I define me: Students explain what gender identity means to them

When looking in the mirror, Maddie Burnside sees resiliency and empowerment in the reflection. Burnside identifies as an individual who is passionate, change-driven and hopeful.

Among these many traits, the sophomore kinesiology major also identifies as gender nonbinary, meaning that Burnside does not fully identify with either the female or male genders, and prefers “they/them/theirs” pronouns.

Burnside said that students who don’t identify as either male or female, or do not identify with the biological sex they were born into, can feel uncomfortable when they are misgendered or addressed with pronouns that don’t align with who they are. Burnside believes that education is crucial to building understanding and challenging societal assumptions about gender identity.

A 2016 survey released by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that in California, approximately 33,450 people between the ages of 18 and 24 identify as transgender.

“A lot of people know about sexuality. They think they’ve got it and that’s it. Gender is also fluid and a lot of people can’t grasp that,” Burnside said.

Burnside said that while it often seems like an inconvenience to correct people who misgender, Burnside believes that everyone deserves to be respected and acknowledged for who they truly are.

“It should be such a non-issue,” said Jessica Lynn, an educator and advocate for transgender people, who will be speaking at the Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences on March 15 about her journey as a transgender woman. Lynn said she spent more than 40 years resenting the male body she was born into before fully transitioning in 2010.

Lynn said she has turned to advocacy as a means of building an understanding of what it means to be transgender, and has spoken at universities all over the country.

“People are so misinformed,” Lynn said. “The biggest lesson is we need to teach people to be accepting.”

Growing up, Lynn said she felt uncomfortable having to act in the “male mode” all the time, and described it as “a very, very torturous life.”

Similarly, Burnside said that during childhood, there was a lot of pressure to dress in a feminine way, so shopping was always difficult. Although Burnside was already starting to formulate a concept of personal identity at a young age, Burnside’s mother would make the final call on clothing choices and what gender traits Burnside expressed.

Burnside said that moving out for college and making personal choices have resulted in an increased ability for identity exploration.

“There’s a lot more understanding, I find,” Burnside said. “I was my own person outside of that box that I grew up in.”

Burnside said that beginning to dress more masculinely and receiving positive feedback has helped in building confidence.

Dany Zavala, a sophomore political science major who also identifies as gender nonbinary and goes by the pronouns “they/them/theirs” or “she/her/hers,” wants to stay distant from a female identity, Zavala said.

Zavala said that, personally, gender isn’t something that holds a lot of weight.

“I don’t place that much importance on gender,” Zavala said. “It’s not so much an internal thing, as how I want to be perceived.”

Kyler Asato, a sophomore sociology major, identifies as “genderqueer,” another term to describe individuals who do not identify with either binary gender, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, and goes by “they/them/theirs” pronouns.

Asato said that there is a fine line between presenting oneself as more feminine, and recognizing female stereotypes. Asato wishes the lines of “masculinity” and “femininity” would blur more in society.

“It’s really tough because I’m completely aware of the gender stereotypes,” Asato said.

Both Zavala and Asato said that unlearning the gender binary and realizing the fluidity that exists has been important in their self-discovery processes.

“I think education is one of the most important things to change if you want society to change,” Asato said, adding that humanizing different identities from a young age could help both youth and their parents challenge their belief systems.

The plan, Burnside said, is to educate family members about gender identity when the time is right.

“I want to have all the tools to be able to accurately educate (my parents) and really tell them who I am,” Burnside said. “I have that power to help them understand and I really want to use that. I want to be an advocate.”

Lynn said that when it comes to gender identity, it is critical to be true to oneself through it all, and that the transitioning process is a personal decision.

“When you’re dealing with a gender identity crisis, it is so difficult to look into that mirror,” Lynn said. “Be an individual. Be yourself. It’s critical.”

Burnside said that the journey has been about realizing that the truly supportive people will always be there, regardless of gender identity.

“At the end of the day, I’m Maddie. It’s me, and they want to see me happy. It’s confidence-boosting to be yourself,” Burnside said.

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