My Journey as a Non-Binary Individual

23-10-2020 / Ariel Zolezzi

Ever since I was a small child, I knew I was different. Everybody, from relatives to nursery school friends and teachers, to strangers, assumed, based on physical traits, that I was a boy. In the early 90s, there wasn’t that much acceptance around the world for LGBTQ+ people around the world. This support was even lower in socially conservative Peru where I was born and raised. Gender was supposed to be assigned based on physical traits, more specifically based on a person's genitalia at birth. You were either a man or a woman. If you felt any different, you had a problem and you needed to be fixed.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I ended up having to leave Peru for good. The discrimination I faced there due to my gender identity and sexual orientation was so harsh that the prospects of being able to lead a happy and healthy life with a job that I could enjoy were dim to nonexistent. I arrived in Montreal in December 2013 and, having the freedom and acceptance that I needed, I was able to finally fully embark on a journey throughout my identity that had stalled due to my circumstances in Peru. I had always been treated as a boy but I knew I wasn’t one. With the liberties that Canada gives to the individual, I started exploring my gender. I asked myself questions. Why did I feel so awkward and wrong wearing a suit and tie? Why did I feel so much dysphoria when I saw a 5 o’clock shadow on my face and other masculine traits staring back at me when I stood in front of the mirror? Why did it bother me so when people referred to me as “he”?

I shortly discovered that what I had felt my entire life had not one but many names. My gender identity didn’t fall specifically on the male nor the female category. If gender is a spectrum, where male is on one side and female on the other, my gender identity floats in between those two. Because of this, I identify as gender non-binary. Non-binary is an umbrella term. There are many other terms that people like me use to self identify, each term carrying variations from one individual to the next. Some of these terms are genderqueer, gender nonconforming, genderfluid, etc.

Fast-forward again two and a half years after my arrival. I graduated Concordia with a BComm in Marketing and promises of a bright future. I started job searching. While I was fully comfortable with my gender identity, not many employers were. I noticed that when they interviewed me over the phone, things went great and I almost always got the in-person interview. However, the change was noticeable upon the first look people gave me. I had to dress fully as a male; with a suit and tie. I did so because I assumed that dressing according to my actual gender would be deemed “unprofessional”. Dressing like a man felt so awkward for me that my discomfort was visible. Employers also felt uncomfortable in front of me. So I decided to dress more authentically by adding small feminizing touches to my attire and disclosing my gender identity. I decided that I didn’t want to work for an employer that couldn’t accept me for who I was because I wasn’t about to hide or change anything about me. After all the hardship that I had faced simply for being who I was and all the years and effort it took me to get my self-esteem back on track and fully enjoy who I was, I decided that my dignity as a human being was not negotiable.

I started disclosing that I was non-binary to employers and I got confirmation of the assumption that dressing according to my gender wouldn’t be accepted. Here are some examples of the answer that I got:

  1. Outside of the office, you can do whatever you want with your life, we don’t care, but here you have to dress professionally.
  2. Don’t worry! Our CEO and his wife are also fashionistas.
  3. That’s fine but you’ll be sitting behind those potted plants and customers walk in and out by that side of the office so we’d appreciate it if you didn’t wear high heel shoes. It could distract them from the purpose of our business.
  4. Are you going to wear a skirt? I mean we are mostly men here and so are our customers. I don’t want to feel like I constantly have to protect you if they make fun of you, you know what I mean? That wouldn’t be healthy for anyone.
  5. That’s cool, we got three gays that are out! They don’t dress like a woman, though.
  6. As long as you use the guy’s washroom. Otherwise, some ladies could be uncomfortable.

After a long time of searching, I finally found an ad for a tech company. They were looking for an office manager. I had never been an office manager but the job seemed like a lot of fun, the perfect fit for me, and the place seemed like a great place to work. And then I almost didn’t apply. Almost every other place I’ve applied for seemed like a great place to work and look at what happened, I would think. Also, who’s going to hire me at a tech company? I closed the ad. Then I realized that even if I didn’t get the job, I had nothing to lose. So I applied. Then a day or so later I got a call and then had the interview that changed everything. I felt so comfortable talking to Peter, the office manager then and whom I would replace since he was moving to another position, and talking to Carol, the community manager, that I didn’t feel it was necessary to say I was non-binary. Somehow I felt they were completely ok with it. Forty-eight hours later, I got the job. I started Monday the following week. I couldn't believe that Peter and Carol had the forethought to ask what my pronouns were. It made me feel incredibly safe and accepted.

And so my journey through the gender spectrum got upgraded from economy to first class. All of a sudden I had an entire company of allies. They accepted me the way I was, I was able to dress according to my gender identity without being judged. I wore heels and pearls and nobody had any issues with it. My reality became something that I would have never in a million years imagined could happen. Not only did I have work colleagues, bosses, and mentors but they were also my friends and allies, providing me with a safe space to be my full self. It is so important to a non-binary person to have a safe environment to grow and thrive. The impact of CloudOps in my life was so big that my family and friends outside of work started noticing a major shift in me as well. I became more confident, loving, and accepting of who I was. I have a job and a new family and I am valued not in spite of my gender identity, which is only one tiny aspect of who I am, but because of who I am as a whole individual.

So fast-forward yet again to July 2020. I had gotten to a point along my gender journey where a name change was necessary. I was tired of signing “Carlo” in an email and having people come back to me with Monsieur Carlo. Also, the milestone that I had hit required a new name to fully match not only my gender identity but also my identity as a person. I googled unisex names and their meanings and ended up choosing Ariel. It is a Hebrew name that was once masculine but eventually became unisex (like me) and it means lion or lioness of God. I chose it to honour my granny, who raised me, saved me, was a brave lioness herself and made me a lioness too. I also took her last name. I got yet another surprise when I brought it up to Cristina, our VP of People & Culture. It turns out that CloudOps is such a supportive place to work that they were even more ready than me to change the name.

We changed the name and announced it in a special way. Cristina asked me to pick someone to introduce me during the Friday company update. The choice was easy: Ian, our CEO. He has been a mentor to me, always willing to support me and making sure I had what I needed to give my best at the job, which is very important to me. I wouldn’t have picked anybody else. So Friday came and Ian introduced me. I announced that my name had changed and it was welcomed with open arms. I thanked the team for their support too. The way I see it is that I did 50% of the work by changing the name and doing all the steps required to legally change it. However, they did the other 50% by accepting me the way I am and seeing me as a whole human being, not reducing me to my gender identity which is only one aspect of my very complex self. That acceptance paved the way for me to accept and love myself the way I am and take those to levels that I had never imagined were possible.

Ariel Zolezzi

Ariel Zolezzi is the Office Manager at CloudOps who works hard keeping the team happy and healthy. She is a non-binary spirit who’s been having a human experience since the early 90s. Some of her hobbies include long walks around the city of Montreal, exploring her spiritual side and watching old Hollywood movies with her cats.