Beyond the binary: Gender nonconforming students share their stories
Living > Beyond the binary: Gender nonconforming students share their stories

Beyond the binary: Gender nonconforming students share their stories

When students move away from their parents and hometowns, they come to college and come to know themselves in a way that is different from what their families might expect. For some students on The Bluff, moving to Portland has allowed them to better understand that they are gender nonconforming, meaning that whether they identify as transgender, non-binary or genderfluid, that they do not identify strictly as male or female, or they do not have a fixed gender. 

Four non-binary students opened up about their journeys to coming to understand their gender with the influence of liberal Portland and the University of Portland’s community.

Keaton Gaughan, a senior English major from Newport Beach, Calif., tells The Beacon how he came to realize his true identity as a transmasculine person.
by Julia Cramer / The Beacon

Keaton Gaughan, transmasculine person, he/him

Senior English major Keaton Gaughan was always a tomboy. He grew up in Newport Beach, Calif., which Gaughan considers to be the most conservative city in California. When Gaughan moved to Portland for his freshman year, he did not understand his identity nearly as well as he does now. Gaughan still has the picture he took for UP’s system on the first day of freshman year in his back pocket, on his ID card.

“I had long hair and still wore makeup,” Gaughan said. “Not my best time.”

When he came to UP, Gaughan met people that helped him better understand his identity. He got involved with editing Writer’s Magazine. He found community in his fellow English majors. He remembers his friends Anna Pepper, Macey Bishop and Angele Bruce, who is also non-binary, as especially helpful as he was coming to understand his gender identity.

“Angele is a close friend of mine,” Gaughan said. “We did our own journey of understanding ourselves side-by-side. We would hang out and talk through things.”

Gaughan said he denied his gender for 21 years before coming to realize his true identity as a nonbinary transmasculine person. As of Dec. 1, Gaughan has been taking testosterone hormones for nine months. Without the support of his community in Portland, Gaughan doesn’t know if he’d understand himself the way he does today.

“Portland allowed me to be who I am,” Gaughan said. “It allowed me to express aspects of myself and my gender that I had been ignoring and denying for a very long time. It’s definitely a safe haven for me.”

Despite the freedom he feels in accepting his true identity, he wishes UP was more accommodating to the needs of non-binary students. The only bathrooms he feels comfortable using are in St. Mary's — the only gender neutral bathrooms on campus outside of dorms. 

“Everyone always harps on the bathroom debate, but to me that’s saying I don’t belong on this campus,” Gaughan said. “Specifically with something so integral with every single day.”

In addition to creating more gender neutral bathrooms, Gaughan also hopes to see UP change its internal system so students can change their gender on the “self-serve” portal on UP’s website. 

“There is no policy in the system that helps me easily and successfully change my gender in UP’s system,” Gaughan said. “What comes up is this picture from freshmen year. That is misleading because that’s not who I am now.”

Gaughan hopes that more professors will develop a policy to ask pronouns of students on the first day of each semester and that UP will adopt educational training programs for students and teachers to better understand the complexities of gender identity and sexuality.

“(Educational training programs) would be so important and powerful, and also would send a message that trans people deserve to be on this campus, because it’s not that way,” Gaughan said. “These are lofty goals but you gotta dream big.”

Angele Bruce, a senior biochemistry major from Las Vegas, Nev., opened up to The Beacon about how they realized they are nonbinary.
by Julia Cramer / The Beacon

Angele Bruce, nonbinary person, they/them

When Angele Bruce grew up in Las Vegas, Nev., their group of friends was not very diverse in terms of gender or sexuality. When Bruce came to UP, they found a group of friends that helped them and guided them to better understanding their gender identity. 

Bruce, now a senior biochemistry major who will graduate this December, identifies as non-binary, but doesn’t like to get stuck on labels. 

“Portland has given me a space to grow that I feel comfortable in,” Bruce said.

They got involved with Gay Straight Partnership and the Feminist Discussion Group while on campus, and appreciate having a space where they can discuss topics like gender with others. 

“I think it’s really cool,” Bruce said. “We discuss a lot of topics. Echo chambers are bad but it’s a lot of people with the same beliefs. You can share without feeling like you’ll be attacked.”

Bruce feels it’s important to have groups where they can share openly and safely, but also be surrounded by diverse thought to learn from different experiences. 

“It’s a hard thing because labels and particularly identities are kind of murky,” Bruce said. “Sometimes I go toward masculine things, sometimes feminine things. It’s a mix.”

The community at UP has helped Bruce grow. They referenced the “Portland vibe” as more accepting than Las Vegas, with more resources and community events and more people here that are gender nonconforming. Bruce described University of Portland as more accepting than “one might expect.” Changes that need to be made at UP are more related to people’s understanding of gender identities other than male and female. 

“Gender is something people think about, but most people don’t think about the subject very deeply,” Bruce said. “The changes that need to be made might not be at the school level.”

Mia Davis, a senior organizational communication major from Kona, Hawaii, identifies as gender nonbinary.
by Julia Cramer / The Beacon

Mia Davis, nonbinary person, they/them or she/her

When senior Mia Davis came to Portland as a freshman in college, they were looking for somewhere new to call home. They grew up in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Though the scenery was a beautiful setting for an avid photographer like Davis, they felt like their town didn’t have much to offer for longing young adults. Davis’ high school had about 100 students. 

“It was a very small town and everyone knew each other,” Davis said. “Everyone talked to each other.”

Davis came to Portland because they said they could see themselves staying here after college. Davis loved the anonymity that came from a city like Portland of about 600,000 people, and the new beginning the city granted that their old hometown, with about 12,000 people, didn’t. When Davis came to Portland, they noticed that the way people dressed and presented themselves could be different from anything they had ever seen before. When they came to college, they were still wearing what they thought was the right way to dress for their assigned gender.

“It’s really funny to see pictures of myself as a freshman,” Davis said. “I had incredibly long hair. I wore a lot of makeup and I wore fake eyelashes. I wore blouses and skirts, and I thought that’s how I should be.”

An organizational communication major and fine arts minor, Davis started to get involved in programs like CPB and started the Humans of UP page. Davis’ photography flourished. They made friends that weren’t like the friends they had in high school.

“I spend most of my time with people that are somewhere on some version of a spectrum, whether it’s gender or sexuality,” Davis said. “I would say like 80 percent.”

Davis took some time during the summer before their senior year at UP to think about their gender identity. They had conversations with friends from high school and college and learned more about what it meant to be non-binary.

“I thought to be nonbinary you had to not identify as masculine or feminine, but my friend showed me a video that said, you can be a man or a woman and not identify as binary and be feminine at the same time, and I was like, I think I finally figured it out,” Davis said.

Davis found the most important part of understanding their gender identity was to surround themselves with people who support them. 

“(I’ve been) putting more emphasis in my mind on people who want to help versus people who don’t care about you,” Davis said. “It’s helped to surround myself with people who want me to be myself rather than people who want to squash that.”

To be a better ally, Davis hopes it will become more common for UP professors to ask for students’ pronouns on the first day of class.

“More professors every year are getting into the practice of asking people’s pronouns, either on the first day of class or through email before classes start,” Davis said. “It normalizes it not only for non-binary people, but it’s good for even cisgendered people to prompt them to think of asking the same question.”

Kyriel Butler, a senior sociology major from Bend, Ore., explains how they came to realize that they are genderfluid.
by Julia Cramer / The Beacon

Kyriel Butler, genderfluid person, they/them, she/her

Kyriel Butler, a senior social work major, only knew one transgender person growing up. They grew up in a small town in Central Oregon, Bend, which Butler describes as “pretty liberal” but also a bubble where Butler wasn’t able to truly explore their identity. 

When Butler came to Portland as a freshmen, they didn’t even know what it meant to be nonbinary. Butler said it took them three years in college to understand their gender identity. They had one friend who especially encouraged them to better understand their identity. 

“He pushed me to understand what it meant to be non-binary and genderfluid, and helped me realize, wow maybe I am like that,” Butler said.

Being in Portland helped them understand their gender identity, too. Butler was able to get away from their small town and experience more gender diversity.

“Portland’s really accepting of that, there are a lot of areas in the US that just aren’t,” Butler said. “If I had gone to school somewhere else, I think maybe I wouldn’t have fully accepted my gender identity.”

Now, Butler wishes there was a place on campus and resources where other students like them, who didn’t know about identifying outside of the binary, could learn about what it means to be genderfluid and nonbinary.

“I would have never guessed I’d be where I am now,” Butler said. “It took me three years to pick up on it. I think a space for freshmen and sophomores to be exposed to options, for people who haven’t thought of this, would be helpful.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Kyriel Butler's major. They are a social work major, not a sociology major.