Growing up on a small farm on Johns Island, Leigh Friar had a quiet childhood. One of five kids in a religious family, Friar was active in the church at a young age and had what can be described as a very Southern upbringing. But throughout these early years, Friar, who identifies using the personal pronouns “they” and “them” remained uncertain about where exactly they belonged on the gender spectrum.
“There’s almost a delay in the ability to discover. When you are isolated from the rest of the world, whether it be intentionally or unintentionally, there’s not really anything you can look at to lead any kind of self-discovery. So most of us weren’t able to look outwardly to say ‘Oh, that looks comfortable to me. That person and the way that they live their life, that looks like something that I want.’ Usually we felt like there was something individually wrong with us that was not connected to anything else in the world,” says Friar, who came out at the age of 14, but says they lacked the term “genderqueer” at the time.
Genderqueer, also termed nonbinary, describes a person whose gender identity cannot be solely summed up as male or female. Without the words to describe their gender identity growing up, Friar first clung to the term “gay.” At the time, Friar’s only concept of gender nonconformity was a very binary view, with no space for anything in between.
“For most of my middle and high school years, I struggled with the fact that I did not necessarily feel like a trans man. I felt like I was maybe an impostor to gender nonconforming practices because I didn’t quite want that, but I knew I was not happy with where I was,” says Friar. “There was nothing for me to grasp onto. There’s no gender-fluid movie stars. There are no non-binary politicians. There’s nothing really to kind of guide that discovery.”
They add, “There are lots of comments about social media and the Internet and what it’s doing for the children. But I would have loved the capacity to connect in a way that wasn’t really possible when I was a child. There were no genderqueer or non-binary or even just queer people that I could look at. I couldn’t find them. They weren’t in my community, and I didn’t really have a way to access outside of my community.”
This search for their own identity led Friar down the path to gender studies, looking to understand how cultures vary on the perception of gender. As a senior at the College of Charleston, Friar was named as the first recipient of the Alison Piepmeier Scholarship, named after the former City Paper contributor and CofC professor who created the college’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program and directed it for over a decade before her death from brain cancer.
According to Friar, researching gender as a child proved to be reassuring. They were able to put an academic background to the emotionality they were feeling, which was a validating experience.
“People like solid answers. People want, when you come out, for you to be able to not only educate them but to make sure that it is logical to them, that it makes them feel good as well. They want it to make sense. And I couldn’t really make sense of a lot of what I was feeling,” says Friar. “I had a lot of gender dysphoria, but I also didn’t have some where I was told that I should. I wanted some things like hormones but I didn’t want other things like surgery. So I was kind of existing in this in-between. And when people would talk about gender it felt like this very disconnected idea that I couldn’t quite get into, but maybe I wanted to try and I couldn’t quite get there.”
Friar didn’t truly come out as genderqueer and start living and presenting the way that they wanted until the age of 20. Seeking some medical interventions and beginning to use different pronouns, Friar says that there still exists a real fear when meeting those who can only understand gender as a binary issue.
“People would be much more comfortable if I could just say I am a trans man and this is what I want and it makes sense. For some, it doesn’t make sense for someone to want to live somewhere in the middle and somewhere outside of all of that,” says Friar. “People are not very kind to people who don’t want to pass either way, when that’s not really a concern to them.”
This past year, Oregon became the first state in the country to allow residents to legally change their gender to “nonbinary” following an appeal from an Army veteran. Lawmakers in California, New York, and Washington, D.C., have also introduced similar bills that would provide a third gender option to official forms and allow residents to legally identify as nonbinary.
While South Carolina may lag far behind in making any such steps forward, Friar has dedicated their time to helping the marginalized communities in the Lowcountry, volunteering as an organizer for Girls Rock Charleston, working with parents of trans and non-conforming children as a part of We Are Family, and working as a sexual assault survivor advocate with People Against Rape. Last March, Friar led a presentation at the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association Conference in Atlanta. The title of Friar’s talk was “Queering Trauma Informed Services: Working with Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Survivors of Sexual Assault.” As a chairperson for the group Centering Voices, Friar will be presenting their talk to the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
“There is this problem in social services where every training given about working with a certain population is one step above actively abusive. We’ve never really moved past what else we can do and this is for a lot of reasons. This is funding. This is turnover. This is a lack of understanding,” says Friar. “I try to stay out of things that don’t have anything to do with me, but this is not just about queer people. We have limited trainings with working with undocumented survivors. We have limited trainings in thinking about sociopolitical oppression when working with people of color. We have limited trainings and information about working with people with disabilities. This was just one thing where I could personally take on some of the work so that hopefully it can be used in other ways.”
In considering how best to connect with all different groups, Friar recognizes that they are often what people picture when they think about gender nonconforming people. Friar is white, thin, able-bodied, was assigned female at birth, and is masculine presenting on most days. This has made it easier for Friar to be accepted by others, but calls on others for a deeper consideration of the full spectrum of individuals who identify as genderqueer.
“People must recognize that there is no one way a genderqueer person should look. We can be femme or masc or neither, and we hold many other identities that can influence the way other people see us. Specifically, people of color, people with disabilities, fat, and amab (assigned male at birth) folks are not as readily validated for their identity as I am. I am in no way the face of genderqueer identity, that face does not exist,” says Friar. “I am asking everyone to embrace the fluidity of gender and recognize that at a time like this when all of our lives are at stake, we do not get to pick and choose which injustices we will fight. As a community we must actively stand up against racism, ableism, xenophobia, fatphobia, sexism, heterosexism, transmisogyny, and classism. We must remember the words of activist Assata Shakur: ‘It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.'”