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Credit: Steven Universe

How Steven Universe taught me to love my complicated gender identity

Contributed by
Jun 25, 2019

“I’m … I’m Garnet,” I said as tears ran down my cheeks.

My therapist had no idea what I was talking about but patiently waited as I cried and repeated, “I’m Garnet.”

Snot poured out of my nose — as it always does when I cry — and I huffed into a tissue. I had been planning to tell my therapist about Steven Universe and Garnet, but I had no idea how much it was going to rock me to my core to say those words out loud. I eventually explained the premise of the series and even showed her an episode (thank the stars they’re so short). Once she knew what I was talking about, we returned to my identification with Garnet.

Months earlier, I had blurted out in a counseling session, “I might be nonbinary, but I don’t want to talk about it.” My therapist had just nodded and let the moment go. She knew that this is just how I process, that I think and think and think and then come to realizations I’m not ready to discuss yet.

But Garnet had made me ready.

“I think I’m nonbinary the way Garnet is,” I said, describing the dichotomies Garnet contains and reconciles just by existing. As a fusion, Garnet is comprised of two Gems, Ruby and Sapphire. After the two meet while on a colonizing mission on Earth, they accidentally fuse, forming something no one has ever seen before: a fusion of two different Gems. Who they become together is someone altogether new and different — someone so special and unique that there is no one in the cosmos like Garnet. Or so the fascist Gem Authority that rules the Gem Homeworld would have you think.

I saw myself in the formation of Garnet. I saw my raging temper and my ability to stay calm despite the situation. I saw my impulsivity and my calculation. I saw my realism and my optimism co-mingled into one person who was not the sum of her parts, but something more.

As I was questioning what my gender meant to me, Garnet gave me an image of someone who was both feminine and masculine, who was both a leader and deeply vulnerable, who was all of the things she wanted to be.

At the time, I had been avoiding any writing related to Steven Universe to avoid spoilers. I had no idea that creator Rebecca Sugar views all of the Gems as nonbinary women. I had no idea that what Garnet made me feel was not particular to me, but something many viewers felt when watching the series.

ruby-sapphire-stevenuniverse

Credit: Cartoon Network

Steven Universe has a reputation for being an incredibly queer series — and it’s a reputation that’s well deserved. At first glance, it doesn’t seem that way. Instead, viewers are introduced to the sweet, diverse town of Beach City and its resident heroes: the Crystal Gems, made up of Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and Steven.

Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are aliens from the Gem Homeworld, and Steven is a hybrid human-Gem who was created when his mother Rose Quartz gave up her physical form. Through adventures, battles, games, and a lot of discussion of feelings, the Gems and Steven become closer than ever. More importantly, as the series itself evolves, messages of queer love and queer acceptance become more prevalent. And with that evolution came the evolution of my own gender identity.

Stevonnie

Credit: Cartoon Network

By the time Garnet’s status as a fusion was revealed, Stevonnie had already appeared in the Season 1 episode “Alone Together.” And, though I loved this wonderful fusion of Steven and Connie for their amazing human-Gem hybridity, the fact that they were nonbinary was totally missed on me. It was only during their subsequent appearances that I began to see myself and my nonbinaryness in them.

When Stevonnie finds themself stranded on a moon in deep space in Season 5’s “Jungle Moon,” they have to make the most of the time they have until they’re rescued. They explore, forage, play, and debate whether or not to eat cute animals (we’re talking the Great Porg Debate all over again). As they rough it on this former Gem base, they dream of not just Connie’s mother, but Yellow Diamond. It ends up being an important episode for Stevonnie, who realizes they have complicated feelings about their families and the Diamonds — and it also contains quite a bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come. However, what really stood out to me was Stevonnie’s relationship to their facial hair.

While stranded on the former Homeworld moon base, Stevonnie grows a short beard. In one of the lean-tos they construct, they pull out their sword and carefully shave, but they leave a bit of stubble behind. When they look in the mirror, they admire themself proudly, releasing a self-satisfied noise of appreciation for how they look. For perhaps the first time, they see a badass explorer and capable person looking back at them in the mirror. And even that little bit of self-love made me love myself just a little more.

Stevonnie_postshave

Credit: Cartoon Network

I have a lot of blond/e facial hair. I’ve come to terms with my hairiness over the years — even if I never loved my hair — but it’s clear that other people aren’t cool with it. I’ve been offered waxes and razors and threadings and other things I am unfamiliar with more times than I can count. Due to my white privilege, the policing of my body hair has been relatively non-violent, at least physically; nonbinary and transgender people of color experience more vitriolic harassment and physical assault in part due to their body hair.

Now, I’m not saying that any nonbinary folks or anyone else who removes their body hair is bad or somehow less nonbinary, but I know that for me, learning to love and trust myself and my gender identity has meant learning to love and trust my body as it is right now. I’m not sure if that will always be the case or if I will want to alter who and how I am to better fit the person I see myself as, but I know that the patriarchal, racist, and capitalist roots of hair removal can’t be what motivate me.

In the words of poet and transgender activist Alok Vaid-Menon, “Body hair should not gendered. Everyone has a bit of body hair in different places and in different amounts. How can something so natural be so violently and painfully policed?” Stevonnie’s relationship to their facial hair isn’t a big part of what Steven Universe explores by any means, but how they see and form themself through shaving — but not completely removing — their hair had a big impact on me. Add to that the fact that it is only by being Stevonnie, only by being a fusion, and by extension only by being nonbinary, that they can survive stranded on the moon and you’ve got one nonbinary-affirming storyline.

When I first saw Stevonnie love their stubble, I cried. I had never seen a nonbinary person embrace their potentially unwanted hair before, and it made me want to embrace my own hairy legs and lip and cheeks and chin and arms. Their confidence in their own hair made me a little more confident in my facial and body hair.

Even just coming to terms with this small aspect of who I am has helped me become more comfortable with being nonbinary and genderfluid and beyond labels and masc and femme and neither. When I thought that being nonbinary meant erasing the parts of me that others had gendered, Stevonnie and the Crystal Gems showed me there was another way.

steven-universe-homeworld

Credit: Cartoon Network

Though I always loved and appreciated Steven, I never really identified with him outside of a grieving context. That is, until the end of Season 5, when Steven returns to Homeworld to try to get the Diamonds to fix the harm they did to the Gems on Earth.

When he returns to Homeworld, Steven is called Pink Diamond, he lives in Pink Diamond’s quarters, he has Pink Diamond’s Pearl, and he is expected to fulfill Pink Diamond’s roles. At first, he is flabbergasted by the expectations and doesn’t know what to do. In the episode “Familiar,” Steven realizes what’s transpiring and sings about how he’s helped a broken family before. Of course, he’s referring to helping the Crystal Gems, his chosen family, recover after Rose gave up her form. He knows he can do it again, this time for the Diamonds, his family of origin.

Even as he puts on a custom-fit version of Pink’s outfit, he knows he can help his family heal by being himself. Not by being Rose or Pink or anyone else, but by being Steven. He has so much faith not just in himself, but in others and in others’ capacity for change that he’s undaunted when he faces abject hatred for who he is.

A few episodes later, in the special “Change Your Mind,” Steven wakes up locked in Pink’s room. He and the rest of the Crystal Gems are being punished for fusing at the ball. After refusing to apologize, he’s able to show Blue Diamond that her choice to punish him — and her choice to punish Pink so long ago — is wrong and not what families should do. He knows because the Crystal Gems are his family and they would never lock him away for being who he is.

Many action sequences and new fusions later, Steven faces White Diamond, trying to convince her of the same idea. Certain she knows that Steven is actually Pink, she tears the gem from his body. When not Pink, not Rose, but Steven forms from his gem, White is furious. As Gem Steven walks toward Steven, she screams, “I only want you to be yourself. If you can’t do that, I’ll do it for you.”

It’s a horrific moment, one many trans and nonbinary people probably relate to more than we would like to. We are told time and again that who we are is who we were assigned at birth, who others have determined us to be. We’re supposed to not only accept the labels some other people made up for us, but say please and thank you as we’re restricted from living our truth. We’re told that our bodies are not ours to make of what we will.

Undeterred by White’s onslaught, Gem Steven and Steven are reunited with Connie’s help. Gem Steven and Steven begin spinning around, hugging each other until they fuse. For the first time in all of Steven Universe, it is made starkly clear that Steven is a fusion — and this was the moment I realized not only that I deeply related to him, but that he was also trans.

There are a lot of people deeply invested in gatekeeping what makes someone queer, nonbinary, or transgender. That gatekeeping has kept me from feeling like I deserve to identify as nonbinary and trans, as if I am not quite nonbinary and trans enough. When Steven’s identity clicked in my mind, so did my own identity — and I refuse to be separated out from my transgender siblings just because I’m still figuring out my transition.

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Credit: Cartoon Network

Another compelling aspect of the special is that it captures what it feels like to have a family that doesn’t accept you because of your gender identity or sexuality. I’ve faced a lot of bigotry, hatred, and just total denial from my family in regard to my gender and sexuality. It can cause me to doubt myself or even consider going back in the closet when I’m around my family. Historically I have sanitized my language, hesitated from telling queer jokes or stories. I made myself a little smaller, a little more palatable.

What I realized, watching the special, was that I don’t really care what my family of origin thinks about me. I’m no longer the person I was when I first came out and a family member told me I was going to hell. Back then, it hurt. Back then, the thought that someone who knew me so well, who supposedly loved me, was willing to condemn me just because of who I am, wounded me deeply.

But, now, I’ve been out the closet for a decade and I’ve chosen a family of queer people where I live and across this world. That family loves and accepts me for who I am. So what do I need the approval of my family of origin for? Steven’s confrontation with the Diamonds and his commitment to be himself helped me realize I didn’t and that if I thought about it, I’d known that for a long time. I’ve built a whole life, a whole career, deeply rooted in my queerness, and everything I was doing to myself to make them comfortable made me feel like I was drowning. But I don’t care if they’re comfortable anymore. In fact, I don’t know if they’ll ever change or grow or confront their bigotry if I keep making them comfortable.

Steven Universe helped me believe that I don’t have to. I don’t need their approval or their love or their acceptance. I already do that for myself. My community already does that for me.

What I’ve learned from all of this, and from a lot of therapy, is that it is neither my chosen family nor my family of origin that I need to reconcile with. After all the hatred and fear I have directed inward, the only person I have to reconcile with is myself. My queerness, my nonbinaryness, my transness isn’t reliant upon external validation. I’m just trying to learn to love all of myself and to see that I’ve always been me, been right here, waiting for my own embrace. Just like Steven.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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