Why I came out as nonbinary to my Ph.D. lab

Written by: Bec Roldan
Published on: Sep 29, 2021

writing on back
Image credit: Robert Neubecker

My hands shook as I sat down to write the email. "I wanted to let y'all know that I use they/them/theirs pronouns," I typed. "I know that gender-neutral/non-binary pronouns are not a common staple in our language, but I ask that you please do your best to respect them." Proclaiming my identity—one I had still not quite figured out yet—to a group of co-workers made me feel incredibly vulnerable. But I knew that if I wanted to survive graduate school, I needed to be open with my labmates, no matter how scared I was. After a few anxious moments, I clicked "send."

During the months leading up to graduate school, I had been exploring the idea of using gender-neutral pronouns. I didn't know whether they'd suit me; I just knew the words "she" and "woman" didn't feel quite right when they were used to describe me.

I had come out as queer during my last year of college, thanks in large part to support from the tight-knit queer community I'd discovered there. Starting graduate school at a new institution, I wouldn't have that support system. I feared I'd be navigating my journey to discover myself completely on my own.

Those fears evaporated when I learned that roughly one-quarter of my Ph.D. cohort identified as LGBTQ. We gravitated toward one another, and I decided to come out as nonbinary to some of them. From then on, whenever our small group got together, my friends would say "they" when speaking about me. The more I heard that word roll off their tongues, the more I felt at home in my own body.

As time wore on, it became increasingly difficult to show up to work and exist as a gender that no longer felt like my own. Hiding what I knew to be true about myself was exhausting and painful. So, at the start of my second semester, I decided I needed to come out to my adviser and labmates.

A flurry of questions ran through my mind: "What should I tell them? How long will it take colleagues to get used to my pronouns? Will some people choose to actively misgender me?" For advice, I turned to my friend Isaac, who is a year ahead of me in my program and is nonbinary. We met up for a coffee and they told me their own story of coming out to their lab. It was a relief to hear that their experience had been largely positive, and they put me at ease about my own decision.

I set up a time to meet with my adviser the following day. When I stepped into his office, he could tell how nervous I was, and he was concerned. I told him not to worry. As soon as I informed him about my identity, he was supportive, asking what he could do to help me come out to others in the lab. For the first time in months, my fears eased.

I sent the email to my labmates the next morning, not knowing what to expect. That day was surprisingly quiet. But the 6 months that have passed since then haven't always been easy. The word "she" has slipped out in conversations more times than I can count, and every time, it feels like a knife is being stabbed into my stomach. Whether malicious or accidental, the impact is always the same: I feel as though the act of misgendering erases the person I have worked so long and hard to become. After one particularly tough week, I cried in the bathroom and left work early.

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"I'm constantly learning how to exist in this world as my true self."

But I've also been heartened to see how many people have stepped up to support me. My adviser and closest friends in the lab quickly caught on to my pronouns, and they soon took the responsibility to correct others when they misgender me. They've listened to me patiently as I've explained how transphobia makes it hard for me to show up to work. And my adviser invited Isaac to speak to our lab group about gender identity and inclusivity, so I didn't have to carry the burden of education and advocacy all by myself.

I'm still navigating my path forward. But I will never regret my decision to come out. I'm constantly learning how to exist in this world as my true self, and I know I'm not on this journey alone. Many friends and colleagues—both cisgender and transgender, queer and straight—are standing by me every step of the way. That means the world to me.

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Bec Roldan is a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.