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Finally, Clearly Different

Being different wasn’t the problem; it was continually being wrong about what made me so different.

This is for anyone who might be currently searching for who they are, and who has already had to experience more than their fair share of pain, or guilt for the pain you think you’ve caused others by not being your true self—because you didn’t even know who that was.

I also hope this is helpful for those of you with future “ally potential.” Do you view things like “respect,” “compassion,” and “patience” as natural traits of yours? Or, do others see those traits in you even if you don’t? Congrats! You have lots of potential. And, if you don’t currently possess those traits—but you aspire to—congrats, you have lots of potential, too.

The good news for wannabe-allies, or wannabe-better-allies, is that there are already lots of articles out there that can help you out with that, including this fantastic one, written by the amazing @BruceOnlyBruce.

In the spirit of Bruce’s article above (seriously, you should read it), and given that I’ve been conducting fantasy interviews with myself since childhood, I’m also writing my “What gives, Noel?” non-binary/genderqueer story as a Q&A. The questions below are an equal mix of questions I’ve been asked by others, and questions I’ve long-asked myself. Finally being able to honestly and accurately answer them internally was an important first step for me, and I hope that the public sharing of my progress might help others in their own journeys of self-discovery.

Lastly, please know that everything below is, and is only, my opinion. There is no single source of truth for all of your non-binary questions. Just like you would never (and if you do this, stop) ask, “Why do black people…,” or, “Why do Christians all…,” or, “Why are Republicans so….” We, no matter how “niche” or narrow-in-number non-binary folks might be, have no one-size-fits-all set of preferences, mindsets, attitudes, concerns, needs, or interpretations of anything. I’m one person. I might identify as the same type of person as someone else, but that literally could be the only similar thing between us. 

Which leads me to…

“Wait, you’re what?”

Great question! And, while I’m excited to answer it, I’m kinda jealous that you’re getting the answer so quickly; it took me 30+ years to figure it out. I, in a nutshell, identify as “non-binary,” until I contradict that a bit just a few questions from now. Stick around. I assume that some of you are already (and rightfully!) asking, “Umm, okay, but what does that actually mean?” Another great question, and one I’m going to look to someone far smarter than me to tackle answering that for you:

[Non-binary] captures individuals who may experience a gender identity that is neither exclusively male nor female, is a combination of male and female, or is between or beyond genders.

It’s so funny to me that you can answer something so seemingly complicated with such a concise answer, but the snippet above really does a great job of doing that. Being, or identifying, as non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer, gender non-conforming—and, again, we’re only talking about me here—really “only” means, that I do not identify as wholly male, or female. The real kicker is that I never have.

“Wait, you just rattled off a lot of names. Those all mean the same thing? Why not just have one?”

I’m kinda with you on that; It’s pretty confusing! Believe me, I’m the one who had to go through all those terms—and a million others, and all the ones that others have tried to convince me who I was—to try and figure out what and who in the hell I actually am. I get it. It was, and for far too many people, continues to be, a huge pain in the ass.

But, every time I catch myself thinking, “Wouldn’t be easier if there was just one ‘thing’ that we all were? There wouldn’t be all this painful soul-searching, mislabeling, and misunderstanding.” I then quickly realize both the ludicrousness of wishing “everyone” was the exact same. At best, you’re wishing for a pretty boring world of cookie-cutter, dronelike, carbon-copy lemmings who are completely indistinguishable from each other. At worst you’re getting a little too close to some shared, abhorrent “master race” desires that you should probably maintain an enormous distance from.

“‘Non-binary’ does it for you, though? That’s what I should know/think of/refer to you as?”

If you’re looking to nail me with my own preferred descriptor, I’m actually pretty partial to “genderqueer.” I, personally, love the LGBTQ+ community’s embracing/taking back of the word “queer.” But, that’s just me! Not everyone wants to think of themselves as Webster’s beautiful definition of queer, written back in 1913:

At variance with what is usual or normal; differing in some odd way from what is ordinary; odd; singular; strange; whimsical; as, a queer story or act.

I’ve never felt anything other than “at variance with what is usual or different” for one second of my entire life, and, thankfully, I’ve always enjoyed that about myself! So, “genderqueer” really works for me. “Non-binary” is just as accurate, it’s just not as…me. I’m also a total word nerd.

Hey! Speaking of “nerds,” that’s a great example of why words, labels, and individual preferences really do matter. A lot of people today not only don’t mind being called a “nerd,” they’ve embraced it to the point of wearing that label as a badge of honor. Video game nerds, word nerds, robotics nerds, sports analytics nerds—we’re everywhere. However, say a coworker shows you something incredibly complex that they’ve been working on. It’s so far over your knowledge or expertise, but you’re still blown away by what they’ve accomplished. Your response to being shown that is probably not, “Wow! Great work, nerd!” 

No matter how widespread the adoption grows of people who embrace descriptors like “nerd,” or “queer,” or any other term that’s been used to denigrate a group of people becomes, those words will never fit everyone. Don’t assume. Let someone tell you that those sorts of words are cool with them—and make sure they’re okay with you using them in reference to them! They might not be.

“Is this why I’m seeing more and more people use “he/him,” “she/her,” or “they/them?” Is it to make sure people know how they identify? What are your preferred pronouns?”

I can’t speak for everyone who is now publicly tagging their profiles and usernames with their preferred pronouns. C’mon, I just told you I’m only one person! But, I can tell you why I love to see it being done. The more people who let the world know their preferred pronouns, the more commonplace, or even “safe” it becomes to do so. This is especially true every time you learn that someone’s preferred pronouns are not what you perhaps assumed they were. I’m quite confident that there are lots of people who identify in ways that you would not expect, they just feel safer keeping that to themselves.

“We” haven’t felt safe to be public with this info for a long time, and in many situations, we still don’t. But the more people who chip in to get rid of the belief that “It’s fine to assume gender identity with people who look this way…but not this way,” the better life will be for those who were previously afraid to be public with their identity, as well as for those who simply want to avoid misgendering others.

As for my preferred pronouns, hopefully this isn’t sacrilege, but…I don’t really have any. (Hides behind laptop, ducks imaginary shoes thrown) He/him is…fine? I “present” publicly (more on that below) as what is typically regarded as “male” so often, (like, literally almost always) that it’s only natural that people would look at me and assume he/him is “right.”

They/them is also…fine. Those are technically more accurate than he/him, but it’s actually really hard for me to say that I “prefer” them. If I’m being honest, I, at least to date, have made zero effort to inform people that they/them are my preferences, so I don’t really feel like I have a case for “correcting” people if they get my pronouns “wrong.” I definitely give myself a hard time for being so wishy-washy on this matter, but I’m slowly getting better at cutting myself some slack. It’s more than okay to still be in the process of figuring some things out. 

However, please don’t think that a lack of a serious preference around pronouns is the norm. Nor should you believe that things you feel like are the norm today won’t have changed by tomorrow. To some people, many people, being correctly introduced or referred to with their preferred, or let’s just call them their accurate, pronouns is incredibly important to them! Just as important as it might be to you. 

Unless, of course, you’re me, and you’re just queer about the whole thing.

You said something about ‘presenting.’ What’s that?

Take it away, Wikipedia!

Gender expression (also called, “gender presentation”) means how a person dresses, looks, and acts, in ways that might affect how other people view their gender. Someone who wears men’s clothes and acts in a masculine way has a male gender expression. Someone who wears women’s clothes and acts in a feminine way has a female gender expression. This is different from gender identity because people can choose to look or behave one way even if that is not how they feel inside. Sometimes people call this gender presentation or just presentation.

I can’t really say it any better than that. It’s not complicated…except when it is.

When it comes to how I “present” or “express my gender identity, it’s largely male, which, I’ll go ahead and admit: I don’t love. Why? Because I don’t identify as “largely” male or female. It’s…a mix. It’s one on one day, and another on the next. There are a million reasons that I, and countless others, choose to present almost exclusively in alignment with their assigned sex at birth, even when that’s at odds with their gender identity. And, tragically, many of those reasons are closely tied to completely legitimate, unbridled fear.

  1. My geography/surrounding area: I live in the Southern United States and am surrounded by judgemental, hateful, frighteningly quick-to-violence people. It’s sad, but true. There are pockets of LGBTQ+-friendlier neighborhoods that extend in various directions from where I reside, but those pockets are just that—pockets. Tiny little communities no larger than a small handful of colorfully queer city blocks…and which are surrounded on all sides by folks who are so gleefully ready to verbally and/or physically attack those who they feel threaten their way of life. And, to take some of the heat off of the South, my birthplace, and a place I’ve chosen to call home for nearly my entire life, I really don’t see things as that much safer in most of the rest of the world. Hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people happen in every US state, and in likely every other country on the planet. There are far more brave people than I in this world who refuse to be afraid to live their lives and to show the world who they are, and I’ll never not be envious of them. A couple of years ago, I wore an ultra-snobbish, Brooks Brothers summer garden party dress over a pair of jeans while at a conference in San Francisco, probably the LGBTQ+-friendliest city in the entire US. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack all day long. No matter how many compliments I received (and I got so many!!!) I was a nervous wreck in the cab, walking to lunch, walking to dinner, and waiting for the elevator to eventually go back to my room—fully convinced that I was always potentially only a second away from being beaten to death. Because it happens all the time. The risk that LGBTQ+ people face every single day for expressing their pride of themselves, or their love for their partners in view of others who cannot get over their hatred of these harmless, celebratory actions, is an absolute tragedy.
  2. I have kids: My kids are wonderful. They also not only know that I identify as genderqueer…they think it’s cool. I’m still, in many ways, waiting to wake up from that dream. I don’t deserve them. However, no matter how “cool” they think I am (they’re wrong; I’m really not), not all kids think having a genderqueer dad is cool. Kids are often embarrassed enough by being seen with their parents when they’re sporting “normal” adult fashions and hairstyles. Mom jeans, those hideous, dad-mode New Balance sneakers, baseball caps with curved brims—kids hate it all. While I might get frustrated with how I’m “expected” to present by hateful strangers, I have no problem with not calling more attention to my loving kids when they’re out with me. I tend to just kinda look my typical “all dads are lame” self like every other dad we pass by.
  3. I don’t actually want to be looked at most of the time: In my college days, there was nothing I wanted more than to be questioned, gawked at, and hit on when I was out and about and wearing some sarong, or dress, or gothic makeup, or sporting some hot pink pixie haircut—those were strange times. Times that are harder and harder to believe actually happened, especially given how boring I choose, and feel obligated, to present today.

Sheesh. So what do I do now? What changes about how we hang out, or what we talk about, or…” (clearly panicking and starting to spin out).

I don’t mean for this to come across as “not my problem,” but the answer(s) to the above is…kinda up to you! And, as crazy as this may sound, nothing really has to change about how you and I interact or hang out. For anyone reading this who does find themselves a little taken aback, or needing time to process, or wondering “how are things supposed to be ‘normal’ between us now that I know this?” Let me explain.

I am, 100%, the exact same person I’ve always been.

“But, I didn’t know who you were when we met or during all the times we’ve hung out!” Guess what! Neither did I! I mean, I’ve known for the last couple of years, where you did not. But, for those of you who’ve been around me in the last two years, I don’t mean to startle you, but you were in the presence of someone who identifies as genderqueer. And if it’s been more than two years since we’ve hung out, that’s right: you were also in the presence of someone who identifies as genderqueer—I just didn’t know that was a thing at the time.

So that’s where the ball is now kinda in your court. You’re just as entitled to stop hanging out with me as you’ve ever been. Chances are, you probably knew there was something that made me different from your usual circle of friends before knowing this about me—and, now we both know what that thing is. If that causes a problem for you, I don’t mean to sound so cold, but, I promise we’ll both be fine without each other.

“Wouldn’t you like to be someone who helped someone else finally understand who they are?”

I’ve tried so hard to come up with a way to adequately describe the feeling on the day I realized that identifying as genderqueer or non-binary was not only a “thing,” but that it was 1000% my thing, too. I’d spent years, decades even, feeling so completely different from every single person around me, every person I saw on TV or in movies, or read about in books or newspapers, or sat next to in support groups. There was no one. And, as much as I would find myself getting along with members of this group more than that group, or when I’d feel a little more like this demographic—it was never right. And when that happens, you quickly feel like you’re the problem. You beat yourself up mentally, emotionally, some even physically, for why you can’t just get along with others, or keep from having a panic attack in certain social situations. You’re told that everyone feels out of place sometimes and that some people are “just different.”

And, they’re right. That’s true. But being different doesn’t have to mean being alone.

The first time I ever came across the word non-binary is the day I realized that’s what I was, and what I’d been my entire life. I first read it in a blog that was written by someone else who else identifies as non-binary, and even though they looked and presented completely differently than I do, and were from another part of the world, there were more similarities between us than I had ever recognized in anyone else. Similarities that I’d stopped believing I would ever find in anyone else. And then I found another blog, and another, and another. People who identified as non-binary, gender-neutral, gender nonconforming, genderfluid, agender, and genderqueer. People whose sex was male, female, or a bit of both. People who were straight, gay, bi, black, white, and every other possible combination of complexions and personality traits. Seemingly, the only similarity they did shared was a gender identity that fell outside of that of a large majority of their friends, families, and neighbors. Just…like…me.

I spent days spent pouring over more and more blogs and interviews on YouTube with other people whose gender identities aligned with mine. And, shortly afterward, I scheduled a meeting with a local therapist who specializes in helping LGBTQ+ individuals. In that very first meeting, after learning that I identify as genderqueer, and the impact that these blogs had on me, and that I’m also a writer, she asked:


“Wouldn’t you like to be someone who helped someone else finally understand who they are?”

I would.

Don’t ignore the happy path; know that it was never there

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In “The Road Not Taken,” poet Robert Frost describes an interesting scenario. Frost’s poem paints a beautiful picture of someone who stood before “two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and who felt “sorry I could not travel both.” And, as the closing stanza above tells us, they eventually “took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” We’re not told what that difference was, and if the traveler chose the “right” or “wrong” path. We only know that the decision was important enough that they see themselves still telling this story “ages and ages” into the future.

This is one of my favorite poems, for many reasons, and I recently came to realize how similar it is to the types of decisions we make every day in the software industry. We, as software testers, developers, architects, and UX designers, regularly find ourselves at metaphoric forks in the road, wandering through colorful aging woods of internal and external hierarchies, and, like the traveler in Frost’s poem, we have important decisions to make. Will we be drawn to the familiarity and presumed comfort of the paths that were chosen by the most before us? Or will we venture down the other? The one that looks like it has, perhaps, never, been chosen, and therefore has a far less predictable endpoint?

Many organizations feel forced to take, and then re-take, the popular, proven, recognizable paths that they, and the companies they’re competing with or aspire to be have taken so many times before. This obligation is often due to the sink or swim nature of our industry and that we can find ourselves constantly teetering between feast-or-famine. “The way we’ve always done it” comes with a natural boost of greater predictability, something every organization is looking for these days, and which individual contributors are often rewarded handsomely for providing.

And, thus, the “happy path” was born.

“A happy path? Sign me up!” you might say to yourself, and, at first glance, why wouldn’t you? Imagine yourself standing before two roads. One of them is well lit, maybe you’ve even taken it before. You know how long it will take to reach the end, maybe you can even see the end from where you’re standing, and you’re completely confident in what will be waiting for you when you get there. Let’s pretend there’s even a cute sign at the trailhead telling you that this is the happy path. The other road…is different in every conceivable way. It’s overgrown, poorly lit, and you can’t see anything past a sharp turn only a few steps in, leaving you with little confidence how long it will take you to walk it, if anyone has ever walked it before you, and if they, or you, will even reach the end.

It’s only natural that more people would choose the sign-described happy path in the scenario above, and in the real world of the software industry, as well. We can’t just go wandering off down shadowy paths in the woods with no estimated time we’ll return. After all, we have places to be and deadlines to make. We owe people things, like new features, bug reports, KPIs, and slide decks.

There’s just one problem. There is no happy path. Not in the woods, and not in your apps. It’s all in your head.

Wait…what?

(Scene from The Matrix, Warner Bros. Pictures)

In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, is perplexed when a young child sitting across from him is able to bend a metal spoon in his hand using only his mind. As Neo tries his hardest to bend the spoon in his hand, using only his mind, the child tells him:

“Do not try to bend the spoon — that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.”

This line was pretty deep stuff back in 1999. We all sat there, like Neo, pretty confused, and asking ourselves, “How is there not a spoon? It’s…right there in his hand.” The same can be said for your application. You certainly can design, build, and test a path that takes the user where you want them to end up, and you should! But there’s a very important reason that shouldn’t be your sole focus. There is no sole focus of your users. There is no single path that all users will take or will even want to take. No matter how clearly marked you try to make your path, you cannot guarantee they’ll see it. No matter how efficiently one path takes your users from Point A to Point B, you cannot guarantee your users will prefer it. And no matter how much effort you put into hiding the presence or potential appeal of other paths, you cannot prevent your users from finding something attractive about them, especially those who are looking for a completely different outcome (maybe even something nefarious) than the one you’re hoping they achieve or are able to provide.

It’s only once Neo accepts that there is no singular spoon in his hand—perhaps even that the concept of “a spoon that will only ever be used by its creators for its originally intended purposes is also a myth”—that he observes the object, and his reflection inside it, in an entirely different light.

Visibility ≠ Predictability

The trusty iceberg image above has made its way into roughly 9 million software industry slide decks and blogs over the years. In this story, the small percentage of ice above water represents a (not the) happy path of our application. It’s the part of our app that we’re most familiar with, most easily measured, what was thoroughly tested, and will almost certainly be the most trodden upon. The rest…not so much. It’s dark, it’s surrounded by freezing water, it’s much harder to access or traverse, and it’s far less likely to ever be seen, or measured, or tested. But, wait. Is it possible that those descriptions are simply your opinions, and not those of your users? You might find what lies below the surface “dark,” “freezing,” and “difficult to access,” but do they? And are we talking about the users you have today or your potential future users?

Unfortunately, using the famous image above as a metaphor for comparing software applications to icebergs is pretty disingenuous. Are we gifted this much visibility into our applications on Day One? Never. A much more accurate representation of what we know about our applications, and how we think about users are interacting with them is below.

When compared to the previous image, how much of this iceberg is visible? Much less, right? What a shame! But, how much of this iceberg is observable? Just as much as what’s shown in the last image. For the dose of “frigid waters reality,” how many software organizations ignore observability, and focus only on what’s more easily visible, and what they believe is more easily visible or sensibly desirable by their users? I believe it’s far too many.

You can see why visibility is so appealing. It’s inherently predictable, and it requires such little effort. It’s like the aforementioned fabled happy path. “I can see this happening, right now. It’s happening over and over, and therefore, I can predict, to a fairly certain degree, what will happen next.” But observability never goes away. It’s always right there, too. It requires much more effort, but it results in greater visibility, and then, you guessed it, predictability, the thing we know the rest of the business is looking for.

  1. We have users/seals!
  2. We designed this iceberg to facilitate and encourage the lounging that we know seals like to do, and they look pretty content. Go us!
  3. One appears to be either having a drink of water or they might be about to leave. We should keep our eye on that one to see if/when they return, how long it takes them to return, and if others behave similarly.
  4. We can see some smaller chunks of ice floating around ours, and they look a little small. I don’t think we have to worry about our uses/seals abandoning our app/iceberg for those others.

Far-too-early-prediction: Because we built an iceberg for seals to enjoy, and they’re currently enjoying it, we predict that seals will continue to enjoy our iceberg.

Based on this small amount of visibility, can we actually predict the above with any real confidence at all? We can’t, because we haven’t observed nearly enough. What isn’t currently visible, doesn’t mean it isn’t observable.

What is observable, and would lend to much greater predictability?

  • Are there other icebergs with far more seals lounging on them? Why is that? What features do they have?
  • Are seals easily accessing our iceberg from where we assumed they would, or are they experiencing any difficulties doing so?
  • What percentage of our iceberg lies below the surface of the water? Enough to keep our seals trusting that the portion they lay on will remain stable and intact?
  • What impact are the air and water temperature playing on the state of our iceberg?
  • Are fish, crustaceans, and other seal prey available in the waters surrounding our iceberg?
  • Are pollutants or seal predators in the area?
  • Should we be looking at icebergs for walruses? Penguins? Eco-tours? Research labs?

And, perhaps most importantly:

How often are we observing and measuring these things, and how quickly can we design, build, test, and deploy changes when warranted?

Happiness is Subjective…and in a constant state of flux

When we think about the definition of words, and why we have them, the actual definition of the word “definition” sums it up pretty nicely:

“the act of defining, or of making something definite, distinct, or clear”

Which is why I find the outcome of reading Wikipedia’s definition of “happy path testing” so humorous:

“Happy path testing is a well-defined test case using known input, which executes without exception and produces an expected output.”

Our users’ input is never always “known.”

There is no permanent state of executions “without exception.”

“Expected outputs” fail to be actual outputs all the time.

And any test cases written, requirements gathered, and UX feedback collected were all conducted at a single point in time—time that changes just as frequently as those test cases, requirements, feedback, and outcomes. And, what I, personally, find most “definite, distinct, or clear,” is that the mythical happy path, no matter how well-marked or defined it may be, will always offer less visibility than the entire woods that surround it.

In closing, the greatest level of predictability can be found not in what is immediately obvious, but by allowing yourself, and encouraging others, to explore an entire world of opportunities and potential dangers outside of what may be clearly visible today.

As the boy says to Neo once he begins to accept that perhaps there is no spoon:

“Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

And that will make all the difference for you, traveler.