Summer in the City’s inaugural Gender Identity panel took place on Sunday in Panel Room A. It was moderated by Jake Edwards (who is non-binary), and the panellists were Alex Bertie (who is a trans man), Chloe Spencer (who is non-binary), Roly West (who is genderfluid), and Chandler Wilson (who is agender).
After introducing the panel, and inviting each of the panellists to give their name and pronouns, Jake observed that trans issues have “become a trendy topic in the mainstream media”, and asked whether that had hurt or helped the panellists on YouTube. Roly said there was “still a long way to go” in raising mainstream awareness of non-binary genders, and Chandler said the reason they made their channel “LGBTQ-specific” was because they “could not find a single agender YouTuber” when they were coming out.
When Jake asked how the panellists felt about binary gender, Alex brought up the validation he feels using gendered products. “I know some people think, ‘Fuck gendered products, why should a smell have a gender?’, and yeah, I feel like that too,” he acknowledged, “but when I first got my guy razors, and shaved my face, I was like, ‘Ugh, I’m such a man right now!’” Roly said that they had found the genderfluid label helpful – “Yes, this is me, this is how I understand who I am” – so binary genders could be helpful in the same way, as long as they weren’t restrictive. Chandler agreed, saying it was “nice to feel connected to the right word for you”. In response to Alex, they highlighted that binary trans people can have varied gender expression: “It’s important to also acknowledge that there are, for example, trans men that are very, very feminine.”
Jake then asked the panellists for their best piece of advice for someone who is questioning their gender. Chloe said that they had ignored their instincts about their gender for a long time, and advised against that – “Don’t be afraid to open that door and explore everything.” Roly said that anyone nervous should take things slowly, and recounted their first time going outside in heels: “I was like, ‘Screw everyone else’, and it was the most validating feeling I ever had.” Chandler, who had experimented with a number of different labels, said, “Start with what you know you’re not. That way, you can narrow it down from there.” They also pointed out that labels could be as specific or non-specific as the person wanted.
Asked why it was so important to educate people about gender identity, Alex said it created a better environment for trans people to come out in, and Chloe said it could help trans people figure themselves out sooner. Roly addressed people who mock trans identities: “‘I identify as an attack helicopter!’ No, trot along, bitch – you don’t. I can’t deal with that kind of stuff.” They also said that education could help cis people “understand that we do exist, and we are real”, and criticised those resistant to using gender-neutral vocabulary: “I’m so sick of hearing people say, ‘Using they/them pronouns is so confusing’. It’s not confusing! It’s so easy!”
Chandler brought up arguments they’d heard about North Carolina’s anti-trans HB2 bill. “There’s this idea that the LGBTQ community is so far removed from society,” they observed. “It’s like society is here, and LGBTQ people are over there. One of the biggest things that I think we need to push in education about LGBTQ people is that we’re not some far-removed species. We’re just people living our lives.”
Jake asked the panel how cis people could be good allies. Roly said they should educate themselves online, because it was a way of researching without offending anyone. Chandler agreed that the responsibility for education did not lay with trans people – “Take it upon yourself to educate yourself” – and warned cis people against treating trans people as “their own personal dictionary”.
The next question was about the importance of the panellists’ trans identities to their YouTubing. Alex pointed out that he didn’t make trans-related videos at first, but people wanted to know more about him, and then education became his passion. Roly agreed, saying, “Knowing that so many people didn’t understand genderfluidity, I wanted to really bring that out and actually educate people on that issue”. After jokily pretending that they had never talked about their gender identity online, Chandler said, “The whole reason that I actually started making YouTube videos – like, passionately and consistently – was for the sake of representation of agender people. That’s the foundation of my channel.” They also shouted out Riley J. Dennis – “I love her” – who has talked about trans people being defined by more than just their gender identities. “I would really like to make other videos,” Alex admitted, “but when I do, they just don’t get as many views… It feels like a waste of time if nobody’s watching.” Roly said that “you have to find a balance”, because “if you continually do this one thing, you will get fed up, even though it might be the thing that’s giving you the most views and the most interaction”.
Jake then asked the panellists whether they feel their label has become their defining characteristic on YouTube. Chandler said that a lot of people “do appreciate the different aspects of who we are, what we do, and what our interests are”, but some viewers – especially if they’ve only seen a coming out video – will “reduce us to just one thing”. Roly felt they were more known for body-modification than being trans, and said that focusing on their gender more had led them to do things they didn’t want to do – wearing makeup and heels when they actually wanted to present as more masculine, for example, because they feared their gender identity wouldn’t be believed – which made them less authentic. “Just because I don’t necessarily fit into your definition of genderfluidity doesn’t mean I don’t exist,” they said.
Noting the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Jake asked how drag culture interacts with gender identity. Alex said he respects drag, but isn’t into it – when he was coming out, people would ask, “Is that like a cross-dressing thing? Are you doing drag now?”, and thought his identity was “an entertainment thing”. Chloe expressed their love for Drag Race (“Adore Delano is my screensaver!”), and suggested the problem is not drag culture, but “the people who don’t understand the difference between presenting and identity”. Chandler agreed that “people don’t know how to separate the two”, and said that although Drag Race had normalised diversity of gender expression, it had not done the same for gender identity, and could have perpetuated “the disgusting idea… that trans women are men in skirts, or men in wigs”.
Jake then turned to the audience for questions, the first of which was about voice dysphoria when editing videos. Alex said that before his voice broke, he had to lower the volume while editing, while Chandler said that their voice wasn’t a problem pre-testosterone, “because that was the only voice that I was used to hearing for myself”, but now they cringe at their voice in older videos. “I try to make jokes to make myself feel better about it,” they said, “but it still makes me very self-conscious.” They mentioned being given helium to inhale during an interview at SitC, and jokily saying “Hi, my name is Chandler, and this is my voice pre-T!”
When a closeted audience member asked how to feel better about themselves, Chloe and Chandler talked about the importance of having a support system, while Alex shared his own experiences coming out in school and college.
The next question was about dysphoria and body confidence. Alex said that, before he had top surgery and started testosterone, he took things “one step at a time” – when his chest was bugging him he would get a new binder, and when his voice was bugging him he would try not to speak. Roly, who has recently started going to the gym and developing “a more masculine appearance”, said, “If you want to look a certain way, just do it”, and not to be confined by other people’s expectations. Chandler talked about how binders make them feel more dysphoric, not less, which some people said invalidated their identity, leading Chandler to learn the importance of distancing themselves from other people’s opinions about their body and focusing on their own wellbeing.
Asked about coming out on social media or to parents, Chandler said there should be no pressure for people to come out at all or in a particular way, while Alex said, “Be prepared for the ‘acceptance’ phase” – it took his dad five years to use his name and pronouns correctly, but when he finally called him “son” in January, Alex almost cried.
The next questions were from a cis white gay male asking about how people like him can support less privileged members of the LGBTQ+ community, and a trans person whose relationship with their brother had broken down after they came out asking for the panel’s advice. (“Can someone give them a hug, first of all?” asked Alex, sympathetically.)
Then the microphone was given to someone whose parents were doubting the validity of their trans identity because their clothing often aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth. “You don’t have to prove anything, you just are,” said Chloe. “The pieces of cloth you put on your body do not define who you are.”
Finally, a trans person asked about dealing with internalised transphobia. Chandler talked again about distancing themselves from other people’s expectations, mentioning the pressure they felt to be more masculine when dating a girl, and how they came to the realisation that “I’m allowed to be comfortable being myself”. They summed up, “There is nothing wrong with how you feel, or how you act, or what you do, or how you dress, or anything like that. No matter what society says, you’re allowed to be comfortable being yourself.”
“This has been the most beautiful and humbling experience of my entire life,” said Jake, as the panel ended, “so I just want to thank everybody for entering into this safe space.” Their final words were drowned out by cheering and applause.
Photos by Aria Mark.
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