Two teenagers in formalwear dance by a trash can, trying to pop and lock (and failing miserably). They jerk around and enjoy themselves, dorky in their exuberance. It’s something that has happened millions of times in thousands of high school cafeterias. What makes this time different, and notat the same time, is that the two teens are queer: Elena is a gay cis woman and Syd is a gay nonbinary person.
The Homecoming dance portrayed in One Day at a Time is meant to be a comical reflection on what friendless losers both Elena and Syd are. It also shows what two queer teenagers live with: fairly common awkwardness. They are teenagers after all and while their queerness is important, it is not the only thing that defines the two, in part because their community is so accepting.
That’s what makes One Day at a Time such an incredible TV series—and why Netflix is making a massive mistake in canceling it. (The fate of the series is still unclear, in part due to Netflix’s unwillingness to release its contractual hold on the show.)
When I first started watching One Day at a Time, I did so because queer Twitter told me to. I was excited to see a Cuban American family brought to life onscreen and knew that there was something queer going on. Elena’s coming out storyline in Season 1 and her family’s grappling with her sexuality blew me away and made me believe TV could be better, could do better by LGBTQ+ folks.
And then they introduced Syd as Elena’s nonbinary love interest in Season 2. Together the two are geeky, hilarious, and their adorkable love is so pure and joyous it makes me squeal with queer delight. But what really rocked my world is how Syd understands and presents themself.
At the time that I started watching One Day at a Time, I had just started to come out as nonbinary. I had told my partner and my therapist, so when I say just, I mean just. I had come out as bisexual and queer years earlier and it felt weird to be suddenly confronted with the realization that all this time I had also been gender non-conforming. Looking back over my life, I could see the various points at which I said, “The words you’re using to describe my body aren’t right.” OK, so I wasn’t that articulate, but even as a child I remember being told how girls should act and being astonished that those rules applied to me. Couldn’t everyone tell that wasn’t the right thing to say about the kid who would rather be rolling around in dirt with dogs and horses than even having this conversation?
When, as an adult, I began to give voice to how I feel about my gender and my body, I felt confused and awkward and deeply misunderstood. I was a wee babe wandering into the wilderness of myself and out of the gender binary. I didn’t know if being nonbinary meant I should cut my hair or start dressing more masculine. I didn’t know if it meant I should suddenly reject the soft and feminine things I loved before and create a more gender-less version of myself.
And then I saw Syd unabashedly rock their long ponytail in whatever outfit—regardless of masculinity or femininity. I saw them wear soft butch plaids and a Tardis costume and a shirt covered in palm fronds that I desperately want to get my hands on. I saw so much about them expressed without self-judgment or censorship, without a critical lens about gender dynamics and modern apparel, without being concerned if they appear nonbinary enough. What I saw in them showed me something new about myself and about being nonbinary.
Suddenly all the conversations I’d had with my therapist about my appearance made sense. I didn’t have to be masculine or feminine. I didn’t have to attempt to erase gender from my wardrobe. I didn’t have to change. I was already myself, already nonbinary—and there was no such thing as being nonbinary enough.
That’s the issue with how so many view being nonbinary. People assume it means being without gender, by which they commonly mean without femininity. (Some agender folks do see themselves as being without gender, which is perfectly valid and awesome and not what I’m talking about at the moment.) Let me be clear: any definition of nonbinary that requires the elimination of the feminine misses the point and risks erasing a huge part of the human experience. My freedom to be my authentic self does not come at the cost of women or womanhood or the feminine, nor does it come at the cost of the masculine. My gender identity simply means that I’m me in all my feminine, masculine, and undefinable glory. And, that’s what I first saw in Syd.
Just as important as their understanding of themself is how the Alvarez family accepts Syd. From the first time Elena indicates an interest in them, there is no balking, no misgendering, no questioning of why they would use the pronouns they do. Instead, every single family member gets their pronoun correct every single time. Of course, that’s a decision the creative team behind One Day at a Time made, but it reflects a certain kind of acceptance, a certain kind of love, that is present throughout this world.
There is this moment when Elena and Syd are trying to find a different word for Elena to use to describe Syd; girlfriend just doesn’t feel right. They’ve spent the episode brainstorming words with Schneider’s unsolicited help. This all takes place in the Alvarez living room. Openly. In front of the whole family. (Listen, I’m weeping at the acceptance over here.) They decide on “significant other,” but then Schneider suggests they try Syd-nificant other. Of course, the teens lose their minds over this idea and a new, nonbinary term is created to describe a nonbinary character.
This is groundbreaking, earth-shattering stuff, people, but it’s delivered in that no-nonsense, duh-of-course-it’s-no-biggie way that makes the show so irresistible.
I’m grateful for Syd. They have been a gift to my life and my sense of myself. I’ve realized that being true to who I am and my gender identity doesn’t mean making myself ascribe to someone else’s rules about what being nonbinary should look and be like. To the contrary, the whole damn point is to be true to me, however that might manifest—and however that might shift over my lifetime.
It feels silly in some ways to be writing about a fictional teenager, but Syd showed me dimensions of myself I didn’t know I was missing. They put my mind at rest with their pigtails and pink shirts and soft, sweet ways, reassuring me that I could still be soft and wear pigtails and be nonbinary. More than that, I could be and do all those things and still be me.