Step into Rat’s bedroom and you quickly learn that this is a person not afraid of expressing themselves. This is the room of a musician, artist, child model, YouTuber, and budding entrepreneur for a small apparel company. A guitar rests in the corner, waiting to be picked up.Clothes in bold colors and designs line the racks. But despite all of these avenues for expression, there is one deeply personal message that this performer wants heard more than anything else.
“Our beautiful, unfortunately mismatched bodies are mangled with stab wounds, angry men’s fury,” declared Rat Gemmiti, now 20, in a poem delivered to their high school peers in the student library.
And with that, Rat, who grew up in the New York City, told their high school and the world that they were non-binary transgender. It was Jan 16, 2015.
And with this new identification, Rat entered a new world of self-awareness and discovery. No longer did Rat refer to themselves as “male” or “female.” Since that day, Gemmiti has preferred the pronouns “they” or “them,” a practice that is common among the increasing number of people who identify as non-binary.
"Our beautiful, unfortunately mismatched bodies are mangled with stab wounds, angry men’s fury."Rat Gemmiti
“Non-binary” is a term that may be unfamiliar to many, but has been adopted by a subset of transgender people who identify as neither male or female, or both male and female at the same time.
Actresses likeCaitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have helped bring the transgender community into the spotlight, paving the way for greater acceptance of their identities, but non-binary is a category much less well-known or understood.
On the West Coast, 53-year-old Oregonian Jamie Shupe has achieved a remarkable victory as a non-binary transgender person.
Photo: Jamie Shupe
I want to see a military and society made up of just people, not males and females.Jamie Shupe
Shupe was denied the right to explore gender and sexual orientation as a youth and while in the military. Shupe has been retired for two years and has gone through hormonal treatments “trying desperately to turn my body into something that resembled a female.”
They became the first person to obtain an Oregon license with the gender “X,” the state’s answer to labeling those who identify as neither male or female, and who are demanding that society and its institutions recognize them for who they are.
But through the hormonal treatments, Shupe said they realized that trying to achieve a different gender wasn’t going to work. Like Rat, Shupe uses the pronoun “they.”
Photo: Jamie Shupe
Now I have my own identity. One that doesn't have the baggage and rules of the binary sex. It's beautiful stuff.Jamie Shupe
It is estimated that non-binary individuals make up at least 25 percent of transgender populations, according to the Society For The Psychological Study of LGBT Issues. Non-binary transgender people face a struggle for acceptance not only from family and society, but also from the LGBTQ community.
“When I first found out what the word ‘non-binary’ was, I had that moment where the floor bottomed out and I was like, ‘Oh my God! Everything makes sense!’” Rat said.
After they came out as non-binary, Rat named themselves after a Japanese animation character named Nezumi, which means “rat” in English. Rat describes their namesake as a “post-apocalyptic cross-dressing badass.”
“I figured I’d start with the name and go from there,” Rat said of aspiring to be a “badass” like Nezumi, adding that they took inspiration “from the first representation of people like me who don’t fit in a box.”
Photo: Yan Wu
“You have a wig on today, can I call you a girl?"Rat's friend
But getting to that place is not easy. Rat has faced mental health issues because of their identity.
“I was struggling with body dysmorphic issues and eating disorders, and I just really didn’t know what was going on,” Rat said of her early teenage years. Coming out as non-binary “helped me [understand myself] better physically and mentally. It overall bettered my life,” they said.
Though Rat and Shupe have finally found a label and have accepted their nonconformity to traditional gender definitions, they still face difficulties while navigating relationships and communicating their identity to others. They often face hostility and ignorance.
“You can’t exactly come out to the whole world at once. Every time you meet a new person, every time you see a family member that you haven’t seen in a long time, it’s the same conversation over and over again,” Rat said. “I’m constantly coming out to people.”
Photo: Wei Tang
For others, identifying as non-binary didn’t come in a moment of epiphany. Gender identification is not only about one’s own experience of gender, but is also based on what we’ve been taught about gender and what we have internalized starting at birth, according to Margot Abels, a professor focused on gender studies at Northeastern University.
Jamie Shupe with their spouse Sandy Shupe. Photo:Natalie Behring for the Guardian
Shupe did not start exploring gender and sexual orientation until their 50s. “Both my mother and the U.S. military were highly abusive, punishing, and hostile” when facing Shupe’s sexuality and gender, they said.
This realization was painful and caused new concerns. “As part of the LGBT community, I feel like I have to be hyper-vigilant and alert for danger in public,” Shupe explained. Shupe has been treated for PTSD and gender dysphoria.
With hardly any data or surveys conducted exclusively on non-binary transgender people in the U.S., it is hard to infer how many of them had experienced mental health issues related to gender.
However, The U.S. Transgender Survey found that 39 percent of respondents experienced serious psychological distress, compared with 5 percent of the U.S. population, and 40 percent of respondents attempted to commit suicide at some point in their lifetime, nearly nine times the rate for the non-transgender U.S. population.
Rat has met many people who try to convince them that they are not transgender, just mentally ill. Some have treated their identity as an affliction, and suggested they just need therapy and to “get better.”
Even their closest family members and friends doubted Rat’s explanation of their identity.
“My mom just started using my name and pronouns last summer,” Rat said while explaining that their mother took time to become accepting. However, their father still doesn’t recognize Rat’s preferred name and pronouns.
Sometimes, their friends would say, “You have a wig on today, can I call you a girl?” No matter Rat’s outward appearance, the answer doesn’t change.“No. Still the same thing,” they said of their gender.
Shupe has leveraged their experience into activism. They filed the petition for changing their gender to nonbinary on April 27, 2016 and became the first person in the United States who was legally recognized as a non-binary person on June 10, 2016. I worry more about my daughter than me. It's really distressing worrying about how my newfound fame because of the court case and how my history affects her in current and future relationships.
Shupe worries more about their daughter experiencing backlash from their identity than themselves. “She's dating and looking to get married and I'm a difficult thing to explain to the family of a boyfriend. And because I've had so much media coverage, there's a good chance that her coworkers will tie her to me and possibly treat her negatively,” they said. Shupe knows the pain of discrimination firsthand. “In addition to upsetting a lot of binary trans folks, I've upset a lot of religious elements in this country even more,” Shupe said. “They make that known in the comments section of articles about me.”
I ultimately realized that what I needed to do instead was to fix society instead of endlessly trying to fix myself to make me fit into what society's expectations are for a male or female.Jamie Shupe
Rat has also been the target of hostility.
Rat has received death threats and vicious statements from people on the internet, including “I want to shoot you,” and “I hope someone hurts you.” It got so bad that Rat finally shut down their account on the website that they refrained from naming. “I have moved on,” Rat said.
Finding empathy and a sense of belonging in the LGBTQ community has been difficult, too.
“I really want binary trans people to start including us because sometimes they can be just as bad as cis[gender] people,” Rat said. “They push us out of the community. They think we’re the ones confusing everybody and we’re the reason that they don’t have all the rights that they want.”
Shupe has another perspective.
“Our population group has received zero representation from the trans legal organizations.
They're instead filing lawsuits for binary bathroom access to affirm their binary trans identities,” they said. When Shupe tried to fight their battle for a legal identity, they had to hire a private lawyer
“I broke the gender binary for $1,056,” Shupe said, referring to their legal fees.
However, the success is fragile. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo reversing a three-year-old Justice Department policy protected transgender workers from discrimination under federal law on October 4, which civil rights groups accused of “yet another rollback of protections for LGBTQ people.” Is it necessary for society to understand the non-binary community?
Rat continues to do bold wigs and outfits depending on their mood, refusing to adhere to any outward expectations of gender.
One recent afternoon, Rat was dressing up. They put on a black corset and a pink dress hand-embroidered with the words “he” and “him” repeated on the bodice. They donned a wig with long platinum blonde curls, using their thumbs to tuck in stray hairs. “Now I’m beautiful,” Rat said, as they twirled around and smiled.
They took off the statement dress and put on a black suit paired with a mid-length black fishnet skirt, while proclaiming, “Now I’m the most fashionable gentleman in the world.”
Rat’s expression of gender fluidity is what Shupe envisions for society. “We just want to exist at our most core human level, free of harassment for doing so,” Shupe said. “I want to see a society that's been rebuilt and stripped of its existing hierarchies of things like sex and race. I think the non-binary community has the ability and vision to lead us into that future.”
Please get to know us before too lateRat