This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.
A few months ago, my husband of six years and I divorced. I’ve known him forever. I ran to him right out of high school and never looked back.
Just before we got married, I realized I wasn’t cisgender. I took the label of nonbinary but was hesitant to experiment with my gender presentation in any way that might put off my (very straight) husband, who I loved very much. After a small trial period of presenting somewhat masculinely and realizing it was a turnoff for him, I convinced myself I was happy to present mostly femininely while still identifying as nonbinary.
The pandemic proved to us both that that was not sustainable.
I was stifling myself on purpose, and despite my every attempt to hide it, my now-ex could see I was unhappy. He brought up the topic of divorce at the start of 2021, and after many tearful discussions, we agreed it was for the best that we part. We’re still good friends, and he encourages me in every facet of my new life.
The problem I’m facing, I think, is that … I don’t know who this “new me” is. This “me” who isn’t married, whose identity isn’t so tied up in another person that I can’t tell where he ends and I begin. Who are they? I guess I don’t know how to be me without someone else to ground me.
I thought it would come to me over time, but it’s been almost half a year since I left and I still feel adrift. What’s worse, I feel like I’m at risk of throwing myself into a rebound with a longtime friend, and I don’t want to hurt him. He accepts me for who I am and is encouraging me to find myself, but I don’t even know where to begin looking.
I feel like I’m at sea with no port to be found, no North Star to guide me to wherever home might be. I’m hoping you can be my lighthouse. Or at least sound the foghorn for me.
Lost and Listless
Hey there, LL!
Oh good, I get to sound off a foghorn. That’s exciting for me as a person who has been marinating in an awful lot of silence lately. Turns out you don’t have to go through a breakup to undergo an identity crisis.
Yes, it seems like we’re in the same boat, to extend our nautical theme. Only you’re navigating postdivorce life, and I’m navigating the question as to why all I can seem to do anymore is pour hours and hours into Super Smash Bros. on my Nintendo Switch.
In any case, I’m glad this question came to me when it did. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on this subject. Who exactly are we? How is such a thing determined? Is it a linguistic dilemma — is there a word or label that can supply us with a sturdy enough raft to navigate these choppy waters — or is it entirely behavioral? As in, is it a kind of peace, an ease of movement, that sets into our daily activities once we have arrived at the perfect (or at least suitable) conclusion?
Let’s dive in.
I think your request for a lighthouse is incredibly apt. Indeed, the “state of being” is comparable to the sea — its unpredictable fits; its rogue, mapless expanse; its occasional islands. All very maritime. All very salty. All very shark infested. The task at hand is an impossible one. The fact is you will never be able to explore your entire self, to know it well enough to confidently categorize it. There will always be some other dimension, some cave, some isle, left entirely uncharted. There’s just not enough time, and there’s too much depth.
So if you’re looking for an absolute identity, one that can provide you with the stability you need before moving forward, well, I don’t think such a thing exists. But that doesn’t mean you can’t figure anything out or that you’ll never find your stretches of peace. It doesn’t mean you have to think about this confusing time as completely dreadful. Because I think, in the end, you’re not doing anything unique here. Most humans are on this journey. You’re just being more up front about it.
Pure conjecture here, but for all the rhetoric around queerness being “unconventional,” I’ve always thought of it as being more fundamentally honest than the alternative of buying wholesale into the notion of fixed identity. To me, it asserts the truth: that identity is complicated, constantly shifting, and wholly impossible to completely understand, especially in the limited vocabulary we are taught from a young age.
So perhaps you’re not as confused as you may think. Perhaps you’re engaging in something of a time-honored tradition here, one that can be as exciting as it is frightening. Perhaps we — each and every one of us — are at sea, and you are simply astute enough to have recognized this. With that realization comes the necessary process of adjusting. A lot of it isn’t fun. But some of it is!
I don’t think identifying yourself by the people around you is as bad as it sounds, necessarily. We all use reference points to orient ourselves. We are beings in constant conversation with the world around us. That will, of course, lend you a great deal of context for who you are. But I think it’s smart of you to hold off on a new relationship in the here and now, especially if you’re already calling your friend a “rebound.” Maybe wait until the basketball terminology subsides.
As for your larger quandary, though, what can I say? Welcome to the boat, seafarer! Fight me in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on September 16, 2021.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s ¡Hola Papi! newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase Brammer’s book ¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons here.