As nonbinary people gain more recognition, with Merriam-Webster adding "they/them" pronouns to its dictionary and celebrities like Queer Eye's Jonathan Van Ness coming out as nonbinary, members of Kansas City's nonbinary community hope to educate more people about their lives.
If someone is nonbinary, that means they don’t necessarily see themselves as male or female, says Inoru Wade, founder and executive director of the Midwest Rainbow Research Institute, which aims to use data and research to make communities safer for LGBTQ individuals.
“There are multiple layers to gender,” Wade says, adding that gender has a lot more to do with biology than most people might think. A person’s biology — their anatomy and hormones — could have a misalignment, Wade says. If someone is nonbinary, “their brain structure could be a little bit different from their anatomy, but just because it’s atypical doesn’t mean it’s wrong… it’s just a part of human existence.”
Someone might be nonbinary because they feel constricted in having to choose one gender or the other. Maybe they identify and align with a different gender altogether.
In any case, “there’s not one way to be nonbinary,” says Kansas City resident Shallyn Ward, who recently came out as nonbinary.
Ward didn’t realize they were nonbinary until college.
“I’ve always known something was different,” they said, “but… I had never heard the language before.” It wasn’t until they met someone else who was nonbinary that things started to “make sense,” they said.
Ward says when they first learned about the nonbinary community, “a lot of things fell into place,” and their “life started to make sense.” But for cisgender people (those whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth), Ward understands it might not click as easily.
Wade, through the Midwest Rainbow Research Institute, leads conversations on gender identity and sexual orientation at public agencies such as health departments and EMS units. Many of those conversations involve educating people about the importance of pronouns for nonbinary folks, some of whom use gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “them” or “ze” and “zer.”
“Language is how we navigate the world and how we learn to interact with one another. If I would like to use ‘they/them’ pronouns, it’s my way of expressing my identity, and how I would like to interact with people,” Ward says.
It might seem difficult or awkward to use gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “them” when referring to just one person. But Wade says English speakers have always used such pronouns in a singular manner without even noticing. It’s typically only when someone explicitly states their pronouns as “they” and “them” that “suddenly people have a problem with it,” he says.
In any case, the American Psychological Association says “a person’s gender pronouns cannot be assumed from their appearance,” and suggests either asking, or providing an option to disclose correct pronouns.
If this information seems overwhelming to cisgender people, Leo, a transgender man from Kansas City, suggests trying to educate one’s self simply by searching online.
“Trans people, nonbinary people have answered these questions over and over again,” he said, noting the emotional labor of repeatedly explaining one’s existence.
Wade, too, advises against seeking answers from someone just because they’re part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“You don’t want to go and invade a space where you are asking somebody a lot of questions and they’re not in a mental state to answer them,” he says. Instead, “find organizations that are doing trainings… that are more than happy to give you the practice that you or your institution needs to navigate these waters.”
Inoru Wade and Shallyn Ward spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Up to Date. Listen to the conversation here.
Jamie Hobbs is an intern with KCUR's Up to Date.