Going Where Gender Isn’t; Andy Semler

Genderqueer people are gaining increased visibility within a society that doesn’t legally recognize our existence, but we are still a minority within a minority. This talk will explore the social, economic, and health aspects of living outside the gender binary in the USA. I will also share from my own “coming of gender” story, as we begin a broader dialog: What can the humanist community do to create a society where people of all genders flourish?

Andy Semler is an active member of the LGBT Center of St Louis, the Metro Trans Umbrella Group, and the greater online community of non-binary trans and genderqueer folk everywhere.

Below is the transcript of the talk, copied with permission from Andy’s personal blog.

“The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.”
I am the face that genderqueer wants you to see. Let me rephrase that. I am the face that you are willing to accept – that society is willing to accept as the proper vessel for my message this morning. I am a white, thin, educated, young person of female history – I’m wearing a bow tie. Bow ties are cool. For those of you who are listening online, yes, this is my voice. I know, it’s not what I was expecting either, but if Bruno Mars ever donates his vocal cords to charity, I’m first on the waitlist.

But what if my body were tall, angular, hair tied back to reveal an adams apple, lipstick applied expertly beneath a mustache, little black dress with a low-cut neckline that plunges down a flat chest… if you were to see that body walking down the street, that would probably strike most people as the punchline to a Monty Python cross-dressing skit more than a proud genderqueer person of male history. They don’t get to use restrooms in peace, have equal employment opportunities, be treated with dignity by medical professionals. Mothers shoo their children away from people like that, as my friends can sadly attest. Add color to that person’s skin, and they’re quickly demoted in the public eye to street walker, because what else could they be going about dressed that way? Perhaps their body is found dead, and the police close the case, because nobody important was killed, only a black “gay sex worker”.

My dramatic hypotheticals are no exaggeration either. Last week, a 13-year-old boy was suspended for wearing a purse to school. Also last week, an agender teenager fell asleep on the bus in California, only to have someone set fire to the skirt they were wearing in a self-professed crime of “homophobia”. This summer, the murder rate of transgender people increased to twice that of gays and lesbians, despite total numbers of trans people in the population being much smaller than cis LGB people.

This, dear humanists, is the violence of genderqueer invisibility, and that which is hidden in the shadows can be dehumanized without recourse. Of the 6,450 people who responded to the 2008 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, nearly 1/8 identified as “a gender not listed here“, that is, their gender is neither man nor woman. (I want to take a quick moment to point out that this number does not include transgender men and transgender women, on account of trans men and women being men and women.) “‘Genders not listed here’ have significantly higher educational attainment than their peers who did not have to write in their gender. . . Nonetheless, ‘genders not listed here’ are living in the lowest household income category at a much higher rate than those who [selected a binary gender].” Of particular note to us here in St Louis, respondents in the midwest and the south were less likely to identify as a non-binary gender. I can tell you from my personal experiences interacting with hundreds of genderqueer people online, that regional disparity is a direct result of the necessity to fit into a binary box for survival in places that are not tolerant of gender diversity.

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, those “genders not listed here”, those who are neither woman nor man, also have a significantly higher educational attainment than our cisgender peers [cisgender being someone who is not transgender], but skew much poorer and younger than our binary trans brothers and sisters.  In much the same way that living in the midwest gives us pause to living our authentic selves, coming of age in an era where we have access to internet communities of others like us can also give us the strength to know we are not alone.  But what is the cost of authenticity?  Non-binary and genderqueer people are more likely to avoid medical care for fear of discrimination, and as a result are more likely to not know our HIV status, and when we do know, our HIV-positive status is at a higher rate than other trans* people.  We’re more likely to avoid help from the police, because we’re more likely to be harassed by the police.  We’re more likely to have been sexually assaulted at any point in our lives, including childhood.  We’re less likely to have lost a job due to bias, but we’re more likely to seek a job in an underground economy in the first place.  And – perhaps not surprisingly, after all this – we’re more likely to have attempted suicide than our binary trans sisters and brothers.

We keep waiting to be seen, to be heard, to be told that our rights matter and our humanity is valid.  When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was struck down, Dan Savage announced that transgender people could now serve openly. This assessment was sadly incorrect, and the trans members who serve in our military at twice the rate that cisgender people do were forgotten, our pleas for justice drowned out by the celebration for LGB people. Two years later, and Chelsea Manning still has to claw her way toward basic access to female-appropriate health care. In 34 US states, it is still legal to discriminate against transgender people in the workplace. Several of those states have protections for sexual orientation, such as Missouri affords those LGB people working in the public sector. But when trans people ask to be included, we are told to wait our turn. And we’re still waiting.

In recent news, just last Thursday the US Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would provide employment protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  ENDA has been introduced almost every year since 1994, and similar bills have as well, going back to 1974.  In 2007, protections for trans* people were finally added, only to be dropped again, to give the bill a better chance of passing.  This is the first time the bill has been passed in a chamber of congress which included protections for LGB and T.  However, Speaker Boehner has said he plans on blocking this bill, so we still can’t rely upon its passage to protect the equal access to employment rights for trans* workers in all the United States, nor would it address many of the other much-needed protections we need in addition to employment rights.

“The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.” When I first read that statement by Kate Bornstein, I was struck by both the profound necessity for me to follow that path, and by the sheer impossibility to do so successfully. “The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.”

“Which pronouns do you prefer?” I am asked, as is the right thing to do when in doubt. “It doesn’t matter,” I used to lie, afraid I’d be accused of trying to change the world. “Oh you should definitely call me by gender-neutral pronouns,” I would say, enthusiastic that I’d found someone to change the world with me. “Using ‘he’ is fine,” I now admit, having grown weary of changing the world by myself.

“The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.”

I stand with my young child and face two doors, knowing what I need can be found behind both, aware that choosing one over the other is to publicly declare my deepest political allegiances. I casually make my way through Door #1, hoping nobody will notice. “Sir” I look up, and realize she’s looking directly at me. I’ve been found out. “Sir, you want to be over there,” she commands as she points directly toward Door #2, valiantly defending the innocence of the flock of preschool girls we’re both surrounded by. We go into the other room without a fuss. My child peers into a nearby urinal with suspicion. “Mommy, what-” I swiftly brush him into the nearest stall before he can utter any more incriminating words, not knowing how to explain to a preschooler that there is no Door #3 for people like me.

One thing I found as I began navigating society from an explicitly genderqueer frame of reference was that if there were any role models, they were rare to be found.  In looking into the history of the movement, I discovered that this was because the genderqueer community, by that name, was barely reaching 2 decades in age. This isn’t to say we’ve just invented the concept – I know genderqueer people in their 50s and beyond – but as a self-named social/political movement, we’re just getting started.

So who are our role models? Where can we find clues on where we’ve come from, to help ground us as we look forward to where we’re going? When I first tried to answer this question years ago, I was hoping to find binders full of genderqueers all over the internet. But what I mostly found were androgynous fashion heros like David Bowie and Tilda Swinton. I felt like I was floundering for a bit. “You mean we all have to figure this out on our own?”  Well… yes.

Early October 2011, Kate Lovelady gave a platform address on The Leaders We’ve Been Waiting For. The description on our podcast page merely describes it as “new ideas gathered by her sabbatical”, but I’m going to spoil the ending for you: we’re the leaders we’ve been waiting for. And it all seemed so warm and inspirational at the time, but I made the connection after a bit that this is what the genderqueer community is already doing. We look around, wondering who will take this movement out of our hands and take it where it needs to go, and as we search, we see the faces of our siblings looking back at us. It’s always been us, going where gender isn’t, together.

So who are we? What are the human faces of genderqueer? Let me start with some of the more creative responses given by those “genders not listed here” when allowed to write in their own on the survey I mentioned earlier: “gender rebel”, “best of both”, “jest me”, “birl” spelled like mix of boy and girl, and my personal favorite, “trannydyke genderqueer wombat fantastica”.  I also conducted my own survey, in preparation for today. I wanted to know what genderqueer people have to say to humanists: what you are encouraged see in us, what you can take initiative to do for us. I got a couple dozen responses which you can read in more detail on my blog entitled “Nerd is my Gender” [click here to read].

The responses were as varied as the individuals who responded, but a common thread ran throughout: a plea for society and for the humanist community to stop precluding our existence. Imagine, if you would, that if it were a matter of daily life that when you introduced yourself to people, they responded with “oh… well what did your parents name you?” rather than a friendly “nice to meet you.” Or if you said you had gotten married, they responded with “well, which state were you married in?” or “is your husband gay?” rather than a hearty “congratulations!” Imagine if you lived in a world where, essentially, you don’t exist to most people, and then you decide to be brave (or stubborn) enough to keep digging your heels in the sand and say “no, you don’t have a space on your form for my gender” or “no, you don’t have a restroom for my gender” or “no, your laws don’t include people like me” or “yes, I do need access to that medical treatment” or “yes that is my real name”. Imagine if you had to keep doing that over and over again, every time you met a new person at the Ethical Society, at the DMV, at the Shop n Save, and often with people you’ve known for months or years too, who suddenly develop “pronoun amnesia” when they’re around you. And then you have to get up the next morning, and find a reason to face all that again, to not join the 41% of us who attempt suicide in our lifetimes.

One of the more important ways we can take gender diversity for granted, and one that is surprisingly easy for everyone to fulfill, is by making the “gender” option on forms a fill-in-the-blank. Every time your form says “check one: M or F”, a kitten dies. Stop erasing us. Instead of the “select one: Mr, Mrs, Miss, Dr, Rev” etc, make it fill-in-the-blank. If every option available for me to chose is going to be a lie, I might as well pick the most fun lie. Doctor Semler? Reverend Semler? The Honorable Semler! That has a nice ring to it. And I’ll have you know, the Ethical Society member directory is literally the only place on the entire internet where I’ve encountered a fill-in-the-blank option. I get mail from the society delivered to Mx Andy Semler, and it makes my day.

Another common thread among survey responses was to please be proactive in making our communities safe for gender diversity.  Have explicit gender-inclusive policies already in place even before the first person complains about an issue. It’s going to take a while before some of us trust you enough to admit that we’re not living life inside the gender binary. For many of us, this is why we may need a sign to feel safe before we out ourselves as genderqueer.  We wait until we hear the code words of inclusivity. One way you can do this is by being explicit that anyone can use whichever restroom they feel more comfortable using, despite their physical appearance or whatever you think they may have underneath their clothes, and make sure the members who frequent the establishment are aware of that. If you have single-user restrooms, don’t label them with a gender at all. For example, our restroom in the nursery wing is gender-neutral. (It is also kept behind lock and key half the time, to my dismay.)

Try not to gender-label any other places or events either, if it’s not absolutely necessary. Insert inclusive language into your casual conversation, such as saying “this activity is for all genders” or the more simple “this activity is for everyone”, instead of the exclusive phrase “boys and girls”.  If you have a men’s club or a women’s club, include invitations to all people who wish to participate in a masculine or a feminine space.  We want to be written into your lives, and for some of us, this may be the first chance for us to finally feel recognized as fully human. “The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.” Let that “somewhere else” be where you are, opening your arms to us.

One of the happiest moments for me was when I sat down with my 6-year-old to explain to him that I’m not a woman or a man, that my gender is queer. He was excited. “Sometimes you get to be a boy with me? Wow!” We discussed how that “mommy” and “daddy” are terms for women and men, and that we need a name for me that works for us. Now, I know a lot of parents say this, but I really do have the best kid in the world. He calls me “sweetie”.

Kate Bornstein, in all her infinite wisdom, didn’t quite get this one right for me, I think.  The way I live without gender is I look for where gender is, and then I go somewhere I am loved.