What does it mean to be genderqueer or nonbinary?
For our second “I am” series, we spent time with three young Kansas Citians who identify as genderqueer or nonbinary with regard to gender, meaning they are neither completely male nor female but perhaps a bit of both.
Nonbinary people fall under the umbrella of transgender because they don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. However, while many transgender people, like Caitlyn Jenner, are transitioning from one gender to the other, nonbinary people don’t identify as either.
But what is basically a private issue has been thrust into the spotlight recently by flurry of “bathroom bills” in various states, including Missouri and Kansas, seeking to make schools enforce gender-specific bathrooms and bar people from using facilities that do not correspond to the gender they were born with.
This has led to a backlash from trans groups and their allies, who say the only “safety” issue is trans people getting beat up if they are forced to use the men’s room.
The Kansas bill in particular drew scorn nationally for offering a “bounty,” by allowing students to sue a school for $2,500 each time a transgender person was spotted in a bathroom.
Some public institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York have responded by offering all-gender bathrooms, but trans people say unless all bathrooms in a building are unisex, a single unisex bathroom is a form of segregation and can have the effect of “outing” students trying not to call attention to their gender.
Coming out can put nonbinary people at risk of losing their job in many states.
State employees in Kansas, for example, can be fired on the basis of their gender identity or sexuality because Gov. Sam Brownback rescinded an executive order former governor Kathleen Sebelius had signed protecting those classes of people.
Micah Kubic, executive director of ACLU in Kansas, says discrimination based on sexuality and gender was ruled a form of sex discrimination last summer by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is therefore illegal. However, the EEOC does not have a mandate over all employers, but large companies are covered by the ruling.
Many nonbinary people prefer to be called “they” rather than “he” or “she.” The New York Times, Washington Post and other media outlets have adopted some of the usage. Other nonbinary people use new pronouns such as sie, ze or hir and a host of alternatives to genderqueer and nonbinary to describe their gender identification.
If you’re a grammar nerd and it’s too painful to say “They goes to school,” say “They go to school.” We already use the plural dodge in English when we genuinely don’t know a subject’s gender: “Someone left their car keys. I wonder when they’ll be back to get them.”
The important thing, nonbinary people say, is not to insist on using a pronoun they don’t relate to. Language evolves. We’ve ditched the old practice — common through the 1970s — of using “man” to mean “human” and masculine pronouns as universal in sentences like: “Each student should write his name on the board.”
Gender identity is not the same as sex (male or female physical characteristics at birth) or sexuality. Just because someone is genderqueer doesn’t mean they are gay. Genderqueer people can have romantic relationships with gay or straight people of either sex or other genderqueer people.
Confusing? Yes. So we found three engaging theys to help us understand their stories.
Glossary of terms
Cisgender: A term used by some to describe people who are not transgender.
Gender nonconforming: A term used to describe some people whose gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity.
Genderqueer or nonbinary: A term used by some individuals who identify as neither entirely male nor entirely female.
Sie, ze, hir: Some pronouns that have been used in place of he and she.