By Natasha T. Champney
In elementary school, the teachers would say, “Line up: boys on this side, and girls on that side.” I did not know where to stand. I remember my little palms starting to sweat and my stomach being tied in knots. Like the boys, I played baseball and had toy guns. Sometimes I felt like a boy, and maybe I was one, but I was told by several adults that I wasn’t because my body parts did not match what other boys had.
Young Natasha was sensitive and sweet. And this, I was also taught, was how little girls acted. I was not sure which gender I was because I had so-called traits of both. Two choices, I knew then, were not enough for me.
According to a 2021 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, approximately 1.2 million people living in the US (around 0.36% of the population) don’t identify as a man or a woman. Instead, their gender identity falls under a gender-nonconforming umbrella which encompasses variances like genderqueer (someone with a non-normative representation of gender), genderfluid (someone whose gender identity is malleable and varies over time) or agender (someone who doesn’t identify themselves with any particular gender at all).
While non-binary gender identities might be novel to some, the idea of two genders isn’t as deep-rooted as many might believe. In fact, gender is a construct. In Colonial America, for instance, boys wore pink and girls wore blue. Even more, research shows there are more than 100 instances of diverse gender expressions among Indigenous nations and tribes. Meanwhile, many cultures today, including some in Indonesia and Mexico, have more than two accepted genders.
While it’s clear that the gender binary is limiting, it turns out that children are impacted the most. To start, the gender binary harms young people’s mental health. Gender-nonconforming folk experience higher levels of suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and gender dysphoria than the general population, and the plight is magnified among non-binary youth and young people questioning their gender identity.
Trans teens are nearly six times more likely to attempt suicide than gender-conforming teens. I relate to this personally. As a teen, I also attempted to take my life because my identity did not fit comfortably into the two boxes available to me, and I felt like an outcast, someone who didn’t and couldn’t belong. Moreover, LGBTQ+ teens are six times more likely to experience depression than non-queer youth, 72 percent say they live with anxiety and 60% of gender non-conforming young people report self-harm and are at greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse.
While these stats are horrifying, and should alarm any adult regardless of their political or religious backgrounds, he research shows that mental health improves when LGBTQ+ people feel they fit into society or a community. This means that LGBTQ+ suicides and mental illnesses are preventable. Unfortunately, as governments and schools pass legislation and rules targeting trans and nonbinary youth, they remain vulnerable.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, there have been 17 anti-LGBTQ bills put into law in 2021, seven of which are anti-trans sports ban bills. These bills send the message that the lives of gender-nonconforming youth are not equal to those who exist within the gender binary. This message has led to verbal, physical, and sexual violence against the non-binary community.
Bullied at school and work, gender-nonconforming youth face alarming rates of abuse. The Report of the US Transgender Survey found that nearly half of genderqueer people have been verbally attacked in their lifetime, one out of ten were physically attacked in the last year, and about 50 percent report being sexual assaulted at some point in their lives.
Tragically, 2021 has already seen a record-making 31 transgender or gender-nonconforming people killed — though this number could be higher due to underreporting and misgendering. LGBTQ+ advocates say a record number of state bills targeting transgender and non-binary people this year have increased transphobia and violence.
Sadly, the violence that gender-nonconforming youth experience isn’t exclusive to a hateful few but also exists in the structures they are forced to navigate every day. Across the country, states have been passing laws that allow, and compel, schools to discriminate against their students. Some of these anti-trans laws have limited where non-binary youth can use the bathroom, play sports, or even go to school.
Unfortunately, as these children and teens become young adults, they face similar examples of structural violence. Despite the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2020 that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ+ employees from discrimination, gender non-conforming people are still less likely to be hired and more likely to be terminated due to their gender identity. Similarly, non-binary individuals experience housing discrimination. Some landowners will not rent or sell houses to gender-nonconforming individuals. This has contributed to a homelessness rate above the national average. Multiple studies have shown, however, that when trans and genderqueer people are able to correct the gender marked on their legal documents, they have greater access to housing and jobs and experience improvements to their mental health.
While some might argue that gender-nonconforming people account for a small number of the population, the violence of the gender binary, while most felt by transgender people, impacts everyone. In other words, rigid gender roles hurt boys and girls, too. Studies show that strict ideas of femininity lead to low self-esteem, body image issues and sometimes depression, self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal ideation among many girls. Stringent gender roles for men beget a limited emotional range and aggressive behavior—especially against other men who do not conform to these ideals.
It can be hard for some men and women to imagine the plight of gender-nonconforming individuals. In many ways, they are allowed to exist in the world as themselves, without questions asked, constant fear, or discrimination around where they sleep, work, go to school, or use the restroom. But not everyone lives with this sense of freedom.
As a non-binary person who has attempted suicide in my youth, it is gut-wrenching to see transgender youth still committing suicide at alarming rates, violent homicides against gender-nonconforming folk, and structural violence that diminishes my community’s quality of life. We must be open to variations of gender and help pass laws that protect all genders. Millions of lives depend on it.
Natasha Champney is published in Sinister Wisdom and other literary magazines. They were the first poet to read at SF City Hall Poems Under the Dome and have read on KBOO, etc. They have A Master’s in Writing from PSU and a Master’s in Teaching from Lewis & Clark College. Natasha is a survivor of trauma and copes with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. They are part of the LGBTQ community and currently teach language arts at Reynolds High School.