There’s an intriguing article in the Huffington Post, with many pictures, about photographer Lissa Rivera and BJ, a friend who became the subject of a series of photos that cross gender lines. I recommend it for anyone else who’s interested in those questions.
Scout Schultz was a 21-year student at Georgia Tech and the leader of the Georgia Tech LGBT Alliance.
I don’t know anything about Scout’s state of mind, but I have to say that this incident isn’t puzzling to me like some such incidents are, because Scout was non-binary, and non-binary people don’t fit anywhere. Not only don’t we fit into the usual categories in the world; we’re even out of place among LGBTQ groups. Even transgender people, who themselves are often on the margins of the already-marginalized LGBTQ community, are usually one gender or the other.
As a non-binary person, it’s hard not to feel like you’re misplaced, a permanent outsider. It’s also hard to believe sometimes that you will ever find a romantic partner, because you can’t be understood at a glance, and it’s usually impossible to know who might even have the capacity to be romantically interested in you just by looking. Straight and gay people generally have a huge pool of potential soulmates (or one-night stands, depending on what they’re looking for). Trans people and non-binary people, on the other hand, are often left wondering if there’s anyone at all for them.
None of these things forces a person to suicide, but they certainly don’t help.
Sorry, but a thing about words
According to a BBC article, Scout “identified as intersex,” but intersex means having been born with ambiguous sexual anatomy; it’s not a gender identity in the usual sense. Apparently Scout had described themself in a profile as “bisexual, nonbinary and intersex,” but I’m disappointed that the BBC didn’t check their terminology and stick with the adjective that appears to be most accurate, “nonbinary.” Scout may have been intersex, according to the Washington Post,
Both parents remembered well the time that Scout came out to them.
“It wasn’t a shock because we’re welcoming and loving parents,” Bill Schultz [Scout’s father] said. “It shouldn’t have been hard for Scout to come out but I think there were some issues involved there which is why they did a session in therapy.”
I don’t imagine Bill Schultz would have been that surprised if Scout actually were intersex, so I can only conclude that Scout misunderstood what the word meant and that media outlets aren’t checking their terms to make sure they correct the mistake. That’s disappointing, because the words really do matter. Intersex people can be male, female, non-binary, or other, just like anyone else. It doesn’t help for media outlets to be sloppy about their word usage and suggest otherwise.
I’m late finding it, but an article in the March 27th issue of Time Magazine, “Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’: The Changing Meaning of Gender and Sexuality” (also available online at http://time.com/magazine/us/4703292/march-27th-2017-vol-189-no-11-u-s/ ) offers research and individual accounts on the changing understanding of gender and sexuality. They don’t mention bi-gender people (but then, hardly anyone does), though they do make note of one person who identifies as gender fluid and describes a bi-gender-like experience of life. They also pretty much ignore non-binary people older than their mid-twenties. Still, it’s a well-written and informative article that answers some questions about how widespread non-binary genders and sexual preferences are, how younger people tend to regard them, and how they’re changing in our culture: well worth a read.
My friend Kristin passed along a recommendation to me for Jeff Garvin’s YA novel Symptoms of Being Human (Balzer + Bray, 2016), which tells the story of Riley Cavanaugh, a genderfluid teen. It’s the first book I’ve read where a major character could really be considered bi-gender (though Riley never uses that word, and “genderfluid” is probably a better description of who they are). Riley moves back and forth on the scale between male and female, feeling more boy one day and more girl the next. The story deals with their experience trying to walk a fine line of being themself and not drawing unwanted attention. That line, it turns out, is too thin: as in real life, there are people who take real exception to anyone crossing gender lines or trying to mix genders.
In terms of entertainment, if like me you enjoy YA (young adult) fiction, as more and more adults seem to do these days, Symptoms of Being Human is a good read. Some of the positive attention Riley gets doesn’t feel realistic to me: without giving away what goes on in the story, Riley seems like a realistic teenager with realistic gifts, but some of those gifts are received as though they’re amazing and exceptional, and I found that a little hard to swallow. Garvin also chooses to never let Riley reveal what sex they were assigned at birth, and I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, as Garvin must have intended, it keeps the focus on Riley’s actual gender instead of letting us get hung up on Riley’s assigned sex. On the other hand, while being non-binary is very tricky regardless of your assigned sex at birth, the challenges are a bit different depending on what that assigned sex is, both socially and physically, and this story glosses over those differences. Still, it’s refreshing to have a character whose assigned sex at birth is simply beside the point.
In terms of gender experience, Garvin does a great job, especially since nothing in the public information I’ve seen about him suggests that he’s anything different than a straight, cisgender male (he describes himself in this article about gender identity as an ally). Evidently he spent a lot of time reading and talking to transgender and non-binary people before he began to write, and it shows in characters who feel true-to-life in their gender non-conformity.
For a contrast, consider Lauren McLaughlin’s enjoyable but unrealistic YA novel Cycler, in which the main character inexplicably flips back and forth between being physically male and physically female: it’s a good read, but it has no wisdom to impart about being non-binary–though to be fair, I doubt it’s meant to.
Symptoms of Being Human is mainly preoccupied with the difficult question of whether to come out, and how much, and to whom, and how to try not to give your gender identity away before you’re ready. These are important and interesting question, though it was a little disappointing to me that they ended up being the ultimate questions in the book. From my point of view, coming out is a secondary issue, and the main thing is how a person lives and figures out who they are when they don’t fit into the gender binary we’re all taught is basic to our identity.
But Symptoms is a badly-needed and rewarding read, and my hope is that that it’s only the beginning for Garvin and for Riley, that before long we’ll see the continuation of Riley’s story and what comes of them facing these deeper issues.
Transitioning to a different gender or genders is hard. If you’ve done it, you probably feel the same way I do when you hear someone claiming that being transgender is a choice.
Who would ever choose to go through all this?
That’s why it feels kind of threatening to hear about people detransitioning–that is, becoming transgender and then becoming not transgender. Doesn’t that imply that they chose to be transgender, and then chose again? Or that being transgender is fake?
Spoiler alert for the rest of this post: no, it doesn’t mean either of those things. But it does point out a big problem for any of us who identify as transgender, or at least something important we need to figure out: how do we tell the difference between a different gender identity and something else?
There’s a terrific article on detransitioning on The Stranger: “The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’t“, and in it we can see at least three possible situations in which people detransition or go through “desistance” (when a person–usually a young person–hasn’t transitioned yet and decides to go back to their birth sex instance).
Situation one is where a person receives so much negativity about their gender that they start feeling repulsed by it. That’s what happened to “Jackie,” who was born female and was always fairly butch, but was scorned for being that way and battered with mysogny. By contrast with that experience, being male felt like a relief … but Jackie eventually realized that even though being male felt better in some ways, it was really that she needed to accept herself as a woman. That was her particular circumstance.
“Ryan” had a similar experience from the other direction, being bullied and belittled as a young boy and finding refuge in the idea of being female. He transitioned to female, but this never addressed the internal problems, and eventually he detransitioned as well as he could back to male.
Both Jackie and Ryan seem to have mistaken bad feelings that had come to live inside them with dysphoria about their gender. This brings us to that big problem or thing we need to figure out if we’re transgender: are the feelings we’re following based on an experience of internally being another gender or genders, or are they about something else? In some cases, especially if those feelings are strongly negative and harsh toward ourselves, maybe they don’t have to do with gender identity at all. In other cases, based on the experience of the huge majority of people who transition and feel much more themselves, they really do.
On to situation two: instead of being fooled about your own gender identity based on bad feelings, you could be fooled by good feelings or by identifying with peers. There’s a very high percentage figure that has been offered that supposedly reflects how many kids who identify as another gender when young later come to identify with their birth sex. That figure may or may not be accurate, but what seems clear is that a lot of trans kids become cis* adults. In some cases, based on how transgenderism in kids can seem to spread, becoming trans might often come from feeling a closeness to or admiration for someone in your peer group. I mean, if some kid you know comes out as trans and becomes really famous in school, seems to be much happier, and is accepted by almost everyone (or even if they just stand out as unique and you feel like there’s nothing unique about you), the idea of doing that same thing and standing out yourself can be really appealing. If you become really drawn to it and end up fooling yourself, who can tell you that you aren’t actually transgender? Nobody, that’s who, though there are good therapists who can help you figure yourself out.
That’s the big problem with gender identity. We can’t know exactly how any other person feels, and the way different people feel can be hugely different, so how can we know what it feels like to be male, or to be female, or to be both, or neither? We have to trust our own best instincts and question ourselves carefully: there’s no other way. That’s why a good therapist is so important to this process (and a bad therapist, or even a well-meaning but confused therapist, can cause so many problems). A good therapist can help a person know themself better.
I mentioned three situations, but the third may or may not be real. Maybe some people’s genders actually change during the courses of their lives. Maybe, even completely ignoring the physical side of things, it’s possible to be one gender for a time and then become another. This may be ironic coming from someone who you could meet as a woman one day and as a man the next, but I’m skeptical, or at least cautious, that fundamental gender identity can change. Being bi-gender means that you shift from one gender identity or the other, or hold a balance between the two, but in a larger sense your gender has the same composition over time. If you’re bi-gender, both your genders are always with you: it’s just that you may not embody or experience both of them at once all the time.
At the same time, I probably shouldn’t be too skeptical. It’s easier to imagine that every trans person has always been trans, even if that person doesn’t start feeling trans until well into adulthood, as some trans people do, but this isn’t really known, and if it’s even possible to come to a conclusion about it, we won’t come to anything definite soon.
This idea of changing gender identity over time pertains to bi-gender people in an unusual way, because it sometimes happens that a person identifies as bi-gender as a waystation to being “traditional” trans–but I’ll take that up in another post.
*In case you’re not familiar with the term, “cis” is short for “cisgender,” which means “identifying with your sex assigned at birth.” It’s more or less the opposite of “trans”.
Andrea James is an actor, teacher, voice coach, producer, director, and transgender activist. If you’ve seen the film Transamerica, starring Felicity Huffman, you may recognize her from the opening scene, where the main character is working on her voice with a voice instruction video. She offers resources for people assigned male at birth who want to achieve an unquestionably female voice at genderlife.com. She also offers one-on-one tutoring via Skype or other means at http://www.genderlife.com/free-transgender-voice-resources/voice-consultation/.
If this post comes across sometimes sounding like a cheering section for Andrea as a personal voice guru, that’s only because I think she provides a tremendous service. I had been working on developing a full female voice for months before I came across her work, and as I’ve discovered since, all of the resources I was using were leading me down a path that would not be successful. Andrea’s videos made a big difference for me, and then some personal coaching made an even bigger difference. I’m not prepared to show off a complete female voice yet, but I’m getting closer every week, and there have been a few situations already where my voice has passed. (Note: I’m not receiving anything for posting this. I honestly do think she’s that great.)
Unfortunately, this post won’t be of much use to people assigned female at birth who want to achieve a male-sounding voice. For those taking hormones, this isn’t a great problem, as their voices will change like teenage boys’ voices do. My apologies that there’s nothing here in this post for those not pursuing hormones.
Andrea kindly consented to talk to me about developing a female voice.
JAMES BETH: When and how did you first discover that it was possible to find your female voice through training?
ANDREA: A pioneering figure in transition resources is Melanie Anne Phillips. She had put together some great materials on transgender voice, and she had an audio cassette and VHS tape available for sale. I used her techniques to good effect, but I felt I could make things a little simpler with a more streamlined approach based on techniques developed by Arthur Lessac and others. I taught a few people using these new methods, then eventually filmed it all 15 years ago in 2002.
JAMES BETH: It sounds as though you put some concerted effort into developing the method you teach. What drew you to doing this work yourself?
ANDREA: I initially planned to teach as a career, so helping others with transition goals has always felt like a nice substitute for that. I’m always happy when my students get results like these:
JAMES BETH: Wow, those are great examples!
How long does it typically take someone who’s practicing regularly to develop her female voice? Is it much easier for some people than others, or factors that make a big difference in how easily (or whether at all) a person develops her new voice?
ANDREA: Most people take 3 to 6 months to get a good working voice. The biggest factor for success is age at transition, with younger people far more motivated and more likely to succeed. Older people are more likely to have a mental block about it, afraid to push past the point where it does not sound good yet.
JAMES BETH: So motivation seems to be key–which translates, I would guess, into amount of earnest practice? From your point of view, can anyone at all can develop an identifiably female voice if they’re motivated enough, or are there some barriers that can’t be gotten past?
ANDREA: Anyone at all can do it if they can push past the mental barrier of imperfect progress. I have taught non-trans people these techniques, so it’s possible for anyone who is motivated. Here’s an analogy: some people say they’d like to get in shape, but what they mean is they’d like to BE in shape. They don’t want to do the work to be in shape. You have to want to GET in shape, and there is no quick solution. You have to do the work.
JAMES BETH: Does a person have much choice over the character of her voice as it emerges, or is there a particular female voice that tends to emerge for each person? To put it another way, is a female voice created or uncovered?
ANDREA: Most people have the same vocabulary, accent, inflection, enunciation, vocal tics and general tone. Those who achieve a voice that most listeners take to be female sound as if they have a twin sister. However, it’s important to note that there’s not a good voice, or bad voice, there’s your voice. If you like your voice and don’t want to change it, that’s great! It’s an important part of how you express yourself, and it’s up to you whether it’s worth changing it. Be loud and proud!
Until I dove into being bi-gender, I’d never realized that different romantic orientations and gender identities had their own flags. It also never occurred to me why you’d want a flag for such a thing until this week, when I’m planning on attending my first Pride event. (Yes, I know, it’s ridiculous never to have been part of one before.) Suddenly, I realize that there’s a bi-gender flag, and I could wave it around, and there would actually be a chance of someone seeing me with it and pretty much fully understanding my gender identity just by looking. Boy, is that a novel thought!
Unfortunately, since of course there’s no central authority of queer people (what would that look like), it turns out there are more than one bi-gender flag. It’s going to be hard enough just to get people to recognize one flag on sight, so more than one design is a problem! Because of that, I’m going to only show the most common/popular/widely-accepted bi-gender flag here.
I love this flag: I picture myself bouncing up and down from the top to the bottom, with some other bi-gender people hovering in the middle, where the lavender is.
Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, nobody actually sells these flags. I am looking around, and I’ll update the post if I find a place that sells them. I don’t have a use for a big banner, but I’d love a flag on a stick I can wave around.
One fairly common mistake seems to be to use the Intersex flag. For anyone not familiar, Intersex means having physical characteristics of both male and female sexes. This is of course completely different from being bi-gender, which is having two genders (often, but not always male and female), taking turns and/or in some mix.