My Story: Coming Out to Myself, Students and Colleagues

In my life and work, I have come to value the importance of naming things. For that reason, I like to name myself and the identities that affect the way that I see the world when I enter into new spaces, particularly ones focused on learning. My name is Chris Venable and I am a White, queer, genderqueer person who is highly educated (master’s degree), currently employed, able-bodied, and middle class. Those identities mean a lot to me, but my understanding of all of them have changed over time.

The two that have developed the most in recent years are my understanding of myself as a queer person and as a genderqueer person (though I’m doing a lot of work to understand and develop my self-concept around my Whiteness lately, and other identities too). My first National Coming Out Day was ten years ago, when I came out as gay. My understanding of what that means (and the words I use to describe my sexuality) have changed radically over time. I now use “queer” to describe my sexuality because I think it reflects the fullness of my humanity and complexity inherent in my identity; I reclaim that word from its use as a hateful slur to something that I cherish about myself. But those feelings of worth and self-love have developed over years of understanding myself and interacting with others who have supported my growth as a queer person and queer student affairs professional.

Lately, I have found that coming out as genderqueer makes me feel like I’m back to square one, the 14-year-old only beginning to come into myself. For me, I never really considered that my gender was something I could explore until I found myself doing so and deeply questioning who I was and who I wanted to be. I felt torn between what I thought it meant to be trans—that I hated my body (something experienced by some trans people and commonly referred to as body dysphoria), that I wished I was a woman, that I wanted to be called “she” instead of “he”—and the feelings that I had of being both in-between and somehow apart. I was scared to think that I couldn’t fit in either of the boxes that I thought were acceptable and that maybe that meant that I was just confused. I was scared to think how this might affect my relationships and my career.

And this returns to my first point: naming things is important. When I discovered that there were other people who felt like neither men nor women, but somewhere between and beside both, I felt such relief. The label “genderqueer” meant that I wasn’t alone and that the feelings I was having were normal, not confusion. I found a way to express the way that I know myself as a person.

Finding new ways to express myself openly, honestly, and in ways that free me from the artificial expectations that I created for myself has been one of the most terrifying and liberating experiences I have ever had. But, for the people around me, including my students and my colleagues, the changes I’ve experienced can be hard to understand. I am still coming to understand how this identity of mine influences the work that I do; with only a year of knowing myself as genderqueer, I’m sure that my understanding of myself and others will only deepen with time.

Being an openly queer student affairs professional has never held me back. I’ve always felt comfortable disclosing that identity to colleagues in my graduate school and job searches. I come out regularly to students when I get into discussions of partners and life after college with my graduating seniors. I talk about how my partner is doing with my colleagues and I bring him to campus events. I am working on becoming a Safe Space trainer to help others on my campus be more open and welcoming to LGBTQ students. I have never omitted my sexual orientation in a meeting with a colleague or an advising appointment with a student if they say something that assumes I am straight. I have mastered the art of gently correcting, in a collegial and thoughtful way, when that happens.

But only a handful of my colleagues at my current job know that I am genderqueer. Only one knows that I regularly use they/them as my personal pronouns, alongside he/him. I have never asked any of my colleagues to use gender neutral terms to describe me, even though those are what I use to describe myself. My colleagues have never made transphobic comments, but they have never asked what pronouns I use either. I worry about how they may respond to an identity as complex as genderqueer, both man and woman, but also neither. I wonder how coming out may change my relationships with students who have assumed that I am a cisgender (the term used for those whose sex assigned at birth, male or female, corresponds with the expected gender, man or woman) man. I think about how I will navigate my career path and my current position as a trans academic advisor.

So, as I contemplate how I can serve students and collaborate with my colleagues more fully this year, I am considering how I can be more out and open. I believe that self-knowledge and self-authorship are essential for happiness. I deeply value caring and honesty in both my personal and professional lives. And, social justice is a core value of mine, which involves acknowledging the fullness of each individual person. As a queer, genderqueer student affairs professional, I offer these suggestions to my colleagues who are straight, or cisgender, or both.

  1. Learn to be comfortable with the idea that identities can change. My transness was as much a surprise to me as to anyone else, but having supportive colleagues who are committed to creating inclusive spaces for students can help everyone to feel safe and capable of success.

  2. Although gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation may be related for some people, making assumptions based on just one will leave people out in the cold. Most people read me as a cis man, based solely on my appearance. Resisting the urge to assign gender or sexuality to people you don’t know can help to make a more inclusive environment for students and colleagues alike.

  3. Language is complex and evolving. New terminology and pronouns can be intimidating, and while these things are important, the most important thing is treating queer and trans people with respect. Sometimes that may involve saying “Can you help me understand…” and that’s okay!

  4. Make issues around queer and trans identity a priority. As any minoritized person can attest to, it can be exhausting and frustrating when it falls to a few people to advocate for the issues that affect them, while those who are unaffected prioritize other issues. If your students and colleagues can’t see you being an advocate, how will they know that you are?

I share my story not to imply that every queer trans person feels the way I do and experiences the coming out process as I do. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” a single story shapes our view of reality and what we think is the truth. I share my story because for some, perhaps the only image of trans people in their mind is Caitlyn Jenner’s high-profile transition. But I believe that knowing that trans people exist in our offices and classrooms, even if we don’t think we see them, highlights the importance of events like National Coming Out Day. The assumptions that we make with each person who passes through the campus may not do visible harm, but contributes to the idea that there is only a single story, a single way to be trans. We all deserve to live authentic lives and doing so empowers us to prepare students to do the same. Above all, value the vulnerability that comes with coming out and know that how you react on National Coming Out Day can change someone’s life.

About the author: Chris Venable is an academic advisor for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University and uses they/them pronouns. Their research interests include the use of theory in academic advising practice, the professionalization of the academic advising field, and social justice practices in advising. They hold an M.A. in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University and B.A.s in Mathematics and Secondary Education from Webster University. Outside work, Chris enjoys reading, crafting, and spending time with their partner.

Chris Venable

Academic Advisor, Kent State University