Breaking the Binary

Avi Yocheved’s journey of self-empowerment as a non-binary person in a gendered world

Words by Dana Sparks and Kenzie Farrington

Photos by Dana Sparks

They/them/theirs: Like many non-binary people, Avi Yocheved uses these pronouns instead of male or female pronouns.

Without thinking about it, Avi Yocheved put their red and grey men’s swim trunks on underneath their clothes so they wouldn’t have to change in the locker room. Despite their love for swimming, they hadn’t been to the pool in two years. As Yocheved headed toward chlorine-filled waters, a mixture of nerves and excitement filled their body.

They left with a large group of their friends from the Gender Equity Hall at the University of Oregon. Like them, the others in the group hadn’t been to a pool in a long time. “There’s safety in numbers,” Yocheved said. This was the thought that drove this group to participate in an activity that so many of them loved but had been barred from because of it being an inherently gendered experience — a situation where stepping outside the binary of being a man or a woman can have major social consequences.

There is a set of rules that governs behavior, expectations and identities called the gender binary; an assertion that there are two and only two genders. It dictates whether someone is given a pink or blue blanket when they are born, dolls or trucks to play with and eventually, what they can do or say. Yocheved is genderqueer, one of many gender identities rooted in the feeling that they don’t fit the conventional “man” or “woman” category. Though data on genderqueer people is difficult to gather due to the gradations of identity in this group, this umbrella term is commonly used by non-binary people, who were officially recognized by the state of Oregon in January. Gender-nonconforming residents may now select “X,” a third gender option on an application for a drivers’ license, validating the identity of people like Yocheved.

Yocheved is 19 and a freshman majoring in pre-family and human services at the University of Oregon. They play the clarinet and are a slam poet and an event coordinator for LGBT student services. Their partner, who asked not to be named, describes them as someone who always puts their friends above all else: the type of person who “forgets to put their oxygen mask on first.” After college, they want to help other individuals by developing a type of therapy specializing in recovery and healing from traumas brought on by gender-related experiences.

 

Avi Yocheved

Though Yocheved doesn’t fit the gender binary, they live a lot like everyone else, with friends, hobbies and aspirations.

But as Yocheved and their floormates approached the locker rooms at the UO Student Recreation Center, their pool day became a lot more complicated. The task of choosing the women’s or men’s locker room can feel impossible when their identity lies somewhere in the middle of these two options.

Yocheved was set on avoiding the locker room because of past traumas associated with it. They were harassed and bullied in locker rooms throughout grade school, being called names and excluded by other girls. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, this is common for gender non-conforming and transgender individuals. Fifty-one percent of respondents reported being harassed/bullied in school.

“I was constantly falling short of the ‘girl box,’” Yocheved said. To them, the “girl box” was full of all the characteristics and behaviors that they were expected to embody. To avoid alienation from their high school peers, they adopted what they consider hyper-feminine characteristics. Society’s demand for authentic girlhood meant living in a lie of makeup and boys in order to be accepted by the world.

Compensating with “hyper-femme” gender expression to find acceptance was deeply connected to their sexual identity too. They said that learning how to be feminine and fit inside of the “girl box” is linked to being heterosexual.

Yocheved was dealing with heteronormativity, the idea that heterosexuality is the social norm. In that construction lies a set roles for men and women, more commonly referred to as “gender roles.” According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 97.7 percent of U.S. adults 18 years or older identify as straight, making heterosexuality the overwhelming majority. With that being the most common sexual orientation, sexualities outside of being straight can become “othered.”

Heteronormativity and the gender binary go hand-in-hand, interlacing with one another and complicating life for those who find their true selves outside of heterosexuality or the gender assigned at birth. Yocheved’s self-described fumbling with traditional femininity in high school was their attempt to go along with the norm and meet society’s demands on their gender and sexuality.

This fumbling was, and still can be, a daily experience. Simple experiences like going to the bathroom are complicated for someone who doesn’t identify as man or a woman. Going to the women’s bathroom is accompanied by people peering under the stall to see if Yocheved is a man and being told that they’re in the wrong restroom until Yocheved’s soft, feminine voice is heard in response. But the solution isn’t just heading into the other bathroom.

“I quickly realized that the men’s bathroom is a no-go.” Yocheved said they have been threatened and sexually harassed in the men’s bathroom. They then began seeking out gender-neutral bathrooms—not because this was the identity they came up with themself, but because they had been forced out of both male and female spaces.    

In situations like these, Yocheved is still confronting the concept of the “girl box” — they don’t fit the characteristics of traditional femininity, nor do they conform to traditional masculinity.

But in their senior year of high school, Yocheved took a major step toward expressing the way they really felt. They cut off their hair and started dressing more androgynously. This self-liberation was the beginning of a long transformative process of healing. Part of this has been persevering in building their own narrative and withstanding the consequences of not quite fitting into what gender they were assigned to at birth. This, in essence, is what Yocheved hopes to help others do too.

For a gender-nonconforming person, finding spaces to comfortably exist in is an ongoing process. They have found healing in expressing themselves more “androgynously butch,” identifying as genderqueer and finding community by living in the Gender Equity Hall. This hall is a part of the UO’s LGBTQIA+ Scholars Hall, an Academic Residential Community (ARC) where incoming freshmen can choose to live with students who have shared academic interests and values regarding gender and sexuality.

Visiting the pool and locker rooms at the UO Rec Center started as an obstacle for Yocheved and some of their dorm-mates. But through the community they share and the strength they derive from one another, they all were able to face it.

As Yocheved and their group of queer friends made their way to the pool for the first time in two years, they were ready to skip the locker room altogether and head straight for the water. They didn’t want to deal with having to explain to people that they actually belonged in the women’s room. But when one of their friends was afraid to go into the women’s locker room alone, Yocheved stepped up and accompanied them without hesitation. They became so focused on friendship and having fun that they forgot about the gendered experience of the locker room.

Of that moment, Yocheved said, “I felt like we could take up that space; like we deserved to be there.”