Max, age 13, does not identify as male. Ordinarily, working through the process of elimination, that would be enough to deduce Max’s gender.
But Max does not identify as female, either. Max is agender. When referring to Max, you don’t use “he” or “she;” you use “they.”
Once strictly a pronoun of the plural variety, “they” is now doing double duty as singular, referring to individuals, like Max, who do not see gender as an either/or option.
This can be awkward.
“I can’t expect anyone to use the right pronouns for me because it’s not a thing that people know,” Max says. “It’s been great being myself, but it’s also been really hard for people to get it, and for even family to get pronouns and stuff.”
We’re talking in Max’s room, where posters on the wall showcase Max’s appearance in school theatrical productions: “Peter Pan,” “Tarzan,” “The Pirates of Penzance.” Max is old enough now to make use of a makeup area—blush, foundation, lipstick—but young enough to enjoy going with their mom to see “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.” (The review from Max: Gene Wilder is great!)
From these surroundings, you wouldn’t think the room’s occupant is someone who has poked and prodded at the most fundamental sense of who they are. Really, this is just a kid’s room.
What does “agender” mean? I ask that kid.
“What it means is I’m neither guy or girl, and that’s how I feel, which is different than terms like ‘gender fluid’—which means you feel like a guy or girl at different times—because I don’t feel like I’m both guy and girl; I’m neither.”
Max’s tone here is a bit didactic. They’re teaching me Nonbinary Gender 101, a crash course for someone who never considered that gender didn’t mean just male and female.
Outside Max’s room, out in the world, being nonbinary means having to do a lot of explaining.
When did you first feel different? I ask.
“I’ve been feeling different than just a boy for all my life, really.”
Max frames the transition from who they (that is, Max) were to who they are as a journey of self-discovery. In elementary school, there were girl friends and dressing in pink boas. That, Max says, was “awesome.”
But two years ago, someone at school called Max a “girl-boy.” Later, Max walked upstairs to the third floor of the house and stepped out onto the balcony, weighing whether or not to jump. More than 40 percent of transgender or “gender non-conforming” people have attempted suicide, according to surveys, with school bullying playing a significant role.
Why, I ask, did that particular insult hit so deeply that you would think about ending your life?
Max answers in spare, even-toned summation.
“I felt like no one loved me.”
Leaping the Gender Boundary
That day, on the balcony, Max had summoned up the presence of mind to call a transgender hotline. A counselor talked Max back into the house, to continue what appears to me to be a struggle that is remarkably profound.
If same-sex marriage was yesterday’s battle to redefine gender roles and privileges, and transgender rights today’s, we just may be on the cusp of the most transformational stage yet. This you-ain’t-seen-nothin’-yet phenomenon involves the splintering of what heretofore has been one of the most resilient organizing principles of American society—the division of the entire human race into male and female.
Those who erase that line may identify as both male and female, as neither male nor female, or as sometimes male and sometimes female. “They” is often the pronoun of choice. These individuals may use any number of terms to describe their gender identity: genderqueer, gender-fluid, gender creative, gender-expansive. While definitions fluctuate, “nonbinary gender” has emerged as an umbrella description.
“I think we’re seeing a new gender revolution,” says clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft. “It’s erased boxes and created gender infinity instead.”
Ehrensaft directs mental health at the Child and Adolescent Gender Center at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. At 70, she has been practicing her profession for some time.
“We are seeing more and more kids saying, ‘You know what? What’s with this either/or business? What’s with this boy-girl and you have to fit in one box or the other?’”
How widespread is the nonbinary phenomenon? The results of the most recent survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality attest to how many transgender people are opting to identify as nonbinary. Out of almost 28,000 respondents, more than a third chose “nonbinary/genderqueer” when given a choice of terms to best describe themselves.
The number of transgender clients seeking help has swollen into a “tsunami,” according to Ehrensaft. And among those wanting treatment, the number who want to transition to the opposite sex has been steadily dropping.
A much greater percentage, says Ehrensaft, tell her they’re “kind of the person that matches the sex on my birth certificate, but kind of not, as well. I’m going to use ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ because those are not choices that fit me at all.’ ”
And there is growing evidence that even those outside the transgender community are buying in.
A January 2015 general population survey of 1,000 people age 18-34, conducted for Fusion media, found just 46 percent agreed that “there are only two genders, male and female.” Fifty percent, meanwhile, said “gender is a spectrum, and some people fall outside conventional categories.”
As more people redefine their gender identity in nonbinary terms, schools, governments, workplaces and parents are having to adapt.
Christine Chrisman, 46, has a 14-year-old, Cypress, who identifies as gender-fluid. Chrisman says she was fully cognizant of transgender people who wanted to transition completely to the opposite sex. But, she says, “It didn’t really occur to me you could just hang out in the neutral, the in-between spot.”
“I don’t know what to think about it,” she says, adding that she knows a lot of parents who feel similarly. “Everybody seems sort of bewildered.”
Here in this state, the California Healthy Youth Act, signed into law in 2015, requires comprehensive sex education for grades 7-12 to “teach pupils about gender, gender expression, gender identity, and explore the harm of negative gender stereotypes.” A checklist from the California County of Superintendents, designed for school systems to evaluate compliance with the law, includes this definition of gender identity:
“One’s internal, deeply-held sense of being male, female, neither of these, both, or other gender(s). All people have a gender identity.” (Emphasis ours.)
Phyllida Burlingame of the ACLU of Northern California calls the law the nation’s first of its kind. She says, “Districts are working to come into compliance with it.”
Official recognition of nonbinary gender appears to be accelerating. Last June, a county circuit court judge in Oregon, in what transgender advocates believed was a first in the U.S., affirmed the legal change of 52-year-old Jamie Shupe’s gender from female to “nonbinary.”
Then, in September, a judge in Santa Cruz, California issued an order recognizing “nonbinary” as the legal gender of 55-year-old Sara Kelly Keenan. Since then, California courts have granted nonbinary status to several more individuals. Coming this spring, according to the Gendersex and Queer Recognition project, hearings will take place in several Bay Area counties for an additional seven people who also want to officially change their gender to nonbinary.
Last month, a California legislator introduced Senate Bill 179, which would make the state the first to recognize “nonbinary” as a legal gender, joining other national and sub-national jurisdictions around the world.
And an Oregon school district last year settled with a nonbinary-identified fifth-grade teacher for $60,000 after the teacher complained of harassment, partly due to coworkers refusing to refer to the teacher as “they” and “them.”
Hanging Out in ‘the In-Between’
Think about this: Max, at 13, has already shed not only a gender identity of origin—male—but also one that turned out to be temporary—transgender female.
Max lives with their mother, father and brother in a roomy East Bay home. Two years ago, after first coming out as someone who identified as a girl, Max learned on Tumblr about terms like “nonbinary,” “gender neutral,” and “agender.”
“I was like, you know what? This describes me a little better than ‘girl,’” Max says. “I’ve been rolling with that for over a year.”
Max’s mother, Margaret, 52, acknowledges she was clueless about gender issues when Max came out. “Sexuality–no big deal,” she says, explaining the commitment she and Max’s father, BZ, have always made to gay and lesbian rights. “We’re super lefties.” (She asked we not use last names due to online threats against other transgender families.)
But Max’s nonbinary identity definitely threw her. “I was taken very much by surprise in terms of gender. It came from left field, I knew nothing, I was scared.”
Even here, in the ultra-progressive San Francisco Bay Area, a region that rarely meets an iconoclastic idea it won’t embrace, Max has felt isolated.
“I think it’s a lot harder as nonbinary than trans,” Max says. “I’m not saying it’s not hard as trans, but you can’t really say ‘Oh I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.’ If you say ‘I’m not a boy, I’m not a girl’—so what’s left? It’s hard to define what that means.”
That is an existential quandary with real-world implications.
“I think we were at a mall somewhere,” Margaret, says, “and there was the men’s room to the right and the women’s room to the left, and Max walked right into the wall, in the middle, to make a point. Because where do you go to the bathroom? Where do you feel comfortable?”
While the question of who can go to the bathroom where may sound prosaic, about a third of transgender people have reported abstaining from eating or drinking in order to avoid using one, because of frequent harassment and confrontations.
At school, Max would use the boy’s room only during class, when it was less crowded, and only when desperate. They didn’t like to use the girls’ room, either.
“It would just feel like ‘I’m in the wrong place, I’m not supposed to be here,” Max says. “Something in your stomach—this just doesn’t feel right.”
The family lobbied Oakland School for the Arts, where Max is in the 8th grade, for a gender-neutral bathroom. It took awhile, but the school converted a faculty restroom, which can now be used by anyone.
The other issue that comes up every day is being referred to in the wrong way, as he or she. Max says it hurts to be misgendered.
“It means I’m not passing, especially when people use he/him, it really makes me feel like I’m not doing enough,” Max says with some passion, “and I’m never going to look the right way.”
Max’s father says pronouns have been difficult for him.
“It has taken awhile to get those right,” BZ says. “Max was born male. I’ve had 11 years of ‘he.’”
Dealing with other people is only part of Max’s struggle as a nonbinary youth. Max must also wrestle with a decision most of us never have to: whether to go through male or female puberty.
“Max is on this exploration, but it’s harder [than], like ‘I’m absolutely a girl, I’m absolutely a boy,” Margaret says. “Being in the middle, what does that mean about your body?”
Right now, taking hormones that prevent the emergence of secondary sex characteristics, such as breasts or facial hair, has bought Max more time to grapple with the choice.
Ehrensaft’s clinic now sees a growing number of people, mostly teenagers, who want to transform their bodies in ways that don’t fit a binary model. One client, Ehrensaft says, doesn’t want testosterone or a lower voice or facial hair, but doesn’t want breasts either.
Davi Mühlinghaus-Anderson, a soft-spoken 20-year-old who identifies as gender neutral and uses plural pronouns, is someone who has taken that route, having their breasts removed but with no plans to have genital reconstruction surgery or to take hormones.
Anderson says removing their breasts wasn’t a hard decision. “When puberty hit, when my breasts started to develop, that was very defining. It was just dead weight to my body.”
In the Gender Vanguard
At Oakland School for the Arts, I’m talking gender with principal Mike Oz and creative writing teacher Jordan Karnes, who also runs the Gender and Sexuality Club.
The interview is not what I expect. Neither Oz nor Karnes, both in their 30s, speak as if slowly crafting a press release, something journalists often get when interviewing anyone in an official capacity. The conversation is one we might have in a café about an extremely interesting topic.
Oz does seem sensitive about one thing, though: that the school might be portrayed as “that transgender school,” obscuring everything else it has to offer. That worry is not without foundation. Some OSA parents do seem to feel that for better or worse, the school is on the cutting edge of the gender revolution.
Oz recounts how these conversations often start: “‘I hear your school is a place that turns boys into girls.”
Karnes hasn’t heard that before now.
“There’s something about gender that people find so threatening,” she says. “It’s telling that we have a small portion of students that may be nonbinary or trans, that [we] would earn a reputation like that.”
She says she has one or two transgender or nonbinary students in each of her classes.
But many more have begun to reject the male/female dichotomy, Oz says, simply to support their fellow students. That’s not something he saw coming. “That’s the most beautiful piece of this,” he says.
Besides the gender-neutral bathroom, the school accommodates both nonbinary and binary transgender students by changing their email addresses to reflect the new names they have chosen.
Parents are not always on board. Karnes has been at school events, she says, in which students and teachers call transgender students by their new name and pronoun, while parents do not.
There’s one question, impolitic as it is, I’ve wanted to ask:
Is nonbinary identity a trend? A passing fad?
“I really don’t feel like it’s a trend,” Karnes says. “I feel like it’s the future.”
‘Trained to See a Certain Reality’
The acceptable rules and privileges within a binary male-female gender system have long been challenged, and ultimately expanded, by feminists and LGBT activists. And while the concept of other genders may be novel to Americans, it’s nothing new to many cultures around the world.
Hundreds of cultures recognize multiple genders worldwide, and polygendered societies can be traced to antiquity on nearly every continent. The concept of an exclusive gender binary is relatively recent in human history. Still, there are dozens of modern cultures that exist with much broader gender diversity.
“If the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are in defiance of nature,” she wrote. “For, biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male.”
If that is so, one may well imagine a number of these “gradations” applying to those who identify as nonbinary. Sari Van Enders, an endocrinology researcher and gender theorist, says while some physiological research has been done on binary transgender people (including studies showing the brains of transgender individuals more closely resemble those of the gender they adopt), she has not come across any addressing people who are nonbinary.
“My sense is [therapists] have been thinking about this longer than scientists and researchers have,” Van Enders says.
Underlying the nonbinary phenomenon is the belief that gender is a social construct, a theory most famously posited by the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler. This view sees the duality of gender, so entrenched in human society, as not a fundamental truth, but a perspective.
Gender researcher Dot Brauer, director of the LGBTQA Center at the University of Vermont, agrees. “We were trained to see a certain reality, and now we see it everywhere and we can’t not see it until we work to untrain ourselves. It’s not unlike a lot of other social frames that have shifted in our lifetime.”
“For all of us, gender is complexly biopsychosocial,” says Meg-John Barker, a UK academic, psychotherapist and author. “That means that it’s really impossible to completely tease apart which elements of our gender experience come from our genetic makeup, which from our life experiences, and which from the wider social forces around us.”
‘Not Hiding Myself’
It’s virtually impossible to sit listening to the experiences of young people like Max and Davi Mühlinghaus-Anderson without feeling their deep longing to communicate the truth of who they are, and without experiencing their bravery in continuing to do it.
While the 2010s may yet become the decade that binary gender broke, it’s interesting to note that many of my baby-boomer cohort have not necessarily noticed, preoccupied as we are with refinancing mortgages and herniating discs. I witnessed more than one of my friends who no longer recognize the bands on “Saturday Night Live” roll their eyes when I told them the menu of gender options, traditionally limited, but at least user friendly, had expanded. I myself had been so out of the loop on these developments that I realized, during the reporting of this story, that a lifelong predilection for new ideas may have finally met its match. Here, now, was a notion with good potential to turn me into my father, who met the provocative social changes of the 1960s and ’70s by retreating into the refuge of mockery.
Did I now hear an echo of the man in my talks with nonbinary youth? As I sputtered to one interviewee, “You gotta understand, this wasn’t even a thing when I was growing up.”
No matter how organic and authentic the nonbinary movement is, might we assume, in this time of economic and social dislocation, that once it shows up at the offices and high schools of the great mass of Americans, many are not going to like it?
On this, some of my interviewees, most of them transgender, agree.
“I think you’re absolutely right,” says Dot Brauer, the University of Vermont academic. “And at the same time I think one of the reasons it has gained as much of a foothold as it has is that while politically and in terms of social norms it is revolutionary and radical, inside of people it’s always been there.”
But will our two main gender categories eventually melt away into “infinity,” as Diane Ehrensaft predicts?
On this score, it’s interesting to look at a provocative 2014 Israeli study. Researchers gave 2,135 heterosexual, non-transgender men and women a questionnaire designed to gauge sexual identity. Among the results, significant percentages reported sometimes feeling like the opposite gender, sometimes wishing to be the opposite gender, and sometimes disliking their body because it was male or female.
“We conclude that the current view of gender identity as binary and unitary does not reflect the experience of many individuals, and call for a new conceptualisation of gender, which relates to multiplicity and fluidity in the experience of gender,” the researchers wrote.
I thought about that after experiencing a moment of sadness during my interview with Dot Brauer. We’d been talking about the stringent gender roles both of us had grown up with, and I flashed back to my schoolyard years, when the smallest deviation from acceptable male behavior—backing out of a fight or wearing the wrong color shirt—could prompt insinuations of insufficient masculinity, if you were lucky, a pronouncement of “faggot” if you were not.
Really, it was quite oppressive—we kids, acting as unwitting enforcers in a kind of gender prison camp. So I wonder: As a veil against such rigid scrutiny, which unacceptable parts of myself had been forever disowned?
Many of those strictures, in some parts of the country, at least, have all but faded. (All hail the rise of the metrosexual.) After such a steady dismantling of strict gender codes, you might say binary gender’s lone remaining bulwark has been biology. If we really are witnessing the first cracks in that wall, as well, one wonders when and if the entire structure is going to simply collapse. (Diane Ehrensaft wishes she could live another 50 years to see it, she said. )
For the current generation of nonbinary pioneers, though, the issue isn’t the ultimate success of a breakthrough vision of gender, it’s a matter of simple truthfulness and dignity. At the end of our interview, I asked gender-neutral Davi Mühlinghaus-Anderson how things have been going since coming out.
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t exist because I have to fight my way through the world,” Davi said. “But I certainly feel happier as a being and not hiding myself.”
Says Max, covering all the bases: “It’s a journey and it’s fun. It’s rewarding but it’s also difficult. But it’s worth it.”