056: I Didn’t Have to Choose Anymore
Content warning: The following story tells of a survivor's experience of what it was like to come out as a gender-neutral human being.
"I Didn’t Have to Choose Anymore," Anthony Ungaro
When I was a kid, it was both Grandma and my Mother who ingrained in me the ability to see humanness. Through various family friendships, I was constantly engaged with people of different colors, sexual orientations, disabilities, and backgrounds that make the world unique. However, there was a constant, unsettled feeling in me that I could never pinpoint.
As a kid, a young boy without a father, I remembered multiple times I would act feminine. This behavior was comfortable and I felt more of a connection with my Grandma and Mother. When I got to school, the identity shifted completely, and I would often bully classmates, ending up in the principal’s office quite often. It could have been acting out as a child, deaths in the family, or the complete lack of control I had on knowing who I was. This was all in elementary school, mind you; in middle school, high school, and college the thought was absent and kept dormant.
Fast forward to my first semester in Graduate school where the Office of Multicultural Affairs was having their Safe Zone course; as a professional in training to be a Student Affairs practitioner, I felt this was something I needed to learn about. In the training, it was difficult to comprehend how LGBTQA+ (or whichever acronym you use) people were treated like anything less than human; each of them had blood, a heart, and were no different than other people. The stories that enhanced the training led me to start questioning – how have my words affected someone in the past and with my lessons as a kid, why did I allow myself to be uneducated?
And that was it, the missing education and knowledge. Unsurprisingly, the greatest impact came when we talked about definitions and terms. The stories gave me purpose and a new lens; activities allowed me to process; but the terms, gave me new life and knowledge. As we were reading them aloud and discussing the ones we did not understand, I came across gender-neutral. This simple term made me think about my childhood where my actions would weave femininity and masculinity into a comfortable and loving boy, but the cloth would unravel when it wasn’t “appropriate” to do so.
However, in this moment, that unsettled feeling that had eaten esteem and understanding started to become more stable and it was okay to be me. It was no longer necessary to be someone here and someone else there. To quote myself from an interview, “the journey takes a long time, but the decision could be a split second…It took 23 years to take that journey, the decision took 5 hours. Then I didn’t have to choose anymore.”
Being white and a man, the appearance allows me to have privilege; avoiding conflict and words that have the potential to leave scars. The instance in which stands out with my gender identity is the first time I felt the experience so many have before me. Soon after I realized my gender neutrality through the aforementioned experience, I attended a conference on multiculturalism and diversity; with new found appreciation for myself, a session asked for some important words that described who “you” were and I shared “gender-neutral,” It was nerve-wrecking to share but I did it because I could be authentic for once in my life.
Later that week in a 1-on-1, my supervisor asked me to explain my identity; this is when I found out a full-time staff member was in the same session and passed the information about my gender neutral birth. In doing so, my supervisor claimed to, “not believe I was gender-neutral” but instead, I was a “stereotype fighter” and made all the work seem meaningless and false. All trust and comfort to then be authentic and learn as a graduate student was lost through this exchange; I had to do it alone and grow from student testimonials and interactions.
How does one interact with a supervisor whose responsibility is self-development and professionalism, when you cannot be yourself and are too afraid to argue?
Since graduating and becoming a Student Affairs practitioner, I promised myself that no one would have control over me again. In my experience, professionals tend to avoid making waves and believe experience/title demands certain privileges. Unfortunately, this removes vision and voice from change, the unknown and uncomfortable change that often creates tension and restlessness; but when 'tradition' is tangled in ignorance, there is no progress.
So, when student's voices are muted, I will be the one to raise the volume; when colleagues fail to meet expectations, I will exceed standards; and when someone denounces someone's identity, I will be there to share my light in order to help them shine.
About the art:
Anthony and I met randomly when I was interviewing with the University of Kansas graduate program for Student Affairs in Higher Education. We connected because Anthony has a full sleeve of tattoos and I was on my way to getting on for myself. And since then, we've stayed in touch through the virtue of the internets.
I'm glad Anthony shared his story because I love hearing gender-neutral bodies advocate for their existence in a world that wants to whitewash the gender conversation as a strict binary. When that is just not the case.
I wanted to creating a painting for Anthony that was a little different from my previous styles. So I expanded my filigree style a little bit to include some bubbles/leafy imagery. And the interesting thing about this piece is that I had to clear the white paint from it twice while creating the piece because I had a watercolor image in the background but it began to run when I did the words. And then I misspelled a word in the Virginia Woolf quote, which is never a good feeling.
Eventually, I had the piece the way I wanted it to look and here we have it!
I'm going to continue messing with this style and see what I come up with!