When Jamie Shupe showed up at downtown Portland’s Multnomah County Courthouse to make history on June 10 of last year, no reporters or camera crews waited outside. Two years before, Shupe had become one of thousands of transgender Americans to change their legal gender identity from male to female. Now, Shupe wanted another change. On that chilly June day, the 52-year-old Portlander hoped to become the first person in United States history to be legally recognized, in gender terms, as “nonbinary”—that is, neither male nor female.
“I went to court and said, ‘This isn’t working for me,’” Shupe explains. “‘I can’t divorce my male side with my female side. And you’re just going to have to acknowledge that sex and gender is a spectrum, not two poles.’”
The story that brought Jamie Shupe to the courthouse that day does cover a spectrum—conceptually, socially, and politically. But for the purposes of telling (and reading) this story, we need to start with grammar. As Jamie Shupe informed the court that day, Jamie Shupe does not self-identify as either male or female. That means Shupe (much like many other people who identify themselves with terms like nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and genderqueer), prefers not “he” or “she,” but “they,” “them,” and “their.” To Shupe (and many others), “they” and “them” reflect the nuance and specifics of their truest self.
This use of the singular “they” can certainly create some sentences that are, initially, confusing. But, really, pronouns may be the least interesting aspect of their (yes, let’s get started!) experience.
Born in 1963 in Washington, DC, and raised as male, Shupe harbors memories of being slapped by their mother for acting like a “sissy.” In high school, Shupe scored well on a military aptitude test. After being courted by recruiters, they joined the army, eventually becoming a sergeant first class. While stationed at Kentucky’s Fort Knox, Shupe, then still identifying as male, met their future wife, Sandy; the two married in 1987 and had a daughter.
Despite personal and professional success, however, Shupe struggled with undiagnosed gender dysphoria—the feeling that their innate gender identity didn’t match their assigned biological sex. Medical professionals first formally recognized gender dysphoria as a diagnosable condition in the early 1980s; today, it’s commonly treated through a combination of professional mental health, peer and social support, and medical interventions such as surgeries and hormone replacement therapy.
In the army, however, Shupe did not seek treatment, and found the condition’s basic distress exacerbated by a hostile environment. Their unit’s first sergeant, for example, delivered morning lectures on Sodom and Gomorrah and “hunted” for gays in the unit, according to Shupe. Other members of their unit seemed to sense something was different about Shupe. “They used to automatically assume I was gay, and some of them tried to sabotage my career at different points,” Shupe says. (Before 1993’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy allowed gays and lesbians to serve as long as they stayed in the closet, homosexuality was deemed “incompatible with military service” and was grounds for discharge.)
Shupe retired from the military in 2000, lived in Mississippi and Maryland, and worked in IT—yet found gender issues weighing more and more heavily.
“My mental health situation was really deteriorating,” Shupe explains. “Literally to the point of me being ready to consider suicide.”
In 2013, while living in Maryland, Shupe decided to live as a transgender woman. They began dressing in skirts and wigs, undergoing hormone replacement therapy, and using a new (and intentionally gender-neutral) name: Jamie. They obtained a new birth certificate listing them as female, and successfully registered as female with the Veterans Administration, Social Security, and the state DMV.
“After five decades of being forced to conform to male stereotypes, I would have signed anything,” Shupe says. “It was just like, ‘Let me out of this prison you’ve built for me.’”
But the shift, Shupe found, only spawned more problems. Although Shupe still didn’t feel male, they didn’t feel 100 percent female, either. As far as Shupe knew, that left no options. Most people seemed to expect Shupe to wear makeup, long wigs, and other traditionally feminine attire in order to be treated as female. That expectation seemed common both among other transgender people and among cisgender folks—the term, increasingly recognized over the past few years, for someone whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.
“That’s one of the fundamental flaws of the whole transgender transitioning process,” Shupe reflects. “If I don’t put on a wig and a dress, I’m immediately back to being called ‘sir.’”
In November 2014, Jamie and Sandy moved to Portland, which, thanks to progressive politics and accessible health services, has built a reputation as something of a transgender utopia. Shupe began attending transgender support groups, which played out in a sort of Goldilocks fashion.
One group was largely composed of cross-dressing men; Shupe, who doesn’t identify as a man, felt out of place. Another group encouraged transgender women to support each other through gender reassignment (also known as “gender-affirming”) surgery; Shupe, who didn’t want any surgeries, felt they didn’t fit in there, either.
Finally, Shupe attended a gathering of Portlanders who identified as genderqueer and/or nonbinary. This includes people who identify as more than one gender, as a third gender other than male or female, or as no gender at all.
“I was like, ‘This is my tribe,’” Shupe recalls. “I fit right in with those people.” But with this discovery came a second, more troubling realization: unlike transgender people, who in most states can now change their legally recognized gender through a relatively simple court process, people who identified as neither male nor female basically did not legally exist.
“As a trans female, I was covered,” Shupe says. “I wasn’t going to leave that umbrella until I actually walked out of the court with a piece of paper in my hand.” Only some formal recognition of gender identity, Shupe felt, could shield them from discrimination.
Here’s something to think about: unlike biological sex, assigned based on an infant’s genitalia at birth, gender actually has no immutable physical characteristics. Gender is cultural. Anthropologists have identified dozens of identities, in societies ancient and contemporary, that don’t fit into our current Western definitions of male and female, from India’s Hijra to Italian femminielli and Native American two-spirits.
In our culture, transgender Americans have become much more prominent of late. The Amazon hit series Transparent weaves a story of a dysfunctional family with a trans woman at its center, while transgender celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox enjoy high visibility. Fictional and real, these recent media stories tend to follow a broadly similar narrative: someone assigned male at birth begins living openly as a hyperfeminine transgender woman (or vice versa).
But as Jamie Shupe’s experience shows, the move from male to female (or female to male) is just one story. Other people—at least 9,700 in America alone, according to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality—are opting out of either label. Instead, they choose to identify, one way or another, as nonbinary—an umbrella term used by people who don’t feel they fit neatly into either traditional gender identity. Some are biologically intersex, born with anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of male or female bodies. Others, like Shupe, base their choice on their understanding of themselves rather than any atypical physical characteristics.
“Imagine I had a white mother and a black father,” Shupe explains. “I would be a mixed-race child. Well, take the word ‘race’ out of there and replace it with ‘sex.’ I feel like nature just popped me out as this mixtures of sexes.”
Amy Penkin, program supervisor at Oregon Health & Science University’s transgender health program, believes some people have always fallen outside the so-called gender binary. “I think the difference now is how many of them are able to access health care to support their transition,” she says. “We are having a practically exponential increase in awareness among health care professionals.”
Indeed, in 2011, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health updated its standards of care—used by many progressive health centers, including OHSU—to include mention of nonbinary people. “[These] individuals affirm their unique gender identity and no longer consider themselves either male or female,” it reads.
A shift in medical care isn’t the only reason that nonbinary identities are becoming more widely known, however. “The main reason that more and more people are publicly coming out as [nonbinary] is because cisgender society is changing,” says Kate Kauffman, owner of Brave Space, a Portland company that provides social services to transgender and nonbinary people. “Our country has seen an increase in collective awareness of the spectrum aspect of gender.”
Of course, to many people, this evolving landscape can feel alien, sometimes intensely so. Legislation decreeing who can use which public bathroom upended the political landscape of North Carolina last year; other states are considering comparable measures. In the wake of November’s presidential election, the whole notion of identity politics took on a charge. Two weeks after Election Day, Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost joked that the Democrats lost the presidency specifically because Tinder had allowed users 37 new gender identity options.
When Shupe began identifying as a transgender woman, government IDs, medical forms, civil rights protections, and sex-segregated spaces (think bathrooms, spas, sports teams, etc.)—not to mention the English language—could accommodate the move relatively easily. In contrast, no passport application or US Census form contained a box labeled “genderqueer” or “nonbinary.”
Shupe thought they should, and decided to fight. After letters to the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBT advocacy group Lambda Legal led nowhere, Shupe began interviewing lawyers. They eventually teamed up with Portland attorney Lake James Perriguey, known for filing the lawsuit that overturned Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Perriguey’s strategy proved brilliantly simple. Rather than use the courts’ standard sex change form, with its two choices, Perriguey just typed up a new form with a “female to nonbinary” option added. On June 10, 2016, the duo presented Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Amy Holmes Hehn with the edited petition, and brought along two doctors’ letters—one from the VA, another from OHSU—affirming Shupe’s nonbinary identity.
The judge simply approved it. And with that unceremonious procedural move, America had its first legally recognized nonbinary person.
“I didn’t expect it to be that easy,” Shupe admits. “I knew I would ultimately win ... but I thought I’d win up in the Ninth Circuit or something.” Shupe’s total legal bill? $1,056. Shupe chuckles. “I’m the most cost-efficient LGBT activist on the planet.”
In the months since Shupe’s landmark victory, several other nonbinary and intersex people have attempted similar legal strategies. Last November, Californian Sara Kelly Keenan, who was born intersex, became the second US citizen to legally change to nonbinary; in October, fellow Oregonian Charlie McNabb became the third, having simply written the word “nonbinary” near a checkbox on the state’s “general judgment of sex change” form and then had it approved by a Polk County judge.
“It’s a very straightforward process, with very little likelihood for any pushback anywhere,” Perriguey says. The amended sex change and name change forms Perriguey created, with nonbinary options, are freely available on his blog.
But the precedent set by Shupe’s case isn’t universally accepted. In November, Medford resident Amiko-Gabriel Oscar Blue was denied a nonbinary gender change by a county judge who claimed that Oregon law did not give judges authority to grant such petitions.
Perriguey disagrees. “That discretion is limited to arguments that come from someone who may object, like if someone is trying to do this for a fraudulent purpose,” he says. “I don’t think that judges’ discretion should be arbitrary and capricious around people who are really just trying to live a life that feels more authentic in society.”
Of course, recognition in a relatively humble court is only one step. Since June, prompted by Shupe, the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles has been working on a way to add a third gender option to the state’s driver’s licenses. In November, Washington, DC’s Department of Health issued Shupe a new birth certificate with their sex listed as “unknown,” rather than male or female.
But Shupe’s chief goal, an official United States passport, seems out of reach, at least for now—and, given the ascension of the Trump administration, possibly for a while.
“If you get the [passport] book and the card, you can carry the card around as identification,” Shupe says. “So I could go to [the] state building in North Carolina and say, ‘Where’s my bathroom?’ My federal ID trumps their garbage.” Gender-neutral bathrooms have become another top priority for Shupe, who spent months working with the office of Oregon Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick to create legislation that would make all single-occupancy bathrooms in the state gender neutral. Plans to introduce the bill this year were shelved in December, in part because of the state’s looming budget deficit. But Shupe remains determined.
“The only way we can fix this whole bathroom situation is to give everybody privacy and safety,” says Shupe. “If there are two bathrooms that say ‘male’ and ‘female,’ and I take a screwdriver and take the signs off the door, then everybody on the entire planet has a bathroom. There’s nothing to fight about. The war is over.”
Bathroom wars notwithstanding, times are changing. Portland State University recently redesigned its paperwork to give students nine different gender options, including “nonbinary” and “genderqueer.” Dating website OKCupid offers users nearly two-dozen gender descriptions; a person can select as many as five. Facebook allows users to switch their pronouns to “they/them/their.” Millennial celebrities, like pop star Miley Cyrus and actor Amandla Stenberg, have spoken about living outside the male-female dichotomy, introducing an entire generation of fans to new concepts of gender.
For their part, Shupe hopes to ensure legal recognition and safe spaces for all transgender folks—including those who can’t “pass” as cisgender.
“Look at all the older trans people like me who came out,” Shupe says. “No amount of surgeries and hormones is going to make Jamie look like a female. A narrow bridge was built that wasn’t built to handle the whole trans community. I’ve fixed that. I’ve built a bridge that can carry everybody.”
Many people are looking for that bridge. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality survey, two-thirds of nonbinary individuals report that their identity is often dismissed as being “just a phase” or “not a real identity.”
Shupe, however, has a court ruling that says otherwise. What comes next will have a lot to do with broader shifts in society—but also, at least a little, to do with the will and determination of an ex-army ... person.
“Last year, they probably would have said, ‘You’re crazy—that’s not a real thing,’” Shupe speculates. “Now they’re like, ‘Well, it’s legal in Oregon.’”
- As the state’s largest nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group, Portland-based Basic Rights Oregon works to end discrimination against queer and transgender Oregonians by shifting both legal policy and public opinion.
- North Mississippi's Q Center serves as a safe space for LGBTQ Portlanders, offering dozens of support groups and social events for folks of all ages, gender identities and sexual orientations.