In the year 2017, most of us probably think we know what it means to be transgender. We watched as Bruce Jenner transitioned to Caitlyn, “Transparent” swept the Emmy Awards, and a Virginia teen’s case to use the men’s bathrooms at his high school headed to court. Yet, in all that media coverage and conversation, there is a category of transgender person we still never hear about.
They are called non-binary. They use different pronouns than the rest of us. And they do not identify with being either a man or a woman. Rather, these individuals often choose to reject gender completely, blend aspects of both, or to fluctuate between masculinity and femininity on a day-to-day basis. Simply put, the type of transgender people the media portrays — the sort who transition from man to woman, or from woman to man — are just the tip of the iceberg.
“There’s a certain palatable transgender person who has been put forth in the media,” explains Phil Picardi, digital editorial director of Teen Vogue. “Transgender doesn’t just look like one thing. It doesn’t just look like Caitlyn Jenner or like Laverne Cox. And even though those people deserve an immense amount of praise for their bravery and for being willing to make strides in this space, we also have to be accepting, and not always catering to the palates of cisgender people. We need to be more open-minded about what [transgender] looks like.”
In other words, “cisgender” people — or the majority of folks who identify with the gender we were given at birth — tend to think of gender as a binary: There are men and there are women. And so, when we became acquainted with the concept of transgender, we look at it as part of that same binary… as if the only option for trans people was to end up as either a man or a woman.
In reality, however, there exists a whole spectrum of gender identification options between those two binary ends.
In fact, Facebook now offers 58 options for users; Tinder has 37. People can be agender, genderqueer, two-spirit, bigender, gender fluid… the terms go on and on. And even then, there exists a custom write-in option for people who still do not feel that their gender identity is represented as part of that list. What’s more, if users select this “custom” option, a question pops up to inquire about their preferred pronouns.
“I tend to use the analogy of sexual orientation,” explains Dr. John Steever, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. “Most people are familiar with being either straight or gay. And most people are familiar with the concept of being bisexual, attracted to both. So if you apply that construct to gender, then that opens up the idea that there is more than just boys, girls, men, women. There can be people who live in the spaces between that. And I’ll often point out examples from pop culture — people like Grace Jones or David Bowie — people whose gender presentation is a little ambiguous.”
The CBSN Originals documentary, “Gender: The Space Between,” introduces viewers to a handful of non-binary people who identify along this spectrum.
There’s Talia Bellia, a 17-year-old high school student in Shorewood, Illinois, who identifies as genderqueer, explaining that she can feel entirely masculine or entirely feminine on a given day, and dresses accordingly. There’s Brin Solomon, a graduate student at NYU, who identifies as agender, saying, “I feel like I’ve been running and running and running from gender all my life, and this is as far away as I can get.”