For most of us, gender is simple: We are born into male or female bodies that match our internal sense of who we are. We also know, though, that there are transgender people who feel from an early age that they are girls in boys’ bodies, or vice versa.
But what if you’re someone for whom neither the male nor the female descriptor feels quite right? For a small but increasingly visible group, the labels “he” and “she” feel too limiting, each the wrong answer to the question of their own gender identity.
Now, organizations that represent or support transgender people are changing their practices and language to keep up with that reality.
“A lot of this is culture change,” said Michael Givens, a spokesman for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy group MassEquality. “We’re trying to do our best to help people pull the lens back and approach gender identity in a different way.”
In just the past couple of years, transgender lives have become much more visible in popular culture — from transgender actress Laverne Cox on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” to Jeffrey Tambor’s character in Amazon’s “Transparent.” Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner drew 16 million viewers in April; Vanity Fair’s July cover story details the Olympian turned reality TV star’s transition to a new life as Caitlyn Jenner. All have helped to increase awareness of transgender experiences: The next step may be a wider understanding that gender is not always either/or.
The question has always been complex for Bobbi Taylor, who was born in a male body but never felt like a boy. Only in recent years has the 57-year-old Taylor fully understood and embraced a genderqueer identity, which she said means defining gender based on her personal experience rather than social conventions. Though Taylor chooses to go by female pronouns, she does not think of herself as strictly female or male.
“I’m not simply an effeminate man, nor am I a woman born in a man’s body,” said Taylor, who lives with her family in the suburbs north of Boston and dresses in androgynous clothes made for women. “My gender is a mix of both woman and man, not one masking or replacing the other.”
At Fenway Health in Boston, medical staff have been respectfully treating patients who identify themselves outside the usual gender binary of male and female for many years, said Dr. Timothy Cavanaugh, medical director of Fenway’s Transgender Health Program. And they’ve been working to update the way they record patient information to better cover the spectrum of human reality when it comes to gender.
“Within the past five years, we’ve really started to work pretty concertedly on adapting our electronic medical records to the . . . identities of our patients,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s really a constantly ongoing process.”
That’s in part because gender terminology itself is still evolving. Some nonbinary people prefer new gender-neutral pronouns such as “ey” or “zie,” while others ask to be identified as “they.”
And several terms have evolved to describe different types of nonbinary genders, according to Mason Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. Agender people don’t identify with any gender, Dunn said. People who identify as gender-fluid may traverse a spectrum between the poles of masculine and feminine.
Those like Taylor who are genderqueer may claim a gender unique to them, a personal spot on the spectrum that embraces masculine and feminine aspects.
If the language is new, the concepts behind it are not. “This is something that has been around,” Dunn said. “We’re just now seeing this come to light in a way that is not stigmatizing but really lifting up these identities and celebrating them.”
At Boston Pride, host of the city’s annual festival and parade for the LGBT community, people are careful about how they use gender pronouns, said Sylvain Bruni, the organization’s president. But not every group is adapting at the same speed.
“It’s basically an experience that you have to go through little by little,” Bruni said. “A lot of organizations within the LGBT community that are facing to the outside of the community may be a little less in tune with that, just because their target audience is not fully educated yet.”
Bruni said it may take time for cisgender people, a term for those who identify with the anatomical gender they were born into, to adjust to a new way of thinking. And sometimes, because we tend to make assumptions about gender, people will slip up.
“The first time it happened to me, I was petrified,” he said, “because I went, ‘Oh my God, I hope I did not insult this person I like.’ . . . That’s a natural step in becoming educated about it.”Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.