the term “NB” (non-binary) because it gives them freedom if they need it. People find terms that
fit themselves and their experience.
Gwen emphasizes that the idea of a binary identity doesn’t hold up because of the
complexities of being human. She has great faith in language, and she even embraces words that
initially may be hurled as a slur. Find a word that describes your identity and feels good? Gwen
is on your side; she believes more language is better. Her word to describe herself is
“transgender,” because she finds alignment with one of the genders on the binary. She does not
push this term on others, and in general, doesn’t force any terms on other people. The more I
talked with her, the more closely I considered language and its relationship to gender. She told
me, “It’s not what you call me, it’s what I answer to,” a Yoruba saying that emphasizes self-
determination. Regarding labels, Gwen told me that, “A trans friend of mine, who took her life in
1994, had once referred to ‘a harmony of voices.’ That's been a way I've looked at this
community for a long time. One does not need to approach trans issues in a "one size fits all"
fashion. We can all come together, but it's not "lock step." We all have our own approaches, and
that's a strength.”
Generally, in this record of Gwen’s life, I use the word transgender when writing about
Gwen, trans when writing about the community of people who do not identify with their
assigned gender, and gender variant, as a synonym for individuals who are in the trans
community but may not like the word trans.
Language is important because it is how we organize and understand our world and
ourselves. Sadly, if you fail to fall in line, you will be punished. In Kate Bornstein’s book,
Gender Outlaws, she defines gender in our society by two important things it lacks: consent and
safety. Borstein writes: “We’re born: a doctor assigns us a gender. It’s documented by the state,
enforced by the legal profession, sanctified by the church, and it’s bought and sold in the media.
We have no say in our gender—we’re not allowed to question it… Gender is not consensual”
Gwen had a lifetime of people telling her she wasn’t allowed to be herself, simply
because of a box marked on a piece of paper moments after birth. As Borstein succinctly writes,
“Safe gender is being who and what we want to be when we want to be that, and expressing
ourselves with no threat of censure or violence…Safe gender is not being pressured into passing,
not having to lie, not having to hide.” I agree gender should be safe and consensual, but today in
2017 it just isn’t.
In a 2015 survey of over 1,800 respondents, 78% of the respondents from the gender non-
conforming students kindergarten age to the last year in high school, experience harassment from
students, teachers, or staff, while 35% experience physical assault, and 12% experience sexual
violence. (James et al. 8–9) Gwen’s experiences as a gender variant child were statistically
unavoidable. Even though she took the cues from the world around her and tried to conform to
what she was “supposed to be,” people sensed her as different, even when she was trying to hide.
And, some of those that noticed, hurt her physically. What happens to the gender variant child
when they grow up? Survival is difficult; even if you try to hide, you are still bullied. Maybe,
like Gwen, you decide to stop hiding because the violence and hate happens even as you hide,
and at least that way you can have the relief of truth. Doing so is a brave decision, but sadly, the
world of discrimination becomes bigger: you are denied medical treatment, you are fired, you are
The U.S. government doesn’t help the matter, and instead makes trans people out to be
spectacles. If a trans person presents a form of identification that does not match their gender