Outside the binary

As most teachers do on the first day of school, Spanish teacher Joaquin Fernandez-Castro began first period with a roll call. When he reached the name “Gabrielle*” ’14, however, he was corrected. He was not just pronouncing the name wrong — the name itself was wrong. Gabrielle wanted to be called Asher*.

“Asher?” Fernandez-Castro said. “Okay, Asher.” He moved on to the next student in the class.

“I was nervous because I hadn’t corrected anyone [before that],” Asher said. “It was a hiccup in the roll call.”

As Asher proceeded through classes, though, the moment of correction became easier.

Sometimes, if the teacher asked if they had a preferred name or wanted clarification on pronunciation, Asher could say, “No, actually, I go by Asher.”

“Some of them were like, ‘Oh, that’s not at all a nickname for [Gabrielle],’” Asher said. “The majority of them were just like, ‘Okay,’ and they went on. Now I don’t think any of my teachers call me Gabrielle.”

Well, aside from Latin teacher Paul Chenier, who they’d had the year before.

“I didn’t correct him,” Asher said, giggling, “because he didn’t do roll call since he knows everybody, but that’s fine. Maybe if I see him in the hallway I’ll say something.”

The students, at least, needed no correction. Anyone who’s friends with Asher on Facebook was brought up to speed June 16, when Asher changed their first name on Facebook to Asher and uploaded a new profile picture, hair cut short in a dyed red wave.

“If you could call me [Asher] now,” the picture’s caption read, “that’d be great.”

With that picture, caption and name change, Asher made at least one thing clear: they did not identify as a girl. However, they don’t identify as a guy either. There’s a reason Asher uses the pronoun “they”: they identify outside of the gender binary.

The gender binary, which states that there are two distinct genders, male and female, can imply that gender and sex are both interchangeable, according to Gender Spectrum, an organization that provides education and training on gender. But gender is not necessarily tied to sex, which is determined by biological characteristics, the organization says, and not everyone falls within the binary — like Asher.

A multitude of labels refers to people outside the binary, from genderqueer to gender-neutral to nonbinary, the term Asher uses.

“Nonbinary is just not falling into the binary, so there’s a spectrum of gender,” Asher said.

Although the school has had several transgender students in the past, school counselor Luba Bek noticed students identifying as gender-neutral only a couple years ago.

“It’s a new thing,” she said. “It’s new for me too. I’m learning along the way, asking kids a lot of questions and apologizing before I ask them. But I go, ‘Okay, I’m sorry, instead of researching it online I want to ask you what it is that you’re experiencing.’ It’s a learning process.”

Asher never conceived of anything beyond the gender binary until the summer before their sophomore year, when they met someone at camp who had changed her name and identified as gender-neutral.

Their meeting and conversation gave Asher a lot to think about, they said.

“I’ve always had small hints that maybe I didn’t fit the definition of a girl, if there is one,” Asher said. “I think meeting her and then subsequently reflecting on myself, I saw a lot of puzzle pieces fit together.”

Since then, Asher has contemplated going on testosterone and spent time unknotting the ties between their gender and their sexuality. Before that, Asher had always figured those “small hints,” like their childhood habits of competition with boys and driving girls on bicycles around the elementary school playground track, pegged them as a “butch” lesbian stereotype.

For now, identifying as nonbinary is the easiest option.

“I guess you could say I’m on a pause right now trying to figure out what I want to do with my body,” Asher said, adding that this isn’t necessarily typical of all gender-neutral people.

“A lot of them don’t base their identity off whether or not they want to transition, and it’s more just whether they feel like they identify as a man or a woman, but from my experience, I identify that way just because I don’t know exactly how I want my body to look right now,” they said.

More than just Asher’s body is in pause. Although they changed their name — Asher being the result of a months-long quest whose end was nearly “Taylor” or “Topher” or “Hunter” — they won’t legally change it until they graduate.

Until then, they want to avoid any discrepancies. Their name in the yearbook will be “Gabrielle,” as it is on the Common Application. When Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts called their name at the Senior Ceremony Sept. 15 to receive their class ring, she said “Gabrielle,” and Asher, clad in a white button-down and dress pants, came forward to shake President Rick Commons’ hand.
And their mother refuses to call them Asher. (Asher wanted to list their name as “Asher” on the Common App, but their mother didn’t want them to. Their mother also didn’t give permission for Asher, who is under 18, to use their name in this article.)

However, Asher stressed that they’re lucky — their mother is open-minded, supportive and doesn’t object to Asher going by Asher at school.

“She birthed me, so she can call me whatever she wants,” Asher said.

Still, although Asher understands their mother’s discomfort with the name and “is fine with it,” they do hope that she’ll use it in the future, when they’re an adult.

***

The research she read was unmistakable: binding your chest increases risk for blood clots and breast cancer. Now, on the days when she wakes up feeling like a boy, Esther* ’15 can’t present herself as she feels inside. Before she discovered the dangers of binding, Esther, who uses both masculine and feminine pronouns, would sometimes go to parties dressed as a guy: chest flat, clothing loose, hair short, a bowtie, maybe calling herself “Ben” because her short curly hair made her look like actor Benedict Cumberbatch, according to her friends.

“It’s actually better than how I dress as a girl,” Esther said. “I put more thought into it.”

Asher thought they were the only nonbinary person at school until a couple weeks ago, when Esther said she was gender-neutral at a meeting of Project 10, a confidential support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students led by Bek. Asher and Esther are the only gender-neutral students at the school that Bek knows of, she said.

But while Asher’s nonbinary identity may be impermanent as they figure out whether or not they may want to physically transition, Esther said she’s felt gender-neutral her whole life.

“Some bisexual people will say they’ll wake up in the morning and some days they’re interested in girls and some days they’re interested in guys,” Esther said. “For me, it’s kind of like, when I wake up in the morning, some days I feel like a boy — no, I am a boy — and some days I feel like a girl.”

“On those days,” she added, “it’s a guy in a girl’s body, and it just doesn’t work out. It’s just like waking up and looking in the mirror and being like, ‘what the hell, who is this person?’”

Like Asher, though, Esther never had a label to fix to her feelings until recently, when she discovered the term gender-neutral this past summer, which she said she thought described her best. Since then, Esther’s also been able to talk to a distant cousin who also has a fluid gender identity for advice.

Her cousin, Esther said, is all she needs for support and commiseration. Her friends and her mother know she’s gender-neutral, too, and she doesn’t wish she had more gender-neutral friends.

But there’s a reason Esther only dresses as a boy at parties. At parties, she knows she’s with her friends, she said. It’s not the same at school.

“I don’t think [Harvard-Westlake] is fully accepting, honestly,” Esther said, adding that any place can always be more accepting than it currently is.

She said students have laughed at her before and mocked her gender identity, and these same students won’t acknowledge her around campus.

“That happens with me sometimes, that no one will really look me in the eye or say hi or anything even if we’re the only two people there,” Esther said.

She wouldn’t explain further about any uncomfortable situations she’s had at school. Outside of Harvard-Westake, “I’ve been called a fag my whole life,” she said. Instead, she laughed, a bit nervously.
“It has happened, but I don’t really…” Esther paused. “I don’t know,” she added, and grinned quickly, sheepishly. “Yeah, I don’t really want to talk about it. Sorry. I don’t want to call anyone out.”

Bek, too, was qualified in her use of the word “accepting.”

“We’re accepting in our community, or maybe politically correct in our community not to comment upon the new look,” she said, referring to Asher, who came to school Aug. 27 with a newly cut shock of hair. “But if a person were to walk around with a sign saying, ‘I’m gender-neutral,’ or whatever you call yourself, I think we would have a lot of questions to them but not necessarily some kind of ostracizing or some kind of negative attention.”

Asher’s combination of short hair and masculine fashion (they said they shop mainly in the men’s section) may as well be such a sign. And like Bek thought, Asher said they’ve never received “openly negative feedback.”

“I just get a lot of questions, like ‘what are your pronouns, why did you change your name?’” they said. “I guess I would prefer them ask than just get it wrong, so it’s nice that they want to know.”

Bek echoed Asher’s opinion.

“I don’t think there’s anything shameful in not knowing but being curious,” Bek said. “I’m not being curious-nosy, I just want to understand what it is that I need to do for this person to feel comfortable.”

As the questions indicate, the environment at school is, if anything, ignorant. While this ignorance often results in the constant, curious questioning (like in the many “really nice messages” Asher received in their Facebook inbox after publicly changing their name), it also displays itself in more disquieting ways.

“There are certain things I know not to say,” Asher said. “When people just joke about a ‘tranny’ or something like that, and I’ll want to say, ‘Don’t say that,’ it’s not okay for me to say that.”

Asher has sensed that some students are “a little put off” by them, or think they’re simply doing it for attention, because they have little understanding of what it means to be nonbinary.

“The struggle of nonbinary people is that people don’t even know about it sometimes,” Asher said. “The idea of not being a girl or a guy is just not even — they’ve never even thought that could be a possibility. So often while your identity isn’t invalidated constantly, it’s more like it’s not even — it’s almost invisible. So that’s the main issue, when people aren’t even aware of its existence.”

Esther has also noticed the ignorance on campus, but for her it hasn’t only resided in sensing what others think of her, but among even her friends.

One of her best friends asked her a couple weeks ago what bisexuality was, while another recently argued with Esther about her gender-neutral identity.

“‘No, you’re not,’” Esther recalled her friend saying. “‘You’re a girl, and that’s how it is, and there’s no other way.’”

“I was kind of shocked,” Esther said, “because I don’t know what else the school could be doing to get the word out, but there are different genders and there are different sexualities.”

Bek also wasn’t sure the school could do anything formally to educate students. The matter becomes even more complicated, she said, without a distinct goal: do they want to teach the concept of the societal gender binary, or tell about all the varying gender identities out there or make nonbinary students like Asher and Esther comfortable?

Her instinct, she said, is to teach through personal exposure, like when she founded the Gay-Straight Alliance in 1994 with Chief Advancement Officer Ed Hu. (Asher, a co-president of the GSA, changed the name this year to stand for “Gender and Sexuality Awareness,” which is more inclusive.)

“We, back in the ’90s and even up until now, believed the more people get to know people who are different, and the more they understand that we’re not a bunch of nasty, scary freaks, the easier it is for people to accept the different,” Bek said.

This is the thought process that lies behind the tradition in Choices and Challenges, in which gay students come to speak to sophomores about their experiences. Last year, Asher spoke to Bek’s Choices and Challenges classes about being nonbinary.

“It’s upsetting that a system doesn’t teach you about other people’s identities, but it’s not upsetting that you don’t know about it, because if the system’s not teaching you, you have to go out and find out about it, so that puts the weight on you,” Asher said.

“I don’t have a lot of answers,” Bek admitted. “I myself have a lot of questions, because it’s new. I think I had a conversation with Asher about, ‘what do I address you as?’ When Asher said ‘they,’ I said, ‘but you’re one person.’”

***

A couple weeks after the first day of school, Asher said about the teacher-correcting ordeal, “I mean, I guess it went well.”

“Mr. Chenier?” I said, recalling what they’d said before about his ignorance of their new name.

Asher laughed, remembering what they’d said last week. “Well, actually, I don’t know. Someone must have called me [Asher] in front of him, so he emailed me, and was like, how do I pronounce this name” — Asher laughed again — “and I emailed him back. So now I guess he’s going to call me Asher.”

*Names have been changed

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