Lauren Lubin on their film WE EXIST and nonbinary activism

Lauren Lubin on their film WE EXIST and nonbinary activism

Athlete and activist Lauren Lubin discusses their journey to find their gender identity while helping others to find their own through the new documentary WE EXIST: Beyond the Binary. Interview conducted by Kara Grant.


Tell us a little bit about you and your film.

WE EXIST: Beyond the Binary, from the name itself, we really wanted people to understand the concept of the film without even seeing it because we believe the message is so important. Even just communicating that there’s life beyond the binary, was something that had to be in the name. The film, in its most simple terms, explores what life is like for people who exist outside of the gender binary while living within the constructs of a binary world. The film very closely follows my life and the intricacies of what it is like from a day-to-day perspective to identify and exist this way. But we also branch out and explore what life is like from a larger global and social perspective.

When and how did you know that you wanted to tell your story in a documentary format?
I knew pretty early on when I was first coming into my own identity. It took me my entire life to actually form that identity simply because I didn’t have the language or even the knowledge that I can exist as I am in this way. After extensive, extensive research and deep introspection, I recognized that throughout history, these are identities and ways of being that have always existed. I remember the first thought I had was, “How come I’ve never heard of this before? How come we don’t talk about this?” And it was through that realization that I recognized, in that moment, the systemic silencing and erasure that people like myself had to deal with historically. We were so incredibly silenced and invisible, so I saw film as being the most natural and obvious medium to start bringing a voice and a face to a really pressing issue.

How did you come to collaborate with Tyler Ford for this project? How important was it to have other gender nonbinary voices and experiences included in your film?
Tyler was an incredibly important part of the film and voice that I was hoping to incorporate in the film because when we talk about identity, and particularly nonbinary identities, the whole point is to show that there’s not one or two ways to be. Everybody’s identity and existence and how they feel within themselves, it’s really infinitely varied. Everybody is just different, and that’s the beauty of us. By showing different perspectives, mine and Tyler’s, there’s a nice frame of reference and balance. I got in touch with Tyler through Kristin Russo, who is in the film as well. Kristin and I worked together for a number of years leading up to production. Through conversations with Kristin and loosely knowing Tyler from afar, I knew they would be a wonderful voice and story to include in the film. Tyler is also an amazing educator.

I know many trans folks feel out of place in queer communities, and some nonbinary folks can feel out of place in trans communities. Being a gender-nonbinary person, how has your experience been existing in the LGBTQ community?
I think historically I’ve always felt out of place because, primarily, all the different letters after the ‘T’ in LGBT didn’t exist for a while. It was typically based mostly in sexual preferences and sexual identities, and sexual identity is different than gender identity. So it didn’t actually address the things I was feeling within myself or even the things I was advocating about myself when it came to gender because it was based in sexual orientation. That’s important too, but it’s apples and oranges. So often times I felt like an outsider within the LGBTQ+ communities simply because it was never fully geared towards gender identity. Although the ‘T’ had been present for a while, we never spoke about it. I always felt like it was tacked on there and sexual orientation typically dominated what that acronym meant. I think now we have really moved into a whole other arena, where we recognize that gender identity is just as much a part of what this acronym means. I feel much more inclusiveness within the community. I think we’ve done a tremendous job of expanding the terms and the concepts of what they mean. At the same time we have to recognize that there’s such an important intersection between all of these letters and acronyms, between sexual orientation and gender identity. The rigidness behind those letters has become much more flexible.

Can you talk about your decision to have top surgery? Did you experience any pushback from your family, friends, and other people in your life?
For me, the decision to have surgery wasn’t a decision. It’s like, if you had a broken shoulder, you’d fix it, right? Otherwise, you’re being negligent. So for me, it was a medical condition and I did what was necessary for me and what I knew was best for me. And it was the best thing I ever did for myself, I wish I did it sooner. However, it was also an extremely difficult decision due to the misunderstanding surrounding it, especially seven years ago when I did it. It was a whole other world back then, people weren’t talking about trans issues, nonbinary issues, nor had they any understanding of what that meant in terms of what people like myself had to do in order to be themselves. Because of the ignorance and lack of understanding, it definitely caused a ton of pushback from what felt like everybody in my life, like some of the closest people in my life. Nobody understood it, so there was an extreme sense of isolation in those moments. That’s the irony of it all, this was the biggest step I could’ve taken to honor myself and, in doing so, I felt completely isolated. It made the experience very bittersweet in a lot of ways.

What advice would you give to other agender/nonbinary folks who want surgery but can’t afford it?
There’s two things. One, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have community around you and people who you can fully and truly lean on because those people are often your best resources to help you, and provide you with some of the resources you might not have full access to at the moment. And then I would also say, along with your support system, start to set future goals of where you hope to be and do your best each and everyday to work towards achieving those goals. Just because things are the way they are now, doesn’t mean that they’re always going to be that way. It took me my whole life to get me to where I am now and I continue to work on it. The combination of having a really strong support system, and it doesn’t even have to be more than one person, and doing your due diligence and doing your research -- seeing what’s available to you, where it’s available, when it can be available, and how -- is really important.

Have you felt significant changes in people’s attitudes towards genderqueerness over the years? What would you consider the major challenges in deconstructing the gender binary in the future, especially under the current administration?
I 100% have noticed the change in people’s attitudes towards and knowledge about genderqueerness for the positive. It’s been extremely encouraging. We started this project seven years ago and, at the time, it was as if I was speaking another language. People did not understand at all, and then on top of it there was just a lot of fear surrounding it. Now, this has hit mainstream culture. I’m no longer educating about the meaning of these terms, people get them now. Don’t get me wrong, education still needs to happen on a large, large scale. But these aren’t foreign concepts anymore. And I actually had found that to be the biggest challenge, introducing these terms to society. Now that they exist, the next challenge is to start implementing and including us within the fabric of society so we can occupy space within society. Because currently, we’re excluded. With this current administration… [sighs]. I think the best way to put it is, it’s never deterred me from anything because no administration has ever included us. So this isn’t anything different. But I think what this current administration has done is lit a fire under everyone’s ass. It’s up to us to make changes, and we have a record amount of women who are in Congress, who are voting, who are running for presidency and standing with the LGBTQ+ community. It’s really motivated people so if anything, I think it has inspired people to make the changes and be part of the change. In some sort of bizarre way, I actually feel more inspired than ever because it’s really brought some deep-seeded issues to the surface that perhaps we haven’t looked at before.  

Has the world of sports been a supportive community to you in the process of realizing your gender identity?
Sports is a microcosm of society, and that’s why I really turned to sports as a way of activism and a way to promote change. Also just being an athlete, throughout my career playing at a very high level, I did not feel that sports supported who I was. I was scared to ever be myself because historically and even currently sports is one of the most entrenched industries in gender norms. It’s probably one of the most binary. I’ve turned to running now as the main sport that I compete in, and it’s really changed my view of sport and the sporting world. Running is one of most inclusive sports and the people who are part of it are typically part of it because of something that inspired them and moved them. I really use sport as a vehicle to highlight society, and as an instrument for change. If we can make some of these changes within sport, then we can do it within society. It’s already starting to happen on small levels within sport. There are youth leagues that are nonbinary, there are nonbinary protocols coming into place for kids to have more access at the entry level to get into sport. The next step is to be to starting doing all this at the more elite and adult level.

How do you think your film can be used in classrooms?
We made the film specifically for academia. We also have complimentary curriculum and work pages that go along with the film. It is meant to be an educational tool and resource. We confront everything from terminology, to differentiating between terminology, to clarifying terminology, to pronouns, to the history of gender identity and gender politics, to even the way in which society distributes power, and how our society is organized in binary standards. I think that the film gives a really nice introduction and overview of the gender binary and gender beyond the binary, and then it also gives a closer glimpse into the ways this affects people and the ways in which we can create change.

What do you want students to do after they watch the film?
The biggest thing that we want students to do is to obviously tell their friends about it. And I want students to really feel like they’ve learned something and to also start changing the way in which they think about other people and the world. I want students to start recognizing that the world really isn’t binary and there aren’t two ways of being or thinking or existing. I think the biggest thing is to slow down and really start looking at the world more holistically and openly.

Do you still get misgendered and if so, how do you deal with that emotionally and in actuality?
I deal with it by having realistic expectations and recognizing that we do live in a binary world that is changing and moving forward. I think people are becoming more educated. Going back to your previous question, I hope that students can walk away with the knowledge that they shouldn’t make assumptions about people. Assumptions is where a lot of these pitfalls happen. It’s much better to just ask what pronouns somebody uses rather than assuming. For me, I also take my own advice to not assume that people will not assume my gender identity. This is still the world we live in, and it’s going to be this way for a while and I am going to be misgendered and that’s okay. For me, I don’t take it personally unless I’ve corrected you, and corrected you a few times and you just don’t listen. Then, that’s offensive and there will have to be some kind of conversation but otherwise, I see it as a learning opportunity. And it really is. I find more times than not people are wanting and willing to learn and are happy, even if it is uncomfortable or awkward at first, that it happened. It also kind of clears the air. And to people who feel bad for not properly gendering someone, don’t feel bad. Mistakes happen and we all slip up. When I was starting to identify this way, I would misgender my own self because my mind was trying to catch up! We’re all human, I misgendered myself so I’m not going to hold you to a higher standard.

Is there anything that you would like to address that I haven’t asked you about?
The overall gist of this film is be an educational resource but also an aide for people who just don’t feel safe. There are so many people out there who just don’t feel safe to talk to anyone -- their families, friends at school, anyone in their religious congregations if that applies, whatever it is. I want the film to act as some sense of safety for those people. That’s why it’s important for us to communicate this message as loud as we can, so those who don’t necessarily have that support around them can feel like there’s some sort of voice for them.