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To Speak It is Impossible to Hide
“I am nonbinary and how people see me is how they see me, but not who I am.”
A spokesperson, an artist, and a queer advocate ahead of their time, Michiko Limanya is currently a representative of the Belgian youth LGBTQ+ organization Wel Jong and a public influencer on Instagram. They dedicate much of their time to expressing themselves through words and movement, and they encourage others to do the same while providing a safe and instructive space for queer youth.
Michiko’s focus on self-acceptance with their “first queer realization at the age of 10.”
“I had a crush on one of my friends and I never thought that I shouldn't have this feeling. It never felt wrong,” Michiko says. “Because if kids that are 10 can see a couple with a boy and a girl, why can I not like a girl?”
Their realization occurred in 2011, which saw Belgium in a less progressive state than it is now. With an eye for safety, Michiko decided not to share that piece of their identity with their surroundings.
“I saw how people were treating other queer people.” They remember thinking, “Let me just keep that for myself for the moment.”
This was possible through the internet, and Michiko claims that “Instagram and Tumblr really helped [them] through.” A decade ago, few words in the Flemish language that could accurately describe their identity that encompasses panromanticism and asexuality. Thus, Michiko joined online English-speaking communities as they “waited for the Flemish words.”
“Thanks to Instagram, and Tumblr, and just me being online, me being open to talk English, I learned a lot of things.”
As a child transitioning into teenhood, Michiko was also “very aware of [their] gender” and the “gender stereotypes that were heavily pushed on [them].” They showed telltale signs of preferring to identify outside the gender binary even through the games they played with other kids.
“When playing a game like Family, I always liked to play other roles. I often was the father, or if there was an option not to be one of the binary genders, I always tried to be the other one,” they say. “We had a story that we had to reenact and it was about princess and prince, and I was the dragon, which was very nonbinary of me.”
A difficult time for Michiko was puberty, commonly known as a period of heightened gender dysphoria for adolescents under the transgender umbrella.
“I had my first period in secondary school. I remember I was hiding it from my parents. I told my sisters but I did not tell my parents because I knew they would tell me, You’re finally a woman, and I'd say I'm not.”
Michiko disliked losing control over the way they looked, especially in terms of how others would label them.
“I was very comfortable before my body was growing because people couldn't know if I was a guy or girl. It was just like me.”
This led to a long journey of finding themselves through clothing choices. At 18, Michiko was “following very manly trends,” such as wearing cargo pants. However, they reflect that they only leaned toward masculine styles “so that people would look differently at [them].” It was only later that this began to change.
“I have different clothing styles. I'm also an artist, so I just experiment with lolita clothes, Japanese-style clothing. And it took me a long time before I started wearing [them] because I was scared that people would see me as a woman.”
“But the moment that I shared my nonbinary identity and I accepted that part of myself, I was very comfortable,” Michiko says. “That's when I suddenly started to wear more ‘feminine’ clothes, people would say. But for me, it’s just clothes that I feel comfortable in and where I think my body comes out to be most beautiful.”
Now identifying as agender while also using the terms transgender and nonbinary, Michiko feels confident in their choice to wait before coming out.
“I always thought that safety was so important,” Michiko says. “If I know that I will not be happy telling that to a certain person, then I don't see the use of telling that person. I always try to create an environment that's very protective. So I live kind of in a bubble, but I would rather have that.”
Michiko advises young queer people to think carefully before choosing who they confide in and when. “Are you sure? Are you sure you want to share that part of yourself?”
“I tell people to be sure of how you're gonna explain it because people are going to going to ask questions. Maybe it's not even bad questions, but they're curious. I had to explain to people why I'm trans because a lot of people know binary trans where you go from another gender to another one. And then you got me who didn't do any medical transitions, for example, but I did have my social transition. So I had to explain that. Imagine if I wasn't sure about myself. How are you going to convince someone else that you are that identity? So I really told myself, I have to be safe and I also have to be convinced that I really am nonbinary, that I know how to explain that for myself.”
Michiko shares that they “became more open about [their] queerness” when they “started college.”
“In college, there's so many people, and we're all discovering ourselves, and it doesn't really matter anymore if my classmates don’t like me, because I can skip school. In high school, you have to see those people every day,” they say. “So that switch in social interaction gave me the ability to be more open and more free.”
Avoiding classes became a habit for Michiko, especially after the asynchronous education experience that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. The college that they go to, Karel de Grote Hogeschool of Antwerp, has religious affiliations with Roman Catholicism. Though the administrators have shown progressive attitudes, the same is not always translated to the student body.
Michiko states, “I don't really like the environment of the students at my school. Why? Because there's a lack of diversity. A lot of them come from other cities that are less diverse, so there's an ignorance very present over there. And maybe it's ignorance that they don't even realize until they start meeting diversity, but I don't want to be that first person. I don't want to be that person to tell them the whole time: No, that was ignorant. I have my own life. I go to school to learn and not to teach.”
At times, the problem extends to Michiko’s professors, an alarming occurence in their program of art and culture.
“In my first year, we had one teacher of sociology, and he was openly homophobic. And I was so surprised,” they recall. “I just stood up and left this class and I never came back. So I did all those classes at home because I would not be in an environment where someone is literally against me being alive.”
Michiko underscores the importance of keeping bigoted and discriminatory views out of classrooms and higher education lecture halls: “I'm open about my identity, but maybe there are so many other people who are not open yet. Maybe there are other people that don't even know yet. And to see that negativity in school, it can cause a lot of distress for people.
Even from more accepting peers, Michiko sometimes sees “a difference between them when it comes to judgment.” A common phrase they hear from people confronted by an unfamiliar queer concept is “I didn't know it was possible.”
“Meanwhile, from the internet, I just saw how people always are saying that you're free to discover. If you say that you’re nonbinary and if you decide to wear dresses, then you’re still nonbinary. A community can have that social pressure of saying this is right or wrong. But what's right and wrong in queerness?”
Outside of class, Michiko is known for their work as an influencer and queer representative, so much so that Karel de Grote admin has asked them to “be open about [their] queerness.”
“I am the diversity, so you cannot even skip me because I am here. I'm not just a theory from your book, I am present.”
Their study of art and culture overlaps with their queer identity through performances, lectures, and their own youth art festival. The GEN-ZIE festival is held in Antwerp during November for youth from 14 to 24 years of age. This upcoming fall will see its third edition.
Michiko explains, “The moment that I started college, I created that festival, and the whole concept is to just recruit young people and let them do art. It's three free days and then we have one showcase. There's no competition. You don't have to pay anything. It's all networking and socializing.”
One of GEN-ZIE’s goals is to foster “inclusive communication.” Michiko used the festival as an opportunity to “ask people their pronouns” when “giving out name tags.” When people were curious and began to “ask questions,” Michiko knew that they had achieved their purpose.
“This is my moment to explain it to them. So that's why I always apply my queerness in almost everything, because it's always a moment to start the conversation and make people aware that I am here, I am present, and a lot more people are present.”
Michiko’s own art expression includes poetry, spoken word, and movement, which they note is “not dancing, it’s more moving.” They write about “the search of all feelings and desires” and their own asexual experience of “not always understanding sexual desires.” Yet the majority of their art is not completely centered around queerness.
“I’m a spokesperson, so I don't have the need to put it in my art again. Because besides being queer, I'm still a human.”
In the instances where Michiko’s identity is at the forefront, they are used to being the face, such as in the LGBTQ+ organization Wel Jong. Their work includes pride events, panel talks, campaigns, and collaboration with “almost every queer organization in Flanders.”
A recent activity this summer was conducted with Min19, a group supporting queer kids younger than 19. Aside from camps and movie nights, Min19 also takes participants to Pride as a group “for safety.”
“It's just to bring queer people together to talk and explore,” Michiko says.
On the political side of Wel Jong is the relentless effort to secure LGBTQ+ rights and to raise awareness of anti-progressive actions.
“My colleagues are present when there's things going on with the law. At conferences and decisions about lawmaking, they're present there. For example, when there's a hate crime going on, we also answer that. We are like the youth queer organization for all of Flanders.”
This is why, in terms of current events, Michiko is “always very much up to date on what's happening in America.”
“Everything that happens in America eventually goes here, Belgium,” they say. “Two weeks after they were happening in America, there were already protests from hate groups saying that being trans is just like pedophilia.”
Michiko’s close following of American and global LGBTQ+ news allows them to know in advance what information they must share. Their current focus is the ruling of Supreme Court case 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis which now suggests that businesses may refuse service to queer clients and customers on religious grounds.
“They didn't talk about that yet here. But I was looking at that, and I know we're protected in Europe because when you’re from the EU parliament, you cannot just decide on certain laws. And because queer rights are human rights here in Europe, you cannot just decide to remove that law. We're kind of safe, but this can spark conversations and discussions.”
When confronted with anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, Michiko spends most of their time “sharing the right education” instead of directly engaging hate groups.
“I'm someone that doesn't go into discussion. I'm always open to talk, but not a discussion if you’re so passionate about your hate.”
To young and aspiring queer rights advocates, Michiko says: “When you educate people, you're a part of activism. It's kind of the same as the labels that we use; it's a tool to explain yourself. I can be nonbinary without saying that I'm nonbinary. Me choosing to use the label nonbinary is a tool for other people to understand me better. So I don't actually have to say that I'm an activist, but I do just as a tool so people like journalists know they have to contact me. But you will not see it on my Instagram. Why? Because I'm fighting for my rights. I'm literally fighting to be present. So is that activism if I'm fighting for my own life?”
“It's something that you choose. But if you already are actively sharing the right education, and you are aware of what's going on in the world, that's also activism.”