You Sound Fake

by Cole Flaherty

I am neither man nor woman. I am nonbinary. My gender identity has been, and will always be a touchy subject. On some days I feel more masculine, and on some I feel more feminine. Some days, I feel like I am neither. My gender identity as a person is constantly evolving and shifting. My identity as a debater hasn’t shifted at all. I entered this activity believing I was a man, and that is how I learned to engage in debate. That is how my local circuit learned to see me. That is how I learned to behave. It never felt right. I made the arguments I wanted to (within limits) but the voice articulating them never felt like it was my voice. It was a man’s voice, and I am not a man. 

My identity changed, and I learned that the dysphoria I experienced upon hearing my voice was not isolated lack of self-esteem – there was something deeper. I have tried to make this change in debate. My pronouns are logged in tabroom as they / them. Depending on the partner, my partner will correct opponents during cross. Despite all of this, despite my identity developing, my circuit still sees me as a man. Increasingly, it feels like they always will. Two months and three tournaments, and the only judge to ever correctly gender me was a wonderful judge from Houston at Mid America Cup. 21 rounds and full days’ worth of hours spent within tournament buildings and not once have the Iowa circuit elders I have grown around gendered me correctly.

This is just the start of my erasure; the transphobia of Iowa. I left the Iowa circuit a perceived man last year, and I returned nonbinary. This year, when I attempt to debate in a style not masculine, not feminine, but in a way that I feel comfortable debating, I am treated with very harsh criticisms. I am told that I need to go back to the way that I used to debate. I am told that I am ruining the activity that I love so dearly. All of this negative reinforcement forces me back into the shell I just emerged from – that male presenting self. Image and formal wear still matter on my circuit, which means I can’t dress the way that I feel comfortable without getting rude comments from judges or other circuit figures (Although, a BIG shoutout to Mx. Nguyen who has always made me feel at home in my goofy outfits when I show up in them). I get the comment all the time – “You sound fake.” Of course I sound fake. You are making me be someone I am not. 

I refuse to mince words. Public Forum as an activity, and the people surrounding the activity, has prevented me from exploring my gender identity in the ways that other debate formats so encourage. I am told to do Policy or LD if I want to claim my gender identity and discuss structural violence in round. I am told to do Policy or LD if I want to run pre-fiat argumentation. My school doesn’t offer LD. My school doesn’t offer Policy. These two events are dying in Iowa, while PF is flourishing. Most schools in Iowa have a public forum team that is somewhat accessible. That is the beauty of PF – it is EVERYONE’s event. At least, the NSDA’s office in West Des Moines would have you believe that. By being shamed and dropped for running arguments that allow me to explore the world around me and the gender inside of me, Public Forum is not my event. 

I do not break the rules of the unified handbook, and I do not break tournament rules. The only rule I have broken on the Iowa circuit is the rule that persists across every local circuit – don’t make the established figures uncomfortable with the way that you debate. There is not a single way that I present in round that will make a judge at a local tournament happy. 

The word present has two meanings here. First is how I present my gender identity, and second is how I present my content. My coach tells me this after every comment I get post-round: Your content was amazing. You totally won the flow. You just don’t present right. Believe me when I tell you this – all the preparation and knowledge in the world doesn’t matter in Public Forum unless you conform to these societal norms laid forth by the people that run your circuit.

This is an activity that I love. Make no mistake – I will continue debating, and I will continue to challenge the norms of the Iowa circuit no matter how hard they want to make it. But I can only cause so much friction through lucky judge pairings with judges who will vote for T and K. The Iowa circuit must change, and it must change now. It’s time we started talking about it.

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