Last week, 52-year-old Jamie Shupe made history as the first person in the United States to be legally designated as nonbinary. The legal win came after Amy Holmes Hehn, a circuit court judge in Multnomah County, Oregon issued a ruling stating that “the sex of Jamie Shupe is hereby changed from female to non-binary.”
While it’s unclear how the ruling will apply to state and federal identification, the win represents an unprecedented step towards greater legal recognition for the non-binary and gender-queer community. Following the decision, genderqueer advocate Jacob Tobia spoke with Shupe about their journey towards this historic moment and their thoughts about the role of non-binary people in the broader transgender movement.
Jacob Tobia: It’s really incredible to get a chance to talk with you. I read about the news of your gender marker change and as a non-binary person, I was so excited. I didn’t even think it was possible. When was the moment when you first thought, “I can do this. No one’s ever done it, but I can do it”?
Jamie Shupe: It started really building in the early part of this year as all of the damn Republicans and the religious folks have been attacking the trans community. I mean I was just becoming more and more pissed off and going, “I’m fighting back. I deserve a legal definition of who I am and I’m going after it damn it!” It was that strong of an emotion.
Who was the first person you talked to about the idea?
I was firing off emails to Lambda [Legal] and the ACLU and basically what I found was that everyone was trying to control me and set the tone of what happens and when it happens. And I’m sitting here thinking “These folks aren’t my leaders, they’re not going to control me. I’m going out and doing this.”
Do you feel like they didn’t know how to approach gender-queer people in a legal sense?
I think the big thing is, it has nothing to do with gender-queer people. This is all about people deciding that cis people aren’t ready to deal with us. What’s at work, from what I’ve seen in my three years in the trans community is, y’know, we have folks who are so heavily invested in emulating the binary that their whole existence revolves around that and they find us non-binary folks to be a threat to them.
It feels to me like that’s just cisgender people dividing us. Making it so hard for trans binary people to be heard and seen that there becomes this obsession with the binary that’s hurting our own community.
And they hurt themselves. I mean, I’m a huge advocate for gender neutral bathrooms because they protect us. They protect everybody. They’re the total solution but I’ve had trans women going off on me saying “You’re not putting me in this gender-neutral bathroom, I’m a female!” and I’m like “I picture you standing in the hallway of a Starbucks and there are two signs saying ‘bathroom’ instead of ‘male’ or ‘female’ and you’re throwing a temper tantrum because you’re not being recognized as a female?” It’s just a bathroom. I mean that’s the kind of stuff that’s at work here.
I mean shouldn’t we all just be able to pee?
Yeah, I mean really. If we just made it a bathroom, it strips away the bigots bothering us, everyone gets privacy, everyone gets safety, I don’t get what the argument is. It’s all about enforcing the binary. The binary is nothing but toxic to all of us. That’s where I’m coming from. I’ve been traumatized by cis women in bathrooms. I’m all done with it.
What’s happened to you when you’ve been in the women’s bathroom?
The worst thing that’s happened to me is, I was at a very large, very public business and I exited a multi-use female bathroom and there was a woman standing at the door waiting for me and she’s waving her cell phone around. I couldn’t tell whether she had recorded me. And she’s just screaming at me, “You’re a male! You’re a male! What are you doing in the bathroom?” And it was horrifying. It was very public. Everybody just like stopped and was looking at me. And then security came and management was asking me why I wasn’t using the gender-neutral bathrooms instead of the women’s rooms. And for somebody like me who has PTSD? It’s traumatic. I was a mess. I went home and cried. And I’ve been scared of female bathrooms ever since then. I mean I might be in a male body, but I’m not a male and if you abuse me I cry like a girl.
You’ve said that you’re 52-years-old, but in gender-identity years, you’re the equivalent of a high school graduate who’s recently figured out their path.
Exactly, because my mother beat all the gender variance out of me. I went into the army and I lived under threat of prosecution for either being a transvestite or being gay or being a transsexual. All that stuff equaled a bad conduct discharge and a bad conduct discharge is a felony. Any question why I have PTSD? I was abused in the military, people thought I was gay. I’m running around living in fear and I’ve got a wife and kid and I’m worried to death that they’re going to stamp my discharge “homosexual” or “pedophelia” or whatever, put me on the other side of the gate, and end my career. That’s the way I spent my life.
So now you’re just in the process of reclaiming your adolescence?
Yeah, I mean the journey started in 2013. I’m retired so I’ve spent the past three years reading trans articles every day. I’ve done nothing but that for the last three years. Just immersing myself in trans culture and studying it and figuring all of this out, drawing my own conclusions about what’s going on.
You mentioned going to PTSD support groups. I don’t think that’s necessarily an experience that’s talked about a lot in the trans community. Can you talk about what that was like?
That’s a huge piece of the trans existence. You’re exactly right. It needs to be talked about because when you have these mental health problems like that, they zap your physical energy. So then you transition and there’s a lot of pressure to be a woman and conform to what a woman looks like. And it’s even worse because I’ve got a cis spouse. She can brush her teeth, comb her hair and walk out the door and she’s a cis female. Look what it takes for a trans woman to put herself together, to go out in public and gain acceptance as a female. It’s crushing. That’s why some of these folks are committing suicide. You put yourself into a box once you transition and there’s no support system. Everything, the whole thing’s stacked against you. The government and the insurance companies aren’t paying for electrolysis, facial feminization surgery isn’t paid for, none of the cosmetic things that would make you really appear female so that you’re not going to get abused by the public—they’re all considered cosmetic. They’re all not paid for. How does that even make sense? But yet, you’re supposed to use a female bathroom.
When I heard the term PTSD and heard about it in the context of trans experience, this really went off for me. I think that so many trans people are living with PTSD and living with this real stress of going through a lot of trauma.
You’re absolutely right. One of the biggest things I talk about is, if you got out to the Veteran’s Affairs website and you read about PTSD, they claim you can get PTSD from just living in fear of being in a war zone. What does that description tell you about the trans existence? Everything about our life revolves around living in fear all the time. We’re in fear when we go to the bathroom. We’re in fear when we go in public. We’re in fear of whether our family’s going to leave us. We spend our whole lives in fear, most of us have PTSD.
Did you feel like this gender marker change was a new start?
Oh absolutely, because I was getting crushed by the responsibility of presenting as a female and I couldn’t pass. I was staying in a state of distress. Even when it was time to take the dog out, God. I’m supposed to be a female. The neighbors think I’m a female and I have to put on this presentation to go take the dog out. It was crushing me. I totally disagreed with the classification.
A lot of times people say “Well, you’re trans so it’s your responsibility to find a way to fit into the parameters that we’ve set.” And I’m always like “Well, what if we reset those parameters?” I think that’s what you’re doing. I think that’s what this ruling does.
That’s exactly what I’m doing. I didn’t just reset the parameters, I got rid of them. They’re nothing but toxic. We’ve always said that you can be trans any way you want to. Isn’t that what the community says? But the truth is [legally] you can only be trans as a male or a female.
What is an outfit that you just feel incredible in? What’s your dream outfit?
My most comfortable outfit. I wear knee-high Merrell boots, thigh high socks from Target, a denim skirt and a Columbia shirt, and that’s my dream outfit.
I love it. It’s very Northwest.
Jacob Tobia is a Brooklyn-based writer, producer, and performer. They are the host of Queer 2.0 on NBC OUT and their work has been featured on MSNBC, NPR, MTV, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Guardian.