You’ve probably never met anyone quite like Courtney Nicholas. Then again, maybe you have.
Nicholas, who likes to be called Court, was named Jackson at birth and was raised as a boy. But at some point it became clear that designation didn’t really fit.
“I first realized I was not a male about a year and a half, two years ago,” said Nicholas, an 18-year-old Corvallis resident.
For awhile, Nicholas tried presenting as female, but that didn’t feel right either.
Then, last June, Nicholas realized there was another option. In a first-in-the-nation ruling, a Multnomah County judge had just granted a petition by Portland resident Jamie Shupe to legally change sex to non-binary, meaning neither male nor female. A Polk County judge granted a similar request in October. There have reportedly been others that were not publicly announced, making an accurate count hard to come by.
On March 8, Nicholas became at least the third person in Oregon — and the first in Benton County — to be granted non-binary status.
For Nicholas, it was a moment of validation: “Once I was sure that’s who I am, I wanted that to be legally me as well.”
Friends and family have been accepting and supportive, Nicholas said, with the biggest challenge being deciding which pronouns to use (Nicholas prefers they, them and their).
Tall and thin, with a bi-level hairstyle that is short on the sides and back but long on top, Nicholas says there are a number of terms that describe their gender identity.
“You can call me non-binary, you can call me genderqueer, you can call me agender or transgender or androgynous,” they said. “I just don’t see gender as being a big part of my world, my personal identity.”
What’s important, Nicholas said, is taking control of that identity.
“The next step for me is going to be getting an updated birth certificate, and eventually a driver’s license and passport,” Nicholas said. “It’s going to make a big difference in being able to show my ID to someone and having it reflect myself.”
Grappling with gender
Questions of gender identity have been bubbling to the surface of social consciousness for a number of years now, and not just in the United States.
Since 2003, Australians have had the option of indicating their gender on identity documents with an X rather than M or F. India, Pakistan, Nepal, New Zealand, Germany and Canada all grant some level of official recognition to non-binary or “third gender” individuals.
In 2014, the social networking service Facebook gave users 51 gender options to choose from in identifying themselves, including bigender (both male and female), cisgender (someone who presents as having the gender identity they were assigned at birth), intersex (having some biological characteristics of both male and female), neutrois (someone who does not identify with any part of the binary gender system), transsexual (someone who has undergone sex change surgery, hormone treatment or both) and two spirit (a Native American term describing a third gender).
And this spring, the Showtime television series “Billions” introduced Taylor Mason, a non-binary character played by non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon.
The issue has also played out in the controversy over whether to allow transgender people to choose which public restroom to use. Lawmakers in a number of states have introduced legislation that would either allow transgender individuals to use the restroom they feel more comfortable with or require them to use public facilities that match the gender they were assigned at birth.
The Obama administration issued a set of guidelines that urged school districts to allow transgender restroom use, but they were withdrawn by President Donald Trump about a month after he took office in January.
The idea that some people don’t conform to traditional gender roles is nothing new, said Lorena Reynolds, who represented Nicholas in Benton County Circuit Court.
“It’s not that these folks didn’t exist before,” she said. “They’ve always been in our communities. They’ve always been in our families. We just haven’t allowed them legal recognition.”
Oregon courts have been split over granting that recognition to non-binary individuals.
Section 33.460 of the Oregon Revised Statutes states that a court “may order a legal change of sex … if the court determines that the individual has undergone surgical, hormonal or other treatment appropriate for that individual for the purpose of gender transition and that sexual reassignment has been completed.” ORS 33.460 does not specifically allow a designation of non-binary, but it doesn’t prohibit such a designation either.
Late last year a judge in Jackson County Circuit Court refused to grant a non-binary gender petition, saying state law doesn’t allow it. But judges in Multnomah, Polk and now Benton County have chosen to interpret the law more broadly, to include an individual’s choice not to identify as being on one side or another of the standard binary gender divide.
With that precedent established, Reynolds thinks the state will see more such petitions, though she’s not expecting a huge number — more of a wave than a flood. But she also thinks pioneers such as Shupe and Nicholas are helping to make things better for those who come after them.
“Nonbinary folks and trans folks are at high risk for hate crimes,” Reynolds said. “Every time they show their ID and that gender marker does not reflect their presentation, they’re subject to harassment. As we move toward a third option, hopefully that will alleviate a lot of that concern.”
Why it matters
Advocates for the transgender community say the ability to obtain identity documents that reflect a person’s chosen gender is far more than a symbolic gesture.
A 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality found numerous causes for concern. Among them:
• 68 percent of respondents said none of their identity documents had the name or gender marker they preferred while just 11 percent said all of their IDs were accurate.
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• 32 percent of respondents said they had been verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave or assaulted after showing an ID with a name or gender marker that did not match their gender presentation.
• 54 percent of those who were out or perceived as transgender in grades K-12 reported being verbally harassed, 24 percent physically attacked and 13 percent physically assaulted at school.
• 15 percent of respondents who had been employed in the past year said they had been harassed, physically attacked or sexually assaulted at work, while 27 percent said they had been fired, passed over for promotion or denied a job because of their gender identity.
“Having a legal recognition of non-binary gender is something folks have wanted for a long time,” said Arli Christian, the center’s state policy counsel.
For most non-binary people in this country, such recognition remains elusive. But that may be starting to change.
In addition to a handful of cases in Oregon, California’s court system has begun to grant non-binary designations, and lawmakers in that state are considering a bill that would specifically recognize non-binary as a gender.
In the wake of the Shupe case, Oregon DMV officials are evaluating procedures for changing gender markers on a driver’s license, and a measure moving through the Legislature — House Bill 2673 — would create an administrative procedure for changing gender designation on a birth certificate, meaning people would no longer have to persuade a judge to sign off on the request.
“I think there’s been a creeping consciousness and public awareness around gender identity, and this has created opportunities for people to advocate for removing barriers,” said Amy Herzfeld-Copple, co-executive director of Basic Rights Oregon.
“It’s now just a matter of assessing the implications and figuring out implementation.”
On the national front, a case in U.S. District Court in Colorado is challenging binary gender markers on federal identity documents. The judge in that case, Zzymm v. Kerry, ruled that the State Department has failed to show any rational basis for requiring passport applicants to identify themselves as either male or female.
Meanwhile, the National Center for Transgender Equality and other advocacy groups are working to modify or eliminate gender markers on everything from Social Security and Medicare cards to W-9 employment eligibility forms.
“The first question should always be, ‘Is it relevant? Is it necessary to list gender markers on ID?’” Christian said. “If we have a non-binary individual, the most appropriate and most accurate gender marker to identify that individual is not going to be an M or an F.”
Next on the docket
While Court Nicholas may be Benton County’s first non-binary resident, they may not be the only one much longer.
Emory Colvin, a 32-year-old doctoral student in nuclear engineering at Oregon State University, filed papers last week in Circuit Court seeking non-binary recognition. Colvin, whose birth name was Emily, was brought up as a girl but didn’t really identify as either male or female.
“I never strongly felt one way or the other,” they said. “I was just in this kind of weird middle ground I had no context for.”
Short and compact with serious glasses and short strawberry-blond hair, Colvin said their “lightbulb moment” came when a friend introduced them to a web series that featured a non-binary character.
“Everything from there started doing the snowball thing,” they said.
Primarily for medical reasons, Colvin was scheduled to have a hysterectomy last week and has started hormone replacement therapy with testosterone. Colvin is also pursuing chest reconstruction surgery but says they have no interest in full sex reassignment surgery.
“That is being pursued as part of a gender transition but is not the driving thing behind it,” Colvin said. “It’s just me getting comfortable with where I am.”
Petitioning for legal non-binary status, Colvin said, is just another step toward constructing a public persona that matches the way they see themselves.
“I don’t feel like anything internal has changed,” they said. “All it’s done is change a little bit of the outside to reflect who I’ve always been.”
But if obtaining a legal designation of non-binary doesn’t change a person’s identity, why do it at all?
For Nicholas, it’s as much about changing other people’s attitudes as it is about adding a third check box on an ID card.
“People look at your name and your gender marker and they make assumptions,” they said.
Sometimes those assumptions don’t matter, but sometimes they can have real consequences. As the National Center for Transgender Equality survey showed, it’s not uncommon for people to be assaulted for challenging traditional gender roles.
“It’s a legitimate fear,” Nicholas said. “In all reality, it probably would not be me that it would happen to. But this year there have been several people, several trans women, who have been killed. (And) I do have a friend who was beaten up in the bathroom for being transgender.”
Nicholas sees legal recognition for non-binary individuals such as himself as a step toward social acceptance for people who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.
“First and foremost it’s about my personal identity, it’s about me, but the social and political aspects are part of the reason I wanted to do this,” they said.
“We’re taking steps backward in equality,” Nicholas added. “We have people in office who want to take queer people’s rights away. So to me it’s important to push back, to say, ‘We’re not going to let this happen.’”