“Are you a dude?”
Those words were thrown at me as I sat at my neighborhood bar on Thanksgiving Eve in 2011, two and a half years after I transitioned genders. The inquirer, a man who had snuck up on me close enough that I could smell his stinky breath, had overheard me bantering with the bartender.
His question came because of my still-masculine voice; apparently, it didn’t matter that I was a beyond-shoulder- length blonde in full make-up wearing a dress.
With the help of the bartender, I soon became free of this unwanted inquisitor. Putting aside the immediate fear I experienced with being confronted by a total stranger questioning my gender, the implications of the incident continue to stick with me even to this day.
We live in a binary world, where you are either born a man or a woman and for many, nothing else is acceptable. Most people need to know where you fit. It helps them to figure out where they fit.
Consider a slightly different question: “Is it a boy or a girl?” Every pregnant woman or new mother has gotten this question, often from people close to her, but sometimes from complete strangers. Indeed, the whole purpose of gender reveal parties is to end the speculation and give people a reference point for going forward — blue or pink, boy or girl, baby things.
Imagine, however, the reaction if a brand-new mom refused to succumb to societal pressure about identifying her newborn’s gender and instead simply answered, “I had a human!”
“Okay, you made your point Mom, but really, what did you have, a boy or a girl?”
“I had a human!”
I don’t need to lay out any further how this hypothetical exchange would go. The inquirer would insist on knowing the baby’s gender until Mom gave in.
Because we humans need to group and label other humans. The most basic categories are “male” and “female,” as I was reminded that night at my neighborhood bar.
We are genetically wired to require gender-identity information since males more often represent threats — physical or emotional, or both — than females do. Thus, on the one hand, viewing the world through binary lenses is part self-preservation.
On the other hand, humans have pecking orders based on other groupings or labels like skin color, socioeconomic status, education, sexual orientation, and religion.
This is why nonbinary, or gender nonconforming people (other phrases include “gender queer” or “gender fluid”), are unsettling for many: they don’t neatly fit into either the “male” or “female” categories. Rather, those who identify as nonbinary simply view themselves as “human,” and frankly, I think that is quite wonderful.
It is also darn courageous to be a “human” and nothing else. Many are unwilling to buck societal norms around gender identities and, like my inquisitor at the bar, those folks are used to seeing the world through an “either/or” lens. They experience a great deal of bumpiness when interacting with anyone who doesn’t fit that into neat gender categories.
And with that comes pushback.
“Why do I have to use ‘weird pronouns’ for those people?” “I don’t feel comfortable referring to someone as ‘they’ or ‘them’.”
“Why do those people have to be that way?” “What’s in their pants?”
These are just some of the complaints and crass questions I have heard from people who don’t understand what it means to break free of the binary code to which almost everyone subscribes. The commentary reflects great ignorance about one’s need to live authentically, even if that authenticity is to simply be a human.
What can you do to be a good ally to someone who identifies as neither male nor female?
More than anything else, you can accept the idea that much of the world lies in the gray; that is especially true for gender and sexuality. When people marginalize those who are “different,” push back and respond, “They are just being themselves. Who are we to judge or insist?”
It will do another human’s heart so much good.
Ellie Krug (she/her) is a columnist for Minnesota Women’s Press, has a radio show on AM950, and speaks and writes about human inclusivity as owner of Human Inspiration Works. Her online trainings and talks are centered around the need to make people feel that they matter. She writes The Ripple newsletter, which shares stories of compassion. Learn more at elliekrug.com
June 8: “Breaking the Binary”
Minnesota Women’s Press hosts a Facebook Live event with Magers & Quinn bookstore for Pride Month.
Ellie Krug, Ali Sands, and Erin Maye Quade of Gender Justice will participate in a moderated discussion with editor Mikki Morrissette on June 8, 5pm. Learn more here.
Ellie 2.0 Radio Show Samples
This week, I speak about the “1619 Project,” a New York Times initiative about America’s history of enslaving humans that earned project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Our encore interview is with Dr. Mark Goulston, who talks about the neurobiology behind idealism. In my C-Block, I share about my first online community gathering, “We’re All in This Together,” and then I speak about trying to right a wrong—a human treating another human badly—that I witnessed at a CVS pharmacy.
Our featured idealist is Elouise Cobell, an American Indian who took on the U.S. Department of Interior over its failure to pay decades of oil, gas and mineral royalties to Native American tribes and bands—and won! The Big Interview is with Mikki Morrissette, the owner/publisher of Minnesota Women’s Press. In my C-Block, I talk about my first virtual training of the pandemic; I also give thanks to an anonymous Korean woman who placed my oldest daughter for adoption 30 years ago (it was recently my daughter’s 30th birthday).