In June 2020, I found my life steadily unraveling. While quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt besieged by cages: my house, where my entire family lived in suffocatingly close proximity; my room, which, thanks to Zoom, had become an ad hoc auditorium for various professors; and my body, whose masculinity felt increasingly alien. I had successfully avoided interrogating my gender for months, but that changed when I watched Steven Universe.
Over its seven-year run — which includes five seasons, a TV movie, and a limited sequel series — Steven Universe’s storytelling rocketed from a focus on community disputes within the sleepy town of Beach City to an intergalactic opera about life, death, love, and radical acceptance for yourself and others. The Cartoon Network show is also unabashedly queer. It became my latest obsession after I read an interview between series creator Rebecca Sugar and ND Stevenson in Paper Magazine — Stevenson being the creator of my previous binge: Netflix’s She-Ra: Princesses of Power. In the interview, Stevenson admits that She-Ra’s central enemies-to-lovers lesbian romance between Adora and Catra was only possible because of the groundwork Sugar laid with Steven Universe. Sugar is quick to dispel the notion that their pioneering was easy: When the show first aired in 2013, most children’s animation still shied away from centering queer characters.
Knowing the difficulties of executives and censors, Sugar — who is bisexual and non-binary — smothered integral aspects of her identity, which made her “really mentally ill,” she told Paper. Despite that, the show baked aspects of queerness directly into the lore: The extraterrestrial Gems present as female despite not belonging to either sex. When two Gems fused — a Dragon Ball-esque combination to form a more powerful being — it looked like intimacy between two women, giving queer fans a way to see ourselves reflected on screen for the first time. Garnet, the soothsaying stoic, was the show’s queer Trojan Horse; at the end of the first season, it was revealed that she’s a fusion between Ruby and Sapphire. By that point, she was so integral to the series that even without a direct confirmation, fans immediately understood that Garnet was the embodiment of their love, a walking lesbian relationship. By the time Ruby and Sapphire finally got married during Season 5’s controversial “Wedding Episode,” it felt natural. Children’s animation was slowly being dragged into the progressive present.
The episode that inspired my own upheaval aired much earlier. In Season 1, Episode 37 “Alone Together,” Steven unintentionally fuses with his human friend and romantic interest, Connie. We first see the fusion in pieces: A hand runs up long, slender legs and then through thick, curly hair before they wobble to their feet. Like a newborn baby, Stevonnie giggles with pure joy, runs around with abandon, and trips in the sand. Their body seems gawky and foreign; it seems perfect and comfortable, too. Stevonnie was the first overt reference to queerness within the series, and their brief interaction with the Crystal Gems — particularly Pearl’s discomfort with the “inappropriate” fusion between a half-Gem and a human — parallels coming-out conversations with which most queer people are painfully familiar.
Stevonnie dislodged something within me, something that I had worked so hard to keep repressed. I was jealous of how they lived between genders, not a boy or a girl but, as Garnet simply puts it, an “experience.” By the time the credits rolled on the episode, I couldn’t stop thinking about how they fully inhabited their body, running and jumping and dancing without an ounce of shame. They were so happy. Everyone looked at them and saw someone confident in their identity. They were everything that I didn’t know I wanted.
I had never felt comfortable with my masculinity. For as long as I can remember, I felt different from other boys; I wasn’t fluent in sports, girls, and beer, all vital aspects of farm town boyhood. The older I got, the more I chafed against masculinity. I despised wearing suits to formal events; I grew my hair into an unruly mop top; I refused to take off my shirt to swim. It wasn’t until puberty, which stained me as unmistakably masculine — lower voice, broader shoulders, jungles of hair — that I felt no choice but to lean into it; everyone else saw me as a man, so I was one. I cut my hair, went to the gym, engaged in excessive PDA, and grew a full beard before I could vote.
Stevonnie presented me with an alternative, an escape from the gender binary toward somewhere more comfortable and real and, well, me. Abandoned memories lit up like a runway: stolen glimpses at female puberty books, borrowed bras dangling from my pudgy child body, dreams of a button that could change me from a boy into anything else. Seeing Stevonnie thrive unearthed the feelings I had muted. I kept thinking: “That’s me.”
The idea of changing genders scared the shit out of me, and I spent the rest of the summer simmering within my anxiety. As the world slowly opened up again, I escaped my house and my thoughts to wait tables six days a week, otherwise occupying myself with books, shows, movies, and video games. In rare moments, I listened to the self-acceptance anthem “Change Your Mind” from Steven Universe’s finale and rehearsed my coming out. I wanted to believe that I was like Steven, that self-acceptance was far more important to me than the acceptance of others.
It wasn’t until early August that I finally decided to test that belief. My best friend was staying with my family, and although I didn’t know how he would react, I had to tell someone. The secret was eating me up inside. We sat on my porch, illuminated by the stars. Ocean waves punctured the silence as we sipped our drinks until I finally blurted out my practiced words: “I think I’m non-binary.”
“So you don’t want to be a boy?” He asked, not unkindly.
“What about a girl?”
“… I don’t know.”
“What do you want, then?”
I took a breath of the salty air, moved the ice around in my glass. “I don’t really know yet.”
This non-answer was enough, for the time being anyway. When I got up to hug him, I felt lighter. Over the past three years, his has remained the million dollar question, and my family, friends, therapists, and doctors have asked it over and over and over again. Even now, after 19 months of HRT and with a deeper understanding of my gender, I don’t have a perfect answer. But there is one that I heard a few years ago that might be close: “To be an experience.”