October 11th, 2007 - Richard Hartshorn
You're on campus, fall wind turning your ears red, watching fellow students walk through a propped-up closet door, each one receiving a crush of applause as they cross the threshold and emerge as their true selves. It's Coming Out Day. You imagine walking through the door, but it's only half an image: you don't know exactly what you'd be presenting to the world. You don't have the language for it. You just know that your first hero was Princess Leia; that you used to dump cold rainwater on your head, swing your long hair around, and feel like a girl without feeling like you were pretending; that lately, the most resonant songs are the ones about being trapped in a body.
You're standing next to your friend Sarah, who currently fills the big sister role that many women who aren't your sister have filled over the years. The first time you met Sarah, you discussed the ways writing can give new life to people who are gone, how it can unearth memories. You've shared a lot with her since then. But here's something you haven't brought up: Sarah is your name too.
Or it could have been. Your mother chose it before you came out with the body you have now. But you've always held onto it. Onto her. No one calls you Sarah, of course, but in the moments where you feel most fully yourself, you're still her.
A girl in a Where's Waldo? tanktop kicks the door open, crosses the stage, and sucks in a breath that makes her look as though a hunk of millstone has been hoisted from her chest. You feel the same stones hanging from your shoulders, fastened with fishing line. You wonder what her name is.
You've thought a lot about unbelonging, but not in the ways that matter. It's going to be a while before you organize any of these thoughts, make sense of them. Hundreds of seemingly unrelated things will frustrate you – you'll feel fidgety in men's clothes, friends will hassle you about always playing female characters in tabletop games, your own mannerisms will just feel wrong on certain days – and you won't be able to find the center. You'll stop worrying that you're not academic enough, not enough of a thrasher, not enough of a nerd, and start worrying that you're not enough of a girl.
But listen. In ten years, you will have gender-nonbinary students who confide in you, because they know things you never did, and they see you. You'll make sure your students know Orlando exists, like you wish your profs had done for you. Carrie Fisher will die, and you'll be lost for a few days, but you'll find yourself quickly, because Leia's still alive. You will hear Julia Stone sing the lyric, I am everything I have ever been, and you'll scribble it on a whiteboard outside your campus office. You'll write characters whose genders aren't revealed. You'll even write a character named Sarah, though she'll go by a nickname. You'll recognize duality in everything.
You will still think of 2007 as a year when everything was screwed up, when you wanted to define yourself by so many different unimportant labels. In 2017, you will define yourself by what you aren't. If anyone tells you that's unhealthy, remember that they're missing the point.
Richard Hartshorn lives on the Rensselaer Plateau and earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.