Nonbinary Education Activist: “We Have to Embrace Everyone’s Authenticity”
As the Education Associate at GLSEN–the leading education organization supporting K-12 students in schools–Jamey Jesperson is constantly engaged in the continuing effort to provide information, resources, and opportunities for conversation to educators across the country in regards to LGBTQ youth.
Being a non-binary young adult, this issue is particularly close to Jamey’s heart. While many people find no tension between how they express their gender and what is expected by society based off of the designation on their birth certificate, this is not true for everyone. Some people, including Jamey, know they don’t fit into rigid norms of masculinity or femininity exclusively and use the term “non-binary” to describe their gender. Many of these people also choose to use gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘they/them, ‘xe/xem,’ or ‘ze/hir,’ rather than the typical ‘he’ or ‘she.’
“I grew up in a fairly conservative religious community whose cultural traditions reinforced strict gender roles at every turn,” Jamey said. “The gender binary was very clearly established — people expected men to be very masculine and women to be very feminine. As a more feminine ‘boy,’ I experienced constant policing and discipline from leaders in our church community starting at a very young age, continuing until I moved away to New York City at 18 years old.”
Throughout childhood, Jamey expressed themself in a genderqueer manner — meaning not following rigid feminine/masculine codes of conduct — and for the most part, their parents were supportive. However, when they reached the age of 12, considered a coming of age moment for Mormon young men, their church community became a little more hostile and impatient with their unwillingness to perform the gender expected of them. At 16, Jamey first came out as gay, and when they went to college and finally had access to resources and education that helped them to realize they were, in fact, nonbinary, Jamey was able to claim their identity fully.
Now, they work to help LGBTQ youth find those same resources, but at an earlier age and with the support of their peers and educators.
“It’s important to connect different generations of queer people and speak about the unique opportunities available to youth, their histories as queer people, and how we’ve arrived where we are in this moment. That’s one of the more key concepts I use in my organizing work.”
Jamey said that they see LGBTQ youth, who are both concerned with the current political climate but also motivated by the people they see around them making change, particularly on the high school level.
“There is some uncertainty, of course, with some of the dialogue and decisions that negatively impact LGBTQ people on the federal level, but I also see a lot of hope and inspiration,” they said. “LGBTQ students played a major role in leading the March For Our Lives campaign, starting with the Parkland survivors. Emma Gonzalez was the President of her high school’s GSA (Gender-Sexuality Alliance), and several other GSA leaders from GLSEN’s network across the country were the leaders organizing rallies and leading chants through microphones at local actions.”
One of the key issues facing LGBTQ students, particularly those who are transgender or non-binary, is the need for inclusive school policies that prevent discrimination. GLSEN, as well as Freedom for All Americans, has been working tirelessly to make these policies a reality for students nationwide.
“Inclusive policies very tangibly enable students’ voices to be heard. When these policies are in play, young people see that they’re being taken care of and listened to in a proactive way, not just in a reactive manner after instances of discrimination have occurred. These policies reinforce for LGBTQ students that they are valued in their communities, and ultimately provide comfort and a sense of understanding.”
In recent years, transgender and non-binary identities have begun to see increased prominence in the national narrative. It is Jamey’s hope that because of this, young people who identify outside of the gender binary of boy/girl, man/woman will find an easier time claiming and affirming their truth. They also encourage people who may not know a transgender or non-binary person to access the wealth of resources on online such as www.glsen.org/trans in order to educate themselves.
“I would encourage people to seek that information out, learn about the history of the gender binary, and strive to fully understand the socio-political implications the rigid gender binary has on youth in the present,” they said. “What we’re seeing right now is a ‘gender explosion,’ where more and more youth and adults alike are being granted the space, language, and consciousness to comfortably explore the complexity of their identities beyond the binary. This revolution facilitates true, honest authenticity, and it is so beautiful to witness.”