Breaking the binary
Even before we’re born, we’re assigned to be a boy or a girl. We’re raised in pink and blue rooms wearing pink and blue clothes. So what happens if you’re neither exclusively male nor exclusively female, but something else?
February 22, 2016
They walk into the first day of sophomore year with a new look: their shoulder-length hair is now a close cropped pixie cut, their wardrobe has changed to have a more masculine edge, and their breast binder compresses and flattens their chest. They take their seat in their first period class and the teacher takes roll call.
“Tamera McNamar?” the teacher calls.
They raise their hand, hopeful for a fresh new start to the year, and responds, “Actually, I’m gender fluid, and I’d prefer to go by Jace.”
Just this school year, Tamera McNamar flew off the map and Jace Morely ’18 took their place. After they first encountered the term genderfluid at a COLORS meeting, Morely immediately identified with the term.
“Ever since kindergarten I’ve hung out more with guys and understood them more than females. I was like, ‘wait a second, that makes a lot of sense because I’m not a female and I’m not a male, but I am some mix of the two,’” Morely said.
While the realization was spontaneous, the name change came more gradually. They started by rejecting female pronouns like ‘she’ and ‘her’ and began referring to themself as ‘they’ and ‘them’. Even after that change, Morely took two more months to make the transition from Tamera to Jace. On the other hand, finding the name Jace was rather simple.
“I’ve actually been in love with the name Jace for a long time,” Morely said. “The first time I came in contact with it was when I was three because my mother played Magic the Gathering and one of the Planeswalkers names was Jace,” they added with a laugh. “As I’ve grown older and become a writer, I’ve had to come up with names for characters and Jace just seemed like one that I always came up with … I started to believe that [Jace] just describes me in so many ways.”
After settling into their new name and identity, all that was left was to tell their friends and family. Morely remembers how difficult it was to tell their mother and stepfather, saying that “I was entirely nervous and I had to convince myself to come out to them for twenty minutes.” When they finally mustered up the nerve to tell them, Morely was expecting rejection, pure acceptance, or some combination of the two. What they got was something totally different.
“I was completely flabbergasted,” Morely said. “They were very proud of me for making that step and trusting them enough. Because I made that step, they made their steps in telling me about [their genders].”
Their mother shared with Morely that she was intersex, meaning that she had a high level of testosterone in her body. Their stepfather revealed that he was beginning to make the transition as a trans-female and enjoyed dressing in drag.
“As the year went on, [my mother and stepfather] became more open about telling me about themselves,” Morely said. “It was a domino effect.”
Although initially shocking to Morely, these revelations became the foundation of an impenetrable bond between Morely and their family. They felt especially close with their stepfather, who Morely says became “more comfortable in his skin” after embracing his gender identity. So when Morely’s stepfather passed away, Morely remembers crying for four days in a row. Seeing their stepfather’s death as a legacy for them to fulfill, Morely again made the switch from being a McNamar to being a Morely, taking on their stepfather’s last name.
Growing and evolving with two parents who are neither exclusively male or female, Morely was able to solidify their place on the gender spectrum more easily. But compared to their experience and the headway made for gay marriage and sexual orientation awareness, the world of non-binary genders is only “on the precipice” according to Anneke Thorne ’16, active member of COLORS.
“I feel like since a smaller percent of the population are going to be transgender or gender fluid, [a gender movement] might take longer than the LGBT movement,” Thorne said.
Much of the problem comes from a lack of awareness about non-binary genders. After years of exposure to the LGBT movement, and as more and more progress is being made, new issues such as gender fluidity are being overshadowed. People are blurring the lines between sexual orientation and gender.
Olivia Smith ’18, another gender non-binary student at West High, recalls being told that “it’s totally fine and normal for you to be bisexual, but there’s no such thing as being in between boys and girls.” Morely admits that other members of the community see them as “trying to get attention, or just lying, or just really confused about who they are trying to portray.” They even remember being asked, “So one day do you just wake up with a penis, or how do you feel more masculine?”
“Even members of the LGBT community and its allies are uninformed. I think just issues of gender and genderfluidity are much more now the focus because people are so uninformed about it,” said Kerri Barnhouse, English teacher at West High.
Even so, steps are being taken locally in order to respect people of varying gender identities. The University of Iowa opened an LGBTQ clinic, one of three in the country, that provides counseling and therapy for patients who are changing gender. The clinic also rewrote the hospital forms to say, “What gender were you assigned at birth?” and “What gender do you prefer?”, going on to ask the patient, “What pronouns would you like us to use to refer to you?” At West High, COLORS is pushing to remodel the bathrooms to make them gender neutral, which Barnhouse says is “definitely a possibility.”
But the progress so far is limited. “If you go like 90 miles away to my hometown then people won’t really be talking about [gender] at all,” Barnhouse said. The next step is to bring gender issues to the national stage.
“There was a time when we didn’t talk about homosexuality either and once the media picks up on it, once there starts to be public figures or characters on television, people start talking about it more and people start getting comfortable. Once you start seeing it, people will start talking about that,” Barnhouse said.
According to Barnhouse, once the issue starts to make national headlines, the next step may be to use the momentum to push for high profile court cases and new legislation specific to gender issues. For Morely, the next step is to remove the gender association with names. Having lived with the wrong name and the wrong pronouns for most of their life, Morely knows that gendered names can make it difficult to break free from the gender binary.
“I’ve looked on so many [baby naming] sites and there are always male names and female names. Some of them have male, female, and gender binary. I think that if we could change that to just baby names, then that would be helpful and a step in the right direction,” Morely said.
Morely recognizes that the progress will be limited. When asked about the prospect of a world without gendered names or without gender at all, Morely replied, “We can hope and we can dream, but I don’t see it changing in our very distant future.” But at the very least, they know that their name change was the right decision in embracing their genderfluidity. Now, Morely hopes to help others find theirs, using YouTube and other social media as a platform to share their story.
“[I want] to help people who are struggling with the same things and just to tell them, ‘Hey, you’re not alone.’ There are other people … who no one knows about that are going through the same thing.”
With only twenty subscribers on their YouTube channel, most of whom are Morely’s friends or family, Morely isn’t exactly an internet celebrity. But it’s not about the page views and the number of subscribers. “Honestly, if I can help just one person … then I’m happy,” Morely said.
They may have already accomplished this goal. Morely remembers a friend who, inspired by their videos, made the decision to cut their shoulder length hair to no longer than an inch. Yet Morely strives to reach even further, make a bigger impact, and to share the love.
“Do not fall for, ‘You are worthless’ and ‘You would be better off dead’ because you’re not. You are so much stronger than everyone who is bullying you … Just stay strong and don’t fall for the hate.”