Nearly every time recent BGSU graduate Jo Wilson fills out a form, they face a required question they can't answer with the given options: "Gender?"
As a nonbinary student, who studied psychology and women's gender and sexuality studies at BGSU and is off to the University of Vermont for graduate school, they can only answer "other" in most cases.
Many people who identify as nonbinary, or don’t “fit” within the traditional “male” and “female” dichotomy, experience this. They generally use gender-neutral pronouns like “they/them.”
Jo once saw “not applicable” as an option under a form’s gender category.
“What do you mean ‘not applicable’? It’s my gender!” they said.
There is little research done on the number of people who identify as nonbinary, but according to the Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, anywhere from 25% to 35% of transgender populations identify that way.
The term nonbinary has a broad definition and allows for some interpretation. Transgender identities can be personalized and intimate to the people who hold them.
“For me it’s not really a label because I’m the in-between, and it’s a spectrum, and you don’t have to be anywhere specifically … I like it,” Sierra Beers, applied health science senior said.
Similarly, Ozzy Graber, creative writing sophomore, said, “I kind of can present both ways, just depending. I was never super girly. Not that, that really has anything to do with it, but … it (woman) just didn't fit right.”
Because identity can be so nuanced, Jo usually describes themself as “not a man or woman” because for them “it’s just as simple as that.”
For cisgender people — who identify with the gender they are assigned at birth — it isn’t so confusing, but when one starts to question gender, it can become complicated fast.
“I try to think about my gender. … It's like sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not, sometimes I feel like it changes,” Shayna Fury, forensic science sophomore, said.
This feeling of in-betweenness can be mystifying for people, but it’s where many nonbinary people thrive.
Ky Wilson, ethnic studies junior, said, “It’s a liberating feeling. … I’m proud of my gender; I’m proud of not knowing. I don’t have to know.”
Because this experience can confuse so many, cis people often denounce nonbinary genders, asking trans people invasive questions or ignoring their gender altogether. Nonbinary-identifying people have to navigate a binary-oriented world and deal with being misgendered.
“Sometimes it feels hard to connect with people that identify as female or male. It's hard to relate with stuff, some of the stuff they say or do,” Fury said.
Nonbinary people know this can also mean people are “disagreeing” with their gender identity.
“I don’t really care, telling people; not everyone is going to like it, of course. They can judge me. Whatever, I’m fine with it,” Beers said.
Ky presents femininely and is often referred to with feminine language.
“It feels like an out-of-body experience. So when someone calls me a woman or a girl, I don’t associate that with me. I feel like they’re talking about someone else,” Ky said.
Ky is not the only one to be consistently misgendered, most nonbinary people express the need to explain what pronouns they use a lot of the time. Ky, for example, feels like they are coming out “all the time.”
“And like, part of me is really happy because we’re having conversations about pronouns … but then it’s like — gosh, it’s tiring. If I’m not telling people, I’m correcting people. I feel like I have to get a nametag,” Ky said during an interview in the fall of 2018.
Jo expressed a similar idea.
“Trans people just need to make an FAQ of: here’s who I am, here are my pronouns, here’s what I do on the weekends,” Jo said, laughing. “I don’t think people understand that (explaining your identity is) kind of like explaining the plot of a book, but every time you explain a part of the plot you punch yourself as hard as you can in the leg.”
Nonbinary identities are misunderstood outside of the community and lack of information makes pinning down a nonbinary identity confusing. It took Beers an entire year to figure out how they identified because they did not have the language for their feelings.
“(It took) my whole freshman year, probably,” Beers said. “To me it was YouTube. A lot of YouTube. There’s a lot of resources on YouTube for LGBT people, and that’s also how I found my sexuality, just following a variety of YouTubers that would lead to other YouTubers, that would lead me to other ones, and then I found a couple that identified as transgender.”
Fury also did online research before settling on nonbinary. Even nonbinary is an umbrella term for any gender identity that exists outside of the binary.
“I've went through probably 15 labels trying to figure it out, and it's not as easy as just, you know, ‘Oh, I'm female,’” Fury said.
Expectations around gender are put on people from the day they are born. Unpacking those ideas and settling on an identity outside of what one has always been taught can be frustrating.
Class can be a stressful experience because every semester there are new people nonbinary students have to explain themselves to. BGSU offers Safe Zone trainings, but they are not required for professors.
Not all professors and students know the most respectful language, and they may assume they don’t have any nonbinary students when that is not true. This can lead to slightly uncomfortable conversations with professors or nonbinary students deciding to not come out at all.
“I’m out in my classes, but I feel like there are a lot of times where it’s just easier for me to — like my name is out in my classes — sometimes I don’t bother with the pronouns because I’m just trying to go to class and graduate,” Jo said during an interview in the fall of 2018. “It’s easier, and it’s not socially dysphoric for me anymore.”
Graber decided it was best to only come out to their professor.
“I think I wrote when I turned in a paper to them; I think I wrote a little note on the bottom for them at the beginning of the semester,” Graber said. Graber’s professor has been deliberate about respecting their pronouns.
Most students receive a generally positive response when they decide to come out, but there are still misunderstandings.
“One of the first professors I did come out to was my advisor, and I’m going to take lots of his classes because he’s in the department of ethnic studies. And I told him, and he was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna try my hardest to use the pronouns that you like,’” Ky said. “When he said the ‘you like,’ it just kind of rubbed me the wrong way.”
There are spaces on campus where nonbinary students feel comfortable existing as themselves. The most important and most consistent space is the LGBTQ+ Resource Center on campus. The center is full of students who “get it,” and support each other.
“When I’m in these (spaces), I’m like, ‘Yeah! I’m me!’” Beers said.
Outside of the resource center, residence halls are also generally safe for these students. Graber lives in Kreischer Hall.
“It's pretty good. It's really good because the art; the Arts Village is there, so there's a lot of other creative people. There are some other LGBT people that live there,” Graber said.
Being nonbinary can be confusing, frustrating and overwhelming. But there are people out there who understand the experience, and this can be empowering.
“If you’re wondering about your gender or your sexuality or anything, there are resources out there. You are definitely never alone,” Beers said.