Irish non-binary butch lesbian shares the power of language when coming out

Finding the words to describe one's identity can be a long and difficult process. At the age of 45, Han Tiernan details their experience.

This article is about the power of language when coming out. The image shows hands holding a cardboard sign, reading
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Like many queer people, Han Tiernan grew up feeling different, not quite knowing how or why but knowing that they didn’t feel like they fit. This is their journey of coming out, and finding the right language to describe themself.

Words can seem so arbitrary. When we are fluent speakers, we use them almost without thought; they flow naturally and help us to navigate our worlds seamlessly. But when we don’t have words, we can feel lost.

Consider how you feel when you are in a foreign country without the language. Even ordering food can become an arduous task. Now apply this to yourself – do you have the words to express your emotional state? Are you simply happy or sad, or perhaps something more complex like elated or morose? The more words we have, the more concisely we can paint a picture by which we and others can fully understand ourselves.

One of the most beautiful parts of language is that it is constantly evolving. New words are created, or old words are ascribed new meanings as society shifts. But there can also be a pain to beauty.

This is a story about the difficulty of not having the right language and the beauty that comes with discovering the words, especially when coming out.

I was a tomboy growing up. As a child in the ‘80s, most of the games we played involved imitating heteronormative gender roles, and I’d always choose to play the traditionally male roles; the father or the doctor or the priest or whatever we understood to be a male character. And this worked to a point, as I generally played these games with other girls; we needed someone to act out the men’s parts.

I felt comfortable playing these parts, but they were only games, and I didn’t want to ‘be a boy’. In real life, I never saw anyone who looked like me – or rather looked like how I felt – on TV or in films.

The first time I recognised myself in someone, I was about 11 or 12. She was a live-in childminder for my friend’s family who lived across the road. It felt like the three of us spent all summer together. She was mad about soccer and taught me how to header a football.

I don’t remember an awful lot about her except that she was from Cork and she used to wear a black velvet waistcoat that I idolised. At the end of the summer, before she finished her stay with the family, she gave me the waistcoat. Although it was about four sizes too big for me, I loved it and wouldn’t take it off.

A couple of months later, she called to the house out of the blue and said that she was going to take my friend and me to the cinema the next day and that she would collect me from school.

The following day, I waited excitedly. As time passed, I began to get anxious. Eventually, I saw my mum’s car driving up, and I began to feel my stomach sink. I climbed into the car, and my mum told me that she wouldn’t be coming.

I remember feeling as if my heart had broken. I wept with the sort of inconsolable longing you experience when you’re told a loved one has died. And for me, that was how it truly felt. It was as if the one person in the world who understood me or who I felt I understood had just disappeared.

Meeting her should have made me realise that there were others like me. Instead, losing her made me feel even more isolated.

As a result, I spent my teens trying to conform more rigidly to society’s norms. I let my hair grow long, wore dresses and makeup – albeit goth makeup – and had boyfriends.

One of my ex-boyfriends came out when we were about 17 or 18. After that, he encouraged me to open up to the possibility of my queerness.

I knew I liked women, but I still couldn’t allow myself to think that this might be something I could act upon. It wasn’t until I came across Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Diane DiPrima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik that I accepted having an intimate relationship with a woman was possible.

About a month before my 21st birthday, my ex brought me into The George and introduced me to his friends. Later that evening, I had my first sapphic kiss, and I knew there was no turning back, I liked it, and I wanted more!

After that, I came out as bisexual, and I believed that that was it – I’d uncovered the thing that had been holding me back and making me feel ‘different’.

A few years passed, and I moved to Australia. I was welcomed by the most incredible group of queer women who, without ever saying a word, helped me to accept that I wasn’t really attracted to men and to embrace being lesbian. Again, after coming out a second time, I thought I had the language to describe myself.

When I returned to Ireland a year later, I struggled hugely without their support and faced having to come out all over again. It was one of my darkest times, but eventually, I met a woman, and we began a life together.

We shared our lives for nine years – for the most part happily – but deep down, I still couldn’t shift the nagging feeling that I didn’t fit our life and that I was just conforming. But once again, I didn’t have the words to explain this to her, so the relationship ended.

About six years ago, another woman I dated called me ‘handsome’, and it took me by surprise. I had never fully appreciated the impact of reclaiming words that were traditionally associated with the opposite gender.

Around the same time, I was introduced to Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity. Seeing the title of the book alone and the pairing of two seemingly contradictory words resonated deep within me and gave me permission to embrace my butch identity.

After that, I bought myself a waistcoat – the first one I’d owned since that summer – and wore it to my sister’s wedding. I began working in the LGBTQ+ community and immersed myself in queer culture. I found a new energy and strength, and I began to feel like I was truly finding myself.

But I mentioned that there can be a ‘pain to beauty’, and whilst discovering the language to articulate my masculine side felt beautiful, it still didn’t complete the picture. The deeper I clung to my butchness, the more I began to recall the pain of loss and loneliness I had felt in my childhood; that feeling of not quite knowing how or why but knowing that I just didn’t feel like I fit.

Immersing myself in the community meant that although I’d always been open with my family, queer culture had become my life, so I was having more frank and open conversations with them about issues surrounding gender and sexuality. Things that seemed simple to me and most of my friends, such as the difference between biological sex and gender or how being trans didn’t automatically mean you were gay or straight, became long drawn out dinner conversations. And in fairness to them, they listened and learned.

One of the terms they found most difficult to comprehend was non-binary, so I found myself using my own experience as an example. I recalled how at the age of 15 or 16, I had told my mum that I wanted a hysterectomy because I didn’t want to have to get my period for the next 30 to 40 years. Understandably (bearing in mind this was the mid-90s), she insisted that I would one day want children and that it was an absurd idea (Mum, please forgive me for paraphrasing).

I also explained how, if I needed to have my breasts removed for any reason, I would happily consent and not feel the need to replace them – that said, top surgery wouldn’t necessarily be high on my agenda. I didn’t say any of this to shock them but to explain that I don’t feel my body is representative of my gender.

After a few years of using these examples, it occurred to me, why was I explaining this to people but not actually owning it? I fobbed it off by saying things like, “If the term non-binary had existed when I was younger, I would probably have identified as that”. When people would ask why I don’t identify as non-binary now, I’d reply with something like, “I don’t have the energy to come out again”.

This year, I finally reached a point where not coming out felt like it was taking up more energy than I needed to come out again. So here I am at the age of 45, coming out again, using the pronouns they/them, going by Han instead of Hannah, and, most importantly, finally finding  the language and owning the beauty of the words ‘non-binary butch lesbian’.

Han Tiernan’s article on their experience of finding the right language when coming out originally appeared in Issue 379 of GCN Magazine.

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