'Life & Beth' and 'Sort Of' - Two New Series Bravely Lose The Labels

J Brooke, Incluvie Guest Columnist on 'Life and Beth' and 'Sort of': while living one’s truth is freedom, speaking it as a mandatory assignment can become captivity.

Incluvie Writer
Incluvie Writer
July 12, 2022

I’m tired of coming out. Big time.

“Hello ladies--” says the Home Goods store greeter as I walk in with my wife, our arms draped around each other’s shoulders, our foreheads nearly kissing as we digest an inside joke.

“Hi gals!” spouts the cheery restauranter, as we inquire about a table for two.

I am neither a gal nor lady. But do I correct?

 “Hi, can you please point us towards non-stick copper pans, oh and also I’m not a lady – my pronouns are they/them …” I can say, but often don’t. I want a frying pan, not a spotlight on my gender.

“Thank you, sir” says the barista as I pay for our daughter’s chai latte. “I’m not a ‘sir’– nor a ‘mam’ for that matter” is what I absolutely do not say. Our daughter, 25 and gnawing her thumb as she did during middle school parent/teacher conferences, asks if the interaction bothers me. It’s winter so my jacket obscures my breasts. I wear men’s clothing, often a baseball cap, currently I keep my hair the kind of short warranting stubble get buzzed off the back of my neck.

“Not really -- I’m the one confusing the message by presenting as I do” I say to her.

Janelle Monae

Janelle Monae

“Tomboy” “Homo” “Lesbo” “Faggot” “Dyke” “Baby-dyke” “Bull dyke” “Trans” are some of the labels lobbed my way before “Nonbinary” was coined. “Nonbinary”, (or “non-binary”) entered mainstream use in 2016 (in California and Oregon as a legal gender option on driver’s licenses and passports) and entered Websters Dictionary in 2019. With a hyphen or without, those publicly claiming the nonbinary tag include performers Janelle Monae, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Sam Smith. Nonbinary writers include Danez Smith, Kate Bornstein, Cyrus Dunham, Masha Gessen, and Eileen Myles. Timothy LeDuc is the first openly nonbinary Winter Olympian. Mauree Turner of Oklahoma, the first openly nonbinary State representative. Having tried the moniker on personally, I like its fit; but because I am not an actor nor an Olympian, when I come out, it doesn’t make Twitter headlines, requiring that I then must come out again. And again. Or not. Often, I choose not.

This is how our youngest felt explaining to his 6th grade friends why he was leaving public school to go to “special” school. We drew on our most thoughtful parenting to help him formulate: “Everyone’s brain is different; I’m going to a school that teaches the same way my brain thinks.” Our son never test-drove these words, choosing instead to stare blankly and shrug. He didn’t want to explain his learning difference because he didn’t want a difference. He yearned to mirror the friends he went trick-or-treating with (even though they tricked him out of his candy.) He tried hard impersonating an average public-school kid at a sleepover (even though someone at the last sleepover he attended intentionally urinated on his sleeping bag.)

Our youngest is currently in college pursuing a business degree, while working part-time at an airline. That elevator pitch sounds smoother than the reality; He struggles with things other 20-somethings breeze through, he is easily taken advantage of, I suspect he feels lonelier than he expresses. But still, he’s persevering and progressing. And still, he’s not coming out.

Our son’s college website labels itself “the better choice for students who learn differently.”  While that description is accurate, I’m confident he’s not borrowing their phraseology when explaining to co-workers why he attends a school without a football or basketball team. Our youngest and I text and talk frequently, processing standard college age difficulties (parking tickets, switching meal plans, where to get a sweater mended) as they crop up. But I’ve long abandoned asking him how he explains his neurodivergence at work… because I know he doesn’t. Is he being deceptive as he attempts “passing” as a neurotypical? Or is it his right to keep moving, uninterrupted.

I, too, choose to “pass.” I pass as a cis female (or cis male in winter) every instance I don’t correct someone who misgenders me. By saying nothing, I am affirming an untruth. Yet I’m not ashamed of my difference any more than our youngest is ashamed of his. Afterall, we were both born this way; me with genitalia not in sync with my brain, he with complications during birth. Does being burdened or blessed with difference mandate we take on the added burden of coming-out constantly?

The Trevor Project’s 2021 study reports 26% of Generation Z identifies as nonbinary, making it the largest nonbinary population as defined by age. Wherever young people are found, more than a quarter of them define themselves as I define myself… though when I was their age, our label had not yet been invented. Do my Gen Z cohorts “come out” whenever they’re misgendered? Do they even shop at Home Goods?

Neurodiversity also enjoys a large population. The term, encompassing a broad spectrum of autism and other cognitive variants outside the established norm, is attributed to social scientist Judy Singer who sought to mainstream its use as an alternative to cognitive deficit pigeonholing. It came into use in articles and academic writings 1998 and 1999. Today between 30% and 40% of the population are thought to be neurodiverse, and global companies such as Microsoft established hiring initiatives of employees sharing this label, seeking the specific cognitive differences they bring to enhance the workplace.

Beth (Amy Schumer) and John (Michael Cera)

Beth (Amy Schumer) and John (Michael Cera)

Comedian Amy Schumer is a member of the generation between me and my son. The generation comfortable with gender-neutral bathrooms and autism being a spectrum, who simultaneously remember a time before both. Our son, a sports fan whose content consumption follows suit, probably won’t watch Amy Schumer’s brilliant Hulu dramedy Life & Beth, (though in my fantasy he learns Henrik Lundqvist is a fan of the show and checks it out.) My wife and I binged the 10 superb Season 1 episodes that track Schumer’s character Beth, as she processes and finally comes to terms with her childhood in hopes of better navigating her late thirties. Episode 3 introduces John, played by Michael Cera, a Long Island farmer Beth is attracted to, although she’s wary of his unusual behaviors. I, on the other hand, found John’s behaviors entirely familiar. His straightforward sincerity, his baseline honesty, his repetition of facts when confronted or challenged was reminiscent of any one of our son’s superb friends from his “special” high school – endearing kids often previously kicked around, whose superpowers included the clarity not to treat others as less-than.

While terms like “autism spectrum” and “neurodivergent” aren’t voiced in the show, Schumer uses them when referring to her real-life husband, chef and farmer Chris Fischer, on whom Cera’s character is based. In her 2019 special Amy Schumer Growing she said, “I knew from the beginning my husband’s brain was a little different than mine. My husband was diagnosed with what used to be called Asperger’s. He’s on the spectrum.”

For the record, our youngest, while neurodiverse, isn’t officially on the spectrum­– though he shares many of the same traits as those diagnosed with autism, his specific label is NVLD or “Nonverbal Learning Disorder.” It’s the same diagnosis comedian Chris Rock first came out about having in 2020, although his NVLD stepped into a much brighter spotlight after Will Smith assaulted Rock (verbally and physically) onstage during this year’s Academy Awards. Rock’s neurodivergent label became part of the televised-live debacle’s after-narrative. His stunned initial reaction and lack of escalation or retaliation following Smith’s blow to his face was repeatedly analyzed and attributed to Rock’s disorder. Rock’s subsequent hesitancy to make statements before “fully processing” what had transpired was consistent with NVLD as well. Simultaneously, these reactions were things Rock consistently garnered praise for. It’s possible to interpret this as Rock’s disability playing a role in what was perceived as exemplary behavior under bizarre and traumatic circumstances.

Travis (Jonathan Groff) and Beth

Travis (Jonathan Groff) and Beth

In Life & Beth the character of John is, arguably, the only example of a stand-up male. Flashbacks highlight Beth’s problematic father. An early episode exposes her deeply flawed ex-boyfriend. In a later episode, Jonathan Groff as Travis, an incredibly good-looking date is exposed as a dysfunctional hoarder. In episode 6 when Beth and her sister are discussing how hard their childhoods were, Sera’s John says his “wasn’t so bad.” He then mentions that kids “used to fill water balloons with piss and throw them” at him. If this upset his character’s middle school self, he clearly doesn’t maintain the trauma as an adult. However, in instances where his positive attributes are consistently shown, like when he rails against Beth having overcharged a customer at his vegetable stand as “taking advantage of them”, we see a positive example of how the disorder helped form the man.

A handful of years ago, our youngest was one of my favorite teenagers. Never intentionally rude or selfish, he skipped the talking-back and limit-testing phases during adolescence. We raised four other kids, so we recognized his unusual approach to situations was part of the unique way he processed life. Choosing not to bully, championing the underdog whenever possible, and being honest and honorable beyond the norm, may be a byproduct of what was endured, but in the end, I don’t chalk his attributes up to his disorder, but rather to the individual he became.

Life & Beth avoids labeling when exploring differences. Beth describes her commitment hesitancy to John saying, “…I don’t really know what to do when you’re repeating yourself.”  As a means of explanation for his atypical responses, in lieu of diagnosis, John offers an example: “I know I don’t always act the way I’m supposed to – when someone shows me a picture of their kid, I know I’m supposed to act like I’m looking at fireworks, when the kid is unattractive to me.” John’s confidence emanates from self-knowledge and self-acceptance. His answer to Beth’s unsurety is, “We’ll figure it out.”

Sort Of approaches nonbinary life in a similar manner. Sort Of is a scripted half-hour CBC series available on HBOmax focusing on 25-year-old nonbinary Sabi, a part-time bartender and part-time caregiver to two young children of a married hetero cis couple. Sabi’s best friend 7ven is also nonbinary, and immediately audiences learn, via this duo, that a nonbinary label is tantamount to a label of male or female in that redundancies don’t exist; everyone is an individual. Sabi, like all 20-somethings, juggles many things, and gender is merely one of them. Bilal Baig (“Sort Of” co-creator who plays Sabi) said in an interview with Yahoo Canada, “Understanding that everyone’s transition looks different, the way our world looks at transition is different and they’re not equally the same.” Like “Life and Beth”, “Sort of” never resorts to labels, only once discussing pronouns in the 9th episode finale. During a flash-back to Sabi’s interview for the caregiver job their future boss inquires about pronouns, and Sabi voices “They/them” for the first time in their life.

Co-creator and star, Bilal Baig (Sabi) and Cast of 'Sort Of'

Co-creator and star, Bilal Baig (Sabi) and Cast of 'Sort Of'

While “they/them” has become the nonbinary go-to since 2019, some people prefer “E/Eir” (Spivak pronouns developed in 1983). Other pronouns used include “Xe/Xem”, “Ze/Zir”, and “Fae/Faer”. For the entirety of Justin Vivian Bond’s career, V has gone by “V”. Initially trying “Eir”, I defaulted to “their” for simplicity a couple of years ago, but I don’t correct my lovely 89-year-old mother-in-law when she fails to use it. Like “Life and Beth” and “Sort of”, while living one’s truth is freedom, speaking it as a mandatory assignment, can become captivity.

First Run Features’ 2008 documentary, Out Late presents senior citizens finally speaking and living their truths; each coming out as gay or trans after waiting nearly their entire lifetimes to do so. During Out Late ’s film festival run, my wife and I attended every single U.S. screening as well as two in Canada and one in Spain…We had to, we were the filmmakers. Once, during a post-screening Q and A in Kansas, someone in the audience asked me what I hoped for the future.

“I hope my grandchildren don’t know the phrase ‘coming out’ because the need for it will have ceased to exist” I said. I don’t confine this aspiration to gender or sexuality of course, rather envisioning humans living their truth as unencumbered by public proclamation as possible. Andy Warhol once offered, “The moment you label something you take a step—I mean, you can never go back again to seeing it unlabelled.”

Guest Columnist, J Brooke (R) and their wife, Beatrice (L)

Guest Columnist, J Brooke (R) and their wife, Beatrice (L)

J Brooke (They/e) won Columbia Journal’s 2020 Nonfiction Award for their autobiographical essay, “HYBRID”, in the Womxn’s History Month Special Issue. Their work has appeared in The Normal School, Harvard Review, Maine Review, Bangalore Review, The Sun, and others and is upcoming in The Massachusetts Review and The Fiddlehead. Brooke was Nonfiction Editor of the Stonecoast Review while receiving an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. Brooke currently resides with their spouse Beatrice on land stolen from the Hammonasset People. Some of Brooke’s published work can be found here.