An Open Letter to Danielle LaPorte; or, The Stages of Realizing You Are Nonbinary

Author’s note:

I am going to talk about gender now.
I will probably get some things wrong.
I am open to feedback on where I could have held space for diverse genders more compassionately or conscientiously.
Thank you in advance for your understanding.
Also, please see the postscript at the end.


Freedom worships inquiry.JPG

You are 8 years old and totally stoked that you get to dress up like a Lost Boy in the school production of Peter Pan. You love how you look with short hair.

You are 10 years old and dressing as a half-man, half-woman for Halloween.

You are 13 years old and spending too much time on makeup every morning, wearing a short hot pink leopard print dress with a hot pink stuffed snake as a kind of boa, because you apparently can’t dress slutty without also being a fucking weirdo about it.

You are 15 years old and wearing a purple wig to school every day because you’re not allowed to dye your hair; you are 15 years old and dressing like your brother for Halloween and he is donning your purple wig to dress up as you.

You are 16 years old and cutting your hair off, rolling your eyes at your father when he says, “You know I prefer you with long hair, right?”

You are 17 years old and kissing a girl for the first time.

You are 18 years old and arguing with your best friend (the first girl you kissed) about what a “woman” even is anyway, and she gets so frustrated with the conversation that she starts crying.

You are 19 years old and performing drag for the first time, to a Weird Al song (“I Wanna B Ur Lovr”).

You are 20 years old and shaving your head and taking a Masculine And Feminine Sociology class and writing a senior capstone project about subverting gender stereotypes.

You are 21 or 22 years old and your brother asks you how you identify, since you’re always talking about gender shit, and you thank him for asking and tell him you identify as a woman.

You are 23 years old and performing burlesque for the first time, to a Weird Al song (“White and Nerdy”).

You are 23 years old and someone comes out to you as trans for the first time.

You are 26 years old and pregnant with a baby you will place for adoption, and you absolutely love being pregnant. You love your long hair and your big titties and your big belly and you feel sexy as fuck.

You are 27 years old and cutting your hair off; you want an undercut but the hairdresser doesn’t think it’ll be “professional” enough for your new job, the job you took out your nose ring for. Your face looks incomplete without that metallic sparkle.

You are 29 years old, a few months after quitting the job you had to look “professional” for, and you finally get the undercut you’ve been wanting for years. You re-pierce your nose, too.

You are 30 years old and aching to remake your relationship to community, to show up in different rooms than the ones you’ve been spending time in, even though you’re not entirely sure yet where you’ll find those rooms. You soon discover that one of the defining features of these rooms you’re craving is that everyone gets asked what their pronouns are.


Dear Danielle,

I love you. I love your work. You kind of saved me. In the year after placing my son for adoption, when I knew but hadn’t admitted that I needed to completely change how I was living my life, a friend posted something of yours on Facebook. I don’t remember which friend or what post, but I was soon eagerly devouring your email newsletter. I forwarded your #truthbombs to my best friends, who then subscribed to you in turn. (We are all queer, by the way.)

I felt nurtured by your words. I found your gentle approach so refreshing. Just do what fucking feels good, you said. It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be that simple.

Eager to pull myself out of the hole that had necessitated placing my kid for adoption, I hustled my way into a new job that eventually paid twice my previous salary and doubled down on my playwriting career. Part of this was due to your guidance, your reminder that I was worthy of my dreams.

Two years later, the year when I got a big raise and my playwriting career looked from the outside like it was blowing up, your work helped me admit that I was deeply miserable. Burnt out. Unable to enjoy my “success.” I remember some of my very first Core Desired Feelings (CDFs) from when I first did The Desire Map: Joyfully Disruptive. Fired Up. Autonomous. I wasn’t feeling any of those things at the time. I put my CDFs on stickies on my computer monitor and after enough days in a row of looking at them, I realized: I need to quit this place. So I did.


You are 31 years old and newly single and questioning absolutely everything in your life. You’ve requested both “she/her” and “they/them” pronouns, but very few folks are using “they/them.”

You keep rolling around the phrase queer nonbinary femme in your mouth to see if it feels right.
Queer nonbinary femme. Queer nonbinary femme. Queer nonbinary femme.
It feels good, but you still don’t know if it applies.

Some things you do know:

You know that you love your breasts but wish they were optional. And honestly, if they were optional, probably most days you wouldn’t put them on. But you have a feeling you won’t like binders; you don’t even like wearing a bra.

You know that you fantasize all the time about having a penis but that you love having a vagina.

You know the word “woman” feels weird as hell to you lately - not because it doesn’t feel accurate, but because you have finally acknowledged what you’ve been hearing for years: that when cisgender white women say “woman,” they mostly mean “a cisgender white woman.” It makes you cringe to see the word “woman” on your own website.

You also know that you don’t really know what a woman is. A woman, of course, is someone who identifies as female, but what the fuck is female?

You know that you identify with the word “femme.” It feels friendlier, more queer, more open.

You know that the year you were pregnant, you felt unequivocally like the most Woman of Woman, like an earth mother sex goddess fertility force field - but that was six years ago.

You know that as pronouns go, “she” feels fine, but “they” feels like an orgasm rainbow ride to the moon.

You know that you feel more at home with nonbinary people than in a room full of cisgender women.

You know that you have no desire to take testosterone on a regular basis, though if someone offered you some, you wouldn’t say no.

You know that counting the things you know won’t answer your question, that your gender is bigger than the sum of these parts, but it soothes you to take stock of concrete facts.

You know that it seems increasingly unlikely that you are NOT nonbinary.

Still, you have a strange kind of imposter syndrome about it.

“If my brain doesn’t always perfectly synthesize other people’s pronouns, how could I possibly be nonbinary?”
“If I claim this, won’t I be infringing on the ‘real’ trans/nb people?”

You’ve been posting not-so-cryptic shit on Twitter like “(quietly googles ‘how do you know if you’re nonbinary’).”

You’ve been getting messages and texts from your nb friends.
“Hello, I would love to get a beverage and talk enby things sometime.” “Let’s get a froufy cocktail about it.”
You meet with these friends and they calmly, lovingly validate everything you are feeling.

You quietly change your gender on Tinder (and nowhere else) to “nonbinary.”


I’m a Facilitator of your amazing Desire Map program now, among other things. That means I pay you $1000 a year maintain my Facilitator license, to be allowed to teach this work to others. It’s worth it to me.

Since becoming a Facilitator a year ago, I’ve shared the Desire Map process with dozens of folks, either one-on-one or in group workshops. (Roughly a third of my Desire Mappers have been queer, and roughly a third of THOSE have been gender nonconforming.) I love the Desire Map because it’s so gleefully anti-capitalist. Fuck ladder-climbing, fuck the American Dream, just do what feels good. I’ve watched the vast majority of those Desire Map clients and workshop participants realize with joy that they could let go, that they could say no to “opportunities” that don’t feel amazing, that they could take the plunge and go for what they actually want. My current Core Desired Feelings are Holy, Alive, Expand, Release, and I’M FUCKING WORTH IT (in caps).

A few months ago, anti-capitalist money coach Sophie Macklin posted on Facebook about a Desire Map workshop I had coming up: “I have been wanting The Desire Map work in the hands of radicals and queers for a while. I think it can have really liberating possibilities if you let it take you there, and consider your true and revolutionary desires.”

I felt seen. Grateful that she saw how I wanted to use this, saw how radical your work could be - which is what drew me to it in the first place. (Sophie and I, by the way, are both queer femmes.)

Danielle, I even pulled a #truthbomb card to guide me while I write this letter to you. It was this: “freedom worships inquiry.” Yet again, you knew exactly what to say.


You are 31 years old and the more you talk about your nonbinary questioning - with your friends, with your nb sex and relationships coach, with your journal - the more permission you feel to claim this beautiful word. Nonbinary.

You text a few friends: “I think I’m nonbinary.” Their response: “Duh.”

You abruptly stop feeling at home in most of your clothes. You experiment with discount accessories: A sparkly baseball cap. Slightly more masc sunglasses. A couple thrift store shirts that aren’t so form-fitting. You find yourself looking people in the eye more, just walking around, and you’re not sure why. Is it to see if they’re checking you out? Is it because you feel more like yourself? Is it because your new duds feel like armor and you want to make sure you still have room for vulnerability?

You put your pronouns on all your social media profiles and websites, and in your email signature. You buy a lapel pin that says “please use they/them pronouns.” And when the hot femme you’ve been dancing with at the bar tells you they’re nonbinary, you respond without hesitation, “Ohmygod, me too!”


I love podcasts. Podcasts are legitimately one of the best things in my life. I was stoked that you had one, Danielle.

But roughly 38 minutes into your first episode, I found myself saying out loud, “No.”

And then, “Are you serious?”

And then, I turned your show off and unsubscribed.

I reiterate: I love you. You’ve changed my life.

And part of why I’m writing you this letter is because you start your episode by acknowledging that your tribe is interested in “sacred activism” and taking “compassionate action toward justice.” Which sounds like you’re open to knowing about, and sharing, ways in which we can all show up more lovingly for marginalized groups.

So this letter is to let you know that as a queer, as a nonbinary human, and as a femme, your words felt to me like a slap in the face.

In writing this, I went back and transcribed this section so I could be sure that I had gotten it right. Here is what I heard.

Your podcast, for those who don’t know, takes the form of a “girlfriend-style sermon,” a long monologue. You started this section of the podcast by talking about how, when you’ve done a bunch of work on yourself, you find yourself wanting to share all your knowledge and tools with your partner so they can evolve too - a desire I can very much relate to!

You then expressed your belief in “the necessity for a polarity in relationship between the masculine and the feminine, meaning, in that respect, opposites do attract.”

Granted, I’ve only been openly nonbinary for about two minutes; however, I’ve been a gender crusader for like thirteen years, so I was immediately on alert at “polarity” and “opposites.” I don’t know why we haven’t figured out as a culture that seeing masculine and feminine as “opposites” is killing us, that it means raising men with no resilience because we see vulnerability as “feminine” and therefore not innate to their gender, and that men with no resilience then make life hell for women and femmes, often fatally. Why in the hell do so many traits have to be gendered, anyway?

When you express your enthusiasm for masc/femme polarity, you erase nonbinary people like me. You erase all the people who experience their gender, not in relation to two poles, but in relation to infinite possible points in space.

Maybe you know all that. Maybe it got lost in translation. Maybe all you meant is you’re a girly girl who likes a manly man and that feels right to you. (I don’t know where your belief in polarity squares with your own acknowledgement of a third gender - I personally think there are millions of genders, but three seems a lovely place to start and it was wonderful to see you acknowledge trans identity.) Fine. I kept listening.

You went on to say, “I’m someone who identifies as being a predominantly feminine creature, so I am attracted to someone who is predominantly in their masculine.”

You…you know that’s not a given, right? You know that femme4femme and masc4masc is a thing, right? Or do you think all queer relationships - or all straight relationships! - neatly sort themselves into femme/butch pairings? And if so, why do you think that? Why haven’t you met enough queer, trans, and poly people to disprove that assumption?

Then you cited David Deida (about whom I know nearly nothing, but whose online presence is pretty much what I’d expect from a cishet white dude spiritual sexpert), who told you in regards to your relationship with your man: “It’s not your job to be the therapist in the relationship.”

I agree with this so wholeheartedly, Danielle, and that’s what broke my heart even more about this whole thing. You could have used this thesis to make a very strong case about the history of femme emotional labor. You could have talked about how women and femmes gotta stop bending over backwards to “save” the masculine folks in our lives. You could have talked about how we learn greater resilience because we’re socialized to be more accepting of our emotions, and how this creates a gender gap that can be heartbreaking in masc/femme relationships.

You did not.

Instead, you went on to say this:

“When you are acting like the shrink, you are - especially if you are a predominantly feminine-identified creature, if you are a woman(emphasis yours - and here I heave a great sigh at the assertion that “predominantly feminine-identified creature” and “woman” are the same thing) “ - what happens is that puts you in your head. You move into your intellect. You move into strategy mode. That is the place that you do not wanna be spending most of your time when you’re in relationship with a masculine creature. You want to be in your heart. You want to be receptive and allowing. You want to be flowing and moving. You don’t want to be thinking and strategizing and directing and pointing things out. That’s what that masculine person loves to do, thrives to do, feels super sexy doing, right?”

OK.

I just.

Danielle, this part makes me want to burn everything down.

First of all, for nonbinary folks…what would you have us do? Are you assuming that nonbinary listeners aren’t in your audience? We absolutely are. As mentioned before, roughly 10% of my Desire Mappers in the past year were nonbinary. So are we supposed to be receptive and allowing, or are we supposed to be strategizing? I’m a femme, but lots of enbies are not. Are we supposed to flip a coin for it? Just follow our mood that day - and if so, why not the same for everyone? Where do your rules for femininity go when gender categorizations cease to be a given? (And yes, the word for what you’ve laid out is “rules.”)

Second of all, I return to the issue of femme emotional labor. There is a long, rich, and bullshit-laden history of women and femmes being the ACTUAL problem-solvers in relationships with masc folks, because the women and femmes are the ones who've historically been tasked with running households single-handedly. Juggling the kids’ calendar, liaising with the plumber, planning the meals for the week? That is, historically, femme labor; and all of that IS STRATEGY MODE.

To claim that “strategy mode” is inherently masculine is not only gender essentialist, it ignores the full picture of Gendered Hetero Bullshit. “Strategy mode” is a mode that has been required of women and femmes because masc people are often not socialized to take responsibility for getting from Point A to Point B; they trust that a woman or femme will take care of it for them. And sadly, so often, we do just that.

Moreover, getting from Point A to Point B doesn’t just apply to household logistics; it applies to personal development, too. Men are less likely than women to seek mental health help, for instance, or to read self-help books. (Hell, they’re less likely to read any books.) And not coincidentally, men have lower emotional expressivity. Seeking therapy or other resources for improving ourselves is something women are statistically more likely to do; AND, it’s proactive, it’s strategic, it’s not just being “receptive.” Feminine creatures are resourceful as fuck.

There are a billion good reasons not to be your partner’s therapist, several of which you point out - like how it makes your partner feel broken and less-than, or will probably make you bitter because you’re trying to take on too much:

“You’re also going to get resentful, because you are over-helping. You are overcompensating. You are doing work that you should not be doing in the relationship. It’s hard enough. Why also be the shrink? You can imagine what it does for the other person, whether you want to admit to it or not, even though you think you’re helping them out…They just feel less-than. You’re trying to fix them.”

Yes, yes, yes to all of this, Danielle. So much yes.

But to claim that we need to stop therapizing because it’s not feminine enough and it threatens our masculine partners…

I don’t know if that hurts me more as a femme or as a nonbinary human.


You are 29 years old and on the phone with your first life coach, talking about your cishet male partner.

“I mean,” your coach says, “I know we’re both feminists, but we all know those things we can do to make our partners feel more like a man, right?”

“No,” you say, “I actually don’t.”


I’m not just writing this letter to you, Danielle. I’m writing this letter to the entire personal development industry.

An industry to which it mostly hasn’t occurred that I, in all my nonbinary rainbow glory, exist.

That transgender people exist.

That butch women exist.

We do.

And this is important enough to me that I took weeks on end writing this, trying to find (gulp) about 4700 of the right words to tell you as much.

I love, love, love being a life coach and Desire Map facilitator. But the more I wade into this work, the more I encounter other coaches promising to help (cis) women access their “feminine essence” and the more I want to scream. Again: presuming a “feminine essence” for women is literally gender essentialism. It’s often TERF-y, especially when they start talking about how “wise” women’s bodies are because they have uteruses - as though  “people with uteruses” and “women” were the same thing. And it ignores nonbinary humans altogether.

You know what would be awesome? If these coaches would offer to help men access their feminine essence so they could learn some Goddamn emotional resilience, and then use that money to subsidize free coaching to trans women who are looking for some guidance as they embrace their femininity. But, no, “feminine essence” is pretty much just for cis women in the personal development world (and everywhere else tbh).

ANNNNNNND literally what even is “feminine essence” anyway? If you ask that question of five different people, you’re going to get five different answers. It seems like a lot of these coaches, when they say “feminine,” mean “sexy” or “more fully yourself” or “in touch with your intuition.” What if they just said that instead?


You are 31 years old and you are at a Qoya class, because the Qoya videos gave you an easy vocabulary for moving your body in unstructured ways that feel good. One of the first things that the instructor tells the class is that “as women, we are wise, wild, and free.” You spend the rest of the night resenting their assumption that you identify as a woman. You tell the class that you’ve been exploring your nonbinary identity, and they’re nice about it, but no one addresses the "as women" thing. It happens again at a creativity workshop less than a month later, even after you tell the entire class that you identify as nonbinary and have even worn your lapel pin that says “please use they/them pronouns.” The instructor still refers to the group of you as “women” or “ladies.” You don’t have the energy to correct her.


Danielle, your solution to the problem of “playing therapist” was as follows:

“You trust that the other person is going to meet your needs without you drawing them a fucking map to your clit and your heart and your pain and…your psychic inner world.  You need to be able to trust that they are going to see you, hear you, feel you, and respect you. And if you have doubts about that, it puts the whole relationship into question. But if you can trust that, if you’ve got those fundamentals, if you know that they can see your pain, they can figure out how to meet your pain. If you’re trusting that they can hear what you’re saying, then they’re going to figure out how to communicate with you properly.

"And on it goes. You’re going to trust that they are going to develop the tools to really show up in the relationship the way you both want each other to show up in the relationship. So if you’re not the therapist, what are you? You’re you, being really in touch with and clearly articulating your needs, your wants, your feelings, and your desires. Your only job is authenticity.”

I 100% do not understand this. DON’T draw your partner a map to your clit and your heart (SOME OF THEM REALLY NEED A MAP, DANIELLE), but DO articulate your needs and desires? Literally what is the difference? Trust your partner to figure it all out on their own, but…also tell them what you need? Those cancel each other out! Be authentic but only if your authenticity means waiting around for your partner to figure out how to communicate with you? Quoi?

What you have assumed and communicated, in just a few minutes, is this:

That feminine and female are the same thing.
That there is an essential way that women are and an essential way that men are.
That this essential way that women are and men are requires that women not strategize at home.
That women have no business thinking at home, because when they’re with their masculine partners, they need to be in their heart.
That women need to communicate their needs less. (But also more? Still confused on this point.)

Every single piece of this hurts.


You are 31 years old and writing an open letter on your blog to one of your idols, and you are terrified. If you hadn’t been using her tools for the past 5 years, learning to use your feelings as your North Star, you might not even have been able to realize that you were nonbinary to begin with, and now here you are criticizing her.

You worry that clients won’t want to work with you or learn these amazing tools once this letter is out there, that they will think maybe everything that comes from your idol is oppressive. You worry, ironically, that your readers will be binary in their thinking: a figurehead must be either good or bad, and if they are bad, then everything they’ve created must be shunned.

You also think about how your idol has been on her own spiritual path for longer than you, worrying that she’ll somehow find some spiritual Jedi mind trick to prove you wrong about everything you’ve said. Or that you are acting out of internalized misogyny and adding to the pressure on women to do everything correctly, rather than letting a like-minded soul know how they can take better care of their community.

You keep writing anyway. You burn incense. You breathe.


I reiterate: I love you, Danielle.
You have taught me so much.

Is it arrogant to think that maybe I can teach you too?

You said at the top of your first podcast episode that you reserve the right to only target your own audience. That you don’t have to “breastfeed the world.” I respect the hell out of that, I really do.

So Danielle, in case you hadn’t been thinking about this, let me just say this:

YOUR AUDIENCE IS FULL OF QUEERS.

Queers be some of the most woo, spiritual, personal-development-happy folks you’re gonna meet. Queers be doing tarot readings for each other, gossiping about astrology, carrying crystals. Queers be following the Four Agreements, making vision boards, and following Danielle LaPorte.

Dear Danielle, and everyone else in the personal development world:

Please remember that your audience contains folks other than feminine cishet women.

Folks other than feminine cishet women are looking for resources. For coaching. For tools to help them feel better.

Your target customer doesn’t need to be specifically queer.

You don’t need to breastfeed the world.

It’s fine.

 

Just please don’t erase us, is all.

That, literally, is all that I am asking.


(deep breath)

 

Dear everyone else reading this,

Thank you for witnessing me. Thank you for reading to the end of this 4700-word missive.

I want to shout out the folks out there in the coaching, personal development, and healing space who make space for queer and gender-diverse identities: Orion Johnstone. Sophie Macklin. Renee Powers. angel Kyodo williams. Elizabeth Cooper. Andrea Ranae. Dawn Serra. Rachael Maddox. Yarrow Love. Diana Adams. And, I’m sure, so many more whom I don’t know yet. If you are one of these people, or know one of these people, please reach out and let me know; I’m always looking for more.

I plan to keep teaching the Desire Map, but naturally, I’m going to be a queer gender anarchist about it. (And just to be transparent: if you take a Desire Map workshop with me or do a one-on-one Desire Map series with me, 100% of that cash goes to me; Danielle LaPorte Inc. doesn't make a commission on my work or anything.)

I also want to say that I am so very happy in my nonbinary identity, and that I feel more self-expressed than ever before, and that I love being at the beginning of this journey.

If any of you feel called to talk to me about Gender Shit, or anything else in this post, feel free to reach out. I am down for this conversation.

I love you a whole lot. Thank you for reading.

 

With endless gratitude,
Mariah


 

CONTEXTUAL POSTSCRIPT (edited to add): 

It's come to my attention since posting this that there was recently another, separate Danielle LaPorte/social justice controversy/explosion, in which she posted pictures of dark skin getting lighter as an advertisement for her upcoming "Lighter" program. Those images have since been deleted, and Danielle's response is here. I had not seen any of it before posting this piece. The timing of my own post may seem oddly coincidental, but the "why now" is purely because of that particular podcast episode and how long it took me to respond to it.

This development, much more than the gender essentialism referenced in this post, is making me question whether I wish to continue doing this work (contrary to what I said in the post). There's a LOT to unpack there, which is outside the purview of this blog post, but I will just share Layla Saad's excellently worded response to Danielle:

"Danielle, while I appreciate your response, the fact that you deleted the entire post with all of our emotional labour is telling. You protected your brand (and your ego) over letting our legitimate concerns be seen. Why did the post needed to be deleted? An act of integrity would have been to keep the post up (and perhaps close comments) so that other people reading could a) also receive the education you did and b) see that you are actually committed to doing better. Instead by deleting it, you effectively swept it under the rug to make it seem pristine. Transformation is messy. You know this. But as long as you keep trying to protect your ego over allowing yourself to be broken open, nothing is going to change.

Secondly please remove the word ‘attacked’ from your post. Nobody attacked you. You were called forward to do better, you received the gift of a free education, you were held accountable for YOUR racism. Calling us attackers, like we are a mob, rather than actual people who were pissed and hurt by your actions, is again - an act of white supremacy. Your images were an attack on the hearts of those of us who are black and brown. You did the harm here. We responded thoughtfully to the harm you did.

Thirdly, you deleted some comments from women of colour (that I have screenshots of) that had important resources for you on doing anti-racism work. You did not apologise for this.

Fourth, your entire apology focuses on you and how you were attacked. On your heart and again, your intentions. On what this all means to you. Danielle, this isn’t about you. You did harm - it is about the people you harmed. Period. You’re going to have to learn to de-center yourself in this work if you want us to take you seriously.

Lastly, I sincerely hope you took a note of the anti-racist education resources that were shared with you before you deleted them because you are going to need them. You’re going to need to follow the lead of black and brown women (rather than deleting us and hoping we’ll go away). You have a lot of work to do. Not just from this one incident, but from what many of us have observed of how you use black culture throughout your brand without actually honouring black people (this is anti-blackness in action). 

If you’re going to do this work, you’re going to have to do it all the way. No half-assing. No doing what you need to do so your brand can give the *appearance* of anti-racism, while much remains the same underneath the purpose. No more white saviourism or playing ‘activist’. But deep, spiritual, humbling, HUMAN work of learning to see black and brown people as whole human beings who are worthy of your care. Radical change from the inside out.

And like I said in my now deleted comment:

My hope is that you will do what is right. But my experience with white women and white supremacy unfortunately often wins out over hope (and you proved this by deleting that post, so let’s just say I’m not holding my breath).

Still, I hope you do what is right."