Aaron McManus stands for a portrait at the Oak Park Public Library on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Editor’s note: This story contains references to suicide, depression and sexual violence.

Gender education is front and center this November for Aaron McManus, who has been working with two local organizations to bring greater awareness to the importance of living one’s authentic self and allowing others to do same.

“The takeaway here needs to be that forcing gender onto people in any which way is harmful,” said McManus.

Not everyone fits neatly into the genders assigned to them at birth, he says, but societal norms regularly reinforce those designations on individuals to the detriment of their mental and physical health. McManus is inviting people to examine this in greater detail so that, through empathy and understanding, the community can begin to dismantle the outdated idea that genitalia defines gender.

“When I was a kid, I got the question all the time: ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’” McManus said. “That was always a hostile question and I learned very quickly that that was never going to be followed up with something friendly.”

McManus is a nonbinary Oak Parker whose pronouns change depending on the occasion. For consistency and clarity, he has approved the use of they in this story.

To help parents and caregivers raise children to view gender beyond the binary, McManus, who is a father, is co-hosting a virtual education workshop, Nov. 15, on gender identity and diversity through the nonprofit organization Oak Park Our Whole Lives.

“Gender is a social role based on the idea that how someone sexually reproduces should determine all their behaviors through life and there’s nothing inherently valid about that,” said McManus.

They are also working with the Oak Park Public Library on an exhibit in the main library in recognition of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, observed annually on Nov. 20 to honor lives lost to transgender violence.

To put together the Idea Box display, McManus worked alongside Juanta Griffin, OPPL multicultural learning coordinator, and Hal Patnott, OPPL rainbow services librarian and a transgender man. Griffin could not be reached for comment.

The display will be ready for viewing this week. In addition to honoring the transgender people who lost their lives to violence, the display also provides information about discriminatory legislation against people who do not conform to the idea that there is only man and woman.

“Until we can live in a world in which we are not being oppressed by the gender binary, then none of us can truly be ourselves,” said Patnott.

In both the workshop and the main library’s Idea Box display, McManus will explore the ways misinformation, masked as scientific study, promotes the binary gender system, which excludes transgender, nonbinary and gender fluid people, who in turn suffer from isolation, bullying, depression, self-harm and abuse. Their lives are further constricted and devalued by legislation that depicts them as depraved and violent.

That has been perhaps most prevalent with laws that prohibit transgender people from using the restroom that affirms their gender. These “bathroom bills” feed on fears that allowing transgender people the right to choose which restroom to use will lead to increased sexual assault and rape of cisgender people, despite little credible evidence to support that claim.

“The misinformation connects really nicely with the political need to create an enemy,” said McManus.

Scientific studies have actually proven the reverse to be true. In forcing someone to use the bathroom that corresponds with his, her or their biological sex, that person is put at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted or raped. That risk extends to transgender teens as well.

A 2019 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that 26% of the 3,673 transgender and nonbinary middle school and high school students surveyed across the United States reported being sexually assaulted in the last 12 months. That jumped to 35% among those who attend schools that restrict access to bathrooms and locker rooms. Transgender girls are more than twice as likely to be at risk when they have to use boys’ bathrooms, according to the study, which relied on data from the Human Rights Campaign and researchers from the University of Connecticut.

On top of those already alarming rates, LGBTQ+ youth are at greater risk of self-harm and suicide, according to a 2022 Trevor Project survey. The Trevor Project found that 59% of the transgender men and boys surveyed considered suicide in the past year. For nonbinary and gender-queer youth, it’s 53%. And the figure was 48% for transgender women and girls. Those questioning their gender experienced similar percentages.

“There are lives at peril,” said Patnott.

McManus twice attempted to take their own life as a teenager.

“I struggled at the time with the language because I remember very distinctly telling the doctors my depression was situational,” said McManus. “They kept telling me there was something wrong with my brain.”

 Compared to the rates of cisgender people, the difference is notable. Twenty-eight percent of cisgender men and boys and 37% of cisgender women and girls considered suicide in the last year.

For cisgender people, McManus asks not just for an acknowledgement of the expansiveness of gender. They ask not just for understanding. They ask for acceptance — true acceptance, especially from parents.

“If you want to be able to deliver unconditional love to your kid, your constructs of gender can’t be in the way of that.”

Join the discussion on social media!