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University of Pennsylvania freshmen from left: Anastasiya Kudryashova, Roderick Cook, Britt Gilbert, Kate Campbell, Gabriel Ojeda-Sague and Santiago Cortes. A new generation of gender activists want a broad, more inclusive term than LBGT to describe sexual minorities.

Mark Makela, New York Times

Welcome to generation 'LGBTQIA'

  • Article by: MICHAEL SCHULMAN
  • New York Times
  • January 18, 2013 - 2:32 PM

 

Stephen Ira Beatty, a junior at Sarah Lawrence College, uploaded a video last March on We Happy Trans, a site that shares "positive perspectives" on being transgender.

In the breakneck 61/2 -minute monologue -- hair tousled, sitting in a wood-paneled dorm room -- Beatty exuberantly declared himself "a queer, a nerd fighter, a writer, an artist and a guy who needs a haircut," and held forth on everything from his style icons (Truman Capote and "any male-identified person who wears thigh-highs or garters") to his toy zebra.

Because Beatty, who was born Kathlyn, is the 21-year-old child of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, the video went viral, garnering nearly half a million views. But that was not the only reason for its appeal. With its adrenalized, freewheeling eloquence, the video seemed like a battle cry for a new generation of post-gay gender activists, for whom Beatty represents a rare public face.

Armed with the millennial generation's defining traits -- Web savvy, boundless confidence and social networks both online and off -- Beatty and his peers are forging a political identity all their own, often at odds with mainstream gay culture.

If the gay-rights movement today seems to revolve around same-sex marriage, this generation is seeking something more radical: an upending of gender roles beyond the binary of male/female. The core question is not whom they love, but who they are -- that is, identity as distinct from sexual orientation.

But what to call this movement? Whereas "gay and lesbian" was once used to lump together various sexual minorities -- and more recently "LGBT" to include bisexual and transgender -- the new vanguard wants a broader, more inclusive abbreviation.

"Youth today do not define themselves on the spectrum of LGBT," said Shane Windmeyer, a founder of Campus Pride, a national student advocacy group based in Charlotte, N.C.

Part of the solution has been to add more letters, and in recent years the post-post-post-gay-rights banner has gotten significantly longer, some might say unwieldy. The emerging rubric is "LGBTQIA," which stands for different things, depending on whom you ask.

"Q" can mean "questioning" or "queer," an umbrella term itself, formerly derogatory before it was appropriated by gay activists in the 1990s. "I" is for "intersex," someone whose anatomy is not exclusively male or female. And "A" stands for "ally" (a friend of the cause) or "asexual," characterized by the absence of sexual attraction.

"There's a very different generation of people coming of age, with completely different conceptions of gender and sexuality," said Jack Halberstam (formerly Judith), a transgender professor at the University of Southern California and the author, most recently, of "Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal."

"When you see terms like LGBTQIA," Halberstam added, "it's because people are seeing all the things that fall out of the binary and demanding that a name come into being."

And with a plethora of ever-expanding categories like "genderqueer" and "androgyne" to choose from, each with an online subculture, piecing together a gender identity can be as DIY as making a Pinterest board.

But sometimes LGBTQIA is not enough. At the University of Pennsylvania last fall, eight freshmen united in the frustration that no campus group represented them.

Sure, Penn already had some two dozen gay student groups, including Queer People of Color, Lambda Alliance and J-Bagel, which bills itself as the university's "Jewish LGBTQIA Community." But none focused on gender identity (the closest, Trans Penn, mostly catered to faculty members and graduate students).

Richard Parsons, an 18-year-old transgender male, discovered that when he attended a student mixer called the Gay Affair, sponsored by Penn's LGBT Center. "I left thoroughly disappointed," said Parsons. "This is the LGBT Center, and it's all gay guys."

Through Facebook, Parsons and others started a group called Penn Non-Cis, which is short for "non-cisgender." For those not fluent in gender-studies speak, "cis" means "on the same side as" and "cisgender" denotes someone whose gender identity matches his or her biology, which describes most of the student body. The group seeks to represent everyone else. "This is a freshman uprising," Parsons said.

On a brisk Tuesday night in November, about 40 students crowded into the LGBT Center, a converted 19th-century carriage house, for the group's inaugural open mike. The organizers had lured students by handing out fliers on campus while barking: "Free condoms! Free ChapStick!"

"There's a really vibrant LGBT scene," Kate Campbell, one of the MCs, began. "However, that mostly encompasses the LGB and not too much of the T. So we're aiming to change that."

Students read poems and diary entries, and sang guitar ballads. Then Britt Gilbert -- a punky-looking freshman with a blond bob, chunky glasses and a rock band T-shirt -- took the stage. She wanted to talk about the concept of "bi-gender."

"Does anyone want to share what they think it is?"

Silence.

She explained that being bi-gender is like manifesting both masculine and feminine personas, almost as if one had a "detachable penis."

"Some days I wake up and think, 'Why am I in this body?'" she said. "Most days I wake up and think, 'What was I thinking yesterday?'"

Gilbert's grunginess belies a warm matter-of-factness, at least when describing her journey. As she elaborated afterward, she first heard the term "bi-gender" from Campbell, who found it on Tumblr. The two met at freshman orientation and bonded.

In high school, Campbell identified as "agender"; she now sees her gender as an "amorphous blob."

By contrast, Gilbert's evolution was more linear. She grew up in suburban Pennsylvania and never took to gender norms. As a child, she worshipped Cher and thought boy bands were icky. Playing video games, she dreaded having to choose male or female avatars.

In middle school, she started calling herself bisexual and dated boys. By 10th grade, she had come out as a lesbian. Her parents thought it was a phase -- until she brought home a girlfriend, Ash. But she still was not settled.

"While I definitely knew that I liked girls, I didn't know that I was one," Gilbert said.

Sometimes she would leave the house in a dress and feel uncomfortable, as if she were wearing a Halloween costume. Other days, she felt fine. She was not "trapped in the wrong body," as the cliché has it -- she just did not know which body she wanted.

When Campbell told her about the term "bi-gender," it clicked instantly.

"I knew what it was, before I knew what it was," Gilbert said, adding that it is more fluid than "transgender" but less vague than "genderqueer" -- a catchall term for nontraditional gender identities.

At first, the only person she told was Ash, who responded, "It took you this long to figure it out?"

For others, the concept was not so easy to grasp.

Coming out as a lesbian had been relatively simple, Gilbert said, "since people know what that is." But when she got to Penn, she was relieved to find a small community of freshmen who had gone through similar awakenings.

Among them was Parsons, the group's most politically lucid member. Raised female, Parsons grew up in Orlando, Fla., and realized he was transgender in high school. One summer, he wanted to room with a transgender friend at camp, but his mother objected.

"She's like, 'Well, if you say that he's a guy, then I don't want you rooming with a guy,'" he recalled. "We were in a car and I basically blurted out, 'I think I might be a guy, too!'"

After much door-slamming and tears, Parsons and his mother reconciled. But when she asked what to call him, he had no idea. He chose "Richard" on a whim, and later added a middle name, Matthew, because it means "gift of God."

By the time he got to Penn, he had been binding his breasts for more than two years and had developed back pain. At the open mike, he told a harrowing story about visiting the university health center for numbness and having a panic attack when he was escorted into a women's changing room.

Nevertheless, he praised the university for offering gender-neutral housing. The college's medical program also covers sexual reassignment surgery, which, he added, "has heavily influenced my decision to probably go under the Penn insurance plan next year."

More and more colleges, mostly in the Northeast, are catering to gender-nonconforming students. According to a survey by Campus Pride, at least 203 campuses now allow transgender students to room with their preferred gender; 49 have a process to change one's name and gender in university records; and 57 cover hormone therapy. In December, the University of Iowa became the first to add a "transgender" checkbox to its college application.

"I wrote about an experience I had with a drag queen as my application essay for all the Ivy Leagues I applied to," said Santiago Cortes, one of the Penn students. "And I got into a few of the Ivy Leagues -- Dartmouth, Columbia and Penn. Strangely not Brown."

Still, this alphabet soup may be difficult to sustain.

"In the next 10 or 20 years, the various categories heaped under the umbrella of LGBT will become quite quotidian," USC's Halberstam said.

Even at the open mike, as students picked at potato chips and pineapple slices, the bounds of identity politics were spilling over and becoming blurry.

At one point, Cortes, a curly-haired freshman from Colombia, stood before the crowd. He and a friend had been pondering the limits of what he calls "LGBTQ plus."

"Why do only certain letters get to be in the full acronym?" he asked.

Then he rattled off a list of gender identities, many culled from Wikipedia.

"We have our lesbians, our gays," he said, before adding, "bisexual, transsexual, queer, homosexual, asexual."

He took a breath and continued.

"Pansexual. Omnisexual. Trisexual. Agender. Bi-gender. Third gender. Transgender. Transvestite. Intersexual. Two-spirit. Hijra. Polyamorous."

By now, the list had turned into free verse. He ended: "Undecided. Questioning. Other. Human."

The room burst into applause.

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