Outside the Box: For nonbinary students, conforming to gender norms on paperwork is just easier

If you leave the ‘gender’ box blank on federal student loan paperwork, the system will send it back with an error. It’s impossible to get around this, according to Jennifer Bell, University of Oregon associate director for advising.

You have to be either a male or a female. There’s only one person in the U.S. who is legally neither.

On June 17, Portlander Jamie Shupe became the first American to be legally designated as neither male nor female but “nonbinary.” Shupe asked the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles to be listed as ‘nonbinary’ on Shupe’s driver’s license, and when the DMV refused, Shupe took it to a Multnomah County judge. The judge ruled that Shupe has the right to legally identify as neither sex. Shupe’s attorney told the New York Times last month that he and Shupe are now asking the DMV to change its form to include a nonbinary option.

“If I had a white mother and a black father, I wouldn’t be forced to identify as either black or white,” Shupe told the Emerald. “This decision is basically saying that gender works the same way. I want my ID to reflect both sides of who I am.”

At University of Oregon, which is consistently rated among the nation’s most LGBTQ-friendly schools, a handful of students who have identified as nonbinary are forced to choose male or female on most forms. So far, official paperwork is unaffected by the Shupe decision. For many nonbinary students, it’s easier to legally state that they are male or female.

One of those people is Rhys Hawes.

Hawes wasn’t expecting name tags to be the most impactful thing about their first visit to UO. But when Hawes saw that all volunteers’ nametags had a space for preferred pronouns, their mind was blown.

Hawes has preferred the pronouns “they/them/theirs” since the age of 15. Most people and schools assume they are female and don’t ask about this; University of Oregon was the first.

Now finished with freshman year, Hawes has lived in the gender-inclusive floor of Carson Hall, started an LGBTQ theater group called Shakesqueer in the Park, and, with the guidance of UO’s Trans Health Team, started hormone replacement therapy.

Hawes started taking testosterone two months ago, but not in an effort to transition to male — they simply want to feel more comfortable and look more androgynous. Hawes hopes the hormones will make people think twice before assuming they identify as female.

There are 15 to 20 other nonbinary students on Hawes’ gender-inclusive floor in Carson Hall, estimates Lexi Bergeron, community assistant on Hawes’ gender-inclusive floor. After working with these students for a while, Bergeron has stopped assuming gender for anyone she meets.

“I pretty much always say ‘they,’” Bergeron said.

As inclusive as the university might be, the bureaucratic system in America isn’t designed for more than two genders. If someone marks female or male on a form, this paperwork can then follow them for the rest of their lives.

This poses problems for gathering any data on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer students, according to Maure Smith-Benanti, director of the LGBT education and support services program at University of Oregon.

“We don’t even know how many LGBTQ students are or were on campus,” Smith-Benanti said. “We have to rely on self-reporting. For LGBTQ individuals, the choice to publicly out themselves on any form of documentation is always a deeply personal decision. We have to weigh the benefits of coming out for ourselves and our community with the risks and safety concerns that come with it.”

State and federal governments require people to report things such as sex, race and religion as a way of providing analytics. When people attempt to change this information retroactively, it becomes a red flag for things like fraud and identity theft.

“Transgender people have to appeal, in front of a judge, to change their names and their sex,” said Smith-Benanti. “I am interested to see if more individuals will choose this nonbinary selection, and, if so, if they will have to appear before a judge to prove that they aren’t engaging in fraud.”

Oregon attempted to alleviate some of this bureaucratic ambiguity for colleges last year by passing Senate Bill 473, which requires public universities to allow students to use their preferred first name on any forms that request information about their gender, race or ethnicity. This allows students to suggest that they have a different gender identity but still doesn’t require universities to offer a third gender option.

The Shupe decision could be used in other court hearings in other counties across the state, potentially creating a fast-track for trans or nonbinary people to change their identification, according to Andrea Zekis of Basic Rights Oregon, a group that has been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights.

But many, like Hawes, will continue to check male or female on forms. Hawes says that sometimes a piece of ID that helps them seem female is helpful.

“If I keep my mouth shut and smile and nod, I can pass as a cis person (gender-conforming) in the world,” Hawes said. “If I had [nonbinary] on a piece of legal ID, I’m not sure it would protect me. I’m not sure it’s something I would pursue in a world that is so nonbinary-phobic.”

Outside of UO, reactions are varied: Hawes has been asked to show ID with gender identification — it still says “female” — or asked about their genitalia. When Hawes gets a haircut, hairdressers often ask which gender they are because women’s haircuts cost more than men’s.

“There’s these little things every day that kind of ‘other’ you,” Hawes said. “You see all the little ways where society is telling you that they didn’t expect you and they don’t want you.”