“I Like to Exist as a Person”: What It Means to Live Beyond Gender

June 30, 2015
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by Sarah Childress Senior Reporter

Tyler Ford. (Photo by Jones Crow)

For a while, Tyler Ford tried really hard to be a “typical” girl.

As a teenager, Ford pored over copies of Cosmopolitan magazine, idolized pop star Jessica Simpson, put on makeup and dressed up for boys.

None of it felt right. Ford was miserable.

“I made myself into someone that I wasn’t, and someone that was unrecognizable to me,” said Ford, who prefers the pronouns “they,” “their” and “them,” rather than “he,” “she,” “her” or “him.” It didn’t help to be a person of color, one of the few black kids in school.

Ford later came out as a trans man in college and began taking testosterone, but that identity didn’t fit either.

Now a 24-year-old freelance writer, Ford identifies as agender.

“I like to exist as a person,” Ford said. “I don’t feel like I am either a man or a woman … I feel like myself.”

We live in a world of pink and blue. From the cradle, most of us are programmed to dress and behave a certain way, according to the rules assigned to our biological sex.

Boys are supposed to like trucks, act tough and excel at math. Girls are supposed to like princesses, wear dresses and be nice.

“Everything that a kid sees, everything in consumer culture, almost without exception, is reinforcing stereotypical understandings of what it looks like and feels like to be a male or a female,” said Steven Russell, a family studies professor at the University of Arizona.

As a small but growing number of people have begun to come out as transgender, they’ve helped to challenge the notion that gender is linked to biological sex. While many transgender people identify with one gender, the conversations they’ve sparked have also helped make space for those who don’t identify as either male or female. Describing themselves as agender, non-binary or gender non-conforming, such people see gender as fluid, as a continuum.

As schools, workplaces and other public places have started to encourage awareness and support for transgender people — in the form of discrimination bans, and admittance for transwomen to women’s colleges, for example — advocates have begun to emphasize a broader goal: creating a world in which nobody is required to conform to traditional gender norms.

That can make life easier for a transgender child, or one who is still finding their way. But even kids whose gender identity matches the sex they’re born with can benefit, said Joel Baum, a senior director at Gender Spectrum, which educates schools about gender norms.

“Think about a little baby with his whole world in front of him,” he said. “As they grow, they get messages based on gender about what they should be interested in and do and like and play with … and so people close off possibilities in their lives. Boys shouldn’t be daycare providers. Girls can’t be scientists. As a society, we pay too.”

Gender Spectrum usually gets calls from schools trying to accommodate a transgender child. But the organization says the focus shouldn’t just be on a single student. Instead, it tries to get teachers, parents and students to re-think their ideas about gender altogether.

It’s worked with several hundred schools, Baum said, encouraging educators to post more gender-inclusive signs, incorporating more tolerant language in the classroom and offering registration forms that allow people to ask to be identified by neutral pronouns, such as they, them and their.

Gender Spectrum doesn’t talk about sex education, Baum says, because sexual orientation and sexual activity are separate from gender identity. That has helped alleviate fears from some parents who worry that their children will be introduced to ideas that don’t align with their beliefs, he said.

Ultimately, Baum said, the group’s message about gender boils down to a single rule:  Don’t be mean. Even if the students don’t accept or agree with nontraditional ideas about gender, “They get the idea that you can’t be mean,” Baum said, adding that he’s found most kids to be accepting.

AJ’s STORY

As a child, AJ Jonathan went to a school that didn’t require anyone to worry about their gender. Jonathan — who also prefers they/their/them pronouns — was born female, but often preferred dressing in more masculine clothes. Nobody seemed to mind.

In seventh grade, Jonathan transferred to a public school and was surprised to suddenly find girls’ and boys’ restrooms. People assumed Jonathan was a tomboy. Suddenly, Jonathan found themself struggling to define their identity.

“It was the first time I had been forced to think about that,” Jonathan said.

Today, Jonathan is an 18-year-old student at New York University, and said they normally identify their gender as queer or nonbinary. Some days, Jonathan will don a dress and makeup. Other days, it’s khakis and a button-down.

“That process of transitioning socially, introspectively and extrovertedly is still one that’s happening,” Jonathan said. “I’m still figuring out what I want.”

THE DANGER OF BEING DIFFERENT

As important as this process of self-discovery is, it can also be emotionally turbulent. Add to that the hostility many still receive just for dressing or acting in a way that doesn’t conform to traditional gender norms, particularly for people of color.

Among people who expressed a transgender identity or were gender non-conforming in kindergarten through high school, 78 percent said they were harassed, and more than one third — 35 percent — said they had been physically assaulted, according to a 2013 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

As adults, 63 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced a serious act of discrimination, such as losing a job or being evicted, physical or sexual assault, or denial of medical services because of who they are.

Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting bullying in schools on the basis of gender identity, according to an analysis by the Movement Advancement Project, an independent think tank that researches LGBT issues. Two more, Hawaii and Delaware, have teacher or school codes prohibiting such behavior.

In December, the Justice Department said it would include gender identity in its interpretation of the Civil Rights Act, which allows the government to bring lawsuits against companies who discriminate based on sex. It also has filed statements of interest in some discrimination cases brought by transgender people.

But there’s no federal law banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Today, only 10 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Five states and D.C. prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression.

A few states have introduced bills that require people to use the bathroom for their birth or legal sex — which can be uncomfortable or even physically dangerous for those who look physically different than the gender they were born into. So far, the bills haven’t gone anywhere. But they still can have an adverse effect, said Vincent Villano, communications director at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “These states are creating a climate of hostility for trans students, and that’s an enormous part of whether they can even be at school, or learn in school.”

The courts have been favorable to people who have brought suits alleging discrimination based on their gender. But not everyone has the time or money to sue, and lawsuits create a patchwork of legal precedents. The National Center for Transgender Equality and other nonprofit groups are advocating for comprehensive federal legislation that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, public accommodations, housing and credit. But no such legislation has been introduced.

Meanwhile in New York, whenever Tyler Ford goes out, they think carefully about how to dress and style their hair, and when and where to use the bathroom, to minimize harassment. Even some white members of the LGBT community can be rude or intolerant, Ford said.

“It all depends on the day, and a lot of times it depends on my outfit, or where I’m going, and at what time,” they said. “It’s definitely a lot to think about, and sometimes I don’t realize that other people don’t have to think about these things. By now, it’s second nature to me.”

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