Before we're even born, while our bodies are still forming muscle and we grow our first strands of hair, one of the first questions people ask around four or five months of pregnancy is: Is it a boy or a girl? Should the booties, the nursery, the socks be pink or blue?
And on social media, that most democratic space (supposedly), you have your Man Crush Monday (#MCM) or Woman Crush Wednesday (#WCW).
Pink or blue?
Twenty-three-year-old Keyonis Johnson founded the hashtag #ThouCrushThursday on Instagram and Tumblr. #ThouCrushThursday is for those who are "gender-fluid": one of several current terms (others are gender queer, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming) for those who don't identify with either gender. The hashtag hasn't gone viral yet, but it's groundbreaking because there seem to be no other #MCM or #WCW equivalents for gender-fluid folks.
"You really aren't given the opportunity to explore and to choose for yourself how it is that you want to express yourself, and it's unfair," said Johnson.
Although Johnson would prefer to be referred to always as Keyonis, the appropriate pronouns are them/they. That's what we will use in this article.
On one Woman Crush Wednesday, Johnson realized they hadn't been anyone's crush in a while because they no longer identified as a woman.
After running the idea by friends, they posted their first #ThouCrushThursday post in October, reading: "Because nonbinary people deserve to be recognized just as much as everyone else. The binary does not define beauty."
Johnson, in an interview at the Barnes & Noble store near Temple University, says, "Everyone deserves to be appreciated, shown off, and crushed on."
Johnson says response to the hashtag was overwhelmingly positive. Posts began to roll in from across the country and abroad on Tumblr and Instagram.
The budding hashtag reached Benjamin Silva from Toronto. Silva, who identifies as gender queer, found the hashtag on Tumblr and says he immediately thought it was a great idea and wanted it to succeed. He posted a selfie.
"We're finally coming into an Internet age where nonbinary folks are making themselves visible and challenging [attitudes] still very prevalent in the queer community, everywhere," said Silva. "It's important to be seen, heard, and to know we're not alone."
They're not. New attitudes are percolating into pop culture, often via celebrities. Actor/model Ruby Rose, rapper Angel Haze, and actor Tilda Swinton all identify as gender fluid. And although sexuality isn't to be confused with gender, actress Keke Palmer has said she is sexually fluid, saying, "I'm making the rules for myself."
Growing up, Johnson says, they were a tomboy. But still, "I displayed my gender based on how I perceived others wanted me to."
It wasn't until high school and college that Johnson came into their sexuality more. During their sophomore year, they came out as a lesbian to their family, which responded generally with acceptance. But you can be a lesbian and not identify with either gender. So after becoming familiar with the layers of sexuality and gender identity via Tumblr, Johnson was able to put a name to an identity they've felt all their life.
"It's been a freeing experience, to wake up every day and not feel like I have to live my life for someone else and I can walk in my own truth," said Johnson.
Johnson, both excited and nervous, is days away from heading home to Chicago for the holidays to tell the family.
"It's not something you hear every day," Johnson said. "It's going to be a process, but I'm down for it because I have to meet them where they are."
That's something instructor La-Rhonda Harmon has been doing in her human sexuality class at Temple University. She said gender and sexual orientation are "the two most controversial topics of the entire semester." In a class of about 150, she said, it's very cut and dried: Students are either in favor of expanded notions of gender and sexuality or they're not.
The class has involved sensitivity training, even for the professor: Harmon said she had gotten emails critical of her own sensitivity. "I grew a lot from the class," Harmon said, "and took to heart what they were saying."
People who have used the hashtag, Johnson said, notice that most respondents have been white. Gender fluidity is often interpreted as "a white people thing and not something people of color go through, or, more specifically, black."
The hashtag, which includes trans people, is timely, given the murder in October of 22-year-old Kiesha Jenkins, a transgender woman who was beaten by five or six men and shot in the back twice while getting out of a car.
Trans people "live in a world of violence every day," said Johnson. "It's violent for them to even exist."
The National Center of Transgender Equality's 2015 study, "Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade" found that "transgender people overall experience high levels of discrimination in every area of life, as well as high levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, negative interactions with police, incarceration, and violent victimization." These experiences are "heightened for transgender people of color, especially women."
That was one of the many reasons Temple student Amaris Mitchell, 21, coproduced the documentary M or F as a final for a genres of media production. It delves into the topic of gender nonconformity.
Mitchell and her team interviewed nonbinary Philadelphians (including Johnson) about their identity and the trials and triumphs of living outside the check box.
"It upsets me when people think it's a trend or something new," said Mitchell. "Transgender or nonbinary people have always existed. It's just being brought to the forefront."
When people deny the nonbinary identity, Mitchell said, they are trying to distance themselves. Consequently, people with fluid identities become socially invisible and vulnerable to violence.
Like #ThouCrushThursday, M or F aims to humanize through visibility. Johnson plans to expand the hashtag and launch a series title "Between the Binary" on Tumblr, sharing photos and stories of the identity journeys of gender nonconforming people.
To be black, queer, and gender-nonconforming in today's society, Johnson says, "is a triple whammy." But it doesn't have to feel that way. "If I were to respond to everyone who said something negative about me and my identity, I'd be exhausted all the time," Johnson said. "I focus more so on the joy of being able to be free and who I am."
The quest is to find freedom in the pink, the blue, and the in-between.