Max Appenroth about gender & mental health

We took International Women’s day as a starting point to look at cis women, trans people,  and non-binary people and their relationship to mental health. In your opinion, can gender have an influence on our mental health?

I would say that gender can have an influence on our mental health in the way we are treated in society. I wouldn’t say that gender per se determines if your mental health is better or worse than others’. But the way society is treating us definitely affects our mental wellbeing. If you experience discrimination because of your gender identity for example, it does have an effect on how you feel. That is why I think that gender obviously plays an important role when talking about mental health.

You identify as trans non-binary – in your on experience, what are the most common misconceptions about non-binary people?

There are several different layers to it. One layer is that there is the misconception that non-binary people don’t have a gender. We do have a gender! It’s just that we don’t identify exclusively (or at all) with the gender options of male and female. I, for example, was female assigned at birth, but feel very comfortable somewhere on the male spectrum but I keep saying that I’m more than just a man. Who I am and how I live my life today as a trans person is definitely something different than just being a man. For me that’s a gift. In the past I sometimes wished I was “normal” – whatever normal is –  but today I really see it as a gift. I’m very, very happy – proud even – to be a trans person.

Another misconception is that non-binary people always need to look androgynous. But no, non-binary people can look however they want. They can look stereotypically male or stereotypically female or they can look androgynous – but it’s not like I have to look a certain way to be non-binary. Also, not every non-binary person uses the same pronouns. Some decide to use he and she, some use different pronouns – and they are still all non-binary.

Some people also seem to think that we want to abolish gender in general. Personally, I couldn’t care less how other people identify as long as they accept me for who I am and give me the freedom to identify the way I want to and not how society is expecting me to. Obviously, I don’t have any issues with people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth – that’s wonderful! But at the same time I just want it to be accepted for who I am.

You mentioned that you feel proud and happy to be non-binary. When we talk about non-binary and trans people in general we often use the term gender dysphoria, but we forget that the goal should be gender euphoria – the feeling of joy to live your own gender identity.

Absolutely! That we can’t be happy for who we are or that living life as a trans person is always difficult and hard is maybe another misconception about trans people. But I’m a happy person and what I experience is trans joy. It is exactly what you described as gender euphoria. But yes, it took me a while to get to the point where I am today and obviously it was a long road that also took a toll on my mental health. I learned to deal with situations better than I did in the past and to take better care of myself.

Getting to the point where you came out as non-binary was probably a longer process?

Yes, it was a process. When I first came out as trans I realized that I’m not a woman. Being brought up in a society that promotes the gender binary, I obviously thought “Okay, if I’m not a woman, I must be a man”. For a long time I kept telling people that I’m a man, I’m a trans man. But it felt like that shoe also didn’t fit. Saying “I’m a man” was always something that actually felt uncomfortable. And then I realized: I don’t have to say that.

I don’t have to tell people that I’m a man if I’m not a man. Although masculinity is something that is part of me, there is much more to my identity than being male. I also realised that I don’t have to look androgynous to be non-binary. Whoever identifies as non-binary is non-binary. Period. There is no entry ticket to become part of the club.

What effect did coming out as non-binary have on your mental wellbeing, what changed with you starting to be your authentic self – also at work?

For me it was really liberating. Thinking for a while that I’m a woman, then thinking for a while that I’m a man I always tried to fulfill other people’s expectations all the time. When I came out as trans and started using testosterone, people were expecting certain next steps or even certain surgeries. I started to research surgeries, but then I realized I didn’t want them. I don’t need them. All this time, I constantly thought about what was expected from me. And obviously, when you don’t fulfill expectations, you feel like disappointing people. At some point I realized though “Well, I’m disappointing myself if I try to be someone I’m not.”

Now it’s the most liberating thing to say “I’m a trans, masculine non-binary person and people just have to accept it.” For everyone who doesn’t know what that means I’m happy to explain or at least try to explain who I am and how I feel. But if people don’t accept me for who I am, then I don’t need them in my life. This is something I came to realize: If people are not good for me and my mental health, I don’t have to have them around me.

In terms of work, I’m very happy to be self-employed and to work for a trans organization, where I’m surrounded by like-minded people. I don’t know how I would feel about working in a normative environment as a non-binary person. I think it would be very difficult. A couple of years ago I actually turned down a really good job because I couldn’t see myself in an environment where you saw Mr and Mrs on every office door. That’s not a place where I want to be, and I don’t want to start a fight to make a place more accessible and comfortable to my needs when they actually should be obvious. Why not just write people’s names on the doors, why does it have to be Mr And Mrs?

There are studies that show that non binary people often don’t feel comfortable with sharing their gender identity at work. Why do you think that is?

Work is hard as it is. I’m glad that I enjoy the work that I do, but it’s still work and I don’t want to add any layer of stress to it. It’s a difficult fight and you don’t know if you will win. Maybe some people will just accept you and others will give you trouble. The experiences that we make as non-binary people in society on a everyday basis teach us to be careful and to disclose who we are in certain environments – we might actually not get the next promotion or we might actually lose our job, because some people are just not comfortable being around trans people. Or you might be discriminated against because they might be uneducated. 

Again, we don’t want to take anything away from anyone, we’re not harming anyone. We’re just people who would like to exist and live with dignity and respect like everyone else.

What can an employer/company do to make sure non-binary team members feel safe and appreciated and can thrive?

First of all, education is key to everything. Listen to the community, invite people to give diversity trainings to all employees – not only about trans issues or gender diversity, make it about all different types of marginalization in society. It’s so important that we are aware of the experiences that other people make. 

So, as a first step, educate people around gender diversity and try to get an understanding of what it does to people if they’re being mis-gendered for example. Mistakes happen and it’s fine, but if we make a mistake, we also need to make it right. A short apology saying something like “Sorry, I mis-gendered you, I noticed it and next time I’ll do better.” goes a long way. 

I believe making communication more accessible is also important. English is an easy language to de-gender communication in a way. In German we are confronted with a lot of different issues, but it’s still manageable. One can still do it without too much effort at the end of the day. At the same time people don’t need to understand my identity to accept me. Just acknowledge that there are people with a variety of experiences.

There’s always the topic of bathrooms coming up, of course. In my opinion the material behind the door is the same everywhere, so why do we have to label doors with a certain figure that indicates if someone is wearing a skirt or not? That is something that I just don’t understand. Everyone does the same business behind those doors.

What’s the best advice ever given to you?

It’s very simple and it’s what my dad used to tell me when I was a kid: “Treat people the way you want to be treated”.  And that’s how I go through my life: I try to meet people with an open heart and an open mind, in the best case also with a smile. This is how I feel comfortable with myself. In most cases, if you approach people like that, you will experience so much more beauty in people.

What’s the advice you would give non-binary persons (in the workplace)?

Be who you are and don’t let anyone ever tell you that you’re not valid or that you’re not welcome. We have a right to exist, we are who we are and we can be proud of ourselves.

Thank you! Is there anything we haven’t talked about yet, but should be mentioned when we talk about non-binary people at the workplace?

Generally, it’s important to mention that employers can gain so much value and so much perspective by employing people with a diverse background. And for that you need to make the environment comfortable for people to work there. You know, with everything that we do we have to fight so much harder for everything in our lives and we bring so much more drive and energy with us. 

Additionally, we bring different perspectives to the table and find solutions for problems that other people wouldn’t see, because we always have to think outside of the box.. We got through life like little chameleons: We always have to check the situation to see if we can show our true colors or not. This way of observing things and thinking about solutions is our super power that not only non-binary people, but all people from the LGBTQIA+ community bring with them.

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