Elan Robinson (they/them/theirs) is a bisexual, nonbinary person from Mendocino, California. They’ve been living in Seattle since 2014. As the Event & Donor Relations Coordinator at Pride Foundation, they plan events, craft communications, and support fundraising efforts. Outside of work, they draw, write zines, take care of their veranda garden, and volunteer with LGBTQ+ youth.
When you came out the first time, what made you feel safe to do so?
I think there’s this narrative about “coming out” that it’s sitting down and having a serious conversation with someone, but to be honest I don’t really remember the first time I came out or who it was to. I definitely had conversations with friends about not feeling particularly dedicated to dating people of one gender or another throughout my life, especially in my early 20s when I by chance found myself in a friend group where almost everyone was bi. Even then, I didn’t say, “I’m bisexual” out loud for the first time until I was 26 years old—and it was still just to a few people. I had moved to Seattle about a year prior, so being in a metro area for the first time ever, and surrounded by more out, visible community made the decision feel a lot safer than it would have earlier in my life. Maybe even bigger than that, though, was that I finally got introduced to the idea that I didn’t need to have “proof” (i.e. experience dating a range of genders) that I was bisexual in order to identify as bi or queer. I’d only ever dated cis men, and at that point I’d been married to a man for about a year. I hadn’t even heard the word “nonbinary” yet. I was afraid of taking up space or resources in LGBTQ+ community that weren’t mine to claim. Learning that those feelings of invalidity and invisibility are extremely common for bi and pan people, that I wasn’t alone, and that my identity is innate to me and isn’t dependent on who I’m in relationship with, made a huge difference.
How do you ally yourself with others who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community?
Shortly after I came out, I was looking for a way to feel connected to in-person community and ended up signing up to volunteer with Lambert House, Seattle’s LGBTQ+ youth community center. I’ve now been volunteering there for four years and can’t imagine my life without it. I feel deeply privileged to bear witness to the experiences of the queer and trans youth who come to the house; their resilience, their care for one another, and their joy. What’s more, watching the youth and adult volunteers interacting has given me a deep appreciation for just how important intergenerational LGBTQ+ spaces are. I am anxious, depressed and struggle a lot with executive dysfunction, so I was worried when I started there that I wouldn’t be outgoing enough, or wouldn’t have enough relevant life experience to be a good role model, but I’ve found that the opposite is true–those difficulties with mental health in particular have been a point of connection with a number of youth. I’m grateful for that space for us to be in allyship with one another across generations and experiences.
Another thing I’ve been involved in this last year that I’d like to share has been work with the LGBTQ+ Immigrant & Refugee Coalition. It’s a group of people from a wide range of organizations, mostly in King and Pierce Counties, who are working to build a network of community support for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in this area. When asylum seekers arrive at the border seeking safety, many are held in detention centers, sometimes for months, to await a court date. Immigration detention centers are inhumane for everyone, but they are especially unsafe for trans people. Our coalition advocates for the release of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers from detention and helps to match them with host homes who can provide safe housing, support and connection to local community. As part of the host recruiting team, I do initial intake calls with families who express interest in offering up a space to a guest, and I’ve helped in the past with organizing community events to bring together hosts, guests and coalition members. I think I would have assumed that I couldn’t help out with this kind of thing because I don’t speak Spanish or have any deep knowledge of immigration or asylum, but that’s not the case. My contributions are small, but I’m grateful to have this kind of opportunity to be a part of the work, and to welcome my queer and trans siblings into this community.
How do you educate people about the LGBTQ+ community?
I don’t think anyone in our communities has a duty to educate anyone about their own identity or experience; there are plenty of resources and stories already out there for a person, school, or workplace that wants to practice better allyship. That being said, for myself personally, I find that I often do have the patience and emotional energy to have those conversations, and when the opportunity presents itself in one-on-one conversation I tend to want to engage. I believe that personal experiences and stories can be powerful education tools, so long as (and I think this is especially important for me to remember as a white able-bodied person) I don’t present my experience as being universal. It’s often easier for me to share those stories with people I don’t know that well or don’t have a relationship with. Maybe that’s because of the context—if I’m having a conversation with someone at a BBQ about trans issues, for example, it’s usually because they’ve asked me a question and have expressed some interest in learning. When it comes to having those same kinds of conversations with my family, though, things can get emotionally charged pretty quickly. In those situations, I like to share a book, an article, or even a movie or an invitation to an event where appropriate—something that can serve as a jumping-off point for a bigger conversation without going directly for the deeply personal.
How do you educate people about intersectionality in the LGBTQ+ community?
I think I’m still very much educating myself about intersectionality in the LGBTQ+ community, and I expect to be doing that for the rest of my life. I read a lot—books, articles, and even just on social media—by authors with identities I don’t share, for my own learning and so that I can share and amplify those voices to the other people in my life who I have these talks with. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that, as a person with one marginalized identity, I’m given some special insight or empathy into other people’s experiences as well, but that’s just not true. I identify as trans, but even within that one letter of the acronym there is such a wide breadth of experience. I want to be the best ally I can for my Black, Indigenous, POC, immigrant, and trans femme siblings, and that means putting in the work.
Outside of queer/trans spaces, I often find myself in the position of being the first non-binary person that someone has ever (knowingly) met. Again, when I have the patience and energy for those conversations I don’t mind engaging questions, but I’m conscious of the fact that, as a white, masculine-leaning millenial, I am in a lot of ways the kind of non-binary person that white cisgender people in this country and in this moment are most familiar with. I think it’s my responsibility in those conversations to draw attention to the fact that non-binary gender is not something new, and to encourage others to seek out the voices of Black & Indigenous People of Color to deepen their understanding. I hope that I’m able to help steer potential allies toward resources that center those voices.
What resources would you recommend for LGBTQ+ youth who have questions?
If you have access to something like this in your area, in-person community is such an amazing resource. Finding a group of peers to talk with, laugh with, and take this journey with can be really healing and powerful. If you’re getting ready to have a conversation with parents or other important cis/straight people in your life, another helpful resource is PFLAG—they’re a group for LGBTQ+ parents, friends and allies to learn and support one another. As for books, I recently picked up a copy of Seeing Gender: An Illustrated Guide to Identity and Expression by Iris Gottlieb; it’s fun, colorful, and very readable, and it covers a huge range of topics related to gender, from pronouns, to dysphoria, to residential schools and their role in the erasure of two-spirit identities, to police violence against black men. I got a lot out of reading it, and so did my parents!
What did you think your life was going to be like after high school?
I’ve never been good at envisioning my own future. Part of that is just my anxiety, but I also think that I saw so few versions of adulthood around me that appealed to me. Around the time I graduated from high school, my dreams were to become an international journalist, or work with the Peace Corps, or a naturalist for a remote National Park. In retrospect, I think I gravitated toward possibilities that would take me away. Then there was the fact that, when I imagined myself as an old person, I always had a long beard and a moustache. I used to play this off as a joke to my friends, but inside my stomach would twist with a discomfort and sadness I couldn’t really understand. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a man, but I didn’t especially want to be a woman, either. I didn’t know what that meant, and I definitely couldn’t imagine where a person who felt that way might fit in the world.
Now I realize that the feelings of having no vision of your future is a pretty common experience for a lot of queer and trans folks. I talk to youth a lot who feel that way. I still don’t have it all figured out, but I’m glad to know that high school me wasn’t alone.
What tips would you have for people questioning their gender identity?
Trust your gut about what you want. It’s okay to try things out, like a new name, new pronouns, or new clothes. If you’re nervous about it, sometimes it’s nice to test out something new selectively, like with a trusted friend, or with a group setting if you have one that you feel comfortable in. When I started thinking I might like it if people used they/them pronouns, I tried it at Lambert House first, then with my good friends, then on Facebook, and then finally started talking with the other folks in my life–like my coworkers and my parents. That’s what works for me, but I feel like my partner usually takes the opposite approach; when they decide on something, they go all in. That’s ok too! And if you don’t want to do any of those things, that’s also okay. There aren’t just two (or even just three or four or five) ways to do gender.
What tips would you have for people questioning their sexual orientation?
I’m still not sure I really understand my own, so I’m not sure if I’m in a position to give tips! But I will say that the words you choose to use for yourself are totally up to you. Labels can be a shortcut to finding our people, but they’re also often imperfect or lacking nuance. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for choosing the label that feels best to you now.
How do you stay resilient in the face of negativity and stereotyping?
In comparison to when I was in school, I have a lot more control now over who I spend my time around. Especially now that my day job is at an LGBTQ+ organization, I find that I’m surrounded by positivity and support for most of my waking hours, a privilege I try not to take for granted. But the things that help me stay resilient are spending time in trans community.
What is your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ representation?
I’m a big fan of zines and comics. Recently I’ve really enjoyed Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki. Also, when I’m feeling down and need a positive pick-me-up, I rewatch Yuri!!! on Ice; I really appreciate the mental health-related aspects of the story, but I also like that the creators made an intentional decision not to make the queerness of the two main characters an issue. It’s nice to just watch them get to know each other and how to better support one another without everyone around them freaking out about two men in love.
What are your hopes for the future of the LGBTQ+ community?
I’m working on allowing myself to dream about the future, but sometimes it’s still hard for me. That said, my hope for the future is for an LGBTQ+ community that is intergenerational, where our queer and trans elders are still here in community with us and not taken from the world too early, where queer and trans youth have safe homes and safe spaces to connect with one another. I hope that the kind of radical care for one another I’ve seen in queer and trans spaces keeps growing and expanding. I look forward to the day when the vocabulary we’re using now sounds hopelessly outdated and un-nuanced because we have even more words for communicate or many ways of being in the world.
Is there any advice you would give to the LGBTQ+ teens of today?
Find a way to connect with your peers. Surround yourself with people who support you in exploring your truth. Also, learn about your history. Whether it’s through historical accounts, or a memoir, or a collection of essays from the 1980s, I feel more deeply rooted when I’m reminded of all of the leaders and events that came before this. Finally, know that you have this community behind you, and that you are loved.