I had a mild case of COVID-19 until my cat turned green.
I had been regularly consulting with medical professionals via video conferencing after I first started experiencing symptoms in March. My entire household had come down with it at the same time, and I, being the hopeless paranoid neurotic that I am, was obsessively watching everyone for any sign that things might be taking a turn for the worse with them. I was so worried about everyone else that I nearly missed what was happening with me.
In my defense, this was still fairly early on in the coronavirus pandemic and I wasn’t showing any of the extreme danger signs that were widely known at the time. I wasn’t having any real trouble breathing, I didn’t have any unusual shortness of breath, my fever was annoying but not dangerously high, and my coughing was manageable.
But then I started to have cognitive problems. At first, it was just using the wrong words for things, but I soon began suffering perception issues. The dimensions of a bathroom drawer, for instance, didn’t seem to be quite right, and our staircase felt like it had more steps than usual. It wasn’t until my cat ― an orange tabby named OJ ― appeared to be a shade of sage green that I realized something was terribly wrong.
When I arrived at the ER, I was told that despite being alert and communicative, I had the blood oxygen saturation level of an unconscious person. I tested positive for the coronavirus (shocker) and was admitted for acute respiratory failure. The green cat, extended staircase and wrong-sized drawer turned out to be the result of hypoxemia ― unbeknownst to me, I was suffocating to death by inches. I was told that if I hadn’t come in, it was better than even odds that I would have died in my sleep that night or perhaps the next, and if I had survived longer than that, the chances of dying would have just kept getting worse with each passing day.
When I was discharged from the hospital a week later, I was 20 pounds lighter than I’d been at the start of my ordeal, had briefly participated in a clinical trial for remdesivir, and was filled with a determination that surprised me with both its intensity and its purpose: I wasn’t going to live in the closet anymore.
It’s just that coming out hasn’t gone exactly to plan so far.
I came to realize I was non-binary ― specifically genderfluid, meaning I variously identify as male, female, and every point in between ― relatively late in my life, when my career and family life had already calcified around me in a shape that didn’t seem to leave a lot of room to rock the boat. It wasn’t until I read a blog outlining someone’s experiences with being genderfluid that I realized what they were describing tracked almost exactly with much of what I’ve felt throughout my life.
For more than 20 years, I had operated under the assumption that since I was attracted to the opposite sex and my plumbing matched the gender I was assigned at birth, I was a heterosexual cisgender individual. All those impulses to engage in behavior or activities associated with the opposite gender, those fleeting moments where my own internal conception of myself did not match the outside, all those momentary but intensely fervent desires to be another me, those were just … I honestly don’t know what I thought those were. Just aberrations that could be safely shoved into a box and ignored, I suppose. But when I went back and reexamined those instances through the lens of what I had learned, a great many things suddenly came into sharp focus.
When I was discharged from the hospital … I was filled with a determination that surprised me with both its intensity and its purpose: I wasn’t going to live in the closet anymore.
Initially, I didn’t do much to act on this new revelation. I shared it with my wife (who has been incredibly supportive), my kids (who have been incredibly indifferent) and my best girlfriend (back to incredibly supportive), but that was as far as I went. I was content with having a better understanding of who I was ― and maybe mixing up some of what I wore with clothes that came from the other side of the department store but could still read as my assigned gender at first glance. At the time, that was enough for me.
I also joined a few online spaces where fellow non-binary people gathered. Mostly I remained on the periphery, wondering if I was non-binary “enough” (since I still identify, at least partially, as my assigned gender) to merit a seat at the table. And even if I did, the overwhelming majority of people I was sporadically interacting with who also identified as non-binary were young enough to be my offspring if I had been a teenage parent, which made me acutely uncomfortable in discussing these sorts of issues with them.
But a whole hell of a lot of that trepidation and uncertainty about my validity evaporated when I got home from the hospital. The news I’d dodged a date with death lit a fire under my ass, and I discovered that I really did not want to go to my grave without ever living my life as I truly wanted ― and as I truly am.
So, I began plotting how to go about coming out but ran into two immediate problems: First, I live in the state of Washington, which is, at the time of this writing, still under an extremely prudent lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, rendering face-to-face interactions difficult. Second, every decision in my life has been motivated by a pathological need to avoid ridicule and embarrassment, which makes potentially everything about the process of coming out as non-binary difficult for me. It’s a troublesome circle to square, to say the least.
To expand upon that second point, I have, with depressing regularity, debilitating problems with introversion. These are wrought by anxiety disorders and cognitive distortion issues where my default read of a person is always that they think the absolute worst of me. I was initially hesitant about opening up to my own parents about my gender identity, even though, intellectually, I had every reason to expect that two people with a track record as progressive as theirs would accept and support me no matter what.
But emotionally, what stuck out in my mind was an incident when I was 18 years old and my mom briefly got it into her head that I might be gay. To me, she seemed entirely too excited at the prospect, which had made me uncomfortable. All I could think while contemplating telling her about being non-binary was that while she would probably be nominally supportive of my gender identity, I could ultimately be relegated to being her LGBTQ fashion pet to earn wokeness points with her circle of aging liberal boomer friends. I recognize this extrapolation was completely irrational and without merit (and, needless to say, did not actually occur), but the gravitational force of this and a thousand other baseless fears still bend my thoughts and actions.
Because of that, it didn’t take long for me to fall into the plan of not announcing myself as non-binary, but rather living my truth out in the open without comment and allowing others to draw their own conclusions. Or at least as out in the open as I could manage during the pandemic when I can’t leave the house for anything more than a quick trip to the store to get ingredients for taco night.
My office underwent the work-from-home diaspora just before I got sick (fun fact: I came home from the hospital to find an email informing me that someone in my work area had tested positive for COVID-19 and that I may have been exposed, which was amusing), so we are all telecommuting to work and communicating through channels such as Microsoft Teams. I don’t have a webcam, so while I am free to wear whatever I please, gender norms be damned, there’s no one to see it. I’ve also stopped referring to myself by the gender I was assigned at birth, but that’s a subtle trick I don’t actually think anyone else is likely to pick up on. As far as everyone in front of their monitors is concerned, the line demarcating the “me” before I nearly died from COVID-19 from the “me” after I recovered might as well not exist.
Still, the fact I’ve gotten this far is tremendous progress that I wouldn’t have thought possible even six months ago. And the fact that I am where I am today, I wouldn’t have thought possible even last week. But recently I decided that the passive-aggressive approach wasn’t working for me. So I’m rocketing from, Oh, I’ll cop to it if someone asks me about it, to just ripping off the Band-Aid and announcing to the world, Oh, by the way, I’m good with both feminine and masculine forms of address. Also, you can call me Claire if you’re cool with it. And not only am I announcing it today, I’m doing it in one of the most public ways imaginable ― on a huge global media website. I guess if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it big, right?
I’m rocketing from, ‘Oh, I’ll cop to it if someone asks me about it,’ to just ripping off the Band-Aid and announcing to the world, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m good with both feminine and masculine forms of address. Also, you can call me Claire if you’re cool with it.’ And not only am I announcing it today, I’m doing it in one of the most public ways imaginable ― on a huge global media website.
I’ve also realized that despite coming out publicly today via this essay, I won’t ever get to stop ripping off that Band-Aid. Every new person who enters my life is potentially another opportunity to come out, and the mere prospect of that makes me nervous as all hell because there’s always going to be that chance that they don’t respond kindly to what I’ve told them. That fear imbues the closet with a magnetic attraction ― the closet is safer, the closet is familiar, the closet is easier ― that I expect I’m going to be fighting against for the rest of my waking days, but I’m convinced it’s a fight worth having.
It’s difficult for me to envision the world returning to normalcy as we knew it, but I still have to hope that there’s going to be a happy tomorrow. That I’ll be able to actually meet other LGBTQ folk and make the inroads and connections that I previously was never courageous enough to forge. That I will have the confidence to shop in whatever clothing section I want as the mood suits me. That I will be daring and proudly outwardly present my gender identity. That I will not look back at the beckoning closet doorway I’ve stepped through ― or if I do, that I won’t let myself walk back through it.
I’m not all the way there. Not yet. But I’m out in the open now and I’m going to stay there.
Mike Miksch is a writer who hails from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife, kids and entirely too many cats. He’s not picky about his pronouns, so call him (or her) whichever you like. You can find her (or him) on Twitter at @HeyItsClaire.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.