’ or ‘anti-homophobia’ (the term with which everything gets lumped together, for better or worse). Often school boards and districts have dedicated personnel who can answer particular questions about confidentiality and school practices: for example, including your chosen name on attendance lists but not on your permanent school record. Odds are other students have been here before.
With more information about whether your need for confidentiality can be respected where you go to school, you can make a decision around letting one or more teachers or other in-school adults know about your gender. If there is a teacher who supervises a Gay Straight Alliance or similar student organization, this may be a good place to start. You might ask them or another obvious ally teacher about which adults in your school are safe, or have demonstrated knowledge about gender and sexual diversity, and the ability and willingness to respect student needs and wishes.
When you have decided on a particular in-school adult to share your needs with in confidence, be ready for them to have questions about when you want them to start referring to you by your chosen name and pronoun. Will you talk about it to other students first? Do you want them to only do it when you are around, or all the time? If students are confused or have questions, should the adult refer them to you or answer the questions as best they can? You can, of course, refer anyone to this blog, but face-to-face is often more helpful.
As above regarding attendance lists, you’ll want to think about whether you do want anything to become part of the school’s written record. When things are written down and centralized (like attendance), the administration will probably know as will all of your teachers, for better or for worse. This will be a critical consideration in terms of whether you feel like you can trust all of your teachers to respect your confidentiality in relation to your family.
In this section, I’ll presume that you are only telling friends and not in-school adults. With friends, though, be ready to answer similar questions as with adults: will you tell other people? What if people overhear or have questions? Are there times and places where they should not use your preferred pronoun and name? It would be a good idea to think through this conversation in your head and listen to your gut. If saying ‘yes you can call me my chosen name in class’ makes you feel queasy, trust your instincts and think about why. Overall, the friend(s) you tell need to understand and be respectful of why this cannot go home with you. If or when you are hanging out together around your family, your friend(s) need to work hard not to make a mistake. People have been doing this ‘code-switching’ for many many years to keep safe trans* and genderqueer friends; it can definitely be done but just needs some trust and mindfulness.
It is pretty tough to change your pronoun as an adult – even a queer or trans* adult living in a queer or trans* community, only because pronouns are so deeply ingrained and automatic. I make mistakes sometimes and I write this blog! In my experience and in what I have heard from others, pronoun change generally happens differently across all areas of our lives. At home and among friends, I am they. At work, a few colleagues know and struggle with they, but mostly I am she. I make a lot of choices around where and when I request that my pronoun preference and gender be respected, and these choices are often mostly about fatigue and not safety, as in: do I need or want to spend energy and time doing the educational work? Do I need this, from them, here and now? My dream is that someday both safety AND fatigue will not be obstacles to gender recognition, and this is one reason I have this blog.
However, it’s important to note that I can choose to avoid ‘doing the educational work’ because, for whatever reason, my own perch on the cis-trans spectrum enables this choice. This might not be the case for you, or for other readers. I suppose what I’m doing is flagging that just because one is able to make choices around whether 100% of people need to use one’s preferred gender pronoun, etc. this does not mean that one’s gender needs or desires are less real or less legitimate (they are just different, with different stakes in different times and places).
I’m sharing these thoughts – genderqueer to genderqueer – because I want to encourage you to think about whether you need everyone at school to use your pronoun and chosen name right now. It might be safer and easier to have a few people in the know at first and see whether that makes things okay enough for you to get by. It might not, and that makes perfect sense. But I find that it can be really sustaining to have a *few* people I love who either never screw up or (better yet sometimes) do screw up but say sorry and correct themselves. If this can work for you, you have a better chance of squeaking through high school and pre-adulthood without your family finding out. However, you might decide that being completely open with your name, pronouns and gender is what you need, and I say rock on.
I hope this has been helpful. Write again whenever you like!