Today is international coming out day. I wasn’t planning to write anything for the occasion because I’m in the extremely fortunate position of already being out about everything about myself that matters. It’s a real privilege that I don’t face any threats to my employment, relationships, or physical or mental well-being for being out about my sexuality, gender, relationships, and emotional struggles.
That hasn’t always been the case for me, and it’s also vital to remember that it very much isn’t the case for everyone. Part of the reason that it’s important that people are out about their experiences in these areas (and others) is that it helps to create the circumstances in which it is safer for other people to be open about all that they are too. Nobody should ever be pressured to be out when it doesn’t feel safe enough for them.
However, I have noticed recently that – despite me being open about it – some people seem to struggle to remember, and to understand, my non-binary gender. So here’s a Q&A to make it clearer.
Non-binary gender: What’s that then?
Non-binary gender, or genderqueer, is a big umbrella term used to refer to people who don’t experience themselves within the gender binary. In other words we don’t feel that we really fit into either the ‘man’ or ‘woman’ categories.
Isn’t that incredibly rare? Surely most people are either men or woman.
Not as rare as you might think. Although the idea of identifying as in some way non-binary is quite a new thing in western cultures – perhaps around 0.4% of people at the moment – an awful lot of people experience themselves in this way. One study found that over a third of people felt they were, to some extent, both genders, neither gender, or the ‘other’ gender. Recently in a YouGov survey 19% of people disagreed with the statement ‘you are either a man or a woman’, and a further 7% were not sure.
Is being non-binary a kind of trans?
Yep. Trans is an umbrella term referring to people who don’t remain in the gender they were assigned at birth. Given that most people at birth are described as being a boy or a girl, non-binary people definitely count as trans. However not all non-binary people see themselves as being trans, perhaps because the word trans has mostly been associated – in the past – with transitioning to being a woman or a man, and/or with medical interventions which not all non-binary people have.
What about you?
I personally regard myself as trans. I’m not living in the gender I was assigned at birth; this has involved a transition for me; and – as an activist – I share a lot in common with the agendas of other trans activists (binary and non-binary).
Also it’s worth pointing out here that even if somebody does identify themselves as a man or a woman, that doesn’t mean that they believe that gender is binary (that only those two things are possible).
And what about medical interventions?
As Laverne Cox nicely pointed out last year, people get far too fixated on trans people’s bodies and on surgeries and that can feel very intrusive and objectifying, so this generally isn’t a cool question to ask people.
Non-binary people make a whole range of different decisions – at different times in their lives – about whether to make bodily shifts that reflect their gender experience, or not. For myself, after a lot of reflection, I am getting surgery to flatten my chest later this year. It feels important and very fortunate to me to have that option as it’s having a big impact on how comfortable I feel in the world.
I’m also part of a few projects which are gathering information and expertise to hopefully make it easier for non-binary people to access these kinds of services in future.
And what about your name. I’m confused. Some of your books were published under ‘Meg Barker’ but now you often use ‘Meg-John’ and you sign your emails ‘MJ’. What should I use?
I changed my name officially last year to Meg John Barker because the name John is very meaningful to me for lots of reasons, and I kept hold of the Meg because that also feels like me. I like using Meg-John (with or without the hyphen) because it includes names that are generally seen as both feminine and masculine. I also like MJ for being completely neutral. I’m happy with other people using whichever of Meg-John or MJ feels best to them.
What if I get it wrong? Will you be really offended?
Not at all. It always takes some time to remember when somebody has made a change like this. It also took me a little time myself of hearing people use different versions of my name to figure out what worked best for me. As somebody who has significant cognitive difficulties in matching names to faces and in remembering how I know people out of context, I have a lot of sympathy with people struggling in this kind of area. It never bothers me if somebody has to keep correcting themselves for a while.
What does feel hard to me is if people don’t bother at all even after I’ve told them a few times. That can begin to feel like maybe they’re doing it to make a point, so it becomes harder to stay open and to keep gently reminding them.
And the pronoun thing? That I find really complicated.
As with names, non-binary people make a whole range of different decisions about which pronouns feel comfortable to them. Some use he or she, or alternate between the two, some choose alternative pronouns that have been developed, and some – like me – use they.
But isn’t that grammatically incorrect?
Short answer: nope. There’s a great youtube by a linguist explaining why not. We use the singular they all the time when we’re not sure about the gender of a person. For example, when we’re discussing Bake Off before we know who has won but we want to speculate about how they will feel or what their showstopper will look like.
Sometimes it can feel like people focus on issues of grammatical correctness when what they’re really uncomfortable about is the idea of non-binary gender. It certainly becomes quite tiring having to answer this question over and over again!
It feels too difficult to shift to using such an unfamiliar pronoun for you. Do I have to?
Again different people feel differently about this so I can’t speak for every non-binary person. Generally though it is respectful to use the pronoun that the person themselves uses. They pronouns feel a good fit for me. It feels really affirming to me when people use them. As with the name I don’t mind at all people when people get it wrong and correct themselves. It does feel hard when people decide not to do it at all, or when they refuse to use ‘they’ for me in a certain context because they don’t think that other people will like it.
If you’re struggling with it I’d suggest practising more. I find it helps, for example, to use they pronouns for animals so that they become more familiar. Also make sure you use they pronouns when talking about the person when they aren’t around so that you get more practised at referring to them in that way.
If you don’t know somebody’s pronoun it’s fine to check it out with them. The same applies if there’s other words you might need to shift in order to refer to them (e.g. like ‘sibling’ instead of ‘brother/sister’, or if they’re at an event where people would tend to be welcomed with ‘ladies and gentlemen’ – ‘friends and colleagues’ is a good alternative).
Listen what I really don’t get is why you can’t be who you are and stay within the category of woman (or man). Shouldn’t we be expanding what can count as a woman or man, rather than inventing new gender categories?
Absolutely I agree that it’s a great idea to expand out what things can be regarded as masculine or feminine, and how people can be as a woman or as a man. Rigid categories are bad for everyone. I think it’s fab that some people are remaining within those identities and expanding them, and that others are finding other ways to express and label their experience. Seeing gender as diverse and multifaceted, on a number of dimensions, feels like a great way forward to me.
So is non-binary just a political thing for you then?
Again all these things are different for different non-binary people (I really can’t stress that enough!) For me the personal is definitely political. I think that it’s really important that we stop assuming things about people, and restricting them so much, because of their gender. I think that pointing out how gender isn’t a simple binary is one good way of challenging that. Partly for me it is about walking the walk of the gender ideas that I have.
At the same time my non-binary gender is also a lot about my own personal experience. When I was young I went to a school where all the people who had the same interests and tastes as me were boys, and where gender was so segregated that I wasn’t able to hang out with them or to become friends with them. It was super painful to be able to see a place where I might belong, but not to be able to access it. It was also painful to learn that I had to ‘do’ a certain kind of femininity which didn’t fit me at all in order to be accepted or loved. Forcing myself to do that felt unkind, objectifying of myself, even violent at times. But I still did it.
It’s taken a very long time indeed to unlearn all the habits I learnt in order to fit in and to be approved of. Having done a lot of that work I was left with not feeling like I was a woman, but equally not feeling that I was a man. When I came across other non-binary people I experienced that sense of fit. It felt right to me. And it felt like an important kindness to myself to allow myself to be openly non-binary.
But aren’t you a queer activist/writer person? Surely that’s all about getting away from identities?
Yes it’s true that queer theory and queer activism aims to get away from identity politics (fighting for our rights on the basis of identity). Fixed identity terms often fail to capture the fluidity, diversity, or complexity of experience. And identity politics is often about gaining rights for some groups at the expense of others: redrawing the line between who is culturally accepted and who is not.
My own aim would be for a world where all the diverse experiences of gender are all equally accepted and valued. Non-binary and genderqueer feel like good broad terms for expressing my experience of gender given that it feels like it is between and/or beyond what our culture generally assumes is meant by ‘woman’ or ‘man’.
The psychologist Sandra Bem used to say that there were two ways out of the massive gender inequality we currently have in so many areas. One was dialling down the importance of gender – just treating people as people. The other was dialling it up to the point that we had thousands of different gender terms to capture the full range of gender experience. Her view was that the former approach didn’t really work out, so we needed to shift to the latter. I think she may have had a point.
In so many ways it’s important to move towards an intersectional approach where we understand every person as being at a unique intersection point of their gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, sexuality, generation, geographical location, disability, etc. etc. etc. We need to see each person in all that complexity, and to develop a better understanding of how all these areas operate structurally in combination to create the view that some people are more valuable than others. Then we need to try to shift those structures so that is no longer the case.
Find out more
There’s more on all of this in my book How to Understand Your Gender.
Download our non-binary gender factsheet!
Here are links to:
- Beyond the Binary (online non-binary magazine)
- Trans media watch guidelines on non-binary gender
- Everyday Feminism on Non-Binary
- CN Lester’s blog
- A talk I did a couple of years back on youtube
- Jay Stewart’s TED talk