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Americans are becoming more accepting of gays and lesbians and, in some cases, transgendered people. At the same time, a new generation of young people is challenging our understanding of gender.
They're calling for more fluid categories beyond just male and female, as NPR's Margot Adler explains.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: It began with a speaking event at Oberlin College in Ohio. I was at dinner with the college chaplain and 16 students on his interfaith council. I was startled when everyone introduced themselves saying their name, what year they were, what they were studying and then described their preferred gender pronouns. I wasn't taping but it sounded similar to these high school students introducing themselves to me recently in New York.
RUSSELL LASDON: I'm Russell Lasdon and I use he/him/his pronouns.
KETZEL FEASLEY: I'm Ketzel Feasley and my PGP's are she/her/hers.
ADLER: For those of you who have never heard this done, as I hadn't, this is happening on many campuses. It's a way of being supportive or an ally to those who are transgender or gender non-conforming. Those who are not cisgender - that is, their emotional gender identity does not match their biology.
I admit my first reaction was it felt cult-like and I thought, these people are paying $50,000 a year for college and this is what they care about most - what pronouns you use? When during my college days we were fighting for civil rights, registering voters in Mississippi and facing tear gas and fire hoses. But then I stopped and thought about it.
I went to one of the smartest people I know in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Carl Siciliano. He is the executive director of the Ali Forney Center for LBGT homeless youth. Of the nine homeless young people who have been murdered in New York since he ran the center, seven of them, he says, were transgender. They experience more violence at home, at school, and on the streets.
CARL SICILIANO: It's just so abundantly clear to me that trans kids face an enormously disproportionate burden of the bigotry and the hostility and the hatred that's directed against the LGBT community.
ADLER: So, he says to me, these college students you saw identifying with transgender people, the most marginalized group in our society, how different is that from you, when you were in college, identifying with the most marginalized and joining the black Civil Rights movement? He brought me up short. I had to think long and hard.
But the fascinating thing with this generation in high school and college is they are going way beyond transgender. They are arguing for a world beyond the gender binary - beyond male and female. And it's something that many people over 30, like myself, are totally unaware of.
Joy Ladin is a transwoman, a male to female transgender person, who has written a memoir, "Through the Door of Life, a Jewish Journey Between Genders." I'm an old fashioned transsexual, she says. In other words, it was fairly simple, she felt like a woman, wanted to be a woman but she was in a man's body.
JOY LADIN: The folks who are cutting edge and exciting, they're gender fluid, they're gender complicated, they're gender queer. They have some kind of much more dynamic relation. But if you are a transsexual, like you just want to relocate yourself from one side of the gender binary to the other. I don't want to blow up the gender binary.
ADLER: So she tells me this story: She went to a Jewish women's retreat; anyone who defined themselves as a woman was welcome - genetic women, trans women. But some of the younger people were uncomfortable. They wanted to get rid of the word woman altogether.
LADIN: And one young woman there said, yeah, I almost didn't come here because it called itself a woman's retreat. And it says, you know, if you define yourself as a woman, you're welcome. And I and the other trans women there were like, excuse me, we just got to this gender, could you wait a few years before you eliminate it.
ADLER: At the Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City, there's a student group called Spectrum. The title was chosen because it seemed to represent what students were thinking and feeling much more than gay students association, or LGBT or even LGBTQ, for queer. I asked Harry Fernandez, a sophomore at the school who identifies as a gay male, what he means by queer.
HARRY FERNANDEZ: Kind of straying from the norm, not being what society tells you to be regarding your sexuality, your gender, who you love.
ADLER: Becka Luna Liebowitz, a freshman in the group, uses Q for another word.
BECA LUNA LIEBOWITZ: I, myself, I guess you call it questioning.
ADLER: But some students are going further. At one college that Joy Ladin visited, things were so fluid you could make up a different pronoun for a different event.
LADIN: So you can be she/her at one event and then you go to lunch and you say, OK, now I am he/him. And then one charming young woman told me, oh, yes, today, I'm just using made up pronouns.
LYNN WALKER: We encountered high school students who said, I want you to call me Tractor and use pronouns like zee, zim and zer. And, in fact, I reject the gender binary as an oppressive move by the dominant culture.
ADLER: That's Lynn Walker, a director at Housing Works, an organization that provides housing for those with HIV. About 10 percent of their clients are transgender. Walker teaches a course called Trans 101 for all new hires. When she started coming across people who were gender non-conforming in so many different ways, she began to ask new questions.
WALKER: And then part of the intake is to say, well, what pronoun do you like today? It might be just today.
ADLER: Because Walker has clients who might be Jimmy one day, and Deloris the next.
WALKER: Once you develop the habit of saying, oh, that person, that is a she, that's Delores. It doesn't matter that she looks rather like Jimmy or looks like she was called Jimmy by her parents.
ADLER: And your decision doesn't depend on gender reassignment surgery, which is expensive and is something often only a certain class of people can do. What you look like, she says, isn't always who you are.
FERNANDEZ: In a perfect world, your gender would just be what you want it to be. Gender would sort of just be an individual title, not really a male or female thing.
ADLER: That's Harry Fernandez again, from the Elizabeth Irwin High School.
FERNANDEZ: But that's a perfect world. That's not the one we live in now.
ADLER: Although things have gotten more open and fluid, at least in certain places, this does bring up the question: If we lived in a world where gender was seen as less fixed, would reassignment surgery for transgender people be as common?
Lynn Walker remembers talking to a trans friend on the West Coast who went through her transition in the 1970s. She told Walker...
WALKER: If I were growing up now, the way things are, I would never have had surgery because it wouldn't be necessary. But I thought it was necessary then.
ADLER: One of the paradoxes of culture, says Joy Ladin, is that innovation is often driven by young people.
LADIN: And we say, oh, you know, they're pushing the boundaries, they're exploring new ways of being. All of that is true. But part of what enables them to do that is that they're not really sure yet where they are going.
ADLER: Ladin believes that in the future, male and female will always refer to some people but not all. The reins of gender expression will become looser.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.