Breaking free from the gender binary

College is a daunting new experience for most, but for nonbinary people, it’s full of even more unique challenges and new opportunities to flourish. Photo Submitted by Hadley Causey

With a setting characterized by sororities and fraternities, hookups and competitive sports, gender defines every part of the college experience.

America’s gendered culture makes navigating college uniquely challenging for those who identify as nonbinary. Nonbinary means someone’s gender identity does not fit neatly into traditional definitions of “male” or “female.” For many nonbinary people, college is also a novel opportunity to be free and open about their true selves.

“It’s freeing in the sense that I am what I am in the moment, whether that’s as a man, a woman, neither or both,” Sebastien Strehn, a sophomore at South Puget Sound Community College, said. “It’s sort [of] allowing myself to make my own box, so to speak, and slapping an ‘all of the above’ label on it.”

Jack McKie, a junior at the University of Rochester in New York, thought about their gender more than ever during college. In their eyes, gender is a social experience.

“[My gender] is very fluid and has a lot to do with how I want other people to perceive me. I feel like, outside of interactions with others, I wouldn’t feel a need to label my gender at all,” McKie said. “I’m just me, and I don’t like how people tend to use a lot of gendered terms to try to box me in.”

Danny Smith, a junior at Eastern Kentucky University, has a gender that fluctuates. They face discrimination for their gender identity and hesitate to discuss their identity with peers.

“It [has] been a lifelong struggle, but I’m not super open about it still,” Smith said.

Although some nonbinary people use “he/him” and “she/her” pronouns or both, others use “they/them” pronouns or other gender-neutral pronouns. Like McKie and Smith, Hadley Causey, a senior at Georgia State, uses “they/them” pronouns.

“[My gender identity] lets me find a way for me to identify with a community, as well as a way to express myself,” Causey said.

Because most university systems, like housing and sports, are designed with the gender binary in mind, nonbinary students face obstacles daily. But universities sometimes make accommodations. Georgia State began offering gender-inclusive housing in 2015 and has a Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.

Still, Athens Oliver Rose (he/they), a sophomore at Georgia State, cited an issue for many nonbinary students: a lack of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

Georgia State has just nine dedicated gender-neutral bathrooms across 50 buildings.

Unlike Georgia State, gender-neutral housing isn’t available at Eastern Kentucky University, where Smith attends.

“I was stuck … in a gendered female dorm for a while until I paid extra for a non-gendered suite,” Smith said. “I’ve dealt with mental health issues for a long time, and [I’ve] been really nervous about my housing situation.”

Although the University of Rochester has gender-inclusive housing, McKie, too, experienced housing obstacles. This semester, while their professors received their preferred name, the residence hall received their legal name.

“Sometimes, communication fails, and well-meaning people still mess up,” McKie said.  “Everyone knew my dead name.”

Transgender and nonbinary people often change their names to fit their gender identity. Many of them refer to their given name as their “dead name.”

Georgia State issues email addresses with students’ dead names, and they are unable to change them. At the University of Rochester, McKie’s university-assigned email address also includes their dead name.

Causey uses Georgia State’s preferred name option, which changes their name in class rosters and iCollege, but not email or PAWS.

“The preferred name option is really nice and has helped me out a lot because I haven’t legally changed my name,” Causey said.

Strehn’s college professors have a similar but less technical approach. They allow students to choose how they are addressed privately and discreetly before class.

Accommodations may make nonbinary students’ lives more comfortable, but they do not protect them from hate and discrimination. Misconceptions about nonbinary identities are abundant. With a lack of education on the subject, professors and faculty may make offensive comments, and nonbinary students feel alienated.

“I’ve had a professor who repeatedly misgendered me, and when it was brought to the attention of the department by other students, [the professor] called me out about it in class,” McKie said.

Strehn took a French class where their professor insisted that they pick a “girl name” and corrected their work when they used the masculine form of words to refer to themselves.

Students and faculty at Georgia State misgendered both Rose and Causey.

Causey believes that the mistakes they see are usually unintentional and that students and faculty are generally accepting. But they often have to correct others repeatedly.

“[They/them pronouns] are just not commonplace, Causey said. “Students and professors don’t really get it right the first time, so usually I have to correct them or say something about it.”

Smith believes that hate and discrimination would be less frequent on college campuses if there were more resources for nonbinary people and allies. They have found that most people at Eastern Kentucky University don’t know what “nonbinary” means.

“I wish that people would take the time to clear up their misconceptions,” Smith said.

Causey has seen a similar lack of understanding at Georgia State.

“Pretty much nobody at [Georgia State] knows what it even means, especially at first,” Causey said.

One common misconception students see is that all nonbinary people are the same.

“If you know one nonbinary person, you know one nonbinary person,” McKie said. “I’m okay with some gendered language being used for me, and not all nonbinary people are, but that doesn’t make me or them any less nonbinary.”

Causey echoed McKie’s claim that nonbinary people don’t present in any one way.

“Some people are comfortable presenting masculine or presenting feminine, and some people like to be androgynous,” Causey said.

“Nonbinary” is an umbrella term encompassing other, more specific gender identities, but some people identify only as nonbinary. There are countless understandings of what “nonbinary” means since each person experiences gender differently. Every nonbinary person is a unique individual.

Despite discrimination, many nonbinary people find lasting comfort in their college communities. Sometimes, reassurance comes in the form of a tight-knit community and support system, like university organizations, while other times, it comes in fleeting moments of kindness and understanding.

“Fellow students at [Georgia State] have noticed the nonbinary flag sticker on my laptop or the ‘they/them’ pin that I keep on my backpack, and they go out of their way to affirm my identity and use the correct pronouns without me having to tell them,” Causey said. “It’s always a really nice experience, but a very rare one.”

For Strehn, it was welcoming professors who offered a sense of belonging at their university.

“I had an art teacher once who would exclusively refer to me as ‘they’ and ‘young creative’ instead of as ‘young lady’ or ‘young man,’” they said.

Some nonbinary students like Strehn find that people don’t understand that being nonbinary does not defy gender or society. Instead, it’s an abstract acceptance of oneself, and it is different for every person.

“Nonbinary is not just a rejection of femininity or masculinity, but simply a creation for yourself that doesn’t restrict yourself,” Strehn said. “If you can’t find anything to wear on the rack, make it yourself.”