In June of 2016, an Oregon judge ruled that Jamie Shupe, a 52-year-old Army veteran, could legally change their gender to “nonbinary” in the eyes of that state. This seems to have been the first time in the U.S. that a person gained legal status as neither male nor female, which is a little astonishing, considering we’ve always been here–though I admit, for a long time nobody considered our gender identities might be legitimate (least of all, oftentimes, nonbinary people ourselves).
Since then, the motor vehicle departments of Oregon, the District of Columbia, and California have all added a nonbinary option, X, on driver’s licenses, and Ontario, Washington state, and Vermont are now considering doing the same.
One thing that surprises me in all this is that for the most part, this welcome change isn’t based on new laws. California passed a bill to recognize a third gender option, but everywhere else I mentioned, it’s the department of motor vehicles getting things done. Apparently, there being no law that driver’s licenses have to say “male” or “female,” adding a third option isn’t a legal issue: it’s just administrative.
Even as a person who’s only partly out, I would love to see this option available in my state. The idea of having a license that doesn’t require me to say I’m something I’m not (or at least something I’m not a large proportion of the time) is hugely appealing, and I imagine preparing for my new photo by making my face look as androgynous as possible, hopefully leaving anyone who ends up needing to check my ID with no need to be confused or figure anything out.
But then, the bigger issue for me is the name. Even if I can get ID that is more or less accurate in terms of gender and that never presents a jarring contrast between my presentation in life and my presentation in my photo, I still need to be able to refer to myself somehow. Yet it’s already possible to get a legal name change, so all the tools are there.
What about you? Does anyone else out there have or want a non-binary designation on your license or passport?
I’m enthusiastic to spread the word about this book, and I’m happy to provide reviewer copies for anyone interested in writing about the book on their Web site, in publications, on Amazon, on Goodreads, or elsewhere. Reviews don’t have to be positive if you get a free reviewer copy: just lay it on the line. I’m taking the chance that you’ll like the book just because it’s entertaining and, I hope, a little mind-expanding.
If you know of any blogger, reviewer, site, publication, organization, or anyone else I should get in touch with to spread the word about the book, could you drop me a note through the contact page or in comments?
I’ve also moved my blog to a more full-featured Web site here at bi-gender.com from its old location at JamesBethMerritt.wordpress.com. Here I hope to offer expanded FAQs as well as a gathering point for nonbinary folks and Bi-Gender readers. The old site will still be accessible, but it won’t be updated further, so come here instead: this is where all the cool new stuff will be happening.
Trans Book Reviews has a unique proposition going on at their site. It’s not just that they review only books and stories that are non-cisgender (so transgender, non-binary, agender, or anything else that isn’t strictly cis); they also have a cisgender and a non-cisgender person review each one and post both reviews together. In terms of fostering understanding and support, I think that’s fantastic. Check out their site at https://transbookreviews.wordpress.com.
This past weekend, I had the very unusual opportunity to connect with other non-binary people as part of a larger event, in a closed discussion that didn’t include any mono-gendered people (well, except for one woman who wandered in, not knowing what the discussion was about. Once we realized she wasn’t non-binary, we had to send her on her way, which felt rude, but which was absolutely necessary).
There were about a dozen of us, sitting in a circle and just asking and answering questions. Most there were younger–college age or early twenties–but there were also three or four forty-and-up people, myself included, and age seemed to be no barrier in the discussion. There wasn’t anyone else there who definitely identified as bi-gender, but that didn’t really matter, either. The uniting experience was of being neither strictly male nor strictly female.
It seemed to me that it was a relief and an empowering experience for everyone there to be able to talk to other people who shared something of their experience. The other opportunity I had to participate in a group like this, the experience was very similar: mostly younger people, no one else who identified as bi-gender, and everyone delighted to be there.
To follow up on this, I’m going to look into organizing a one-day non-binary conference, perhaps in Massachusetts this summer. I don’t yet know exactly what we’ll do apart from having open discussion, but that will develop over time. If you’re interested in this conference, please drop me a line. If you’re interested but wouldn’t be able to make it in person, please still get in touch: I want to look into ways that it might be possible to include people remotely through some kind of private videoconferencing.
If anyone has suggestions for the conference or (better yet) is interested in helping plan or organize or staff it, I’m enthusiastically interested in hearing from you. I don’t know that anything like this event has happened before (though I’d love to hear about it if it has), and regardless, this has the opportunity to be a singular event for those of us who feel a little marginal sometimes.
By the way, this site is now also accessible through the address bi-gender.com. I may do more with that domain in future, or create a more broadly focused non-binary site.
I went to a Christmas celebration the other day where a woman was in attendance who was serving as a gender police volunteer. I should mention that I showed up in male mode and that I was out to less than half the people there, so I was basically presenting as a cis male. That said, I do have long hair and two pierced ears and an awfully pretty jawline–but I also have a bit of a fierce personality, and apparently this volunteer police officer was just going for the easy targets. Ironically, she spent her time teasing cis males when there was a bi-gender person just a few feet away.
She was at it literally when I walked in the door. My nephew, a recent college graduate who to the best of my knowledge is cisgender and straight, with short hair, a beard, and a suitably masculine job but also a soft voice and a quiet demeanor, was looking at somebody’s Christmas town setup: you know, the miniature buildings and little Victorian-looking people and skating rinks and things that people with more patience and table space than I have put up. He may have been actually doing moving something in it around, but as far as I noticed, he was just looking. The gender police volunteer, meanwhile, was teasing him: “Are you playing with dolls now?” she said. “Do you like to play with dolls?” This went on for several minutes.
Later she took it up with a relative about my age, who was there with his wife and daughter. Another relative had given him a scarf for Christmas, and it was the kind that starts as an enormous square, not the universally-male-approved kind that’s more of a long strip of fabric. This was in a male-approved dark blue color with a plaid pattern, yet the volunteer, as my relative was still opening the package and was just realizing it was a scarf, asked him if he liked his new dress.
Several times on any normal day I find myself thinking “Ugh, maybe I shouldn’t be bi-gender–it’s so difficult.” And yes, it’s time-consuming and inconvenient, but first, obviously, it isn’t something I get to choose, and second, what’s really difficult about it isn’t how I present myself (although that’s also difficult), but instead having to gear up mentally for what I imagine other people are thinking.
I know that’s buying trouble. Why worry about what other people might be thinking when you can just deal with how they actually act? But the mental chatter that those of us who cross gender lines have to deal with is an epic recording of thousands of voices of gender police volunteers like the one at that party from throughout our lives, not to mention television, movies, books, games, coworkers, clothing stores, laws, songs, commercials … I’d love to switch it off, permanently and completely, but it’s burned into my brain from non-stop reinforcement. Even if I were able to start from a clean slate, I’d get fresh daily doses of it from every direction.
Here’s the kicker about the volunteer at Christmas: she’s not only a lesbian, but she was wearing a vest and tie that were clearly designed for men. She gender policed while partly cross-dressed.
But then, I feel certain she has been repeatedly harassed by the gender police herself, just for the other version of the crime: being “too masculine,” being romantically drawn to women, not staying in her assigned place and being a sex object for cis het men, and so on. This is a person who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, the most conformist period in American history, as far as I can tell.
Unfortunately, I think she may deal with her own internalized voices in a less than ideal way, being kicked by someone and turning around to kick someone else in return to shore up her sense of worth. (Helpful hint: passing on the pain doesn’t really work.)
I feel sure she doesn’t realize she’s doing it. I suspect that in her mind she’s being fun and entertaining and simultaneously engaging in a joke with people she has shown every evidence of genuinely liking. I can judge her for not being more self-reflective or more aware of the harm she’s doing, but there’s probably not a lot of point in that. I mean, I’m not writing this post because I think a lot of gender police will read it and change their ways. I’m writing it for all of us who have been persecuted by the gender police–cis and trans and bi-gender, straight and queer and undeclared. I can’t tell you it doesn’t matter, and I can’t shut those recordings up or make the volunteers stand down, but I can at least tell you that you’re not alone, that you’re beautiful for who you actually are and not for who someone thinks you should be, and that the gender police are profoundly and permanently wrong. When you hear them, don’t forget that what you’re hearing are fear and ignorance: they’re not truth, they’re not helpful, and their handcuffs only work on you if you let them.
I’ll be moving into a new home soon, the first I’ve ever had that will be solely mine. Since the last time I moved, years ago, I’ve come to understand my gender much better, and to be less worried about passing as fully male all the time. True, I’m not about to go out in boy form wearing pink sweaters, but I thinking, tentatively, that I want to try to actually decorate my new home, and when I do that I want it to reflect both my genders, to feel like a real home to both my male and female selves rather than just like more camouflage.
There’s an intriguing article in the Huffington Post, with many pictures, about photographer Lissa Rivera and BJ, a friend who became the subject of a series of photos that cross gender lines. I recommend it for anyone else who’s interested in those questions.
Scout Schultz was a 21-year student at Georgia Tech and the leader of the Georgia Tech LGBT Alliance.
I don’t know anything about Scout’s state of mind, but I have to say that this incident isn’t puzzling to me like some such incidents are, because Scout was non-binary, and non-binary people don’t fit anywhere. Not only don’t we fit into the usual categories in the world; we’re even out of place among LGBTQ groups. Even transgender people, who themselves are often on the margins of the already-marginalized LGBTQ community, are usually one gender or the other.
As a non-binary person, it’s hard not to feel like you’re misplaced, a permanent outsider. It’s also hard to believe sometimes that you will ever find a romantic partner, because you can’t be understood at a glance, and it’s usually impossible to know who might even have the capacity to be romantically interested in you just by looking. Straight and gay people generally have a huge pool of potential soulmates (or one-night stands, depending on what they’re looking for). Trans people and non-binary people, on the other hand, are often left wondering if there’s anyone at all for them.
None of these things forces a person to suicide, but they certainly don’t help.
Sorry, but a thing about words
According to a BBC article, Scout “identified as intersex,” but intersex means having been born with ambiguous sexual anatomy; it’s not a gender identity in the usual sense. Apparently Scout had described themself in a profile as “bisexual, nonbinary and intersex,” but I’m disappointed that the BBC didn’t check their terminology and stick with the adjective that appears to be most accurate, “nonbinary.” In reality, it seems as though Scout was not intersex–for instance, according to the Washington Post,
Both parents remembered well the time that Scout came out to them.
“It wasn’t a shock because we’re welcoming and loving parents,” Bill Schultz [Scout’s father] said. “It shouldn’t have been hard for Scout to come out but I think there were some issues involved there which is why they did a session in therapy.”
I don’t imagine Bill Schultz would have been that surprised at Scout coming out if Scout actually were intersex, so I can only conclude that Scout misunderstood what the word meant and that media outlets aren’t checking their terms to make sure they correct the mistake. That’s disappointing, because the words really do matter. Intersex people can be male, female, non-binary, or other, just like anyone else. It doesn’t help for media outlets to be sloppy about their word usage and suggest otherwise. That’s a good way to spread confusion.
I’m late finding it, but an article in the March 27th issue of Time Magazine, “Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’: The Changing Meaning of Gender and Sexuality” (also available online at http://time.com/magazine/us/4703292/march-27th-2017-vol-189-no-11-u-s/ ) offers research and individual accounts on the changing understanding of gender and sexuality. They don’t mention bi-gender people (but then, hardly anyone does), though they do make note of one person who identifies as gender fluid and describes a bi-gender-like experience of life. They also pretty much ignore non-binary people older than their mid-twenties. Still, it’s a well-written and informative article that answers some questions about how widespread non-binary genders and sexual preferences are, how younger people tend to regard them, and how they’re changing in our culture: well worth a read.
My friend Kristin passed along a recommendation to me for Jeff Garvin’s YA novel Symptoms of Being Human (Balzer + Bray, 2016), which tells the story of Riley Cavanaugh, a genderfluid teen. It’s the first book I’ve read where a major character could really be considered bi-gender (though Riley never uses that word, and “genderfluid” is probably a better description of who they are). Riley moves back and forth on the scale between male and female, feeling more boy one day and more girl the next. The story deals with their experience trying to walk a fine line of being themself and not drawing unwanted attention. That line, it turns out, is too thin: as in real life, there are people who take real exception to anyone crossing gender lines or trying to mix genders.
In terms of entertainment, if like me you enjoy YA (young adult) fiction, as more and more adults seem to do these days, Symptoms of Being Human is a good read. Some of the positive attention Riley gets doesn’t feel realistic to me: without giving away what goes on in the story, Riley seems like a realistic teenager with realistic gifts, but some of those gifts are received as though they’re amazing and exceptional, and I found that a little hard to swallow. Garvin also chooses to never let Riley reveal what sex they were assigned at birth, and I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, as Garvin must have intended, it keeps the focus on Riley’s actual gender instead of letting us get hung up on Riley’s assigned sex. On the other hand, while being non-binary is very tricky regardless of your assigned sex at birth, the challenges are a bit different depending on what that assigned sex is, both socially and physically, and this story glosses over those differences. Still, it’s refreshing to have a character whose assigned sex at birth is simply beside the point.
In terms of gender experience, Garvin does a great job, especially since nothing in the public information I’ve seen about him suggests that he’s anything different than a straight, cisgender male (he describes himself in this article about gender identity as an ally). Evidently he spent a lot of time reading and talking to transgender and non-binary people before he began to write, and it shows in characters who feel true-to-life in their gender non-conformity.
For a contrast, consider Lauren McLaughlin’s enjoyable but unrealistic YA novel Cycler, in which the main character inexplicably flips back and forth between being physically male and physically female: it’s a good read, but it has no wisdom to impart about being non-binary–though to be fair, I doubt it’s meant to.
Symptoms of Being Human is mainly preoccupied with the difficult question of whether to come out, and how much, and to whom, and how to try not to give your gender identity away before you’re ready. These are important and interesting question, though it was a little disappointing to me that they ended up being the ultimate questions in the book. From my point of view, coming out is a secondary issue, and the main thing is how a person lives and figures out who they are when they don’t fit into the gender binary we’re all taught is basic to our identity.
But Symptoms is a badly-needed and rewarding read, and my hope is that that it’s only the beginning for Garvin and for Riley, that before long we’ll see the continuation of Riley’s story and what comes of them facing these deeper issues.