Come as you are: What that means to this nonbinary writer and artist

Editor's Note: Second Wave's Casey Grooten explores what it means to be a nonbinary person in their essay about attending a Trans Pool Party sponsored by OutFront Kalamazoo. The artwork helps convey the inner experience of being nonbinary despite outer appearances. To honor the International Transgender Day of Visibility, OutFront's Faith Alliance is hosting a local Trans Day of Visibility at People's Church on March 18, 2023. Check out next week's Southwest Michigan's Second Wave issue as we speak to members of OutFront's Faith Alliance for our Faith in Action series, sponsored by the Fetzer Institute.

Perfectly calm, chilling at home.


The sound on my cellphone has recently been turned on because of my new job, and as a millennial, I am deeply offended when my phone makes any sort of noise. I looked at the text on my phone. It was an invite to an after-hours trans and gender-nonconforming-only pool party at the Maple Street YMCA. 

My relaxed evening time atmosphere was ruined. What was this feeling in my chest?

I identify as a nonbinary person. When I say it out loud, I say “nonbinary trans." I do this to make it click for people listening. For a while, saying just nonbinary didn’t seem to mean anything to people, but when I attached trans to the front of that phrase, the level of care seemed to increase: people would check in with me about my pronouns, and they would ask my comfort level with things.
I was assigned male at birth, and have only worn a two-piece swimsuit to go swimming one time, two years ago. When I read the text on my phone, I immediately was excited because I finally got to wear a bikini of some sort. I am hairy as hell with a full beard, fleece-blanket back, and also am six foot three inches tall… so wearing a two-piece anywhere public could elicit not only stares and obscene comments but also potentially dangerous situations. 

When I got the text I was also instantly anxious. This danger is a reality for someone like me. Unlike a lot of other folks, I can dress like a stereotypical man, and fit right in. A lot of transgender, genderqueer, and nonbinary folks do not have that safety measure available to them. 

Were others who are going to the pool party feeling this way? We were supposed to be happy and overjoyed at the opportunity to swim in safety. I felt bad for feeling uncertain and decided to keep my feelings inside. Not to worry though, there were only two weeks until the event to overthink every little detail. 

Thirteen days later, I found myself at the Walmart on Shaver Road at 9 p.m. on Friday, rifling through sports bras in the plus-sized women’s section. I’d done this before, two years ago when I wanted to create the illusion of a two-piece bathing suit – wearing a black sports bra from the store, and a black speedo bottom gifted by a friend. This time, I felt more nervous.

Former times 

From 2011 to 2014, my typical summer attire was combat boots, a mini skirt, and some sort of see-through top. In 2015 I underwent open heart surgery for an aortic valve replacement and a mitral valve patch, because of complications from strep bacteria somehow entering my bloodstream. My dry joke is, I am much easier to kill now – one good punch to the chest. The other dry joke is I don’t dress to get killed anymore. 

Still, I miss looking on the outside like the way I feel in my brain when it comes to gender, or rather, being nonbinary. As long as I can remember -- probably since I was 8 or 9 years old – I never felt like a man or a woman. Once I became an adult and moved out of my strict Northern Baptist household, I was able to wear whatever I wanted, and during the summer that translated to not much. 

I miss those times. I miss showing off my body that has fought to stay alive through six major surgeries in 26 years. I understand that it’s not like everyone is going to want to kill me if I wear a dress, skirt, etc.… and in a perfect world, I could convince my brain of that. However, it just feels like too much of a risk.

I took the padding out of a black XXL sports bra to see if it would lie flat against my chest and it did. I bought it, and then went home to try it on. It didn’t fit the way I wanted it to since I don’t have the typical breasts the bra was made for. I decided to wear a cutoff string tank top I had at home, along with some gray underwear that could pass as a bathing suit bottom. 

The next day I woke up, and the pool party was the first thing on my mind.

Nothing fits. These are literal underwear… is that appropriate? Will these be see-through? Is a thong too much? Should I just go shirtless? No. I need a friend. 

The friend I was planning to attend the party with texted me shortly after I decided that tonight may not be the night. He was feeling similarly. I called him.

“I understand if it's a no, but how about you come here early, help me pick out my bathing suit, and I can tape your chest down?” He immediately said yes, and once we were together later that evening, we discussed why the tension was so high.

Trans and gender nonconforming folks are not allowed to walk around in their preferred clothing a lot of the time, much less swim in our preferred bathing suits. Our bodies and even our very existence is debated. Even though Maple Street Y allowed us to use the space, the party was after hours, closed to the public with minimum staff, and restricted to people aged 18 and up.

Appearing the way I do, what if people stare? What if I stare in an attempt to register to see unadulterated queer bodies in a space where they normally aren't allowed?

The car behind us tore through the empty parking lot across the street from the Y. My friend and I laughed in nervousness.

“They are probably going to the pool party, too,” I said, and sure enough, the car followed us into the Y parking lot. The driver exited the car and briskly walked toward the entrance. 

We parked and sat there for a minute. We are okay, we reminded ourselves. In my mind, there are a lot of people who feel similarly to us right behind those doors. This is a safe place right now. It was clear that my friend was doing something similar in their mind. We hugged and went inside. 

We were greeted and let in by a staff member and guided to one of the larger meeting rooms where a group of about 30 had gathered. The representatives from the WMU Office of Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Student Services, and OutFront Kalamazoo stood at the front of the room and gave us the rundown of the rules. Use whatever locker room you feel most comfortable in, and don't run on the pool deck. 

The atmosphere in the room felt timid but happy. Attendees were clumped together with the people they came with, including my friend and me. After going over protocol, the organizers released us to head off to the locker rooms. At first, we went into the men's, and my friend turned to face me – their mouths open, looking worried. They had forgotten their swimming trunks. Immediately, he wanted to leave and walk home. 

I had brought a pair of colorful shorts that I intended to wear if I felt uncomfortable in my speedo, and offered them to my friend. He shook his head quickly back and forth and looked around the room -- as if trying to sort his thoughts that seemed to be racing. I wanted to reach out and touch him to soothe him, but know that I often don’t want physical touch when I am upset. I sat down on the bench by the lockers and folded the shorts on my lap. I told my friend that no matter what happened, or what they decided I was not going to be upset with them. 

After a couple of minutes, we were back in the car and headed to his place to retrieve the shorts. I told him that even if he got upstairs, grabbed the shorts, and decided he didn't want to come back, that was OK. Even if we were about to jump in the pool and he wanted to go, that was okay. Tonight was about being comfortable. I was proud of him either way. 

We made it back to the Y a few minutes later and decided to use the men's full-access locker room this time because that's where I used to go when I visited the YMCA as a patron. It was a wild experience to be so unashamedly queer in a space that usually has news blaring from the corner, and five older men talking politics loudly so they can hear each other over the TV. And it felt right. 

The gray underwear pretending to be a swimsuit bottom ended up being incredibly see-through when wet, so I changed into the black speedo bottom. My friend looked amazing with their exposed tape, and swim trunks. We finally made it to the pool, and for the first time in public, I hit the hot tub in a two-piece. 

For the next two hours, I swam, tossed a beach ball around, small talked, and ate snacks –- all the things one would normally do at a pool party. Most of us, myself included, were awkward at first. Eventually, we opened up with each other and as it turned out, almost all of us said we felt nervous as hell about coming to the party. 

Not one person I spoke to regretted attending. 

Everywhere I looked there was joy, maybe a bit reticent at first, but there it was -- on people's faces, in the laughter echoing off the tile, in the body language. There was real joy.

Thank you Second Wave for allowing me to share the perspective of one nonbinary person. We deserve joy, too.  

Artist's Note: In these pieces of artwork, I used ink pens and sharpies on watercolor paper and notebook paper. With ink, I find it necessary to work on my mistakes. Just like in life, learning from mistakes, and being changeable can be two very helpful qualities to possess. 

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Read more articles by Casey Grooten.

Casey Grooten is a Kalamazoo native who lived in the Vine and Stuart neighborhoods for over a decade and graduated from WMU with a Bachelors in English. Casey lives in Kalamazoo and spends their free time making artwork and music. Casey is passionate about social justice and equity, transgender rights, community events, and the arts.