After a near-death experience, a devout Rhode Island Christian comes back to life as the genderless Public Universal Friend. After their near death experience, the Public Universal Friend refuses to answer to their birth name and gendered pronouns. They live as a Quaker evangelist, creating the Society of Universal Friends.
Colonization Leads to Decline of Two-Spirit Gender
Approx. 1830 - Approx. 1880
Native American tribes (at least 155 of them across the continent, though some have different names for the third gender) recognize the existence of a third gender: two-spirit. Two-spirit individuals contain both male and female spirits, and perform a mix of male and female tasks while wearing a mix of male and female clothing.
Western ideas of a gender-binary, spread through colonization, don't accommodate third genders; Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society says, "Since European colonization, the existence of the two-spirit community has been systematically denied and alienated from their Aboriginal identity." (I've dated the decline of two-spirit identification toward the end of the Oregon Trail boom, but obviously the Americas were being colonized and violence against Native Americans occurred before and after this date.) Two-spirit people continue to exist and are an important part of non-binary genders in the U.S.
Jennie June is a writer in New York during the turn of the century who identifies as an adrogyne and writes about her experiences in the hope of comforting and protecting gender non-conforming youth. She forms Cercle Hermaphroditos, an early LGBTQ social and advocacy group. She might have today identified as a trans woman, saying "in mind I was thoroughly a girl," but the term was not yet common.
Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography is published in 1928. The book is a biography of a fictional character named Orlando who changes from a man to a woman in their sleep. They don't question the change at all and quickly take to being a woman. However, for a few pages during their transition, Woolf refers to Orlando with they/them pronouns (as I use them here). For example, Woolf says, "The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity' (139). The text is significant in that it introduces and normalizes gender play and non-conformity.
Following the Stonewall riots of 1969, LGBTQ people organize on a national scale, forming activist and social groups. In 1973 Chicago and other cities begin overturning ordinances against cross-dressing. In 1974, San Francisco, the state with the last ordinance in effect prohibiting cross-dressing, is the site of the last arrest for dressing in the clothes of the "opposite sex." This event is significant because it allows for more gender play and freedom of gender expression in the future.
Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity is published in 1990. In the book, she presents her theory that gender is performative. For example, she says, "gender is performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence." Her theory complicates gender identity and exposes the gender binary as a social construct. Butler posits: "If gender is constructed, could it be constructed differently?" This is a question I see as a precursor to contemporary non-binary identities.
In 2017-- after James Shupe petitions to have his sex legally changed to non-binary in an Oregon court in 2016-- Oregon becomes the first U.S. state to allow a gender identification of "X" on a driver's license rather than "M" or "F." This change sparks many U.S. states to change their policies on identification; in the photo, the green color indicates states that legally recognize non-binary genders on government identification. (Though this can be extremely validating, I worry it will be used to target non-binary people.)
First Explicitly Non-binary Children's Cartoon Character
July 2018 - Present
Rebecca Sugar, creator of the TV show Steven Universe, comes out as a "non-binary woman" in 2018. Sugar uses she/they pronouns and explains that she doesn't feel like a woman but is okay with being seen as one. She says that she's expressed these ideas through the gender non-conforming characters in her show. In 2019, Steven Universe (which has already garnered a reputation for its queerness) features a non-binary and intersex character, Stevonnie, voiced by Indya Moore (who describes themself as "non-binary, femme, agender").
Merriam-Webster Adds Singular "They" to Dictionary
In a slew of inclusive language (including the word "inclusive") recently added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in September, the dictionary chooses to include gender-neutral, singular they/them pronouns. The updated definition includes, “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” "They" is named Merriam-Webster's 2019 Word of the Year.