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Openside’s Possum Plows on coming out as gender-nonbinary

Possum Plows, singer of Auckland pop-punk band Openside, opens up about their journey to coming out as nonbinary and the impact it has had on their band and fans.

Becoming more public about being nonbinary is something I’ve thought about a lot in terms of how it relates to my music career and whether or not it’s something I should talk about. The fact that I’m part of a band means I’m not just out there representing myself like a solo artist so, at first, I was a little afraid that if I said the wrong thing or talked about it too much, it could compromise opportunities not just for me, but for my bandmates too.

Two years ago, when we did our first radio appearance, before we’d even released any music, I was wearing a t-shirt with the trans symbol on it and a video of us went up online and it got all these comments like ‘what a cool t-shirt’, so from the moment Openside started, people were aware of that as part of the narrative of the band and part of my identity.

When we went to make our first music video for ‘Worth It’, I brought a bunch of clothes with me and our manager Rachel said: “Hey, people really liked that shirt when you were wearing it the other day!”. And I don’t even know if she knew what it was, but I was like “okay”. So in our first music video, I’ve got the trans symbol on my t-shirt. At that time it was a very inward looking and self-involved choice as I was trying to figure out what my persona as an artist was going to be, but I quickly realised that, for a lot of our fans, it was a really big deal to see someone like them owning their trans identity.

In the most recent music video, there are these two shots of me holding the trans flag in the desert. And it’s something that, if you know what it is, you’ll notice it, but for most people, it just flies by undetected. Then when you look at the comments on YouTube, every third one is like, “Oh my god, there’s the trans flag”.

It made me realise that this type of music – pop-punk and emo – has always had a huge queer youth fanbase but there’s not actually a lot of representation among the artists. There’s something about this outsider/weirdo narrative that people like me relate to, but it was still mostly cisgender, heterosexual men making the music.

That’s why I’ve started talking about it more because I could sense the impact it was having. Being an artist, there’s always a lot of wondering: “Why am I’m doing this? Is it about my own ego?” And it is a little bit – you’re performing and you’re on stage and you’re telling your story and chasing external validation. But people I knew who were “out” and working in entertainment made a big difference to me and my journey. I think that you subconsciously don’t really believe you can achieve something until you see someone like you doing it.

A big portion of our fanbase is queer youth and I have a personal relationship with a lot of them. It’s been really grounding to know that our music helps them because they also help me so much. It was my birthday a few days ago and heaps of these kids sent me messages like “Thank you for encouraging me to myself” or “I met my girlfriend because of your band” or “I feel like I can do this thing that I was afraid to do before because of you”. So we inspire each other.

Ever since the subject first came up, my band mates have been super supportive. And once they connected with a few of our young, queer fans, it became part of their journey with music too because they can see the positive effect that it has. It’s incredibly motivating to feel like what you do is actually making a difference in someone’s’ life.

With music, it’s easy to fall into traps of the shallow or superficial or egocentric and a lot of people you encounter in entertainment are a little bit like that – even the ones that are doing something artistically interesting. I have a tendency to be kind of cynical and fatalistic, so it’s nice to feel that your art has a wider purpose beyond yourself.

Taking on the responsibility of educating people isn’t a burden, but I am still just starting out so I can imagine it could come to feel that way. It’s at the core of why I’m doing music now though. I want to try and make things better and easier for queer people and pave the way a little bit. Most people don’t have much experience with or knowledge of the trans experience but I think most people are fundamentally good and want to understand.

When I started learning about nonbinary genders online, it was such a liberating feeling because I’d spent a lot of my adolescence trying to put myself in a box of what I thought it meant to be female and it left me feeling uncomfortable and, ultimately, unhappy without really knowing why. Once I started experimenting more with my performance of gender, I learned how to present in a way that felt more congruent with who I was on the inside.

OPENSIDE (SUPPLIED)

I identify as gender-fluid and prefer to be referred to as “they” and “them” rather than “he” or “she”. The prevalence of non-binary gender identities has changed the trans movement’s appearance in the mainstream more recently. We’re trying to push people to think of gender beyond a binary where you exist on one side or the other. There used to be this strong trans narrative of “Oh, I was born in the wrong body”. People can find that easier to accept or understand, because it actually reinforces the binary, like “Oh, you were born in the wrong body and now you’re going to change and you’re going to have surgery or hormones and then you’re going to be this gender or that gender”.

What we’re trying to do now is say that person can be anywhere on the spectrum. Not everyone chooses to have surgery or go on hormones, and our bodies are never inherently “wrong”. The fight for gender equality has to exist beyond what we’ve thought about in the past of empowering women to do what men are allowed to do. It’s about breaking down barriers for everyone. We’re all human and the idea that everyone should neatly fit into one of these two categories just seems logically absurd to me. Once you start confronting it, the whole thing unravels and everyone is liberated by the dismantling of that system because it allows us to think about who we are as individuals and what we like and what we’re about.

Some people find that idea quite confronting. We talk about “passing” in trans culture – passing as cisgender, but the modern trans movement is challenging that concept. Not every trans person’s goal is to be undetectable as trans, our gender and experience of being assigned a gender at birth that is different than the one we identify as is part of who we are too. That’s part of what pride is about. Our gender shouldn’t be something we feel we have to hide.

I’m instinctively conflict-averse, surprisingly, but I’ve been doing my best to push through the fear because I think it’s important. I don’t really correct people when they get my pronouns wrong, but I know I’m coming at this from a place of privilege and resilience, which isn’t the case for everyone. When I’m trying to educate people about it I’m thinking more about the wider picture of how important it is to others. The main thing is, if you accidentally use the wrong pronouns for someone, just correct yourself and it’s no big deal. Some people think ‘Oh it’s this minefield and I’m so scared I’m going to say the wrong thing so I just don’t want to say anything’. But it’s fine if you just correct yourself after you say it. If I hear someone do that, I know they care enough to try.

When people use my pronouns incorrectly online, there’ll always been some fan that jumps in and corrects them too. They feel this sense of comradery, especially if they are trans or queer as well, they’re helping me and I’m helping them. That’s what’s I really like about my community online. It’s the same when someone says something negative about the band, for every negative comment there are like ten other kids who will jump on and defend your honour which is really sweet.

I’m really fortunate to be in a position where I can be a spokesperson for the queer community but the most important thing is that we encourage diverse voices to speak to their truth because no one person can represent everyone and my experience is not the same as anyone else’s. I’ve got a lot of privilege coming at this situation, and that’s part of the reason I feel like, everything else aside, it’s my responsibility to talk about it.

As told to Henry Oliver.


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