Beyond the Binary: Gender that extends far beyond assigned sex

Mary Pautsch

“I am a ______.”

The simple fill in the blank question was posed by Christiana Langenberg, lecturer in women’s and gender studies, at the beginning of one her classes. Students had 30 seconds to fill in the blank with as many answers they could think of to fit the statement.

College student, daughter, brother, English major, actress, man, non-binary person and various other options were submitted by the students. Langenberg encouraged them to look back and see what answers correlated directly with their gender identity.

“That blank can be filled with anything depending on the day,” Langenberg said. “For example, if you’re in the check-out lane in Target one day and someone says, ‘Sir, I can help you over here!’ but you identify as anything other than a man, you may be more inclined to say, ‘I am a woman,’ or ‘I am agender.’”

Agender, as Langenberg mentioned, is one of many ways an individual can identify outside of what is called the gender binary.

People who identify within the gender binary tend to be cisgender men or women, that is to say, consider their gender to be aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth. For an agender individual, they tend to identify as having no gender, or a lack of identity that complies with the binary.

Gender identity is also different from sex. Although the two terms are commonly misused as synonyms, gender refers to how one identifies themselves. Sex, on the contrary, is what one is biologically assigned to at birth.

Sex usually comes down to being female, male or intersex, which is a combination or lack of sexes at birth, usually caused by genetic or chromosomal conditions.

Gender, on the other hand, comes with a spectrum of different identities and pronouns that a person can identify as, including but not limited to, agender, polygender and third gender.

Genderqueer, or non-binary, are umbrella terms used for most people who identify outside of the binary.

Langenberg said she has had many students come out to her as genderqueer throughout the courses that she teaches.

“It’s like when you read a poem or story with a character you identify with,” she said. “You can look at them and what they’re going through and say, ‘Yes, that’s what I feel like.’ A lot of times when students learn about the language used for people outside the binary, they find something that finally makes sense to them.”

For Kayden Keating, freshman in biological and pre-medical illustration, using they/them/theirs and male pronouns both work fine. Keating identifies as non-binary agender, but prefers to present themselves in a masculine manner.

“Although I am agender, I like to present masculinely,” they said. “So that’s why I’m okay with people using he/him pronouns.”

Keating had come out to some friends before coming to Iowa State, but not as a whole due to an unsupportive home environment. They had told their mother that they did not identify as a girl, and in return Keating was faced with more feminine rules at home. They stated things such as choosing not to shave and getting their hair cut short to a more masculine style were a struggle.

“My dad said that he didn’t like girls with short hair, so I was like, ‘Well good thing I’m not a girl,’” Keating said.

While at home, Keating said they tend to wear more feminine clothing around their parents, but will change into more male-centric clothes and wear a chest binder when out with friends.

“I have to kind of sneak around it,” they said. “I’ll wear something a bit more traditionally female before I go out so I can get the okay from my parents to go out.”

Keating officially came out on Trans Day of Visibility (TDOV), by creating a video about themselves identifying as agender. Some acquaintances found the video and shared it with Keating’s parents, who were not pleased with the reveal.

However, Keating said that they have found a more accepting environment at Iowa State. Although they are misgendered on all official Iowa State documents, transcripts and BlackBoard, Keating said that they contact their teachers at the beginning of each semester with their proper name and pronouns. Their teachers so far have been ready and willing to use terms that fit Keating’s actual identity.

Keating also has found acceptance through the Aromantic and Asexual Alliance at Iowa State, and has even taken up the role of Treasurer for the group.

“It’s kind of funny,” Keating said. “The president of the Aro/Ace Alliance also identifies as agender, so we bond over that a lot.”

Keating also spends a lot of their time in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Student Services Center (LGBTSS), where they met and became friends with Jeff Dabler, sophomore in elementary education.

Dabler, who identifies as a trans-male man, came out as transgender in the spring of his freshman year.

“I came to Iowa State as a girl, and was living on an all-girl’s floor in Linden,” Dabler said.

Dabler went out on Halloween of his freshman year with some friends from his dorm, where he was introduced to a mutual friend. When introducing himself, the man mistakenly thought he had said his name was Jeff. As a joke, his friends called him Jeff for the rest of the night.

“I was just like, ‘Wow, you guys have no idea what this is doing to my brain,’” Dabler said. “So then I just decided, you know, why not come out to them?”

The name Jeff stuck with him after that, and he now currently goes by that name and male pronouns in all settings. 

“My sister actually had an imaginary friend named Jeff when she was little, too,” Dabler said. “So it’s kind of funny.”

Despite identifying as a transgender male, Dabler is still listed as a female under Iowa State records and on BlackBoard. Dabler has to email his professors like Keating at the beginning of every semester to let teachers know that he does not go by his legal name and uses he/him/his pronouns.

Like Keating, Dabler found acceptance within the LGBTSS, and was formerly the secretary for the ISU Pride Alliance before his schedule became too busy for the time commitment. He was also formerly a member of Delta Lambda Phi fraternity, but left for a number of reasons, one being that he did not feel accepted for his gender identity.

“I just felt like they didn’t fully accept me for being trans as much as they could have,” said Dabler. “I felt like an outsider.”

Dabler said that while working with the Pride Alliance, he met a lot of people who have now become many of his closest friends.

Currently Dabler is undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is commonly used in the trans community to introduce hormones found in the gender they identify with. For Dabler, this means introducing testosterone. He has been on HRT for six months as of April 26.

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “It was relatively easy to find a doctor to help me with it because I have a lot of friends with great resources.”

Although Keating and Dabler have both found some accepting and comfortable environments to share their gender identities within Iowa State, both still feel like there needs to be more awareness of people who identify outside the cisgender binary.

“A lot of people don’t even know what being agender or non-binary is,” said Keating. “Even within the LGBT community people have a lot of knowledge of being transgender or being on the binary in any sense, but not so much non-binary.”

“I feel like gender is one of the most overlooked things,” Dabler said. “People will look at me and go, ‘Oh, that’s a guy,’ but others don’t always have the same advantages as I do. There will always be people who don’t pass as their gender, and I feel like that’s brushed under the rug.”

Langenberg believes that there are many ways society can teach themselves to become more aware and accepting of people who are not cisgender. She claimed that the enforcement of a cisgender binary starts even before a child is born.

For example, many expecting couples now have what are called “gender reveal parties” where the expecting parents do something like cut into a cake or open a box of balloons to reveal a pink or blue color, signaling a boy or girl.

“It’s presumptive,” Langenberg said. “It emphasizes the binary world we live in and makes people think that there are only two options, which is obviously wrong.”

Langenberg thinks that the issue of awareness for trans and genderqueer identities needs to be met with education and effort.

“We need to be aware of what we say,” she said. “I tell people to stop saying ‘hey guys’ when referring to a group of people because it reinforces the patriarchy and people then say, ‘Well then what am I supposed to say?’ You can just stop at hey.”

Langenberg also encourages everyone to be ready and willing to use names and pronouns that may seem new or unfamiliar.

“Pay attention,” said Langenberg. “And if it doesn’t affect you, it won’t matter. Just try to give people the same civil rights that you have.”

“There’s no one way to be agender or non-binary,” Keating said. “It’s just being yourself.”


FB: “I am a ____.”

There’s a million different ways to fill in the blank. How many ways would correlate with your gender? Some Iowa State students share their own gender identities that fall along different parts of the spectrum.

Twitter: Gender is much more than the sex we were born in. Take a look at the wide spectrum of gender with some fellow Cyclones.