Shane Whalley Challenges Binary System of Gender

by patriciasmall78

As snow fell heavily outside an Indiana home window, a blue-eyed child got dressed to play in the snow. Slipping size five feet into snow boots, the young child pulled waist-length braids out of the way to put on a boy’s coat. A small victory.

Shane Whalley is now a 52-year-old education coordinator for the gender and sexuality center at The University of Texas. The job involves giving workshops and educating people about gender issues, including introducing them to the gender neutral pronouns ze, hir and hirs, which Whalley feels suit hir better than traditional male or female pronouns.

Whalley spent the better part of hir life struggling around hir gender identity. For a person operating in a world where everyone is supposed to be either masculine or feminine, falling somewhere in the middle can be a challenge.

“I like to say that when we’re born, we’re given a gender notebook. We are given rules covertly or overtly all the time by our family, church, school, peers, media. Do this, do this, do this,” Whalley says.

Whalley identifies as gender queer, meaning ze doesn’t feel strongly connected to male or female. Whalley describes hir way of operating in the world as a “blended space” that is somewhere between the two genders.

“I identify as female, because that’s what’s on my birth certificate, and that’s okay with me. But I don’t identify as a woman. That concept doesn’t make as much sense to me,” ze says.

As a child, Whalley battled with her mom, a southern woman, about what it meant to be not just a woman, but a lady. Hir mom put hir in ballet classes, hoping it would make her daughter more graceful. They argued over what toys Whalley could buy and play with, and what clothes ze could wear.

“Getting clothes at the beginning of the school year was always challenging,” Whalley says. “What she thought I should be wearing, and what I thought I should be wearing were very different clothing.”

Despite early battles over gender expression as a child, Whalley conformed to hir mom’s strict gender ideals and continued to live hir life as a woman into her 20s. After graduating from a religious boarding school, ze started college at a public school in Indiana, dropping out after three major changes. Whalley then moved to Boston, where hir parents were working for their church’s national headquarters, and got a job with the church as well.

“When I got my job, I signed a paper saying homosexuality is wrong, and that anyone who was found out to be homosexual could be fired. And when I signed that piece of paper I thought I was straight.”

At a time when identifying as gay was simply not socially acceptable, particularly in hir church home, Whalley didn’t think of hirself as gay despite never dating men. Whalley listened to friends talk about the feelings they got around boys, but had never felt that hirself.

“I just thought I was going to be lonely. Like I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen to me,” ze says.

After two years working at the job in Boston, Whalley’s church hired a new woman employee. They became friends, and later more than friends. Whalley and her partner struggled to navigate their new relationship and what it meant about their sexual identity. Both knew they could be fired if anyone found out. For Whalley there was the added stress of coming out as a lesbian to hir parents.

“My mom just asked me point blank. She was at my house for dinner, and she just asked if Sue and I were more than friends, and I said yes. She told me I made her physically ill, and I was going to be the ruin of the family and that she would rather I drink coffee and tea than be a lesbian.” (Christian scientists don’t drink caffeine)

It would take a move to California, a college degree, another move to New York, and a job at Cornell University before Whalley truly embraced hir gender identity. During hir time at Cornell, Leslie Feinberg, author of the book Stone Butch Blues, came to speak at the University.

“When Leslie came to speak, her hair was in a flat top and she had on a double breasted grey pinstripe suit, a shirt and tie, and looked immaculate,” Whalley says.

Hearing Feinberg speak and reading the book turned Whalley’s world upside down. Ze cut hir hair into a flat top, got rid of all the women’s clothes in the closet and replaced hir wardrobe. At age 34, Whalley had come out for a second time.

“It took me awhile, but I got really comfortable. I felt the most embodied that I ever had. When I looked in the mirror it was like ‘Oh I look like myself and not like a bad drag queen.’”

The transformation for Whalley came from letting go of being the person, the woman, ze thought hir mom wanted hir to be. After meeting Leslie Feinberg, Whalley felt for the first time that hir gender identity didn’t have to mean ze had somehow failed.

“My mom had always taught me that if I didn’t conform, I wouldn’t be successful. So that fear of not being able to get work and find love and not not not not not if I didn’t do it a certain way, it kind of held me in line. When I met Leslie I was like this person has written a book, been invited to an ivy league school to give a talk, and looked fantastic. And like in my world that was success,” ze says.

Embracing hir sexual orientation as queer and hirself as gender queer was met with another set of backlash from Whalley’s family. The reaction of hir parents and pushing against the rule book that had been so ingrained in hir since birth led to serious mental health challenges.

For a year and a half, Whalley didn’t speak to hir parents. The only form of communication between them were letters sent by hir family, which Whalley brought to a therapist’s office, terrified of what was going to be in them.

The turnaround for Whalley’s mom finally came when she realized it was okay to talk to people about having a lesbian daughter. Where she expected to be met with condemnation and harsh judgement about her skills as a parent, she was met with community and support.

“Before it was always when we went to church and I brought my partner, she was introduced as my friend. You know this is my daughter Shane and her friend. Of thirteen years. Yeah, right. But this one time we walked into church and my mom said ‘This is my daughter Shane and her partner, Denise,’ and I was like what just happened.”

When Whalley’s parents died, ze felt good about the relationship she had with them. They realized Whalley was their only child, and willingly worked through uncomfortable and challenging conversations about who ze wanted to be.

Whalley was aware of the pride her mom had for hir and hir decision to walk hir path and “walk it fiercely.” The struggles Whalley faced with hir family, and the challenges ze faced during hir 13 year journey to define hir gender and sexuality resulted in a strong, articulate, and truly embodied human being.

“I think that process of really melting down to the dust and then building myself back up again meant that I got to be who I am and do what I do now, but it wan’t a gentle process,” Whalley says.

Whalley sees hirself as an ambassador in the LGBTQ community, using hir experiences and confidence to educate others on gender and sexuality issues and challenge what we think we know about traditional male and female roles. Ze has now served as UT’s education coordinator for the Gender and Sexuality Center for 6 1/2 years, working to provide students with as much information as possible.

“I believe that gender nonconformity is part of the human experience and always has been part of the human experience, and we have gone through points of history where it is more allowed to happen and parts of history where it is more sequestered, and I think we’re coming out of the shadows.”

Whalley has ridden the third wave of feminism from the beginning, living through a period of time where identifying as gay was largely stigmatized, especially throughout the nineties at the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Whalley began defining hir gender identity at that time, when hir “blended space” was relatively unknown to mainstream society.

We are socialized not to talk about subjects like sexuality, religion and race with people we don’t know well. Our ingrained social scripts can often mean we lack authenticity in our everyday interactions. When we are confronted with something outside the norm, we struggle with it. It’s awkward. Whalley is truly an ambassador, pushing against the binary and diffusing the awkwardness with quirky anecdotes and infectious friendliness.

Whalley sees society moving slowly toward acceptance, and hopes to see a change in the social scripts. Instead of guesswork and a fear of asking questions around gender identity, we would be upfront about our identity. “Hi, I’m Tricia, she and her.”

Transparency, and authenticity, are key to these interactions. In Shane Whalley’s perfect world, everyone would be able to identify they way they want to without fear of hate or discrimination. Everyone would be able to access any and all resources they need as that identity, no matter what their body looks like.

“We get caught up on legal standing and body parts, and how people feel about themselves is third. I would like to see that be first,” ze says.

Whalley is aware of the uphill battle gender rights activists still face. We’re still far from equality. The hope is that through hir work and sharing hir own experiences, the change will keep happening.

“I live in a space that is new to a lot of people, and super comfortable to me…How you bridge that disconnect is hard. I think it’s just culture, and in time if all of this stays the course, we’ll have culture shift.”