The future, says Bucky McKenzie, is non-binary. When he gives talks about being transgender, McKenzie argues for the use of non-gendered language. Why, he wonders, do we say “ladies and gentlemen” when we could more simply and inclusively say “folks” or “everyone”? Getting beyond the implicit biases and unfounded assumptions we are subjected to our entire lives might free us from the “alphabet soup” of being LGBTQ+–of being categorized and separated into little boxes the walls of which both trap us and blind us. Freeing ourselves of such baggage might empower some of us to come home to who we really are.
“It’s tiring,” McKenzie says, “adding more and more letters to the alphabet soup. I don’t think I’m much different from other people. I like my dog, I like to play on my phone, and I think there’s a lot more that unites us than separates us. The more islands of categories we have, the less humanity we share.”
But until such time, he cautions, we need to take care of each other. Especially for transgender folks, there’s a lot of misinformation, myths of expectation, and physical practices that are potentially harmful.
“I see a lot of Facebook and Instagram posts by young people who are afraid to come out. They are at the mercy of their parents and caregivers. They say, ‘I can’t come out because my parents will kick me out.’ And homelessness in trans youth is a major crisis.
“So I am glad young people have access to the internet where they can learn the vocabulary and about ways of safely expressing gender,” McKenzie says, and then adds, “But there is a lot of dangerous info on the web, too: using tape to bind breasts or tuck genitals, and black-market hormones.”
A staff member in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at WSU Spokane, McKenzie says he is “working with future doctors here to be gender and trans and diversity inclusive.” There’s a lot to do and it’s critical, he says, because there is simply not enough support for trans and non-binary folks to receive the care they need. “The only resource they have may be their doctor or nurse,” he says.
“I think word is getting out, and information is improving. The Trevor Project is expanding,” he points out, referring to a crisis-intervention and suicide-prevention project founded in 1996 that has saved many young LGBTQ+ lives. And while the “ways of getting care and mentoring” are expanding, McKenzie tirelessly advocates for more and better care and understanding.
“I’d like to see healthcare organizations promote care more. Even wearing a rainbow pin or an ‘ask me about my pronouns’ pin.”
About to earn his doctorate in education and as chair of the President’s Commission on Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation (GIESO), McKenzie is a force of nature who both inspires and finds hope in the future. But the past is another country entirely.
Assigned female at birth, McKenzie says he never experienced the “gender dysphoria,” the sense of being in the wrong body, that some trans and non-binary people do. “I was always kind of tom-boyish,” he says, “and enjoyed Barbie just as much as Ninja Turtles. When I was in 7th grade and 13 or so, and I’m not sure why but I thought, I think I’m a boy. I asked my teachers to call me James. Most of them ignored it, but one theater teacher did call me James for a short while.
“As I got older, 17, 18, I had a girlfriend on the internet, and I really liked her even though we never met. But I did understand that I was attracted to the female form and I thought, I must be gay. I would always refer to myself as he/him on the ’net. And that was 20 years ago. I don’t remember there being any transgender resources or language, so I didn’t really understand that part of myself. I was really confused.”
A year or two later, McKenzie came out as bisexual. He had a boyfriend, “but was still attracted to females. 20 years ago, it was a really harsh environment. People made fun of me, they thought I was weird and weren’t accepting of it at all. And my friends said, ‘Well, you have a boyfriend, so you’re not really bi, you just like looking at girls sometimes, that’s OK, we all do it.
“So, I said, OK, I’m going to live life as a heterosexual cis-gendered female.” “Cis-gendered” is a term used to describe someone who is comfortable in their body and accepting of their gender. “I buried part of myself and didn’t think I was thinking about it.”
But like a pot left on a back burner to simmer, he was thinking about it. “That whole time, I had manly mannerisms. The way I sit, the way I dress, the way I talk—I felt I was kind of mannish.” McKenzie had married his boyfriend from his teen years and, after 13 years together, was “getting more and more depressed.
“I went on so many meds,” he says, “had many doctor visits. I was admitted to psychiatric hospitals for suicidal ideation, eventually for suicide attempts. And no psychiatrist or therapist could figure me out. They thought I was depressed because my parents died when I was young.”
But that wasn’t the whole story. The internal struggle between hetero-normative social expectations and an irrepressible inner truth finally bubbled over.
“The ah-ha moment for me was in 2009 or so. I was in my mid-30s and I saw a video on YouTube of a person who was assigned female at birth but who lived as a male. He looked feminine, had long hair, but everybody called him he/him. He had a male name. An actor, he played males in plays. And I thought, that’s me!
“So, from that moment on, I told people, I am no longer Jamie Ann, I am Bucky Joshua. And everybody was accepting. Twenty years after I first came out, my sisters were accepting and my friends were, ‘Of course!’ One friend even said, ‘Of course you’re trans, I always knew that about you.’”
Not that things got any easier after that. “A lot of trans people end up homeless, and I’m no exception.” It can take a long time to recover from decades of confusion.
Understanding, Acceptance, and Mental Health
“Transitioning is not a magic, overnight process. For me, it’s taken a long time to understand myself. My hope is that now that there’s so much more knowledge”—about gender-affirming hormones and surgeries, as well as trans-positive videos and support groups—“is that more young people don’t have to suffer the prison sentence that I did in my body for so long. I’m hoping people don’t have to take so long to get support and therapy and transitioning if that’s what they want to do.”
McKenzie, like his WSU colleague, Beverley Rabbitts, urges all of us not to put people in boxes. McKenzie says he felt considerable social pressure to transition to a male self-presentation. He resisted, concerned about the risks associated with taking testosterone. But he got tired of being constantly mis-gendered (which still happens, he says: “When my wife and I got out to eat, it’s ‘Hey, ladies’”), so began taking hormones. “Some prefer to pass: they take hormones, get surgeries so they look like the people they are on the inside. But for me, I’ll get there when I get there. Or even if I get there.
“Not every trans or gender non-conforming person wants to transition,” he continues, and degrees or “levels of transitioning differ” from one person to another. There are myriad myths, from the one about dysphoria to one that claims all trans people know they are trans at age four, “that I understood that I was transgender when I was fresh out of the womb—and that’s definitely not the case. It wasn’t until I was 35 or 36 that I started to understand. I had kind of an inkling when I was 13 but it went away.”
And even among LGBTQ+ folks, not all are accepting. That’s why McKenzie doesn’t like the term community, “as if we all shop at the same stores.”
It’s critical, if people want peace and mutual acceptance, that we realize that the only constant is change.
“It’s interesting to me that, in this alphabet soup of LGBTQ+, we lump together gender and sexual preference. So, do I get lumped together with gay, lesbian, and bisexual people just because I am different than the cis-gender heteronormative lifestyle? Am I not LGBT enough because I used to be heterosexual?
“Now I am asexual,” an intimate detail McKenzie freely shares to underscore an important point. “That’s another myth that comes up, it says that people think that once you decide your sexual preference or gender, you’re set for life. But both gender and sexual preference are two different spectrums and I don’t think people quite understand that most people change their minds or discover more about themselves. I think very few people are stuck and know from the get-go that they are definitely this or that.”
T.S. Elliot once wrote that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” It can take a lifetime, but here’s to those who, like McKenzie, make it home—and especially to those who work as way finders and allies to all who explore.
(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of WSU Insider articles commemorating LGBT Pride Month, and was written by a volunteer member of the Washington State University President’s Commission for Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation. Composed of members from the entire WSU system, the Commission seeks to raise awareness of the needs and concerns shared by the LGBTQ+ community.)