“It’s a boy!”
“It’s a girl!”
Only two sexes are announced to parents of newborn babies. From the moment of birth, or maybe sometimes before, every person is classified into the gender binary, and in that binary, you are either male or female. There is no gray area — you are either one or the other. From that moment forward, most babies are then pushed into their gender roles, swaddled in pink or blue blankets based primarily on their external sex characteristics. For many though, that moment becomes the first in creating a confusing culture based on the ‘naturalness’ of what gender a person is born with, rather than what gender that person is born to be.
Gender Binary and Gender Dysphoria
The gender binary is a social construct describing the idea that there are only two genders based on the two sexes: male and female. However, for people that don’t identify as either gender or for those who feel a connection to both genders, this binary causes an array of internal struggles.
Quinn Ashley, the sophomore Gender Warriors student facilitator, identifies as pansexual and androgynous. Pansexual is a sexual orientation in which a person is attracted to all genders, including those outside the gender binary (whereas bisexual refers to only the genders of male and female). Androgynous is a term that refers to a person who identifies as both or neither male and female. Ashley, who prefers the pronouns they/them, explained that their definition of androgynous is a little bit different: rather than identifying as both or neither male and female, they identify as both and neither male and female.
“Both because I want to be physically both, and neither because I don’t want to be associated with gender roles of either gender,” Ashley said. “That’s kind of how it is with any individual. They have a term that they use to describe themselves, but they may have their own definition of what that means exactly.”
However, Ashley did not find themselves identifying as androgynous until their senior year of high school. They went through complicated years of trying to figure out their sexuality and gender identity, unable to put a finger on what felt right due to their lack of knowledge about genders outside the gender binary.
“I never felt like I could fit in as a girl, so when I was younger I kinda identified as a tomboy,” they said. “But I didn’t have the language or the knowledge and understanding of the fact that there’s not just two genders because those aren’t things that children are taught, so it wasn’t until I started joining some online communities, after I started identifying first as bisexual, and then as pansexual, when I learned what that term meant.”
From there, Ashley began to question their gender identity as they learned more through online communities. “I was having a difficult time at first trying to figure out how I identified because I really don’t like gender norms, and I didn’t feel like, I didn’t want to define myself by them, and so I thought to myself: ‘Ok, if there were no such things as gender norms, how would I identify?’”
Friend of Ashley, sophomore Avery McBride, voiced a similar feeling. McBride also favors the pronouns they/them and does not conform with the gender binary.
“[My identity] is complicated,” McBride said. “But I think if I had to put a label... oh, boy. There are a lot of different genders that I fall under: genderqueer, genderfluid, androgynous. I would have to say genderfluid is the best description.”
Genderfluid, according to McBride, is described as being able to flow from one gender to another from day to day and not identifying directly with one gender consistently.
While both Ashley and McBride have come to terms with the gender and both describe themselves as much happier and more comfortable with their identities — being outside the gender binary can be a very confusing time for people that don’t have the language to describe how they feel.
Monica is a second year graduate student at Indiana University. Though she wanted to share her experiences, Monica is currently in a period of transition. For the purpose of keeping her privacy during this process, her name has been changed in this article and a full description of her studies at IU will not be given. As a transexual woman, Monica experienced gender dysphoria, the feelings of not identifying with the gender you were born to, at a young age and throughout most of her life until she made the decision a few years ago to undergo a physical transition from male to female. After making this decision, her feeling of dysphoria were reduced, though she does still occasionally feel them.
“When your natural inclination is to do something that goes against gender roles and expectations, then you find yourself in a position where you can’t really express who you are or be yourself in the role that society has built for you,” Monica said. “And then there is the feeling of looking in the mirror, looking at your face, looking at your body, looking at your genitals and feeling that it’s wrong. That it’s not the way that it should be. Feeling gender dysphoria, that’s what was naturally there when I was trying to be someone that I wasn’t.”
Growing Up and Religion
Ashley, McBride, and Monica all grew up in very conservative households — only furthering their confusion of gender and sexuality. Monica’s Catholic family frequently pushed conservative ideology her way as a child.
“I had a lot of internalized guilt and shame about how I felt inside, being attracted to men and wanting to be a woman, and both of those things [my family] would not accept,” she said.
Monica eventually stopped going to the church when she was around 14 years old. She was never confirmed by the Catholic Church and has considered herself an atheist for 12-13 years now.
“There’s that old cliche ‘pray the gay away,’ but I actually did that,” Monica described. “And I eventually got sick of doing that, and I was like ‘Look, you know, if God isn’t going to help me with this, if I am this way and I can’t help it, then why am I begging for His forgiveness?”
While Monica gave up her religion, both Ashley and McBride still consider themselves religious people. Raised Nazarene Christian, Ashley studied the Bible from an early age, which upon realizing that at the time they were attracted to girls, created a strong internal divide.
“So, when in middle school, probably in about eighth grade, I started realizing that I was attracted to girls, and I was very much studying the Bible at the time, and I believed everything that they fed me,” Ashley said. “So I knew exactly where I was going if I liked girls, and I was very much torn with myself because I didn’t know how to react to this information, and I was always looking through the Bible, looking online, looking for anything that could either fix me or affirm that Jesus didn’t think that being gay or being attracted to the ‘same sex’ was a sin, and so I was very reluctant to identify as bisexual.” They would later come to identify as pansexual.
McBride was raised in a conservative Christian household, so when they came out as bisexual last year at Christmas, their family cried, claiming that they had ruined Christmas.
“They’re hurt because their family member has come out, and they’re like ‘Oh, crap, you’re going to Hell, I can’t save your soul now’ kind of thing,” McBride described. “They play the victim, but when your family decides that they can’t live with you anymore because it’s awkward, and like it hurts them to look at you in the eyes, who’s the victim? And like, I don’t like playing the victim, but they’re so hurt by this, but when they told me that they could barely look me in the eyes — somebody that I had called my family since I was 9 years old — it hurt. And that fact that they said they were the victims — I felt betrayed.”
When asked about the word ‘natural,’ Mr. Doug Bauder, Director of the GLBT Office at Indiana University, said that it was one of the most abusive words in the English language.
“I don’t even know what natural means anymore,” he said. “I’ve lived long enough that I see people as different and unique, and that word is often used to put people down.”
To each of the students interviewed, however, they took the word ‘natural’ and its relation to gender in a different context.
According to Ashley, gender is a little bit of both nature and nurture. They believe that comments from their dad about always wanting a son may have subconsciously pushed them to acting more masculine as they grew up. However, Ashley also cited the fact that they have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) was an innate part of them and their gender. PCOS causes cysts to grow on the outside of Ashley’s ovaries, causing their levels of estrogen to fluctuate and their levels of testosterone to be higher.
“It’s also a debate whether PCOS is technically a form of intersex because sex is determined by genitals, reproductive organs, the way that your brain has developed and hormones,” Ashley explained. “And so, since PCOS affects hormones, it could technically be considered an intersex condition.”
Monica also took a similar view of natural, stating that even though she is taking hormones to change her given biology, that doesn’t change that she feels that she is naturally a woman.
“Since I’ve transitioned, it was like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders that I didn’t even know was there, and I had been carrying it around for so long,” Monica said. “I feel so much more happy and free, and it just feels like this is me.”
McBride explained further, “I’m just like anybody else. I am a student, I go to work, I go to school, I do, quote, ‘normal people things.’ Just because I’m gay or I’m trans doesn’t mean that my life is miraculous and different. It’s just as boring as any college student that goes to work or school.”
Natural, as it relates to each individual person, has a different meaning. It’s not always what is given to you, what the norm is or the stereotype that is most commonly accepted. Natural can be as connotative as the normal and the ‘other people,’ as Mr. Bauder explained, but in reality everyone’s definition of natural is just that: natural to them.
As McBride said, “I feel like natural is... be who you want to be, do what you want to do, look how you want to look and don’t let anyone tell you how to act, think or be.”