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 high school peers in the student library. And with that, Rat, who grew up in New York City, told their high school and the world that they were non-binary transgender. It was January 16, 2015.
Rat entered a new world of self-awareness and discovery. No longer did Rat refer to themselves as “male” or “female.” Since that day, Rat has preferred the pronouns “they” or “them,” a practice that is common among the increasing number of people who identify as.
In Portland, Oregon, 53-year-old Jamie Shupe, who also uses the pronoun “they,” has achieved a remarkable victory as a non-binary transgender person. They became the first person to obtain a driver’s license with the gender “X,” the state’s designation for those who identify as neither male or female, and who are demanding that society and its institutions recognize them for who they are.
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.” But through the hormonal treatments, Shupe said they realized that trying to achieve a different gender wasn’t going to work.
For others, identifying as non-binary didn’t come in a moment of epiphany. 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. After hormone treatments, Shupe grew breasts, achieving a “little piece of womanhood.” But after living as a transgender female for three years, Shupe concluded that they didn’t identify with the binary definitions of gender, and that they are a “mixture of the two sexes.” This realization was painful and caused new concerns. “As part of the LGBTQ 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.
Rat has met many people who try to convince them that they are not transgender, just mentally ill.
With hardly any data or surveys conducted exclusively on non-binary transgender people in the U.S., it is hard to infer how many have experienced issues related to gender.
Having spent 18 years living in fear about who they are, Shupe understands what it’s like to be on the receiving end of discrimination for being gay and trans, especially in the military.
Shupe has leveraged their experience into activism. They filed the petition for changing their gender to non-binary 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.
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.”
Rat has also been the target of hostility.
Rat has received death threats and vicious comments 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.
Finding empathy and a sense of belonging in the LGBTQ community has been difficult, too.
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.
Rat continues to don bold wigs and outfits depending on their mood, refusing to adhere to any outward expectations of gender.
Rat’s expression of gender fluidity is what Shupe envisions for society.
“We are human. And we are pretty kick-ass once you get to know us."
“We just want to exist at our most core human level, free of harassment for doing so. 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.”