Beyond the BinaryHouston PridePride 2024

SJ Ralston’s Journey to Authenticity

NASA researcher shares their journey of coming out as nonbinary.

SJ Ralston (Photo by A. Pandey)

Silas “SJ” Ralston always felt different growing up. Decades later, the nonbinary NASA researcher is a fully out and open scientist who stresses the importance of living an authentic life.

“I think I have known I was different in some way from as young as 4 or 5 years old,” they explain. “It wasn’t until I was 25 in graduate school, and sort of more socially isolated than I’d ever been in my life, that I was able to really sit down and think about what was going on internally rather than how other people perceived me. My life has become so much easier and so much more worth living after I stopped trying to define myself by what I was, and started trying to define myself by what I wanted.”

Ralston became fascinated with science at a young age, and it helped steer their career path as a researcher.

“I think I have just always been sort of ravenously curious about the world around me,” they recall. “Like many kids, I got obsessed with dinosaurs, outer space, and rocks. I was very fortunate to have a family and a school system that was really supportive, encouraging me to look into things and giving me stuff to do that really encouraged my curiosity. I had an uncle who was a marine biologist by training, but also a great collector of interesting science facts. He just sort of offhandedly mentioned to me that the largest volcano in the solar system was on Mars. At that point I was gone. There was no getting me back after that. It’s kind of been Mars ever since.”

Ralston is now a Mars research scientist on the Jacobs-JETS II contract, working within the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Their main focus is researching the aqueous conditions of ancient Mars through laboratory experiments on Mars analog materials.

Even though Ralston ended up working at NASA, they still didn’t feel satisfied with their life. They knew they had to come to terms with their sexuality in order to live a free and full life. However, in order to live a genuine life, they had to be open and transparent with family, friends, and colleagues.

“I asked myself, ‘Why am I hiding?’” they recall. “The answer to that question was that I was afraid of being judged, and I decided that that wasn’t a good enough reason. When I first came out at work, I didn’t come all the way out. I was kind of terrified about what the reaction would be. I felt It was kind of a ticking time bomb until someone noticed that something was going on with my transition. So I came out to a couple of my co-workers as a trans man because I thought that would be easier for them to understand and grasp. They were actually extremely supportive and sort of rallied the whole community to help make the process as painless as possible for me. It was really encouraging. I didn’t come all the way out as nonbinary for a couple more years after that.”

Ralston, whose pronouns are they/them, feels lucky to be in a position where they can be honest about their gender identity. They hope their story positively empowers others to do the same.

“I think transitioning really enabled me to think about what I actually wanted from my life and what I enjoyed
doing and what
made me happy.” — SJ Ralston

“About a year into my transition, my mother said something to me that I will remember for the rest of my life. She said, ‘It’s like something has been chewing on your leg for the last 15 years and you finally got rid of it.’ I think that’s a pretty apt description. I had gotten so used to being in pain all the time that I’d stopped noticing that I was in pain—until suddenly I found a way to not be in pain anymore. That revealed to me how much of my mental and emotional bandwidth was being used to insulate myself from existing in my body, my name, and my gender. I think transitioning really enabled me to think about what I actually wanted from my life and what I enjoyed doing and what made me happy.”

Ralston adds that while their journey has been positive, that’s not always the case with everyone in the LGBTQ community. Much more work needs to be done so everyone can be free.

“For me personally, I don’t think we have yet lived up to the very first Pride—the Stonewall Uprisings—which were begun by trans and gender-nonconforming women of color. I think that the queer community has made some great strides, but we have also not done a great job of helping and lifting up the people who started the queer liberation movement and the people who are most impacted by queerphobia. I think we have to stand with those people and fight for their rights the way that they have fought for ours. I think we have to dedicate ourselves to dismantling the systems that enable the kind of discrimination and marginalization that our community has faced for its entire existence in this country. I think that that’s what we have to keep in mind as we find ways to work with each other and support each other.”

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Connor Behrens

Connor Behrens is a communications graduate from the University of Houston. He has written for the Washington Post, Community Impact Newspaper and the Galveston County Daily News (the oldest newspaper in Texas). When he's not writing stories, he is likely watching the latest new release at the movie theater.
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