This story is adapted from Broadly's Queerly Beloved podcast.
I grew up in a two-family house on a quiet street in a small post-industrial town in Western Massachusetts. When Y2K happened, I was 11-years-old. My childhood had been bright, at least up until the end of the 90s. That’s when the bullying began. Being feminine, and being a boy, wasn’t socially acceptable to my peers.
In contrast, my eldest sibling, four years older than me, felt intimidatingly cool. They had a single blue braid that dangled from a hay-like triangular haircut often crushed by a bucket hat. And as cool as that sounds, what really made my 90s child heart ache for Seth was their confidence, and their creativity.
Today, Seth and I have both come out as transgender. They identify as nonbinary, and I’m far gone down the rabbit hole of male-to-female binary transsexualism. We’re close now, but we were close back when were both gay, too, and even before, when we were just kids who spent their summers running wild at home while our parents were at work.
One mark of queer culture is our frequent need to foster familial relationships with people we’re not biologically related to, because our own families are so often unaccepting or unable to fully understand our experiences as queer people. As adults, Seth and I have both found our own queer chosen families—but before that, we found each other.
My mother—a devoted believer in magic, prayer, and past lives—would tell you that I chose Seth to be my sibling back before I had a body, or that we chose each other. It’s a generous, beautiful idea. But I don’t remember choosing Seth. All I know today is that I was brought into this world in a family that includes them, and that from my earliest memories, their existence worked like a candle at night, allowing me to make out my surroundings when darkness consumed me.
Seth is a quiet, funny, introverted writer of surrealist poetry who takes months, or years, to make decisions. I am an obnoxious, sarcastic, performative non-fiction writer who acts on whatever impulse pops into my head first. So in many ways, I was ahead of Seth when it came to expressing my queerness, despite the fact that they’re four years my senior. I came out as gay when I was 10, or 11-years-old; I came out as trans when I was 23; it took me approximately two days to begin my medical gender transition. Seth has, over the years, followed gradually along a similar trajectory. They came out as gay several years after I did, citing my out life as helpful to their own self-inquiry and self-acceptance. In the years after I began transitioning, Seth and I had long conversations about our childhoods, how we were both always so gender-nonconforming, and at times those conversations strayed into questioning whether or not Seth, like me, is trans. Eventually, it became clear that they are.
In those ways, I understand that I was helpful to Seth. But Seth has been equally important my development as a person.
I came out of the closet before I had started puberty, not because I wanted to, or because I had independently identified my sexual orientation, but because I was enduring social abuse every day as classmates verbally accosted me for being feminine. I was a “faggot” they said, so I learned what faggot means. At a certain point, I felt more embarrassed denying it than just letting them take their victory over me. I could never convincingly act out the role of a straight male, so why keep trying?
Meanwhile, although now I know that Seth was dealing with their own questions around identity, their gender nonconformity spoke for itself. Seth looked like a boy when they were little. Their entire life, they have been perceived as male in restrooms, at restaurants, on the street. So even though Seth had not come out when I came out, they were the first person in my world who broke the gender binary. Neither of us had language for that back then. I didn’t consciously understand how meaningful it was to have a sibling who was effortlessly bending the public’s perception of gender—but subconsciously, it anchored me.
As we both grew up, we became consciously closer in part because of our shared queer identities. Today we support each other in even more intentional ways, but we have survived on symbiosis for as long as we have shared space on this planet. Seth and I were born as different sexes, and neither of us could ever quite conform to the social expectations imposed upon our sex. We have always ebbed and flowed with expressions and rejections of masculinity and femininity.
Together, we understand more about men and women than either of us could alone. But more importantly, we have helped each other liberate ourselves from the deadening burden of gender, to rise above and beyond it, to expose parts of our identities that bear much more meaning than man, or woman.