On a Saturday morning in early June, the senior class of the Sandy Spring Friends School in a suburb of Washington filed onto risers on the leafy campus and took seats on folding chairs. Family and friends snapped photos of the graduating students in their formal attire: girls in white dresses, boys in black or navy blazers. In the center of the front row sat a student who didn’t match either group, with a heart-shaped face framed by dark cropped hair, shoulders slightly hunched, wearing a pinstriped button-down shirt, navy blue pants and a bow tie.
From up on the riser, Eli Casavant spotted Mom and Dad seated at the front of the audience — Susan with her bobbed blond hair and a purple and green flowered dress. Scott, solidly built, in a gray suit and purple tie, holding a camera with a telephoto lens. Beside them sat Eli’s two sisters, Eli’s brother-in-law, an aunt and a great-aunt — all there to witness an event Eli had been convinced would never happen.
Since eighth grade Eli had attended three schools and been hospitalized for depression and anxiety five times, twice after attempting suicide. Eli’s forearms and thighs were marked with thin white scars from slicing through skin to tamp the pain of a lifetime of profound discomfort — with the birth name chosen by Susan and Scott, with the pink sequined dresses grandma used to buy, with having to inhabit a female body. And with the fact that the other option, being male, also felt wrong.
For as long as Eli could remember, gender dysphoria had hung like a fog, obscuring any solid sense of self. The discomfort became so severe in middle and high school that it had been hard to even get out of bed. “I won’t make it past high school,” Eli had often thought.
Then in the past year or two, life had begun to brighten. After trying and discarding various gender and sexual identities, one had finally clicked: non-binary, meaning Eli didn’t identify with being fully male or female.
There is no reliable research on how many Americans identify as non-binary, but the gender identity is increasingly visible in popular culture, on college campuses and in workplaces. A growing number of cities and states offer it or “other” on driver’s licenses, school enrollment forms and other official documents. This past September, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary announced a new definition of “they” to mean a singular pronoun referring to a non-binary person. The Washington Post began formally recognizing the usage in 2015.
But the world is still largely a binary place, especially for older Americans like Eli’s parents. Scott and Susan are in their 50s, devout Catholics and political conservatives who grew up in small-town America, at a time and place when, as Susan, a stay-at-home mom, put it, “You were either a boy or a girl, and they really didn’t talk about anything else.” The family struggled for years to keep up with Eli’s ever-changing conception of self.
From the riser now, Eli searched out Scott, his camera hoisted high to record the occasion. Beside him, Susan smiled brightly. The head of school, Tom Gibian, had taken the mic.
Eli had spoken with school officials to make sure that when reading out the graduates’ names Gibian would say “Eli,” and not “Deanna,” the birth name Susan and Scott had given their child. Eli hoped Gibian would follow through.
Gibian was speaking about change: “I am referring to uncertainty. To what is in the windowless room. To what is around the dark corner, to what is behind the curtain in the locked box. I’m referring to what happens to you when you leave your comfort zone.”
He could have been speaking to Eli’s parents. When Eli tried to talk to them about being non-binary, they would just smile and nod uneasily. They didn’t argue or berate or try to disown Eli. Eli was sure of their love, but their response felt frustrating, “like I had changed my opinion on what my favorite food was.”
Susan and Scott had gotten used to saying “Eli” in front of Eli’s friends and even at home in private, but in public, or among some family members, they still used the dead name, “Deanna.” It made Eli wonder whether Susan and Scott were ashamed.
Eli needed them to understand that this wasn’t a phase, and the name was a big part of that. Today, Eli had also turned 18 and could legally change it. But Eli wanted a parental blessing. If Scott and Susan could truly let go of “Deanna,” Eli thought, that would symbolize that they were ready to relinquish the old idea of their child and accept what felt true to Eli.
“Eli Casavant,” Gibian announced.
Eli stepped forward, shook the head of school’s hand, took the diploma and then sank back into the chair on the riser, heart pounding. It felt great to hear the chosen name amplified for all to hear.
Scott gathered the family in front of a large copper beech tree near the parking lot to take photos, and Eli’s smile was genuine.
Afterward, Eli noticed Susan holding a graduation program and asked to take a look.
There it was, printed in bold black letters in the first column: Deanna Casavant.
Eli felt a surge of anger. Why was it so hard to get right?
The next day, Eli was dressing for the graduation cookout at the family’s home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Germantown, Md., feeling a bit jittery.
Eli tried on an olive-green linen jumpsuit and looked in the bedroom mirror. No. Too hip-hugging. Too feminine. Better to go casual — an eggplant-purple camisole with khaki cargo shorts — part feminine, part masculine.
Eli’s friend Keith Sakell arrived early. Keith, 17, was not non-binary; he knew he was a man despite what his birth certificate said. At 5-foot-9, with short curly hair and glasses, he had recently started taking testosterone, and his voice had deepened. Next summer he was planning surgery to remove his breasts.
Eli’s relationship with their body was more complicated. If there were an imaginary “male to female” scale from left to right, Eli felt they floated above it. On days when Eli felt more feminine, they desired bigger breasts. But often, they wished for a flat chest and wore a binder under their shirt. Eli was also considering taking a small amount of testosterone, just enough to appear more androgynous.
After dressing, Eli went downstairs with Keith to wait for the guests, an assortment of neighbors and family friends and relatives, some of them far-flung. On folding tables in the basement room opening up to the backyard, Scott had laid out his famous barbecue pork ribs. Coolers were stocked with beer and seltzer.
Later, wielding his camera, Scott had Eli pose with each guest. I don’t even know these people, Eli thought.
“What are your next steps?” asked an older woman with short white hair whom Eli vaguely recognized as being from Scott’s side of the family.
“Oh, I’m going to Montgomery College for two years before I transfer to a four-year,” Eli said.
Eli worried that it sounded unambitious. These people might not know that mental health issues had caused Eli’s grades to suffer for much of high school.
The dysphoria had nagged at Eli for as long as they could remember. Little sister Marlena hadn’t seemed to mind when Scott affectionately called her his princess, but such terms had made Eli recoil. That ambivalence must have been obvious early on, because Eli remembered being about 8 one day in the car when Susan said, “If you were a lesbian, we’d be opening up a new can of worms.” Eli didn’t know what a lesbian was but was struck by Susan’s tone. Okay, Eli thought, I won’t be a lesbian.
By middle school, Eli felt attracted to girls. At a Catholic camp, a counselor said he knew Eli was a lesbian and forced Eli to kneel on a concrete floor for 45 minutes “to take advantage of this time in Jesus’ presence to change that.”
Instead, Eli announced to Susan after eighth grade that they were gay. By then, Susan wasn’t entirely surprised. Perhaps the church would eventually soften, she thought, like it had on interracial or interfaith marriage.
The first Susan heard about a name change was from Eli’s ninth-grade school counselor, who informed her that her child was going by “Charlie.” At that point, Eli was struggling with issues so grave that Susan didn’t think a name change was worth fighting over.
However, Eli had unwittingly chosen the name of Susan’s ex-husband.
“I just cannot call you Charlie,” she said. So Eli picked Eli.
Eli finally had a name that fit. But neither “lesbian” nor “trans man,” the identity Eli tried out in 10th grade, did. Eli didn’t exclusively like women, or feel like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. The reality was much messier.
As the cookout got underway, Eli and Keith retreated to the edge of the lawn, where the neighbors’ children were playing. Eli could see Keith’s dad standing under the porch chatting with Scott. Susan was talking with Janice LaVoie, Scott’s mother’s sister who lived in Massachusetts and was one of the first people Eli had told about being non-binary.
A trim 76-year-old with short steel-colored hair who favors large shiny necklaces, Aunt Jan felt an affinity with Eli. She, too, had broken rules, in her case by divorcing when the Catholic Church’s edicts held firm in her family.
When Eli had opened up to her, she said she would support Eli, no matter what. But, like everyone else in the family, Aunt Jan still called Eli “she.”
The idea of it got Keith riled up. Noting that Eli’s parents had no problem calling Keith “him,” he said, “If you can respect my pronouns, why can’t you respect your own child’s pronouns?”
Keith’s parents did their best to use Eli’s pronouns. Even when Keith’s mom slipped up, she would correct herself.
“It’s kind of bittersweet because it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s really nice that someone’s accepting me,’ ” Eli said.
“We want to adopt you,” Keith said.
Eli laughed. “As long as they’re trying, it’s like, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ ”
The truth was Eli didn’t care that much whether Scott and Susan used “they/them.” Eli cared about the name.
Eli wanted to talk with Scott and Susan about it but didn’t want to hurt them or make them angry. The older Eli got, the more the given name felt like a weight. It grated on Eli to have to use it to register for college. It felt wrong to display the high school diploma that said “Deanna.” Eli felt heartsick thinking about that name appearing on a college degree and persisting into adulthood.
Suddenly Eli felt a tap on the shoulder. Susan leaned in and whispered, “You’re showing too much. I can see the straps of your bra.”
Eli did a mental eye roll, familiar with Susan’s “dress-coding.” Eli could have said: I’m 18 now, Mom, I can wear a cami. Or, I don’t have much chest to show off, I don’t have any cleavage.
There was no point. Eli went back up to their room and threw on a long-sleeve striped shirt from the Salvation Army, leaving it unbuttoned over the camisole.
It was not as if Eli’s mom didn’t try. She was doing that right now, a few days before she planned to take Eli and a couple of friends to Ocean City as a graduation gift. Eli didn’t feel comfortable wearing bikini bottoms at the beach, so the two were strolling the aisles of Target in search of swimming trunks.
Eli wanted a more masculine look. Eli also had another reason for wanting trunks. They hadn’t yet told their family they had gone to Fatty’s Tattoos a few hours after graduation and, against Scott and Susan’s stated wishes, gotten a tattoo. It was a small ignited matchstick, representing gratitude for the time they had left in the world — the first of several Eli had planned for when they turned 18 — and it was positioned high on the right thigh, safely above the shorts line.
Susan riffled through the clearance racks. It was late June and the inventory was picked over, but she found a few pairs of men’s trunks. “How about these?” she said tentatively.
This show of support touched Eli. Susan was good with clothes and fashion. In December, when Eli had been struggling to find a way to dress that felt right, Susan had hired a personal shopper to take Eli to H&M and put together a look.
Now, at Lakeforest Mall a few miles from the Target, Susan sat at a cafe table while Marlena looked for jeans. As shoppers walked by with baby strollers and department store bags, Susan tried to describe her concern for her middle child. Eli was so young and vulnerable. Life, Susan thought, would be so much more difficult for her child in a broader society that is still unaccepting, and often cruel, about gender ambiguity.
She was trying hard to adjust. She figured she had gotten pretty good at remembering to say “Eli.” Pronouns were harder.
“I call her ‘her’ because it’s what I guess I’m comfortable with,” Susan said. “The ‘they’ just doesn’t work with my vocabulary. … I find it confusing.” So Susan stuck with feminine pronouns. “And she seems okay with that — she hasn’t really pushed it.”
Maybe it was wishful thinking, but Susan wasn’t even sure Eli, an avid artist who often changed hair color, would settle on non-binary in the end. After all, Eli was a teenager, she said. “She’s supposed to be exploring who she is.”
Susan had no problem seeing Keith as a boy — he looked and sounded like one. But this non-binary idea was something else. “I don’t get it, okay? I don’t get what non-binary really means, or feels. Eli said one time that she doesn’t feel feminine, and I kind of thought about it and I thought I don’t know what feminine is supposed to feel like.”
Susan wondered whether Eli’s identity issues could be a product of the time. “I feel like society puts pressure on people at a younger age to define who they really are,” she said. “Now, children, when they’re 10 or 11 years old, they start wondering, do I feel like a boy or a girl?”
Susan didn’t know if she would ever understand. For now, it seemed best to just offer support. “She’s my child; I will always be there to the best of my ability, even though I don’t know exactly how she’s feeling.”
On their first day in Ocean City, Susan rested at the Airbnb while Eli, Keith and their friend Cate Cox hit the boardwalk. A couple of days earlier, Eli had gotten another leg tattoo, and it felt tender, yet the water looked enticing. Stepping onto the sand, Eli slipped off the shorts to reveal bikini bottoms and dark ink on white skin. Everyone could see it. Eli felt badass, like an adult who could look however they wanted.
A few weeks later, Eli was feeling like a child still in need of approval. It was July and the family had taken a trip to the Poconos with friends. Everyone had gone on a long hike, except Eli and Susan. The two visited a small zoo called Claws ‘N’ Paws, then stopped at a roadside diner and took a table outside for lunch.
Eli had been waiting for an opportunity to talk one-on-one with Susan about the name change. That was generally how Eli communicated with both parents. Eli would talk to Susan and then Susan would relay the details to Scott, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
Eli ordered a cheeseburger. Susan ordered hummus with pita bread. When the food arrived, Eli took a bite, chewed and swallowed. The burger stuck in Eli’s throat, but Eli spoke the words anyway.
“I’m thinking about legally changing my name,” Eli said, in a conversation Eli and Susan later recalled.
Eli had rehearsed the arguments: I’d like you to be supportive of my changing my name. This isn’t just a nickname. It fits me better than Deanna. It’s who I am. Nobody calls me Deanna any more.
Eli thought Susan might wonder about the name choice. Eli had picked it because it sounded androgynous, “masculine-ish.” An “Eli” would be tall, with dark hair and dark clothing. “Kind of had this like mysterious, like intimidating look … that’s kind of like who I wanted to become.”
Eli could also point out that their birth middle name, Elizabeth, actually shortened to Eli.
But Susan was just looking at her food.
Eli pressed ahead.
“Uh, I was thinking of keeping my middle name in the family, and I was wondering if you could help me think of any family names I could use.”
Susan’s face was inscrutable.
“I’d probably actually do David, because that’s Pépé’s name,” Eli said, referring to the family nickname for Scott’s father, with whom Eli was close.
Eli tried another angle, quoting something they’d seen on Instagram. “Your name is a gift, and if you don’t like it you should be able to return it.”
Still looking down, Susan nodded. But the nod felt to Eli more like dismissal than assent. This was not the time.
“The big cats all looked really sad, didn’t they?” Eli said.
“Yeah,” said Susan.
One afternoon in early August, Eli went to Frederick and got another tattoo, this one of a hydrangea flower. It was in honor of Pépé, who had had hydrangeas in his garden in Massachusetts when Eli was growing up.
Eli hoped that when their parents eventually saw the tattoos they’d realize that Eli was an adult now and could make their own decisions. But so far, Eli hadn’t gotten up the nerve to reveal them to Scott or Susan.
Later that month, the family made its annual trek to West Newbury, where Pépé’s house was. The hydrangea plants that Eli and Marlena used to race between no longer stood in the backyard. Soon, there would be no more remnants of Pépé. He lived in a memory care place now, and Scott and Susan were cleaning out the house.
After arriving, the family went to visit Pépé. Pépé was sitting in his recliner by a window, sunlight filtering in through the sheer curtains. The TV was turned to a news channel, but he didn’t seem to hear it. To Eli, who later recalled what happened that day, Pépé looked frail in the loose sweatpants that had replaced his signature jeans.
“Deanna and Marlena came to visit,” Scott said when they walked in.
Pépé looked up, confused. “Which one is that?”
Scott pointed — the short-haired one was “Deanna” and the long-haired one was Marlena. But Pépé did not recognize his grandchildren.
Eli felt overwhelmed. Like Eli, Pépé had battled depression, and Eli had always felt he understood Eli better than most family members. But now it was painfully clear that Pépé was never going to know the person Eli was becoming. Eli went outside and wept under a tree.
A few days later, Eli went with Scott’s sister, Denise, to Pépé’s apartment to pick up his shaving equipment. Aunt Denise was another relative Eli felt close to; she had LGBT friends, and it was she who, a few nights earlier, had pointed out a rainbow flag Aunt Jan had hoisted in front of her house in a nod to Eli.
Now, Eli had something to tell Aunt Denise. “Uh, can I show you something?" Eli later recalled saying, recounting the conversation. "And can you promise not to tell my dad?”
“Of course,” said Aunt Denise, who did not want her last name used in this article
Eli rolled up a sleeve to expose an upper arm. They had been wanting to reveal it to someone in the family. Someone who would understand.
“Oh my god,” Aunt Denise said. “Is that real?”
“Is that a hydrangea?”
“Yeah. I got it for Pépé.”
“Because of the hydrangeas that were in his backyard?”
“Yes. That’s what I associate most with him.”
“That’s so sweet,” Aunt Denise said. Then she said, “You should show it to Pépé.”
“No,” Eli said. “I haven’t told my parents yet.”
Denise reached over and gave Eli a long hug before Eli finally pulled away.
On sign-up day for clubs at Montgomery College, 16 students, including Eli, had added their names to a list of people interested in the Gay-Straight Alliance. But a week or two passed, and nobody had gotten in touch. When Eli checked in with the student life specialist, it turned out no student had stepped forward to lead the group, so Eli decided to do it.
Now on a brisk September afternoon, Eli sat at a picnic table at the Germantown campus with a short-haired young woman in oversized glasses as the two students tried to decide on a mission statement and club name.
“Right now the name is Free to Be, but in parentheses it’s the Gay-Straight Alliance,” Eli said, then added, a little hesitantly: “I was thinking of renaming it SAGA, Sexuality And Gender Alliance. Do you think that’s more inclusive?”
“I’m going to be completely honest with you. I’m really not familiar with every term, so you might need to help me out,” the woman said.
“That’s okay, yeah,” Eli said, their voice stronger now. “Gay’s an umbrella term, but … not even everyone sees it as an umbrella term, so I think if we just do gender and sexuality, that’s covering the whole deal.”
Scanning the sign-up sheet, Eli’s eyes stopped on their own writing: “Eli” in bigger letters and then tiny, in parentheses, “deanna.” That was in case anyone needed to find their email or search for them in the directory.
The first week of school, professors had read out “Deanna” in class. A couple were still having trouble remembering to say “Eli,” leaving Eli having to either correct them each time or sit silently while their dead name was called.
One thing was becoming increasingly obvious: If they didn’t take action, the dead name would linger.
So in early October, Eli came home from school about noon on a Wednesday. Scott was at work, and Marlena was at school. Susan was home, her left arm in a sling; she had broken her shoulder falling on the stairs.
Eli kicked off their Doc Martens, ordered a large cheese pie from Pizza Boli’s for the two of them, and then sat with Susan in the light-filled kitchen to wait for it. Their dog, Ginger, a Tibetan spaniel, dozed by the back door.
Eli’s hair was hidden that day under a backward baseball cap. The night before, after a summer of having dark hair with green streaks, Eli had tried to go blond. But the bleach hadn’t taken, resulting in a mottled patchwork of green, platinum and rust.
“Better leave that to the professionals now,” Susan said, smiling. Eli nodded and smiled back; Eli had a salon appointment later that afternoon. But Eli’s stomach was clenched like a fist. It would be so much easier to keep chatting about hair color, about Susan’s shoulder, to keep things breezy.
But then nothing would change.
“Um,” Eli began. “So remember in the Poconos, we were talking at that little roadside place about changing my name?”
Susan let out a small sigh.
“You know,” Eli said, “after the zoo?
“Mm-kay,” Susan said. Her voice cracked a little.
“Do you remember?”
“I don’t remember that roadside place. But I do remember you talking about changing your name, yeah.”
“The place we ate lunch,” Eli said. “So, do you, like, even think that’s even a plausible thing that you’d allow or, like, support me through?”
The question hung between them.
Eli’s leg jiggled up and down furiously under the table.
Susan paused and looked at Eli.
“Yeah, if you feel that strongly about it.”
The fist inside Eli’s stomach began to loosen.
“Okay,” Eli said softly.
“However,” Susan said, her voice steadier now, the practical problem-solver mom taking over. “I don’t know what the costs in legal fees are, so we’d have to talk about it as to how to cover that cost.”
Eli nodded. “I believe I have to go to a courthouse and say I’m not a criminal, I’m not trying to commit tax fraud or anything like that.”
“Yeah,” Susan said. “I have no idea how all that would work.”
Relief flooded through Eli. If they were talking logistics, it meant the hardest part was over.
“I thought there was going to be a little bit of pushback,” Eli said aloud.
Susan tilted her head and looked at her child. “I think you asked me about it in the summer, and I remember the conversation,” she said. “Obviously it’s more on your mind and you’ve thought about it over the summer. So you’ve given it thought and not just an impulse this week, ‘Oh I want to do this.’ ”
That day in the Poconos, Susan said, she had felt unprepared. She had decided to put the subject aside and see if Eli broached it again. That had also given her time to think about her own feelings.
In one sense it was disappointing. A name was like a gift, one of the most personal offerings a parent can bestow, and to have it rejected stung. But in the months since graduating, Eli had seemed so much more confident and self-sufficient, so much happier. The thought occurred to Susan: Eli is loving herself again. That was all that really mattered. If Eli was so set on making the name legal, why not give it her blessing?
“I really like the name Deanna,” Susan said slowly. “I guess when I named you I did the best I could. Picked the name that I thought was appropriate, because I had a little girl. … But it’s just not fitting anymore.
“So it’s more than just a nickname,” Susan said. “Eli.”
“It’s more than just a nickname,” Eli said. “It’s a name.”
The pizza arrived. Eli set it on the table, and Susan used her good arm to nudge open the box and put a slice on her plate. Eli took a slice and bit into it but could hardly taste it, everything felt so light.
Editing by Sydney Trent. Copy editing by Beth Hughes. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Design and development by Brianna Schroer.