A Big Step Toward Broad Acceptance of Gender Nonconformity

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

iO Tillett Wright had her TEDx Women 2012 audience mesmerized, and while her presentation, Fifty Shades of Gay, was fascinating, I found the audience shots even more enlightening. The women were alternately shocked, confused, perplexed, enthralled and enthusiastic. They were your typical middle-class crowd, diverse yet highly gender-conforming. They were broadly uncomfortable when Wright pointed out that you'd have a hard time finding anyone who is 100% straight, using straight to mean "non-queer" in the broadest sense.

That was her theme - that these categories are so broad, so variable and so amorphous that a pure representative of the gender binary is very hard to come by. Looking at the audience, I would infer that most of those pure types were in the audience, but I know better. You really can't tell a book by its cover, and I believe that was Wright's subversive message to this bourgeois audience. Her presentation, and the photo campaign she's mounted, focus on faces of gender nonconformity. While I'm personally comfortable with almost all those faces, most Americans are not, and she's absolutely correct that we must familiarize our neighbors with us to provide them with "the gateway . . . to empathy."

I do know, however, that many of those outward models of female conformity are anything but on the inside, and highlighting these women (and men) as willing to show their queerness in their faces and gender presentation can only serve to raise more questions in those ladies. While the differences were clearly visible, she put the crowd at ease by admitting that her work around the country has taught her that the queer community is just as diverse as the straight one, or, as she put it, there are "just as many jerks in the LGBT community."

Overall I thought the presentation was brilliantly accessible, and I can sense that promoting this work across the country, with a big vote of thanks to HRC for its support, will play a major role in winning the culture war to encourage Americans to embrace greater gender nonconformity, so we get to the day when we can no longer clearly define conformity. It needs to be recognized, however, that one can't resist the binary, let alone smash it, without the binary being in existence in the first place. We need it to create a dialectic of progress which will ultimately lead to a more affirming society.

My major concern was watching how even for a woman like Wright, for whom gender nonconformity is a fundamental aspect of her identity, who clearly understands the transgender experience as she lived as a trans boy for eight years, her language ultimately came down to "gay" rather than "trans." Maybe it is her association with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which has had trouble in the past relating to and supporting the trans community. Thankfully they are making progress internally with a number of recent quality hires.

This bias was evident when Ms. Wright, speaking about anti-discrimination laws across the country, mentioned that in 29 states one can still be fired on the basis of sexual orientation. For a presentation on gender nonconformity the more appropriate statement would have been that one can still be discriminated against on the basis of gender identity and expression in 32 states. While not a major issue, by any means, it seems an unconscious expression of the primacy of sexual orientation over gender expression.

I study my audience while publicly educating and advocating and do my best to relate to them. What seemed to me to be her most subversive and, to that audience, surprising message, was that there is far more bisexuality out there than what we'd consider purely "gay." Given that even the gay community finds that reality surprising, wondering where all the bisexual men and women are, it's one of what Wright calls her "self-evident truths," that we are far more complex than even we are willing to admit.

We want to know what you think. Join the discussion by posting a comment below or tweeting #TEDWeekends. Interested in blogging for a future edition of TED Weekends? Email us at