Andrew Perretta holds a pride flag imitating the Texas flag at a rally at Crockett Park to protest a ruling made in the case of Kenne McFadden.
Andrew Perretta holds a pride flag that imitates the Texas state flag during a 2018 rally. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Michael Moore is a white male baby boomer who leans to the left politically. He has an adult gay son, whom he loves and accepts. He considers himself open-minded.

But all this talk of being gender nonbinary, with young people using plural pronouns like ‘they” instead of “he” or “she” may be a bridge too far.

“I just don’t get it,” he said. “Maybe it’s the old man in me coming out, and I don’t wish anybody ill, but this just seems like an artificial layer of being politically correct. In this day and age, with so much other (stuff) raining down on us, so many injustices and prejudices, this whole thing seems incredibly frivolous.”

Moore, a medical insurance expert who is cisgender — meaning, his inner sense of gender matches the one he was assigned at birth — is hardly the only oldster befuddled by the grand new world of gender identity, with its seemingly bizarre rules about pronouns. Whole hordes of folks, most belonging to the gray-haired ranks, are scratching their heads in tandem, confused by what all this means and how they’re supposed to react.

It’s not just the grizzled generation that’s mystified; plenty of younger folks are stumped as well, and afraid of making a mistake.

For those who’d like to understand this issue better, perhaps this column can help.

First of all, the concept of being gender nonbinary — that is, identifying as neither male or female, or identifying as both or somewhere in between, or identifying as somewhere completely outside of the traditional gender bifurcation — isn’t new at all. 

Nonbinary individuals have been recorded as far back as 400 B.C. to 200 A.D., when Hijras were referenced in ancient Hindu texts.

“All around the world, in different cultures and times, there’ve been nonbinary people, from Native American indigenous cultures to cultures in South Asia and Hawaii and Canada,” said Austin Davis Ruiz, the communications manager at the Montrose Center, which provides services to the LGBTQ community in Houston. 

Nonbinary is an umbrella term (sometimes used interchangeably with the term “genderqueer”) that denotes people who identify as other than the traditional, strict gender binary of male and female.

It’s different from transgender, which means a person whose interior sense of gender doesn’t match the anatomical one assigned to them at birth by parents or doctors.

And it’s different from intersex, which means a person born with ambiguous genitalia or genes that don’t fit typical categories of male and female.

And it’s different from gender expression — how a person presents themselves via clothes, hair, body characteristics or voice, which may or may not fit their gender identity.

And it’s different from sexual orientation — who a person is attracted to romantically or sexually, whether it’s their own gender or some other one.

I know, it’s a lot. Stick with me.

Ruiz said the reason more people, especially younger ones, have begun coming out as nonbinary in recent times is due to the growth of such representation in the broader culture — from nonbinary celebrities to books and social media explorations of the topic and other avenues of expression.

“There’s more visibility,” said Ruiz, who is a cisgender male. “Kids are seeing it and identifying with it. It’s language that fits their own interior sense of self. There’s a greater awareness and young people are more comfortable talking about it.”

One study found that nearly one in 10 teens did not identify as being exclusively male or female.

The movement is largely one of personal identity, but a bigger concept undergirds it — namely, the notion that gender is mainly a social construct. That is, gender is not so much something set in stone by a person’s biology (although that plays a role), but is instead shaped and determined by forces and messages from society, which start early and are relentless.

Think pink baby blankets versus blue ones. Think dolls versus toy guns. Think girls can’t do math versus boys don’t cry.

“So much of what we consider gender is really just a way of performing it,” said Ruiz. “Now, younger generations are pushing back. There’s a fluidity, a perceived freedom.”

Nova, a 27-year-old teacher and community organizer in Austin, said they came out as nonbinary about four years ago after growing up as a cisgender male and being in a heterosexual marriage for years.

“I had a lot of internal conflict around my gender and sexuality, and what it really meant to understand myself better as person,” they said. “Who I was wasn’t really the complete version of myself, my humanity. I grew to be more comfortable as a person who doesn’t have a specific gender.”

Nova, who is not using their last name for privacy reasons, eventually got divorced and now identifies as pansexual, which means their attraction to others isn’t tied to gender.

“It’s not all just black and white,” they said. 

Indeed, gender encompasses shades of gray. What does it mean to feel female? To feel male? Am I a woman by virtue of being cooperative, conciliatory and nurturing? Am I a man by virtue of being aggressive, protective and competitive? Personally, I can be all those things, at varying times (just ask my husband, who can be all those things, too.) 

Gender is weird, when you think about it.

The loosening of rules around gender poses a certain threat to the patriarchy (definition: a historical culturally male rule), which, after all, requires rigid male and female roles to survive. It’s a social paradigm that has done immeasurable harm down through the centuries, robbing women of their power and autonomy while cutting men off from their ability to experience emotions and be vulnerable.

Could an innate desire to protect the patriarchal system they’re familiar with really be why folks are so nervous about the gender nonbinary movement, even if they don’t consciously make that connection?

Partly, said Ruiz.

“I also think people are just uncomfortable when they don’t understand something,” he said. “The older generation sometimes views young people as not having lived much of life, of being somehow less wise. But all the research backs up the idea that if kids are affirmed about their gender identity and sexuality, they tend to live healthier lives and have better health outcomes.”

He’s right. A growing number of studies show that transgender and nonbinary youth who receive gender-affirming care experience less depression and suicidal thoughts.

One way to be affirming is to use the pronoun a nonbinary person prefers, even if it baffles you. It means using the name they prefer, even if it isn’t the one they were born with. And don’t always assume a person’s gender identity from the way they dress or look or sound.

I’ve had my own moments of cringe. Last summer, I stood while a server scooped up an ice cream cone for me. The employee was tall, with broad shoulders and a faint mustache, but also had an elaborate coiffure, long, painted fingernails and a soft, high voice. Upon receiving my cone, I replied, “Thank you, ma’am,” immediately realizing I had assumed the server’s gender identity was female. 

Flustered, I stammered out a quick apology. I was so embarrassed I can’t recall the server’s response, but I remember it was merciful and gracious.

If you mess up and call a person by the wrong pronoun or name — the technical term is “misgendering” — just apologize and move on, said Michelli Ramon, a clinical social worker.

“This is all really quite simple,” she said. “If you don’t know or aren’t sure of a person’s gender or pronouns, just ask. That’s the simplest way. In my experience, most nonbinary folks are happy to answer. You can say, ‘Do you have pronouns I should be aware of?'”

Ramon, whose clientele is made up of mostly young people, said about 25% of her young patients identify as either transgender or nonbinary.

“What’s happening inside of them, to be able to use pronouns that fit, it’s so empowering,” she said. “It’s a way to explain to the world what’s going on internally.”

Ramon has heard the dismissive comments — that young people who claim to be gender nonbinary and use nonconforming pronouns are just “going through a phase” or trying to get attention. They’re just being trendy.

“With every young person I work with, whether they’re transgender or nonbinary or gay or queer, it has taken them a tremendous amount of courage to say who they are,” Ramon said. “It doesn’t line up with the idea they’re just doing this for attention.”

It takes courage, especially in Texas, where Republicans have made going after transgender kids and their families a top priority, striking fear in the hearts of parents who would seek counseling for their children but dread a call from Child Protective Services.

It takes courage in a world of backlash, whether it’s against nonbinary athletes or anyone who is transgender, nonbinary or gay and lesbian, who some view as dangerous, even predatory. As I write this, merely two days have passed since a 22-year-old man with a gun killed five people and injured 18 others at a gay bar in Colorado Springs.

It takes courage in a world that still cleaves hard to traditional concepts of gender, from public bathrooms to gender reveal parties.

But signs of progress glimmer: Across the corporate world, at many universities and in Zoom trainings, people are being asked to provide their pronouns. The latter are now an added feature of many folk’s email signatures. U.S. citizens can now mark their gender as X on passport applications and other federal documents.

The culture is slowly getting onboard the gender spectrum.

Young people coming out as nonbinary just need to be listened to and embraced, said Ramon. Ruiz suggests: Instead of leaning back in confusion, why not lean in with curiosity?

 “It’s really important that our allies help create safe spaces and start a conversation,” he added.

I tend to fall in the camp of just letting people be who they say they are. Of trying to treat everyone with dignity and respect, even if I sometimes screw up. You know — the stuff we all learned in kindergarten.

“People say it’s frustrating,” said Ramon. “Like, how am I supposed to know all this? I say, you’re not supposed to know it all. Just educate yourself. Nobody expects you to be an expert.”

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje has worked in Texas newspaper journalism for more than three decades, at the San Antonio Light, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She holds bachelor’s...