Did I Need to Know What Gender My Nonbinary Interviewees Were Assigned at Birth? Maybe Not

Did I Need to Know What Gender My Nonbinary Interviewees Were Assigned at Birth? Maybe Not

Lisa Reff, a Maryland lawyer who had urged her state representative to sponsor the “Gender X” legislation, said she had struggled with her teenager’s request until another parent told her it was standard for the verb to match the pronoun.

“‘I was saying ‘they is,’” Ms. Reff explained. “Saying ‘they are’ is so much easier.”

Ms. Reff, who said she disliked wearing skirts and dresses as a child, also voiced a confusion I heard from several other women who grew up as 1970s- and 1980s-era feminism was vowing to smash gender-role stereotypes. “My question was, how is this different from being a tomboy?” she said.

One scientist with whom I spoke felt ambivalent about the new convention at professional conferences that attendees write their pronouns on name tags. After decades of fighting for women in the field to be seen as scientists first, she noted, they are now literally being labeled by gender.

But Jamie Grace Alexander, a nonbinary college student who helped to craft testimony on the Maryland bill, told me there was value in having “a name for what I am” rather than trying to expand deeply ingrained conceptions of “male” and “female.’’

“I could subvert their expectations when I come into the room,’’ they said, “but why can’t I subvert their expectations with my identity itself?”

The degree to which expectations of appearance, abilities and behavior are still attached to the binary genders, many informed me, tends to become more evident in light of identities that combine, reject, partially embrace or alternate between them. Parents became aware of how often they are asked the gender of their children as a kind of small talk. Students became aware of how frequently teachers address them as “ladies and gentlemen.” The Facebook group Ah Yes, the Two Genders specializes in documenting gender-reveal party cakes, bathroom signs and other reflections of this penchant for the binary-gender classification.

Dr. Jason Rafferty, the author of the American Association of Pediatrics’ first policy statement on the care of gender-nonconforming children, which was issued last fall, said most of the bullying in middle and high school is based on gender.