by Ely Willard ’20
Every summer, my family goes to Star Island for a week. It’s a tiny island ten miles off the coast of the New Hampshire-Maine border, in a cluster of eight other islands known as the Isles of Shoals. For the past hundred years, Unitarian Universalists and Congregationalists have hosted week-long conferences there throughout the summer. My family always goes to one of the UU weeks even though none of us go to church that often. But people from all faiths are welcome, and most of the programming has no direct religious connection. It’s kind of like summer camp, but for whole families, not just kids.
My parents have taken me almost every year since I was six. The same people always go to the same conference. I have friends there who I first met when we were little kids. There are also adults who have watched me grow up, only seeing me one week of the year. Star Island is my favorite place in the world. It’s where I played guitar in front of an audience for the first time, learned to reconnect with my spirituality, and met some of the most interesting people I know. There’s a song we sing at the end of every week with the refrain, “Star Island is our spirit’s home.” It sounds cheesy out of context, but it’s really true.
Since the conference isn’t cheap, my family saves money throughout the year so that we can afford it. We’re not as well-off as the average family who attends, but I’ve always felt more welcome there than in my equally wealthy hometown. But in the summer of 2018, I got nervous about fitting in on Star. Our conference is at the end of August, so I always spend the whole summer anticipating it, but this time, the anticipation wasn’t entirely positive.
The problem was that for the first time I knew I was transmasculine. I had identified as nonbinary in 2017. I held that secret close to my chest throughout the week on Star, telling only one person about my identity on the last day. It had been awkward, but not horrible, because at the time I was fine with wearing dresses and letting people assume I was a girl. But this year, I wasn’t. I had spent the whole summer wearing sundresses and pretending to be a woman at my job, and I wasn’t looking forward to repressing my gender on Star. But it was better to pretend than to come out and face rejection or confusion from people I actually cared about. As far as religious communities go, UU congregations are often pretty progressive. But middle-aged people, and honestly cis-people of any age, have a hard time wrapping their heads around the nuances of nonbinary identity. It’s often easier to just say nothing. So that was the decision I made, but I didn’t feel good about it.
The first night we were on the island, my mom and I ran into Rachel, the mother of one of my childhood friends. The family had stopped coming to Star Island when I was quite young, so we hadn’t seen them in years. After hugging Rachel, we quickly asked about my old friend. She told us that her child was now using they/them pronouns, and had changed their name to Olly, a masculine version of their old name, while they waited for Rachel to choose a new name for them. Even better, they were working on the island this summer. My heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t believe that a friend who I had assumed I would never see again was here now, and not only that, but they had the same experience as me. It meant that I wasn’t completely alone. When Rachel asked how I had been, I stuttered, “Well, actually, I’m using they pronouns too now.”
The next day, I ran into Olly when they were doing their rounds on chamber crew, and they pulled me into a bone-crushing hug. That week, I got to catch up with them and also meet their partner, another nonbinary person. In fact, I discovered that a significantly higher-than-average percentage of the young adults who staffed the island were trans and nonbinary.
This realization lifted a lot of my anxiety, but it wasn’t completely gone. The mentality and acceptance in a group of young people would of course be different from that of the mostly middle-aged conferees. But as the week went on, I noticed a lot of the conferees talking about nonbinary identities too. I overheard one person, a few years older than me, explain to their uncle why they used they/them pronouns. Halfway through the week, I heard a cis guy praising the front desk of the hotel for providing pronoun stickers. I wandered over later that day and surreptitiously added a they/them sticker to my nametag. At first I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted anyone to notice the sticker, but gradually, I started having conversations about gender with the adult friends who I thought would be receptive and it went better than I expected.
Every morning that week, I went to Writing Circle. For the adults, workshops are offered every morning and afternoon. The only one I have ever gone to since I aged out of the youth program has been Writing Circle. Every day, Ellen gives us a prompt and a short time to write, and then we go around and read our work to the group. You don’t have to share, but I’ve found that I enjoy the workshop more if I do.
On Thursday, the second-to-last day, her prompt was “You may not know this about me.” As I copied the words down into my journal, I knew there was only one thing I could write about. I glanced around the room at the 20 or 30-odd middle aged-to-elderly people around me, and anxiety flooded my body. I could always bail and choose not to read what I wrote, I told myself. So, hands shaking, I put pen to paper and began, “I’m not, technically speaking, a woman.”
Reading it back, the piece I ended up writing sounds overly defensive, with lines like “I think using they as a singular pronoun sounds awkward, too, but it’s not my fault the English language doesn’t have a better alternative.” But I remember my cold terror at the prospect of coming out to all these people. Some of them had known me since I was six and some of them didn’t know me at all, and I couldn’t decide which was worse.
I don’t remember a single thing that was read before Ellen got to me. I spent the whole time clutching and twisting my notebook. I made up my mind that I wanted to read this, I wanted to share both my writing and myself, but I couldn’t tell if that was going to be a massive mistake. When it was my turn, I read in a faltering voice, my usual anxiety about reading aloud combined with a much larger anxiety.
But when I finished, Ellen responded warmly, sharing her awareness of gender-neutral pronouns in other languages. And after Writing Circle, several people came up to me. That was what I had been dreading, the questions and the curiosity, but I was surprised by the kind responses I got. A couple people wanted to tell me about every other trans person they had ever met, which made me inwardly cringe a little, but I could see their genuine empathy.
After that, it was like a weight was lifted. I normally hate that metaphor about coming out, but in this case it felt true. Even though I had only explained my identity to a small fraction of people on Star, I felt like, for the first time, I was truly being myself somewhere other than Wellesley or the privacy of my own home.
On the last night of every conference, we have a fancy banquet dinner where we all dress up. Before I had any intention of coming out to the whole island, I had packed a shirt and tie to wear on Banquet Night. It was the same outfit I had been wearing to semi-formal occasions since ninth grade, years before I had any idea I wasn’t a girl, but I guess it was the first time I had presented strongly masculine on Star, because everyone around me seemed to treat it as a statement worthy of celebration.
The girlfriend of one of my former youth group leaders, about ten years older than me, joked that we looked like prom dates with my skinny black tie and her outrageous red dress, so we got a picture together. A middle-aged family friend complimented my tie but noticed that the knot was crooked, and he and another man I had never had a conversation with before set about straightening my collar while I just laughed. Later, as I was talking to one of the adults from Writing Circle, another, older member came up and said, with all the enthusiasm in the world, “You look just like a twelve year old boy!” Thankfully, she left before I could think of anything to say to that, so I just turned back to the guy I had been talking to, trying not to feel mortified. “Well,” he said after a moment, “I guess that was a compliment.” And just like that, we were able to laugh it off.
Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but these little moments of acceptance—awkward as some of them were—meant the world to me. Before that week, I had been weighing the pros and cons of staying closeted throughout my working life versus facing harassment and ignorance if I came out. I am fantastically lucky to have parents who have been vocally supportive of my gender, but I often felt like they were the only adults their age I could ever be honest with. To know there is a whole community of people out there who can accept me, even if they don’t entirely understand me, fills me with hope. Yes, they’re a statistically unrepresentative concentration of liberals who value acceptance and love, but if they go back to their home communities after the conference and keep spreading that acceptance, it’s got to do some good on a larger scale. And even if it just means that Star Island is another place where I can be myself, well, for now, I’ll take it.
From the April 2019 issue.