How Tori Haye kicked guilt to the curb, grew into their own body politics, and finally arrived exactly where they belong.
Tori Haye sits cross-legged on the floor, hunched over a coffee table cluttered with boxes of Chinese food. They’re wearing a flannel button down, a pair of suspenders lying across their legs. This morning, their nephew told them they looked like a farmer, and he’s not wrong.
"I really like this outfit,” says Tori, a pint of pork fried rice held in one fist. “I take farmer chic as a compliment.”
Tori calls themself non-binary; but they don’t identify with a singular term so much as they do with the they/them pronoun itself—or rather, with the idea of it.
“I don’t expect people to always ask which pronouns I’m using every single day,” Tori says. “But they do change. They/them is always good,” they say, “And she/her is only good sometimes.”
As a kid, Tori was boyish. And for a long time, that was okay. But in binarist cultures, there’s often a cut-off age for gender non-conformity, followed by a long series of social sanctions and disapprovals often felt more acutely by trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people than their cisgender peers. For Tori, those moments were a kind of slow shock, like a slow capsize into cold water.
The Power Rangers and those clothes from the boys' section—those were just games. Whoever Tori had been before, they weren't allowed to be anymore. It was time to grow up.
Binaries, gender or otherwise, have never quite worked for Tori. And so they decided to claim their own agency—just like they’d done as a kid, playing outside, untroubled by the world’s idea of who they were or should be.
For Tori, claiming a non-binary identity and using they/them pronouns is about feeling someplace in between and then learning to live there every day. It can feel like some kind of fight, some kind of exhausting game to earn basic respect from everyone they encounter.
Part of Black and Latinx families not wanting their kids to be queer or trans or non-binary is just not wanting them to have to fight another battle.
For years, Tori was made uncomfortable by a collective gaze that confined them exclusively to femininity and womanhood. “It’s weird,” Tori says, “that almost everyone perceives me as a certain binary thing. I know they see me as a girl,” they say. “But that’s not always who I am.”
Tori props the pork fried rice against one leg and snaps their suspenders over their shoulders. Next to them, their girlfriend laughs.
Tori has been with Hannah for nearly three years. And together, they face this sometimes cruel world with grace and patience and empathy. Tori feels at home with Hannah, finally—a moment of respite amidst a lifetime of confusion. It’s not always this easy, and those pricks and pains from childhood still linger—part of who Tori will become. But today, like every other ordinary day, is some small part of Tori’s becoming. Hannah smiles, and Tori tilts their head back as they laugh—a full-bellied howl in a world built to silence them.
Like all of us, Tori was socialized into a system of expectations that frames femininity as fixed and unchangeable, something every person assigned female at birth must adjust themselves to fit. But Tori is the face of the new age—one in which our genders are negotiable; one that gives young people tools to name and decipher who they are long before they’re shoved into some inescapable box.
As a child, Tori faced that subtle separation. They are their mother’s youngest child, with a seven-year age gap between their closest sibling. That space existed across time and was deeply quantifiable in Tori’s experience of their own identity. They were often left floating, feeling alone or dismissed.
By the time Tori turned five, they knew they weren’t like the other kindergarteners. That distinct feeling, Tori says, was a constant perception of their own otherness.
Today, Tori drinks a latte without the shot—honey milk, cinnamon, maybe nutmeg. They pull one leg up beneath them in a chair, sipping flavored milk through a straw, the hard sun lighting up their hair in a halo from behind. Sometimes, they lose sleep wondering how different their life might’ve been had they been swallowed to find their own gender or build it with their hands.
Instead, Tori was left to build themself from the ground up. They never saw someone who looked or felt like them on television or in magazines. They didn’t know any gender non-conforming people, or any LGBTQIA+ people at all. And for a long time, they were lonely. “I didn’t really have anyone to talk to,” Tori says. “And I didn’t know or see anyone who was like me."
Their impending identity as a gay person wasn’t painful, but rather, a subtle strain of thought—a problem for another day. “In the tenth grade, I saw people on Tumblr who were women and who identified as gay," they say. "It just clicked for me."
These moments of self-recognition are deeply significant for queer and gender non-conforming young people. “Tumblr was the first place I ever saw someone use they/them as a singular pronoun,” Tori says. “I knew instantly that it just fit me.”
Because LGBTQIA+ representation falls short in mainstream media, especially for black queer, trans, and gender non-conforming youth, they’ve crafted digital spaces for themselves.
“With Tumblr, and other social media, I realized there were people out there like me,” Tori says. “Suddenly, I knew there were other people who felt in between.”
Tori didn’t adopt the they/them pronoun for themselves until a few years after they first discovered its usage, mostly out of a well-founded fear that others would trivialize their identity, or dismiss it altogether. But Tori used online communities to trace and feel who they might become in the real world.
“Eventually, I just wanted to be the person that I was on Tumblr in real life,” Tori says, lifting the brim of a hat to run one palm down the back of their neck. When that part of their life began to feel like some shrouded secret, it weighed on them. And they knew they’d have to tell someone.
Tori came out to their mom as gay in the fury and adrenaline of an argument. For months they sat alone in their room, writing it all down, version after version. “I knew exactly what I wanted to say, when I could finally say it.”
Instead, it happened unexpectedly in the kitchen, her mother in tears, choking down her shock. “I was crying when I told her,” they say. “It was kind of heartbreaking. She said she’d love me no matter what,” Tori tells me. “But immediately, I felt a disconnect.”
That disconnect is a common experience for queer and gender non-conforming people during the coming out process, especially for LGBTQIA+ people of color.
“A lot of families of color have certain views of the world,” Tori says. And it has to do with struggle and pain and resilience—the lingering legacy of generational trauma. And because black Americans live at the complex intersections of race, ethnicity, class, and gender every single day, non-normative gender and sexual identities are sometimes framed within black families as an additional struggle within a larger cultural context.
“Part of black and Latinx families not wanting their kids to be queer or trans or non-binary is just not wanting them to have to fight another battle,” Tori says. In their family’s eyes, they were already a girl, already black in America; already struggling desperately to even get out of the gate.
“There’s this mentality that you’re already behind everyone,” Tori says, “and being LGBTQIA+ just pushes you even further back. I understand black parents not wanting their kids to be gay or gender non-conforming, because they just don’t want this world to hurt them any more.”
Tori grew up in a largely white community, in a largely white school. By the time they entered middle school, they noticed that their blackness became a kind of punchline. Their white friends laughed when they put lotion on their arms at a sleepover. “It’s so white on your skin,” the other kids said. “You’re black,” they laughed, “so it’s funny.”
Over and over, Tori’s peers implicitly coded them as less than: not black enough to be black, and certainly not white enough to be white. “They would call me an oreo,” Tori says. “Or say that I ‘talked white.’ I was so young then,” they say. “I didn’t even realize how dehumanizing that stuff was.”
Long before Tori’s queerness or gender non-conformity affected their existence, it was their race and ethnicity that kept them from feeling they belonged anywhere.
It's not that straight, white, cisgender men don’t struggle. We all struggle. But the problems I deal with on a daily basis would be a lot easier if I was a straight, white man. It's just frustrating when other people don't recognize that.
On top of constant racialized microaggressions, a LGBTQIA+ identity can feel isolating, even impossible, to cope with.
“My mom always said she didn’t want things to be any harder for me,” Tori says. “Growing up, she always told us kids we would have to work twice as hard to get half of what everyone else has.” Tori sighs, adjusting the flat brim of their hat to block the afternoon sun from their eyes. “She always said that,” they say, twisting one heel into the carpet. “And now I know she was right.”
A thin slice of sunlight erupts against Tori’s skin. They glow gold, one leg still folded underneath them in their seat.
“I have to fight for my validity every single time I walk into a room,” they say. “Whether it’s because of the color of my skin, or my gender identity, or my sexual orientation. People just don’t respect me. And that will never be an easy thing to accept.”
Tori came out as gay to their friends and their sisters, and then to most of their extended family. “My best friend said she needed some time to process it,” Tori says. “She said we probably shouldn’t hang out for awhile.”
Tori, like so many other queer and gender non-conforming youth, was made to feel ashamed, or somehow responsible for the negative implications of their identity as a gay person.
“I felt sort of guilty,” they say. “Like I had done something wrong. But it was just other people’s unwillingness or inability to understand who I was.”
Even after Tori was mostly out as a gay person, their identity as a non-binary person still lingered beneath the surface of every interaction. She/her felt more and more uncomfortable over time, a slow kind of pinch. They knew feminine pronouns no longer fit their mind and soul every moment of every day. But he/him suddenly felt harsh, and unclaimable.
“Growing up, my only models for masculinity were my brothers and my sister’s boyfriends,” Tori says. “I knew I wasn’t a girl,” they say. “But if that’s what men were like, then that wasn’t me either.”
When they told one of their best friends they were considering using they/them pronouns exclusively, he told them he wasn’t sure he could respect they/them as a singular pronoun.
They and them have been used consistently as singular pronouns as far back as the 1300’s. But because the usage of they/them in relation to non-binarism is a relatively new linguistic trend, it’s often criticized and dismissed as illegitimate.
“When my best friend said he couldn’t accept that about me, it really set me back,” Tori says. “After that, I was convinced that no one would ever respect my pronouns.”
For another few years, Tori inched back into the closest as a non-binary person and tucked those pronouns away, horrified at the thought of living through rejection after rejection, of being labeled unreal, undesirable, or invalid.
To be told, over and over, that what and who you are is not only unacceptable but also non-existent can destroy a person’s psychological landscape. Maybe, Tori thought, they didn’t exist; or maybe they shouldn’t.
Identities Among All Characters Appearing on Scripted Broadcast Television (2016-2017)
Common Lifetime Experiences Among People who Self-Identify as Black and Non-Binary
Representation of LGBTQ+ Characters on Cable Television by Race & Ethnicity
People who identify as non-binary claim gender identities and expressions that do not adhere to the established gender binary.
Non-binary identified people may claim a diverse range of identifiers and expressions. They might present a mixture or combination of masculine and feminine traits and behaviors, or maintain androgynous or neutral gender presentations, and might identify as genderqueer, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, transgender, agender, or something else entirely.
Non-binary people of color—particularly black and Latinx non-binary people—experience disproportionately high levels of violence, harassment, and discrimination over their lifetimes and are severely underrepresented in mainstream media.
Because young non-binary people of color rarely see themselves reflected in film, television, literature, or politics, they're often left feeling confused and alone during their most emotionally and psychologically formative years.
"When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it," writes American poet Adrienne Rich, "there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you were looking in the mirror and saw nothing."
That kind of "psychic disequilibrium," as Rich calls it, can be nearly impossible to cope with for youth of color whose gender identities fall outside the acceptable norms of the gender binary, and often manifests in disproportionately high levels of drug and alcohol dependency, as well as suicide attempts.
The last time Tori saw their dad, he was living in a tiny apartment in the Bronx, working as a golf caddy counting bills under the table. He still lives there, in the same apartment. He’s lived there, in that same set of rooms, since he moved to the States from Jamaica twenty-six years ago.
Jamaica has a rich history of LGBTQIA+ activism, but those narratives are often overshadowed by horrific hate crimes. Jamaica’s complex cultural relationship with Christianity and colonialism has helped shape social systems that are violently homophobic.
Tori never wanted to tell their dad they identified as gay, and they never planned to. They visited him in the summers, pale memories of their swimsuit and the hot New York pavement. Other than those visits, Tori never saw their father.
When their mother stopped making them talk to him on the phone, Tori skipped the calls. Their father was a passing figure, a voice at the other end of a phone; only present for the summer, and then gone again as the leaves turned. "He's my dad," they say, pressing their fingers together like a prayer. “But I don’t really know him.”
Tori’s voice dulls to a whisper, and they unravel their truth among the chatter of a coffee shop. "I used to work at a department store," they say. "And one day my mom picked me up." She told them their dad knew somehow—that someone must have outed them.
Tori still remembers the tight press of that cruelty. And even now, they carry it with them, some small part of who they are.
“My dad called my mom and told her that if he had raised me, I never would have been this way," Tori says, their eyes fixed to a crooked painting on the wall behind me. They blink, and then they look down.
“He called me an abomination."
Sometimes Tori's dad still calls them on the phone. He asks how they're doing, or why they never call him first. And sometimes, Tori just says they can't talk—because it’s not a good time—they have something on the stove, or they’re about to leave for work.
When their dad calls, from his cramped apartment in the Bronx, his accent still coming in thick over the phone lines—a rotating fan spinning in and out of audibility—sometimes, Tori tells him they're busy. But mostly, they tell him nothing at all.
Tori sits at the edge of their seat, one ankle wrapped around the leg of a bar stool. Their hair twists up to the dimmed lights or the night sky beyond them. They’re meeting up with some friends tonight but they are running late.
Everyone else drinks alcohol, but Tori brought a soda from the gas station down the street. They sip it from a straw under a flat screen television. Above them, two teams run a ball from one end of the court to the other, the squeak of their shoes keeping rhythm like a faint metronome.
Tonight, Tori laughs with their friends, huddled in a half-circle. They talk about gender and what it’s like to live in the world like this—carrying all that fear and pride and shame and joy all at once.
For a lot of LGBTQIA+ people, that sense of otherness digs in deep, and never really goes away. That’s why nights like tonight are so important. These moments and spaces are hard to come by, and Tori wants to spend their life building more of them.
In school, they’re studying digital media production, and hoping to someday have a hand in creating inclusive, intersectional media for kids who grew up feeling the way they felt—disconnected and out of place.
“At the very root of things, sure, I saw light-skinned girls on television when I was growing up,” Tori says. “But are there non-binary people? Is there only one black person because they needed to hit a quota with people of color? And how many shows spotlight Asian characters?”
Tori already knows the answers. And they know how much representation matters for queer and gender non-conforming youth. Had they been able to see some semblance of themself anywhere, their life might’ve been different. They might’ve been saved from some of their loneliest moments.
After that phone call from their dad, Tori wrote a spoken word piece about that single word; an abomination, and all its constant echoes—about what it means to be categorically rejected by the person who helped bring you into this world in the first place.
Eventually, Tori’s dad apologized. But there are some things that never go away. The word still hangs someplace in Tori’s life, always at the back of their mind.
“I feel like I will never be able to tell my family about my pronouns, and that is ridiculous. That is crazy,” they say.
Tori is out as a non-binary person to their closest friends. And they’ve explained to their sisters that they feel someplace between man and woman, boy and girl; or neither of those things at all.
Tori wants to come out to their mom, and the rest of their family, as a non-binary person. But how do they tell their mother they aren’t always a girl—or that their gender sometimes defies categorization altogether?
“I don’t even know what steps I have to take to prepare them for me to come out,” Tori says. “I don’t even know where to start.”
Fundamentally, Tori believes that not all genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, or gender non-conforming people should have to define themselves in relation to maleness and femaleness, or masculinity and femininity. They exist someplace beyond that binary. But right now, the places in between male and female are the only ones that feel explainable.
Under the glowing flatscreen, someone shoots and scores. Above Tori, a stadium packed with screaming fans moves silently on the television, like rippling water on a still lake.
“I feel like I already have two strikes against me when it comes to my family,” Tori says. “Using non-binary pronouns wouldn’t even be a third strike,” they say. “It would just be a giant red X on the page.”
Tori makes a fist and swoops their elbow into a right angle, like a real farmer might, posing in front of a field of grazing cows. “Gender?” they say, their hair bobbing rhythmically in the path of a fan. “I barely know her!”
Tori throws their head back, laughing with perfect comfort and ease. They deserve to live this way—untethered from language and expectations and that looming third strike. They deserve this kind of freedom; and they’re learning to craft it for themselves.
A few weeks ago, in the coffee shop, Tori tells me about their girlfriend, Hannah—about how every day when they wake up, Hannah asks them if they feel like a princess, or if they’re feeling more like royalty. There’s immense power in that validation and real care.
Tori and Hannah have been together for two years. They have a dog and a small apartment. In their relationship, Tori’s been allowed space to grow, and to live in love and pursuit of self-love simultaneously.
This part of the process is finally the good part, where Tori gets to take control of how the world perceives them. “My gender identity is still evolving,” Tori says, between mouthfuls of lo mein. “It’s a process,” they say. “And I’ve accepted that.”
Most people care about the world only peripherally, or with a casual selfishness. But Tori isn't like that. They care entirely, with a quiet fury at injustice. The intersections of blackness and queerness and gender non-conformity have shaped them deeply.
Tori kneels over the table, stretching out one open palm to reach a pint of sweet and sour chicken. Beside them, their girlfriend laughs at their clumsiness, and snaps one suspender against their back.
Tonight, and every night, Tori is building themself anew. They’re finding the spaces they were born to fill, reveling in them—and opening them up to let the light through.
“It’s okay to not know what you are today and then know what you are tomorrow,” Tori says. “Always remember, it’s okay to change.”
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Statistics courtesy of: National Center for Transgender Equality: The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, Where We Are on TV: GLAAD's 2016-2017 Annual Report on LGBTQ Inclusion, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, The Human Rights Campaign's Youth Report: Supporting and Caring for Our Gender Expansive Youth
Founded in 2001, the mission of the Gay Community Endowment Fund is to advance a lived equality for all LGBTQ+ people in Greater Akron. The fund accepts grant applications for programs that benefit the local LGBTQ+ community and Greater Akron as a whole. It also advocates for issues vital to the health and well-being of the LGBTQ+ community and promotes systemic change that advances the LGBTQ+ community toward a future of full inclusion and equity. The Gay Community Endowment Fund is a permanent philanthropic endowment of Akron Community Foundation. Learn more at www.gaycommunityfund.org.