It's not just dangerous, it's inhumane.
BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Next month, you are turning 15. It’s almost December and you have Joan Jett hair and you are so excited to just have been kissed. You haven’t told anyone about being kissed, however, because you were kissed by two girls near the restrooms in a mall—and that’s the only place you can find privacy when your moms don’t let you close your bedroom door. When you can’t be alone.
In this moment, you aren’t sure if you want to be the girl or the boy. In this moment, you aren’t sure what you are, only that you enjoy kissing other girls, that you are a girl, that you are supposed to be a girl, except you don’t always feel like a girl. But you look like one.
So you are a girl. You are a girl. You tell yourself this. It’s a good reminder.
Especially when you aren’t sure.
Even though it’s New York and you’ve always been in New York and you’ve grown up poring over Velvet Underground records and photos of Candy Darling, most people assume what you are. In college, you realize there is more than one gender. There is D and she is so beautiful—her gorgeous cherubic hair often falling in her face—and then there is I’s forever cheekbones, arched in the distant sun.
There are countless others with their ethereal bodies and turquoise hair and short shorts and flowery lace dresses that swim breezily in the wind. And there are the punk kids with leather jackets and ripped black jeans and lazy t-shirts.
And yet, you still feel like there is a packet of evidence you need to produce whenever you think about gender. Your gender. Other people’s gender—as if there is a tally of who is in each category, of what attributes mean queer or transgender or non-binary or something else. We are taught to disseminate information through labels, to gossip information about others as a means to survive, a trait we’ve evolved to have as humans. We are taught to label—and film and books and music have reinforced this fairy tale fantasy of life throughout history.
All the classic love songs do it. They sing about men and women, so in love with each other it hurts, it hurts so much they could die. They sing, over and over and over again, about what other men or other women taking their beloved away from them. Then, there’s also that binary—there, unseen, lost in the silence, between the next line of the song, the next breath.
Before we even realize what’s happening, we grow up—from children to adults, imagining all the real romances as being binary—imagining the world in binaries.
In 1978, KISS released their song, "I’m Gonna Love You," the first lines falling right into that stereotype: "Don't let me find you/sleeping with another man." Meanwhile, in 1965, The Shangri-Las’ song, "Leader of the Pack," captures the binary (among other gender stereotypes in general) perfectly:
"Is she really going out with him?
"Well, there she is, Let's ask her"
"Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing?"
"Gee, it must be great riding with him"
"Is he picking you up after school today?"
"By the way, where did you meet him?"
"I met him at the candy store
He turned around and smiled at me
You get the picture
"Yes, we see"
That's when I fell for the leader of the pack
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I even considered myself non-binary publicly. Before then, I hardly ever spoke about my gender identity—often focusing more on my queer sexual identity, somehow letting that do the work for the rest of how I felt inside my body, about my body, how the outside of my body could be transcribed. For years, I would stare at pictures in magazines, try to figure out what I felt for my own body, try to mimic androgynous-esque musicians like Robert Smith or Siouxsie Sioux or Marc Bolan. Being "both," and also "neither," made sense to me, even when I didn’t have the language for it.
I would do this while on the phone with friends or crushes, on the floor of my bedroom, the pink carpet spread like a cotton candy layer on the ground—soon dissolving, pulling back that proverbial curtain. There was no one moment, an ‘ah-ha’ idea where I suddenly knew what I was—no nighttime eating of takeout food giving way to an identity crisis solved. No, this realization, like many non-binary or transgender people, often comes slowly and gradually, like a sun rise you remembered to watch.
"But you look like a woman" is a refrain I’ve heard my entire life—even more so after I "came out" in various essays and pieces online—or in the actual "in real life" conversation with loved ones. It’s a silencing refrain—the chorus to the song I’ve shamed myself with for so long, or used as a reason to hide. Now it’s told to me, as a reason I might be wrong about my own identity, my own perception of myself. Most people who say this are well-intentioned—and make the claim because I do typically dress very femme (although there are exceptions, and this also wasn’t always the case, and may not always be the case, which is the point).
The real problem about non-binary and trans exclusion is the fact that it happens everywhere, not just in movies—but in real life—with well-intentioned people. Sometimes, these people can do the most damage—not only because we trust them and perhaps don’t expect their silencing, but because these are usually people who advocate for some marginalized people, but not others—as if the same logic for equality doesn’t apply to all.
And the fact of the matter is, much of the exclusion is based on gender stereotypes—labeling people by how they look (only people who look androgynous could be non-binary, for example).
Many friends have told me visibility doesn’t matter. They say this by making statements like "it doesn’t matter what other people think," but that isn’t true. We should care what other people think when it concerns our visibility (thus equality) and our safety—especially when that belief system stifles and abuses and oppresses so many.
Being seen is actually a legal issue. Legal recognition for trans and non-binary folks means people can use the bathroom of their choice, and have their gender of their choice on their state-issued ID and birth certificates.
It means I don’t have to feel like I don’t exist when I fill out paperwork, for instance. Even today, while filling out jury duty paperwork, or anytime I’ve filled out medical paperwork, there are only two options: male and female. When it comes to medical paperwork and rhetoric, so many people are left out—and in ways that could severely affect their health (like when transgender men give birth, there is little protecting them and allowing them to feel safe). So often during most events, work or otherwise, there’s the "male or female" centered events, leaving out people unnecessarily.
These delays and complete denial to our right to even have the option of identifying the way we want, to have a "third" option, is often trivialized as being "sensitive." To ignore that is to suggest that transgender and non-binary people don’t exist, or shouldn’t exist—effectively ignoring the issue completely. This promotes discrimination and transphobia, just as ignoring racism and sexism, and allowing acts of discrimination to prevail, to be considered acceptable, appropriate behavior. It is not. Denying someone their own humanity, to be seen, is wrong, no matter how you cut the cake.
This casual attitude also implies people who fight for their rights to identify are high-maintenance and demanding—as opposed to just wanting the same rights cisgender people have. This is gaslighting—and it’s the kind of gaslighting that allows to employers and other people in positions of power to perpetuate stereotypes even unintentionally—because having to educate and change takes time, and that’s an effort no one will take if they don’t have to.
Existing in a gender-centric world, whether an event, a magazine, a band, isn’t wrong instrinsically—but we should question why we operate this way—and what the benefit is. Are we really connecting people and creating communities—or are we fostering the same status quo that works only for a select group of people, that doesn’t actually embrace positive change?
While not everyone is transgender or non-binary, including all people in a community takes no work or effort at all. It just requires an empathetic, inclusive attitude—and a slight adjustment to language. To break open gender, and our ideas of gender, breaks open possibilities, like the possibility to encourage friendship and community regardless of gender—and to dispel dangerous stereotypes that keep women and queer people underpaid and underrepresented.
If we began to look at people as humans, instead of as binary genders, it would be easier to transcend beyond archaic ideals—and into individuality. This is ideal, of course, but ideals can become realities if we work hard enough.
It is easy to be silent when it comes to sex and gender, but if 2017 has taught us anything, it has taught us to challenge gender, sexuality, vulnerability, honesty, and empathy. We must challenge ourselves to be our authentic selves, to not shy away from doing the right thing, which is to fight for others, even when the issues don’t directly pertain to us. Living selfishly is dangerous in times like these.
There is no "one size fits all" rule, either. The point of opening up gender is to realize gender looks different for everyone. For transgender and non-binary people in particular, the stereotypes weigh us down—limiting what our ideas of people who don’t fit neatly into boxes actually look and live and love and breathe like. As a femme person, I have the privilege of passing when I want to—but that isn’t a privilege afforded to everyone—nor does that privilege mean I’m not non-binary.
That idea alone is a double-edged sword: If you can’t pass, you are other—and to be other is to be unseen, to be seen as a threat—because people are threatened by what they don’t understand, largely because it makes them question their own identity. If you do pass, you are seen as someone lying for attention, for being something you aren’t. Either way, you can't win. You then internalize all the ways you feel unseen, try to swallow the hurt and frustration as if it doesn’t exist. But it does—and that pain doesn’t go away. It festers.
The underlying, real issues that arise from being unseen are numerous—and too fundamental to ignore. Poet Natalie Mariko said the issue becomes a family one, saying:
"Not that I'm in a space to be contemplating a family, but it would be nice & encouraging to see trans/NB folks as parents, w/ all attendant complexity. Virility & sterility (for some, medically induced) is perhaps an issue under-addressed.
[One] stereotype I received in coming out was 'being trans means you're just a drag queen' (betraying cognitive bias re 'feminized males’ as ultimate humiliation) &/or 'don't do it, the suicide rate is so high' (betraying real-world effects of that bias as bodily oppression)."
Meanwhile, Jay Besemer, author of Chelate, opened up about the dangerous stereotypes that happened after transitioning:
"Most frustrating assumption of people who don't know me well: that I am young, that I transitioned in adolescence or early adulthood. This I get mostly from other trans people, partly because I look much younger than I am. But younger trans people have options and opportunities that I never had—literally some things didn't exist when I was a kid, like puberty blockers. I transitioned in middle age because that's when circumstances, [and] non-negotiable need and opportunity all coincided.
I’m an alcoholic, sober for 10 years. So much of the trans activist and social scene takes place, depends on or otherwise emphasizes bar, club and party culture, from venues for events to fundraisers to people's individual definitions of fun and connection. For me, these ways of participating or locating community are off limits. There are so few choices for mutual support outside of these settings and orientations. (This also connects with issues of age and disability for me.) It's hard for me to meet other trans people whose experiences, needs and life parameters look even remotely like mine.
I transitioned while married to a sober, queer, genderqueer person to whom I am still very happily married. This is super rare and not talked much about."
When it comes to appearance, many non-binary people suffer from stereotypes. Claire Rudy Foster, a writer and parent, echoed the sentiment that non-binary people are "supposed" to look a certain way, saying that "a common misconception is that all trans/NB people change their physical bodies to express their gender. You don’t have to change anything." Outside appearance is never indicative of identity—it may be, but it also isn’t a "requisite" especially as presenting can be unsafe depending on someone’s circumstances. As of now, 23 transgender people have been murdered in 2017, according to GLAAD.
Writer Trevor Dane Ketner also agreed, saying that "if I'm not always androgynous (hard to pull off with a beard) I'm not *really* NB," while editor and activist Caseyrenée Lopez said presenting femme gets trivialized, as they are "automatically assumed cis and straight. To others, I am queer only by proximity to my visibly trans husband and it’s very frustrating." Wren Hanks, a publicist, added to this, saying, "the assumption that I'm either a lesbian (if people do not realize / believe I'm trans) or a straight man. Basically, the assumption that bisexual men don't exist, and that I don't count anyway because I'm 'really' a woman."
Kenyatta JP Garcia, a writer and editor, hit the nail on the head when it comes to stereotyping based on appearance:
"If I don't shave I must be a dude. If I'm attracted to a woman, I must be straight. Also, for me androgyny was always closely tied to thinness. In other words, I could be too big to be nonbinary. Lastly, folks act like there's only femme and masc and no neuter/neutral/nongendered and so there's an expectancy of nb AMAB folks to be more femme. And certainly I can be very flamboyant and wear makeup and blouses, skirts, etc but I prefer a more dulled down gender presentation these days. My gender is boring. Lol. I don't need to put on a show to show I'm NB."
It’s not just about appearance, of course—it’s also about professional opportunities and representations happening at all—and when they do happen, it’s important not to be tokenized or used as a way to make an organization appear "queer-friendly" and diverse. Editor Kari Larsen expanded on this:
"When it comes to feeling left out/isolated, the pain is most acute when the context here is casual, just an insight into how someone I care about thinks, even though the problem is institutional: looking upon NB/trans inclusion — in terms of authors being published that year, in terms of speakers at a conference, in terms of journalists in a newsroom, what have you — as a gratifying, flattering addition, but ornamental, a gesture toward 'hearing both sides' and not obligatory, an urgent solution to a severe problem that leaves young NB/trans people feeling their identity and ambition is irreconcilable and either has to be compartmentalized or is impossible."
Jennifer E. Hudgens, an editor and teacher, also pointed out the importance of being included as a means to feel safe (which is a human right); when that doesn’t happen, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable and in a position of shame, especially when you feel unsafe standing up for yourself:
"I went to a safe zone training at my university and they barely touched on nb/gender fluid. It made me nervous to be in that space, and I had to correct them because they weren't as inclusive as they should be. I was terrified just to call the trainers out about this."
Using the right pronouns, and being able to correct others, shouldn’t be seen as a defiant political statement—which it so often is. This is a form of gaslighting someone—to act as though someone is being high maintenance for merely wanting to be referred to correctly, which is a defense mechanism. While no one likes being wrong, graciously allowing others to correct us isn’t humiliating—it’s a way to learn. If you aren’t sure what pronouns someone prefers, just ask. Bex VanKoot explained how misgendering happens all the time:
"I don't always notice when people misgender me. I've gotten so good at ignoring it and disassociating when people are talking about me instead of to me that if it's not written down I may not notice. And so sometimes people think I'm avoiding correcting them because I'm afraid of their reaction when I'm comfortable, and other people think it makes me not really NB because if I was really trans then I would feel dysphoria all the time and experience the pain of misgendering directly every time."
The feeling of dysphoria is real—and the impulse to dissociate or swallow these moments of silence and misgendering, purposeful or not, happens more often than not. Unintentional misgendering has real effects—and intention doesn’t matter if the outcome is the same, just as internalized, institutional misogyny and racism often comes unintentionally, but this doesn’t excuse it or make it right.
The point is educating ourselves enough to spot when this happens, to dig deep and be honest with ourselves when we are wrong. Because these mistakes happen on all sides and angles, not just cisgender people. We’ve all made assumptions and statements that have silenced someone. It’s about taking accountability and initiative.
But more fundamentally, we all want to protect ourselves—and to protect ourselves is to fight for our rights (whether they directly affect us personally or not), our freedom, our personhood, for a different kind of world. We don’t owe anyone an apology for not conforming. We can’t think of "never’s" and settle for the less ideal version because it’s not "realistic." Unrealistic things happen all the time, good and bad. To live in a place touted as "the land of the free" is more than ironic right now when the rights of so many are ignored. That’s an embarrassment. It embarrasses me and should embarrass you too.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (Operating System, 2017), Sexting the Dead (Unknown Press, 2018), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes, Poetry and the managing editor for Civil Coping Mechanisms and Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente