For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights activist Toni, gender identity is an ongoing process of exploration and discovery—an idea that society often rejects.
“A doctor just looked at [a] person’s genitals for a few seconds and wrote down an M or an F on a piece of paper and ever since then, we’ve lived inside of a narrative, a story called male and female,” said Toni, whose last name was withheld for personal reasons.
“Never once did we allow that person to check in on that,” Toni said.
On May 22, Seattle Pacific’s Haven club held the annual Gender Diversity Talk where Toni and three other panelists answered questions about gender diversity. The panel intended shed light on the way society handles gender and what the phrase gender diversity truly means.
The event began as panelists and members of the audience introduced themselves with by name and preferred pronoun, and audience members were encouraged to ask the panelists questions on gender.
After having the audience collectively hold their thumbs in the air, genderqueer panelist Toni, momentarily leaned forward and scrutinized them.
“From over here, all your fingerprints look identical,” Toni said. “But when I get really, really close, I can tell how distinctly different each of you are…There is something really unique about you.”
While some prefer the pronouns he or she, Toni noted a personal preference for pronouns such as they, them and their, a decision they held to be in line with their gender identification.
According to Caspian Priebe, a transgender panelist, gender roles in society often create complications in the search for true gender identity.
As someone who identifies primarily as a man, Priebe says he often faces doubt when he acts in ways that society deems feminine.
“I really miss eyeliner. I really miss nail polish,” Priebe says. “I grew my hair out and people thought, ‘Oh, you changed your mind,’ and no, I just miss having long hair.”
In response to a question about her personal definition of gender, transwoman panelist Rebecca Heineman said that ideally there would be no definition at all.
“The real truth is we’re all human. We’re all people,” Heineman said.
According to Heineman, the problems Priebe mentioned should not exist. Heineman noted that actions like ice skating or getting nails done are about personal desires, not femininity or masculinity.
“There’s really not any reason why roles should be marked as male or female. They’re just roles,” Heineman said. “To me, a perfect world would be where my children, my grandchildren…could choose to be whoever they wanted to be, whatever they wanted to be…with no restrictions.”
Often, a lack of knowledge surrounding gender diversity is what makes finding gender identity so hard, according to Elayne Wylie, a transwoman panelist.
“When I was ten…in the early ‘80s, there wasn’t a lot of language out there or in my life that helped me figure out what was really going on,” Wylie said. “So… transpeople didn’t seem real. Really didn’t. It was just a word in a dictionary, an occasional topic on the Phil Donahue show.”
Wylie worked for an evangelical ministry in Seattle before beginning to explore her gender identity. Her turning point occurred when she was sent to an inner-city church in Los Angeles run mostly by people of color that said it “needed more white people.”
“It was the first time I had ever really experienced color,” Wylie said. “I was colorblind in the way that I just had no language, no way to talk about it…more like color ignorant.”
“It really impacted me, and I began to understand myself as a human being,” she said. “Myself in a place of like ‘Wow, society is a lot larger. There’s a lot more going on.’”
This instigated the beginning of Wylie’s search for her true gender identity. She departed the ministry because they would not have accepted her new gender identity. For a while, she said, she was unsure of what her gender identity was or what it meant.
“I look back now and call that period of my life genderqueer,” Wylie said. “It took a while, but I finally settled into something that was really comfortable.”
Although Wylie went through a phase of hyper-femininity, she says she has now relaxed and does not feel the need to wear heels and a skirt 24/7 to prove her identity to others.
“Nobody cares. Sometimes they do, but most of the time I discovered it’s like ‘Huh, I’m in this room. I’m the one that cares the most about my gender apparently,’” Wylie said.
Referring to a bumper sticker they once saw that read, ‘I am not a body with a soul. I am a soul with a body’, Toni said that true gender identity is something individuals define for themselves.
“I am not my body. I am not limited by this vessel…just because I was assigned male at birth,” Toni said.
Toni said that, personally, gender identity is something that has often changed for them.
“I spent a long time…trying to be a transwoman when that doesn’t fit for me,” Toni said. “I ended up where I am at the moment, but I’m also very happy to see how [my gender identity] changes. It can change in all sorts of ways, which is very exciting.”