June 08-- CHICAGO-Cassidy Nordstrom might be the very embodiment of gender fluidity.
When a nipple happened to slip from a favorite undershirt, Nordstrom was quick to flash a state ID identifying the Sonic carhop as male, thereby getting out of an indecent exposure charge.
And flak from a security officer suspicious of Nordstrom's gender in the women's bathroom at a club? Well, that meant whipping out a driver's license identifying the Uptown resident as female.
When it comes to gender, Nordstrom, 22, has evolved, coming out as bisexual in junior high school and then as transgender at age 16.
In 2013, starting hormone therapy to gain a more feminine appearance, Nordstrom began to identify as nonbinary-not fitting into either of the two genders.
Then a planned sex reassignment surgery was nixed. And Nordstrom, who fancies ankle-length skirts and T-shirts, and wears makeup and a curly bob, took to using gender-nonconforming pronouns-"they" and "their," as opposed to "he" and "his" or "she" and "her."
"Gender is factored into so many basic human interactions," said Nordstrom. "I thought, 'Maybe I won't have the surgery and just accept my body. I don't have to alter it or correct it.' I have the body that I have, and people just have to accept that."
And it seems that more people are.
Millennials are more open than the general population about gender and sexuality. But they've got nothing on Generation Z-those ages 13 to 20-according to The Innovation Group of marketing communications firm J. Walter Thompson. A study by the group showed that about 56 percent of the younger group know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns such as "they" or "ze," compared with 43 percent of 28- to 34-year-olds.
About 48 percent of the younger group identify as exclusively heterosexual, compared with 65 percent of millennials, according to the study released in March.
And about 74 percent of the younger respondents reported being more accepting of people of nontraditional gender identities than they were a year ago. About 62 percent of those ages 21 to 34 said they were more accepting.
That might not be surprising, what with contemporaries like 17-year-old actor Amandla Stenberg, who in January revealed she was bisexual and identifies as nonbinary (she uses female pronouns). Or her 2015 prom date, rapper-actor Jaden Smith, who sports women's clothing in Louis Vuitton ads.
Of the 300 to 400 gay youths who participate in programs at the Center on Halsted, 10 to 20 percent identify as trans or gender-nonconforming, said Avi Bowie, director of youth programs.
In the past year, Bowie, 36, began requesting that family and friends use gender-neutral pronouns.
"Talking on the phone to someone, they hear my voice and immediately it's 'ma'am' or 'miss,' said Bowie, who dresses in men's clothing and is married to a cisgendered woman, one who is assigned female at birth and still identifies as such.
At the center, staffers take pains to determine preferred pronouns for visitors, Bowie said.
"Receptionists who are answering the phones are trying to figure out what types of salutations we use for people," Bowie said, noting that instead of Mr. or Ms., some are opting for the gender-neutral title Mx.
"I try to say "folks" or "How are you all doing?" when talking to groups of youths at the center, Bowie said. "But I make mistakes regularly."
At Howard Brown Health Center, which has seen the number of new transgender visitors triple to three per day since 2011, staffers complete a two-hour workshop focusing on gender pronouns and ascertaining what's appropriate, said Cecilia Hardacker, director of education.
"It's helping people realize they can't make assumptions about people based on their appearances. It's really a natural behavior we have, as human beings, to kind of size people up when we see them. We work hard to break that down."
Other health centers, hospitals and organizations have requested information about the program, she said.
"There is a growing number of people who express themselves in different ways," Hardacker said. "Gender fluidity is simply understanding the concept that none of those things are written in stone. Over the course of a person's life, the way they feel about themselves can change."
The Goodman Theatre in Chicago had a workshop on the topic for its staffers just as it was, coincidentally, casting Sydney Germaine, an actor who was assigned female at birth but identifies as nonbinary, in its recent production "The Matchmaker."
Germaine, a recent University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate, appreciated the effort.
"The theater industry is generally the best at understanding if I say I would like you to use gender-neutral pronouns" said Germaine, who typically presents as more masculine. "Other times, I'm very nervous about if someone is not going to hire me because of it and how I present to them."
Once they've been hired, gender nonconformists may face further intolerance.
Soon after arriving in Chicago 10 months ago, Germaine took the suggestion of a supportive manager at work and wrote an email telling employees about preferring gender-neutral pronouns.
One co-worker responded dismissively with cursing, which sent Germaine to the bathroom to collect themselves.
The fear of rejection extends to recreation.
At a recent Chicago Cubs game that went 13 innings, Germaine needed to use the bathroom for most of that time. But the thought of entering the men's room was intimidating.
Germaine didn't want any trouble from other Cubs fans who might take issue with their use of the men's room.
"I held it the whole time," Germaine said. "But, I'm used to it."
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While some people are unbending when it comes to traditional gender identification, many retailers have responded with gender-nonspecific marketing and merchandising, said Rob Volpe, chief executive officer of Ignite 360, a San Francisco-based research firm.
"Gendstirs," he said, are young people whose fashion sense identifies as neither male or female, and he cited the recent introduction of Zara's Ungendered androgynous clothing line as proof of nonbinary influence.
"We started seeing a lot of gender fluidity, where you're seeing younger folks blending elements of female appearance with the male appearance. You might see a boy walking down the street in a black skirt or see women sporting the more masculine tank top look, but they've also got makeup on."
That kind of acceptance means better lives for the next generations of the gender nonconforming, said Andre Perez, who is working on a documentary web series, "America in Transition," through his Trans Oral History Project.
Trans groups often face high rates of suicide, domestic violence and un- or underemployment because they're marginalized-even within gay communities-said Perez, a 28-year-old trans man.
"This is an incredible moment really in the history of this country. How we talk about and treat trans people in the next five years and the types of policies we make are really going to affect how trans people live their lives for generations." Perez said.