Most people know from a very young age that they are either male or female, but that is not true for everyone.
Some people have a deep knowing that male or female just doesn’t quite describe who they know themselves to be. Nonbinary, gender nonconforming, gender expansive, genderqueer ― people call it different things. If you don’t understand, the labels can feel a little off-putting at first, but the truth is this isn’t about labels. It’s about people ― people like me. I was born and raised a boy, but deep down I’ve always known that I was somehow different.
Around kindergarten age, I learned that in Hawaii boys wore grass skirts, and I spent a year begging my parents for one. When the gymnastics teacher told me I could no longer perform on the balance beam or uneven bars, because those were only for girls, I quit and cried all the way home. Later, I joined the Boy Scouts, which I stuck with for many years.
My mom and dad allowed me to be myself and express my more feminine nature, but they often worried for my safety. Sometimes my mom would gently warn me about wearing certain outfits or carrying along certain toys before we left the house. We lived in the woods on a mountain in rural central Pennsylvania, and I can remember feeling like when I went into the valley I was putting myself in danger. I felt like I had to toughen up and put on a hardened shell of protection.
It was (and still is) difficult for my parents and family to fully understand what I meant when I told them I am nonbinary, and that is okay. What is important to me, is that they love and support me.
Many people look at me, then and today, and think that I am simply a feminine gay man. We all know and love someone in our lives who is a little more feminine or a little more masculine than our culture’s idealized versions of men and women. Maybe you’ve felt those pressures yourself. Increasingly, many of us are also familiar with transgender people like Laverne Cox or Chaz Bono. This is also about gender, but different.
What I have come to understand about myself is that in my heart, in my soul, and in my mind I truly do not feel that male or female matches who I am on the inside.
“In my heart, in my soul, and in my mind I truly do not feel that male or female matches who I am on the inside.”
At first, the idea that someone may experience their gender in a different way ― as neither male nor female, but something else or somewhere in the middle ― can be confusing and somewhat uncomfortable for some, and I get that. We often feel that way around things that are unfamiliar or hard to understand. That’s just human nature.
But because so few people personally know someone like me, there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there and that misunderstanding can have terrible consequences.
There were times when I came home from high school with bruises, and there were times when I feared for my life, because of the extreme threats bullies were making. On top of the external pressures, I was keeping my true identity as nonbinary a deep secret.
There are parents, like mine were, who are justifiably worried about the safety of their children. Bullying of LGBTQ and other minority students has spiked since the election. A survey of over 50,000 youth conducted by the Human Rights Campaign found that 70 percent of respondents reported witnessing bullying, hate messages, or harassment during or since the 2016 election. LGBTQ youth reported much higher rates of bullying than other students.
Sadly, nonbinary or gender nonconforming people, especially those of color, experience very high rates of violence and discrimination. In the largest survey ever completed of transgender and gender nonbinary people, 32 percent reported being physically assaulted. In part credit to my privilege as a white, middle-class person, I’ve survived severe bullying, but it can still be difficult to feel safe just being me, particularly in the age of Trump.
Trump and his team ― many of whom have extreme anti-LGBTQ views and records ― wasted no time in rolling back important legal protections against discrimination for transgender and gender nonconforming people. And, on a daily basis Trump espouses a version of masculinity that says “boys don’t cry ― they fight,” that says you can grab women’s bodies without consequence, that says there are fine people on both sides of a neo Nazi-led rally, that “fire and fury” is the way to deal with threats from other countries; he is signaling through his own words and conduct that bullying is okay. When this is the example set by the most powerful person in the country, it puts many Americans, especially our youth, at risk.
“I’d love to go about my life without sharing my story with the world... But it is crucial for me to share.”
Some people have asked me why I am so publicly speaking out. I’d love to go about my life without sharing my story with the world, allowing my life to be a target for internet trolls ― or much worse. But it is crucial for me to share my story because there are many people far more vulnerable who are facing discrimination, harassment, and violence right now ― just because of who they are. I may be the only nonbinary or gender nonconforming person many people ever “meet.” If sharing my story can help create understanding or keep people safe, then I need to find my courage to do my part.
Like many of you, I was raised to treat everyone as I want to be treated ― including those who may seem different. We never know what someone else is going through until we have been in their shoes. Nonbinary people are a part of America’s fabric: We’re in families, schools, workplaces, churches, and every community. All of us, including gender nonbinary people, should have a fair opportunity to enjoy our lives, provide for ourselves and our families, and reach our fullest potential without the fear of violence and discrimination.