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

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

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.

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