Pride has the power to create change—in ourselves, our communities, and our world. As Family Equality works to ensure that everyone has the freedom to choose & experience their pride + joy on International Pronouns Day (and every day), Director of Family Formation, Jess Venable-Novak, shares what having pride + joy in their gender identity means for them.
Coming Out as Nonbinary
I have never struggled to have pride in myself. Not because I’m overconfident or narcissistic, but because for as long as I can remember I’ve done things deliberately. Every course of action I’ve ever taken has been hyper-conscious and carefully decided. Is it exhausting? Completely. But, is it worth it? Absolutely.
Maybe my armor of intentionality is a little bit of a coping mechanism. But, it’s always been precious to me because it has reaped great benefits. It has given me the gifts of being fully aware and unapologetically authentic. In other words, it has paved the way for pride, time and time again. If my decisions are true to myself, how can I not be proud of them?
My experience coming out as non-binary was no different: painstakingly calculated, unhurried, and done with care. So, why do I find myself grasping for pride some days, even years later?
I knew coming out as nonbinary—as “yes, and,” as “both & neither”—would be the sort of difficult I could handle. Remember the whole “deliberate decision-making” thing? Before choosing to come out I grappled with anticipated difficulty, and I came out on the other side standing in my conviction that it would be worth it. I knew my craving for authenticity would beat the fear-fueled butterflies in my stomach. Even today, this statement feels immovably accurate for me; I can feel its truth in my bones. Like most other decisions in my life, if I could just quietly sit with it, reminding myself of how and why I got to the choice I made, I would be good to go.
But, the thing about this type of coming out that I didn’t bargain for is how it begged me to be active and social about it. I did not anticipate this, perhaps because for years, my queerness has been a badge (of honor, of course) that people could clearly see. I have been privileged to feel at home in outward gender-bending expression. My heart rests easily in denim cut-offs, a flannel button-up, and a beanie. Bring on the asymmetrical haircuts and the parade of exes-turned-best friends! I have continually chosen (see, the deliberate choice thing again!) to put myself in situations—from the places I choose to live in to the coffee shops I choose to frequent—that would see my queerness, and meet it with celebration (or, at worst, indifference).
To Correct or Not Correct?
Coming out as nonbinary, though, required a vocal primer that I wasn’t exactly ready for. Yes, people could look at me and see queer, but they couldn’t look at me and see my gender identity or my pronouns. While my gender identity is typically reserved for conversations with doctors and introductions in somewhat safe spaces, my pronouns are constantly available to the masses. This isn’t unique to me or nonbinary people; for most folks’ pronouns are frontline interactions with the outside world. The same goes for me: they are just one small step beyond my intentionally neutral name. What is different for me, and some other nonbinary people is that others almost never get my pronouns correct. This fact leaves me with another decision: to correct or not correct? I can tell you, while I have a smidge less conviction in these split-second decisions, I can almost always trust my intuition to make the decision I need it to.
I can’t say that these situations have gotten easier with time, because the constant weight of these dozens-of-times-per-day moments is truly debilitating. I can say that my tolerance for these moments has built up over the years. Now, when I’m going through the motions of my day—work calls, trips to the coop, picking up take-out for dinner—they feel commonplace: expected and laced with indifference. Of course, that’s not an ideal world to live in. It’s enraging that despite feeling completely at home in my “they/them” pronouns, daily interactions also make my pronouns feel like a warzone. I mean, I’m a pacifist, y’all. And in a complete pacifist way, I have a deep and fierce longing for us to burn these types of dehumanizing interactions to the ground in a love-fueled revolution. But, until that happens, this unideal world is one I can swallow some days.
Notice I say some days because it absolutely is not most days. Most days I have an 8-year-old in tow. All of my days, I am a parent.
Being Nonbinary and Being a Parent
While coming out as nonbinary was something I knew I could handle, layering the circus of parenthood on top was not something I had given enough thought to. Being a parent brings with it many social situations that some (i.e. me) would like to avoid like, soccer sidelines, chaperoning play rehearsals, cheering on my child doing the monkey bars for the 500th time. And, all of these moments necessarily involve other parents—people who, in the rural Vermont town where I live, I wouldn’t typically befriend. We are brought together by our children, standing an awkward six feet apart trying to make small talk while our children become besties. In these moments, just like that, I have to choose between:
A) introducing myself with my pronouns & withstanding the seconds-too-long blank stare I’ll inevitably receive, or
B) getting misgendered for the rest of the playground time and all future playdates, pending my courage to correct someone weeks after meeting them.
And what about when my child is standing beside me? In those moments, while I fumble through an introduction, I’m not just an individual choosing to disclose my pronouns. I’m an example, a role model, & a teacher. It’s incredible how one four-foot onlooker can influence a decision that is so personal, but she does. The cloud of uncertainty that comes with parenting, regardless of one’s identity, is dense. A relentless flurry of:
- “Am I saying the right thing?”
- “What example am I setting?”
- “I should probably make sure my face & tone match my emotions.”
For me, there’s added questions like:
- “Am I being outwardly authentic?”
- “Does my child think I’m embarrassed by who I am?”
- “How can I tell her that asking people’s pronouns is important and then not offer my own?”
These added questions are forever circling, with some thoughts about packing lunch and remembering which day of the week is PE thrown in the mix.
Pride in my Pronouns
So what does this have to do with pride? Everything.
I’m proud of my identity, and I’m proud of my pronouns. Deep down, these statements are entirely true. But at times, it’s a struggle on the surface. Sometimes the weight is too much. The discomfort is too deep. But I’ve decided—intentionally and deliberately, like always—that my role as a parent is most central to my decision-making. How does this affect the pride that I do or do not feel at any given moment?
It means that I’m choosing to be proud despite the discomfort and pain. I’m correcting my child’s teacher at conferences and reminding my fellow PTO-ers that I go by “parent” instead of “mom” even when I’d rather just say nothing.
It doesn’t mean I’m faking it until I make it. It means I’ve taken on the responsibility of explaining to an 8-year-old that loving ourselves doesn’t always look joyful. Sometimes, it looks like work.
It looks like not always having the energy or courage to correct someone or introduce myself with my pronouns. It means constantly balancing being honest with my child about how difficult it is to advocate for myself while also carrying a torch of positivity and hope—reminding her that letting others know who we truly are is an immensely important part of being human.
(I tend to balance these things with little-to-no grace, by the way).
For me, pride is a choice I make daily, sometimes dozens of times. My identity as a parent means the sense of pride I have in myself and my identity is both forced into the spotlight and melted into my bones. It’s an ever-present, sometimes impossible struggle that I am grateful for every single day.
Director of Family Formation
Jess is a queer, non-binary educator, organizer, and parent living in rural Vermont with their partner, kiddo, and a baby on the way. They’re also the Director of Family Formation at Family Equality and