This story was originally published on Jan. 29, 2016.
I first met Beck Gilmer-Osborne two years ago. Well, we didn’t exactly meet. On a dais in a large auditorium, a speck in front of a sea of students and their families, Mx. Gilmer-Osborne was the valedictorian for the spring, 2014, graduating class at NSCAD University in Halifax. I was there to watch one of my sons graduate. Mx. Gilmer-Osborne’s address began by explaining that they had changed their first name – and, it seemed, the use of pronouns – to suit a new gender identity, which four years at the university had helped them to forge. “We are all in a transition period,” Mx. Gilmer-Osborne said to the crowd.
Everyone there was changing from student to non-student, from academia into the real world. I was impressed by the speech, which urged classmates to “find … your own bits of truth that will allow you to look at yourself, situations and others in a different and more open light. I hope you will welcome a life of transitioning and stay open to the endless possibilities that await you.” I watched Mx. Gilmer-Osborne descend the stairs and return to a seat in the audience – gamine, with short-cropped hair, delicate features and a high voice, dressed in pants and a white shirt.
This is a story about gender fluidity, about a previously marginal group within the trans community that is only now becoming mainstream.
We live in a culture that adheres to the gender binary. There are men. And there are women. People who identity as gender fluid, genderqueer or non-binary don’t see themselves as either male or female. Their expression of their gender identity fluctuates on a spectrum between the two polarities.
The English language doesn't accommodate them. Its gendered honorifics and third-person singular personal pronouns – he and she, her and him, her and his – are inappropriate. Ze is the second-person singular pronoun that some people who identity as non-binary prefer to use. Hir is used as a possessive or objective pronoun. As Mx. Gilmer-Osborne does, some non-binary people prefer to be addressed, and referred to, with the non-gendered third-person plural pronouns, they, them and their.
For most of us, it can be hard to grapple with non-binary ideas of gender. The male and female are our cultural signposts. They’re an organizing principle. But now, having researched this story, I think of those strict categories of gender as little more than a comfort of some sort. They reassure us that certain things are constant, clear and unquestionable; that there are parameters within which we should exist and function in a chaotic world. To question the gender binary is “like telling people who are religious that there’s no God,” offers Karen Blair, chairperson of sexual orientation and gender identity at the Canadian Psychological Association.
But here’s the thing. The view that gender is an either/or concept is likely a fairly recent cultural invention. “In every corner of the globe, and throughout history, you can find evidence of a society where they didn’t have a strict binary concept of gender,” explains Douglas VanderLaan, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto (Mississauga) and an expert in biological anthropology, cultural anthropology and social psychology. Since 2006, Dr. VanderLaan has studied the Samoan culture in the South Pacific, where there are at least four gender categories: men, women, fa’afafine (biological males who in appearance and behaviour are both masculine and feminine) and fa’atama (biological females who are the same).
When the first missionaries and other Westerners travelled to the Samoan Islands in the 18th century, these gender variations already existed, predating Western influences. In an award-winning study that Dr. VanderLaan published in 2013 in Human Nature magazine, researchers looked at 46 indigenous non-industrial cultures where ethnographers had found groups such as the fa’afafine as well as transgender people. “In those societies, the overwhelming pattern is that there’s no negative reaction to it whatsoever,” he says. “In fact, they’re often viewed with a degree of reverence.”
Aboriginal shamans traditionally have been two-spirited people. “Part of that recognition is that they have male and female essences, and that is seen as a source of strength, as they could relate to a larger number of people,” explains Dr. VanderLaan. “[Westerners] can be very ethnocentric and apply our standards to others, thinking that ours are normative, but that study showed that maybe what we think about gender is not normative in terms of human nature and our ancestral past.”
Mx. Gilmer-Osborne and I would come to know each other, starting the next year, meeting for coffee at Toronto cafés, laying out and trading our generational viewpoints over a table, like cards, in a casual, friendly exchange. I would tell them in conversation that the elementary school I attended in Montreal in the mid-sixties had two entrances in the schoolyard, one with BOYS in big block letters above it, and, on the opposite side of the building, one with GIRLS written above it. The words were carved in stone. We would laugh about that – the detail about the two genders being carved in stone, as if immutable. “Imagine that,” we would say, shaking our heads, connecting over a silent acknowledgment of time; of change; progress.
I didn’t want to be different. I longed to be everything grown-ups wanted, so they would love me. I followed all their rules, tried my best to please. But there was something about me that made them knit their eyebrows and frown. No one ever offered a name for what was wrong with me. That’s what made me afraid it was really bad. I only came to recognize its melody through this constant refrain: ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’Stone Butch Blues, by trans activist Leslie Feinberg
Stone Butch Blues is often cited as a book that changed trans history with its description of living with an identity that didn’t fit neatly into society’s binary of male or female. Published in 1993, it is a novelized version of Mx. Feinberg’s life, telling the story of Jess Goldberg, who hated wearing dresses growing up and identified as a “butch lesbian.” Eventually, ze took male hormones so ze could “pass” as a male and avoid being bullied. But ze wasn’t interested in becoming a man through sex-reassignment surgery. Mx. Feinberg, who died in 2014, preferred the pronouns ze and hir.
Three years before Stone Butch Blues came out, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, by Judith Butler, a feminist philosopher and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, had been published to much academic acclaim. Gender was “performative,” she argued, an idea that helped popularize queer theory and a variety of academic gender studies. The male or female gender is a scripted role that a person is taught to inhabit rather than an innate behaviour, she wrote. Through repeated performance, the gender is considered real. The male and female gender expressions are “cultural fictions” sustained by society’s collective complicity in upholding them.
By the end of the nineties, with the advent of the Internet, discussion of queer theory and non-binary identification was accessible as never before. Gender studies in postsecondary institutions fuelled the discourse. But within the trans community, still in its first phase of activism, the focus was on mainstream acceptance of transgender people – that is, people who clearly still identified as either men or women. That narrative – being either male or female, and feeling you were one, not the other – fit society’s understanding of how people are categorized. “One of the ways that people who are transgender increase acceptance of ourselves is to make it clear that all we want to be is normal men and women. Trans activism made non-binary invisible – it complicates the story,” explains Ayden Scheim, a researcher with TRANS Pulse and a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario.
But now that the lives of transgender individuals have gained greater understanding with high-profile people such as Caitlyn Jenner (the Olympic athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner), gender fluidity is next in line for emergence and acceptance in the mainstream culture. A less rigid approach to gender is at play. Last year, Paul Henson, a father in Virginia, was praised for his Facebook post celebrating his young son’s Halloween costume of Elsa, the Disney princess from Frozen. The post went viral. Numerous fashion campaigns feature models who are indistinguishably male or female. The man bun is in vogue. Miley Cyrus recently came out as genderfluid.
“What we’re seeing on the ground is that the majority of our trans students at colleges identify as being non-binary – gender fluid, genderqueer or agender. These are people who do not identity as trans men or trans women,” comments Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass. There is no one term for it that is universally embraced. “The language is shifting beneath our feet,” Mr. Scheim had told me, adding that genderqueer seems to be the most popular description at the moment. Of all the social-media platforms, Tumblr is most active with new terminology for genderqueerness, experts say. A recently minted term on Tumblr is “condigirl,” which describes someone who feels like a girl in certain circumstances.
There is very little academic study of gender fluidity, and due to the varied and evolving terms for people who fluctuate between the two gender extremes, some researchers question the accuracy of the quantitative research that does exist. But in one of the most authoritative academic studies, The Lives of Transgender People, published in 2011 in the United States and including 3,470 participants, of those within the trans community who identified as genderqueer, gender fluid or non-binary, 86.5 per cent were biological females. They were also primarily young people: All were under the age of 32, and the average age was 19. Whether this is because there’s a particular demographic that’s more likely to be gender fluid or because society makes it easier for people who are young and biologically female to explore gender expression is a question researchers have yet to explore.
“I did the first national study of college students who identify outside of the gender binary,” says Dr. Beeman, a co-author of Transgender People, who is a biological male and identifies as genderqueer. “People haven’t studied this population and what their needs are – and they are very different from a lot of either binary trans individuals or historically lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals who are not trans.” Some want to take hormones of the opposite sex but don’t want to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Others may opt for mastectomies but don’t want genital surgery, or choose not to take hormones, explains Dr. Beeman.
They’re unlikely to seek a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria,” the term the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) uses for trans people who feel psychological distress with their biological sex. In fact, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), which issues standards of care for the trans community, intends to revise its existing (2011-12) guidelines this year. Many in the medical community would like to see the diagnosis of transgender removed from the DSM. A recent draft of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the standard diagnostic tool for epidemiology, health management and clinical purposes, places transgender and gender incongruencies in a chapter on sexual health rather than mental illness.
“A key change is de-pathologizing gender identity,” offers Joshua Safer, an endocrinologist and professor at Boston University School of Medicine who is also a spokesperson for WPATH. “You don’t have to have a mental illness to be treated for being transgender … [We] are taking a view along the lines that this is a biological entity that may manifest differently in different people, e.g. in a non-binary fashion, and the medical goal is to be patient-centred, helpful and safe.” Dr. Safer is also a member of the Endocrine Society, which will be publishing “major” new clinincial guidelines for all trans patients in late 2016 or early 2017 to replace existing recommended practices from 2009.
In the last 20 years, a growing body of neuroanatomical and other research has been helpful for the medical community in validating the experience of people who want to transition from one gender to the other. But gender fluidity has no such medical background. “There is almost no science,” Dr. Safer says. “We need to be filling that gap.”
“When I’m not working, I dress up a bit,” Mx. Gilmer-Osborne explains when we settle into a café on Queen Street West in Toronto, where they moved back after graduation. It was a June morning, more than a year since I had last seen them. Through some research, I found them and got in touch. They work in a hardware store to support a growing art career.
The person across from me looks different than I remember them. They wear a baseball cap over messy hair, a T-shirt and jeans, and long, sparkly earrings. Their voice is lower, and they have a faint mustache. They tell me that a few months earlier they had begun a low-dosage regime of the male hormone testosterone.
“For me, it was a feeling of being stuck. I want to be somewhere between two fixed points of gender,” they explain easily. “I want to be able to push – to defeat limits – and the limitations I put on my body, what my body can look like, and how people perceive bodies.” The testosterone is administered by a family doctor through a weekly injection. “We’re doing it slowly. Both of us are doing research. It’s a constant learning curve. I feel blessed to have a good doctor who is not transphobic. It’s an experimentation to see how I feel.”
The “feminine pieces” – the earrings, sometimes lipstick, brightly coloured clothes, a longer hairstyle – are part of a female identity, says Mx. Gilmer-Osborne, “I want to hold onto, and need to hold onto.” They’re not a fan of dresses. “I haven’t found any that I like,” they say with a grimace.
At 23, Mx. Gilmer-Osborne is calm, resolute, not dramatic in their responses, but rather, explanatory, like a professor who is soberly – without rancour or defensiveness – setting out the reasoning for a student. I am the one who is timorous, wanting to understand without invading their privacy.
“Do you think about using your body almost like an art project?” I ask.
“I have used my body in much of my work,” they concede. “But I know the difference. I’m over 18. Informed consent. I didn’t want to jump through the hoops of being diagnosed with gender dysphoria. You have to prove something, that you are sad or depressed, that you feel you were born in the wrong body in order to get what you want.”
“Do you feel comfortable in a female body?”
“I’m trying to figure out ways to be comfortable,” they say, adding that they pay for their hormone treatment. “Top surgery is not an option, because it’s too much money: $8,000. And there’s a long list you have to get on. To get it covered by OHIP means more hoops to jump through. And anyway, I don’t know if I want to do that.” For a while, they bound their breasts. Then, they stopped.
Mx. Gilmer-Osborne grew up in Bobcaygeon, Ont., a small community near Lindsay, the third-youngest in a blended family of seven children. As a teenager, they came out as a lesbian. “That was the language we had in the country.” (Though many people still think of them as correlated, sexual orientation is unrelated to gender identity.)
At NSCAD, the word trans made more sense after they took gender studies and were introduced to the work of theorists such as Prof. Butler, Mx. Feinberg and author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein. ” I realized how restrictive the language was – lesbian or gay,” explains Mx. Gilmer-Osborne, “and I was feeling on the more masculine spectrum, being more masculine in appearance, but sometimes dressing up as a female.”
Is becoming a transgender man a possibility? “I can’t rule anything out. At this point in time, I feel that I would be equally unhappy in that box; the trans-man box. That is not a liberating identity.”
“Are you happy?” I ask, holding their gaze for a moment, watching their somber expression.
According to 2013 research from TRANS Pulse, which studied the transgender community in Ontario, mental-health issues are the same for all trans people, including non-binary: An astonishing 36 per cent had contemplated suicide in the previous year.
“I have suffered from depression,” acknowledges Mx. Gilmer-Osborne. “But I figure out ways to help myself. It comes down to self-care. And being able to dress up super weird and go for a walk outside. That helps.”
“It’s just doing something for myself.”
We are quiet for a moment, sitting across a table, across a generational divide, across differences in gender expression.
“And I talk to my family about it,” they offer.
“That’s good,” I say. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah. They love me. I’m still their kid. I know that. My parents aren’t good with the pronouns. They don’t really get it. My dad just calls me Beck. But we’re working on it.”
“Do you go home a lot?”
“Every couple of months. I went home on a recent weekend.”
“Did that go well?”
A nod. Their siblings accept them even though they’re the only one who is – they stop to make air quotes here – “different.”
Quiet descends between us again. “My grandmother said she doesn’t like my mustache,” they say, breaking the silence. There’s a shrug. And we laugh a little.
It’s mostly young people in the trans community who identify as genderqueer or non-binary, partly because “older [trans] people tend to have settled into something,” explains Aaron Devor, trans activist, author and professor of sociology at the University of Victoria, where he was recently made the only research chair in the world for transgender studies. “People want newer concepts that are in vogue and that their peer group understands.”
That biological females are more likely to identify as genderqueer is a function of the broader culture’s generous interpretation of femininity. “In spite of many, many decades of loosening of gender roles, we still have a lot more acceptance of female-born people playing around with gender and having more variety in their gender expression,” says Dr. Devor. “Clearly, no one gets upset when women wear clothing that is either unisex or designed for males. You know they’re female, and you know they’re dressing as a male. There’s very limited flexibility for males, even today.”
It is the downside, arguably, of male privilege. Being a white, heterosexual male in the culture brings advantages. But just as with any elite club, there are strict rules about belonging – not least, in this case, because the alternative is to adopt the rules of a gender that society deems inferior. “You have to conform to belong,” observes Dr. Beemyn, of the Stonewall Center.
Research is not available on how many people who identify as genderqueer go on to transition. “I have plenty of people who are into an in-between situation and stay there,” says Dr. Safer, who works with the trans community. “I have patients who say, ‘I’m non-binary and I want just a little bit of hormone.’ I have trans people who start their hormones slowly to ease into it psychologically. I have trans people who start but don’t progress. They may have a lot of other things going on in their life and they don’t want to go further at the moment. Certainly there’s nothing medically wrong with that.”
If patients decide to stop taking hormones, most changes – facial hair for women taking testosterone, for example – will reverse. For biological females taking testosterone, the only permanent change, at least after a certain point, is the a lower voice, as the vocal chords have thickened. For biological males taking female hormones, breast tissue can develop, which they might want removed if they change their minds. “We need to know more,” Dr. Safer says. “Those decisions involve risk of surgery, and now society is paying for your surgery [for a decision you want to reverse]. That’s a resource issue.”
In the late sixties, when feminists popularized the Ms. honorific, it was revolutionary – that a woman’s marital status was no longer a way to define her. Similarly, with Mx. and the new gender-neutral singular pronouns, it feels as if they’re part of a political movement for gender parity. By obviating gender, it is rendered irrelevant – a liberation for both men and women. That’s the idea, anyway.
The medical community is aware of the political overtones. “As a physician, I am not treating my patient as part of a national political movement,” Dr. Safer explains. “I am treating each patient individually and deciding what is best for that patient.” But he acknowledges that gender identity is fraught with feminist subtext. “There was a big push against trans men coming forward as trans men, perhaps because they’re betraying the feminist community, moving from an oppressed female situation to the privileged male one [thereby] giving up on their sisters.”
Last year, I also visited Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, an all-women’s institution that had recently decided to accept trans women and trans men along with cis women – people who are biological females and identify as women. I spoke to two students in the trans community on campus. One of them, Emma Podesky, who identifies as non-binary/masculine (that is, neither male nor female, but more masculine than feminine) told me ze was thinking of having a double mastectomy just to prove to hir parents, who didn’t support hir identity or understand it, that ze was different. I was moved by hir conviction but troubled by what I perceived as hir existential angst and desire for rebellion. After all, I know what it’s like to be in your 20s.
In the months after I first met with Mx. Gilmer-Osborne in that Toronto café, I found myself thinking about our earlier conversation in the city. I called or e-mailed several times to check on how they were feeling, and to ask more questions. We decided to meet again.
I admire that idealistic, hopeful, unapologetic way of being. But the 20s, I point out to them, can also be an unstable period. I tell them about my own experimentation with self – bad relationships, wearing odd outfits, going out of my way to not do things as others did. “And I think my solution was to get married,” I blurt. “I was so young – 23, like you. But ‘wife’ was an identity, something that I could be and thought I knew how to be.”
We both laugh a little. “And it wasn’t good,” I continue. “I eventually divorced.”
“Oh,” Mx. Gilmer-Osborne says, a bit surprised by my urgent confession. But then again comes the calm professor mode. “It has nothing to do with rebellion or wanting to shock,” they say, filling the silence. “None of this is a phase. First and foremost, this is for me. I have thought things through carefully.”
I tell Mx. Gilmer-Osborne that I understand that. But I find myself wondering that, now that we’ve opened the door to questioning gender, aren’t we burdening youth with yet more identity options to think about? You have to think about what you’re going to do for a living, how to navigate relationships, whether you identify with your parents, your upbringing. And now you have to think about your gender, too?
“It’s about self-determination,” they say, after a pause. “One of the closest answers I can give to people who ask why am I doing it is to say, ‘How do you know anything?’ Nothing in my life is defined by what’s going to happen. And I’m okay with that, so maybe others should be okay with that. I’m not harming anyone. … You can’t tell me what to wear or not to have a mustache or something. It’s the way I want to look.”
In Gender Trouble, Dr. Butler incited people to actively “problematize” the idea that gender is an expression of biological sex. Mx. Gilmer-Osborne often talks about the desire to confound onlookers’ expectations about whether they are male or female. At this meeting, Mx. Gilmer-Osborne’s hair is longer. “Yeah,” they say when I mention it. “It’s part of my feminine expression.” They are continuing with the male hormone, surprised by how quickly their body has changed, which makes them happy. Mx. Podesky, who passes as male, talked about hir decision to keep hir feminine name, Emma, because ze felt that it would force others to think about what an Emma could look like.
When I say to Mx. Gilmer-Osborne that doctors warn that, in the long term, artificial male hormones can cause depression, heart problems and increase the risk of cancer, they counter quickly: “A lot of people are skeptical about the downsides. Besides, I’m taking care of myself. I don’t drink. I should exercise more. I get my blood checked. I get my heart rate checked.
“It’s like I’m a teenage boy and a 50-year-old woman going through menopause with hot flashes,” they say in a moment of levity. “It’s kind of funny, but it’s a lot to deal with. But I will keep doing what I’m doing until I need to stop for my physical health. … You kind of weigh [the physical risks] with your mental health and what you need to be happy.”
Suddenly, I start to question myself. Many of us have a contradictory relationship with our bodies. On the one hand, we can be hypervigilant about what goes into them. But we also live in a time when the plasticity of the human body is celebrated. Our physical selves are constantly under scrutiny, loved or hated, obsessed about – and often altered. We diet. We take designer drugs to alter our moods. We exercise. We have boob jobs. Butt implants. Botox. Eye lifts. Facelifts. Neck lifts. All of it is a sort of modern alchemy in the pursuit of an elusive happiness. Maybe my concern for Mx. Gilmer-Osborne’s health is nothing more than misplaced discomfort with their decision to play outside those strict gender rules that my generation grew up with.
The irony is hard to miss. Boomers are the ones who championed self-actualization. (We popularized the word.) And we had our youth movement, fighting against the rigid ideas of the establishment. The older generation worried about the length of people’s hair, the drugs, the free sex. And then I thought about what Dr. Devor had told me – that genderqueerness presents challenges younger people are better able to withstand. “It’s very difficult to fit into society and have a good job and function well in the public sphere when people can’t put you into a pink or a blue box. …That kind of marginal position is easier to sustain when you’re young, when you’re a university student, when you can tolerate low income.”
Mx. Gilmer-Osborne admits to a daily calculation of how they present to the world. “While I am still trying to exist as I want to exist, I live it every day and see that it is exhausting. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a tricky thing to find. Pushing it too much can affect the rest of my life – relationships, with my family and with work. I self-police.”
Earlier this week, I met with Mx. Gilmer-Osborne again. It has been almost a year since they started the hormone treatment. “I’m feeling better in general. I’m going to a gym and taking care of my body physically. The changes from the hormones have plateaued. And that’s okay. I’m going to continue as long as my health is good at my check-up.”
Dressed casually in jeans and a shirt, they wear a pink baseball cap over tied-back hair that has grown long to their shoulders. Mx. Gilmer-Osborne, now 24, is in a new relationship, with a fellow artist, Benjamin DaSilva, a biological female who identifies as non-binary trans and prefers the male singular pronoun. He is femme in presentation, often mistaken for a cis woman. Together, they’re working on an art show that will explore what makes a person a man. Mx. Gilmer-Osborne, interested in archiving trans stories, is thinking about applying to do a masters in records management at the University of Toronto.
Society eventually forces most of us to conform. We cut our hair. We start to wear suits. We stop holding placards in the streets.We start to dream establishment dreams of perfect houses, financial security, tidy lives. We become the older generation we once denounced. All that fierce desire for reinvention fades.
Maybe this time, for this generation, it won’t. Maybe this time it shouldn’t.
Sarah Hampson is a feature writer and columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Editor’s note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly stated in a photo caption that Mx. Gilmer-Osborne wore a leather jacket decorated with their parents’ and their own trophies; however, it is a denim jacket. This version has been corrected.
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