Beyond the binary: Gender outside of the two-box world
Last month, when I flew to the states, the flight attendants frequently referred to me as ‘Sir’ when they appeared behind me with the drinks trolley. Once I’d spoken they’d correct themselves, flustered, ‘I’m sorry Madam’. Neither word really feels like it refers to me.
Once out in America a waitress greeted me and my friends (a cis lass and a trans guy) as ‘ladies’: a term which none of us related to.
Later on it felt good to share stories about the confusion and discomfort we’d received from department store staff when shopping for clothes. The group I hung out with included transmasculine folk, butch women, and people who identified as non-binary.
This latter term is one which I increasingly relate to myself. So what is it like if neither of the accepted gender labels fit?
DIVA spoke to several non-binary people, as well as to professionals who work across the gender spectrum, to find out how it is to occupy a place outside the binary. The main message is that, like bisexual or gay people, non-binary people are ordinary folk who should be treated with the same respect as anybody, rather than as some kind of special case.
As with categories like lesbian or bisexual, non-binary covers a vast range of experiences, which may have little in common. Some people incorporate elements of masculinity and femininity (bigender). Others regard themselves as between genders, having a third gender, not having a gender at all, or shifting gender over time (gender fluid). Some recognise multiple genders (pangender) or explicitly want to challenge the binary (genderqueer or genderfuck). Of the people DIVA spoke to, one was androgynous, another genderqueer, and a third non-gendered.
Language is important here because so many of our words are gendered. Many non-binary people have embraced the – perfectly grammatical – pronoun they (rather than he/she), and some have developed alternative pronouns (like zie, per or hir). There is a useful video about this here (although it is important to remember that some prefer alternatives to ‘they’ for good reasons):
Some use different names in different contexts, or gender-neutral names. Some adopt the title Mx as opposed to Mr/Ms, and words like boi or grrrl are also popular. If you are unsure, the best thing is just to ask what a person’s preference is.
Non-binary, intersex and trans*
For many people non-binary gender is unrelated to their biological sex, whereas for some these aspects are related. One such person, Lola, said: “I want people to know that intersex people exist and that sex is actually not a binary either.” As biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling puts it: “While male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum, there are many bodies […] that evidently mix together anatomical components conventionally attributed to both males and females.” Between 0.5 to 2% of people are intersex, but don’t assume that all intersex people will see themselves as non-binary, or that all non-binary people are intersex.
Being non-binary is part of the wider trans* umbrella (where the asterisk can stand for many things: gender, sexual, or vestite, for example). Therapist and academic Alex Iantaffi says that “around 10-15% of trans* folks seem to identify outside of the gender binary. People with non-binary identities might seek some level of body modification, because this allows them to more fully express their gender identity, but they might also not seek any body modification at all”.
Such modifications are possible these days as medics increasingly recognise genders beyond the binary. Christina Richards, who is a senior specialist psychology associate in two NHS gender identity clinics (GICs), says: “There is a common assumption that GICs only see people who wish to transition to male or female, however this is simply not true. At the two GICs I work for (and many other GICs) we see people from a whole spectrum of gender backgrounds with a wide variety of needs and wishes.”
As with sexuality, which we know can be quite fluid over a lifetime, some non-binary people remain fixed in their gender while others shift. Researcher, Lisa Diamond, found that many lesbian or bisexual women changed their identity over time. Similarly, some folk identify as non-binary and later as binary (and vice versa). Christina Richards recommends that people are mindful of this when considering changes to their names or bodies. It is important to be respectful whether non-binary is a stable identity or part of a process.
While there is more awareness of non-binary these days it has always been around. Musician and activist CN Lester says ‘people other than men or women are nothing new – there’s so much out there, if you’re willing to open your eyes to it.”
Just like being out as lesbian or bisexual, there are many benefits to being open about non-binary gender, including the sense of being true to your experience, the possibility of meeting others and forming supportive communities, and the potential to be part of wider protests against gender inequalities and rigid ideas about gender.
However there are, of course, challenges. These are similar to those we face by being lesbian when it is regarded as normal to be straight or – perhaps even more similarly – bisexual when it is considered normal to be attracted to only one gender.
Christina Richards says non-binary people must “negotiate a complex path between an authentic sense of self outside of the gender binary and the pragmatic reality of the two gender system”. According to CN Lester this means there is “an enormous struggle simply to be recognised as ourselves – society is so invested in policing a strict gender binary, and the costs of going against that can be high”. Specific issues include “lack of legal recognition, discrimination in education, in the workplace, in social spaces, and problems with healthcare”.
Alex Iantaffi points out that, as for many LGBT&Q people, constant daily micro-aggressions really mount up, such as being misgendered, asked intrusive questions, and having to decide whether to come out multiple times. “The challenges range from toilet access to legal/medical forms to pronouns to other people invalidating identities.”
There are also severe aggressions against non-binary people. Many share the experience, particularly during childhood, of being ridiculed and attacked for not fitting the gender rules. Lola says “I strove for most of my life to be ‘normal’ and part of this included behaving like a binary person should stereotypically behave. I constantly failed at that and was consistently bullied.”
What can we all do?
Experiences of wider LGB&T communities are mixed. CN Lester says: “I’ve found some very supportive people – I’ve also been sexually harassed, insulted, excluded. I’ve had many lesbians tell me that I’m letting the side down, and that I’m ‘obviously’ a butch lesbian – I’ve had quite a few gay men try to treat me as a kind of erotic experiment.”
Lola reports that “being non-binary is difficult because people don’t take it seriously. You’re not a real trans* person to a lot of people”. There can be tensions between non-binary and binary trans* people, whilst others are welcoming of diversity while appreciating the differences.
It is helpful to use wording which demonstrate awareness. For example, if you’re putting on a women’s event or network you might adapt the wording from the excellent SM Dykes: “We welcome all people who live full time as women as well as genderqueer, non-binary, intersex and transmasculine people who feel that they have links to women’s communities.” It would be great to have explicitly trans* and non-binary events too of course.
We might also consider ensuring there are non-gendered toilets available, supporting those who decide not to gender their kids, and helping with campaigns like Christie Elan-Cane’s fight for non gender-specific “X” passports, as have been introduced in India and Australia.
Perhaps everyone can learn from non-binary folk that gender is more complex than box M or box F. As Lola points out, gender roles are “unrealistic things that no one can really keep up with… they’re almost always about being skinny, able-bodied, white, relatively wealthy, etc..”. Maybe we could agree with Alex Iantaffi that “humans are more creative than the boxes we’d like to give ourselves”.
Some Non-Binary Dos and Don’ts
- Say “Hi, fancy some tea and cake?” (We’re just ordinary people, remember).
- Make it regular practice to ask for preferred pronouns, and do your best to remember.
- Read articles like this!
- Say “What are you really?”
- “Check” by groping us.
- Refer to the gender somebody was assigned at birth as their identity (eg AFAB – assigned female at birth)
- Say “It’s a phase” or “You’ll feel differently when you transition”.
- Assume that all non-binary people are young, or androgynous, or want body modifications, or don’t want body modifications, or anything about all non-binary people, really.
- Beat yourself up if you mess up pronouns. We all do it, including non-binary people. Just correct it and move on.
- The chapter on “further genders” in Christina Richards and Meg Barker’s & Sexuality and gender for mental health professionals: A practical guide (Sage).
- Posts on non-binary on boldlygo.co
- Q&As with non-binary people on cnlester.wordpress.com
- The campaigns on elancane.livejournal.com
Meg Barker is a writer, academic, therapist and activist who works at the Open University. Their relationship book Rewriting the Rules (rewriting-the-rules.com) also covers gender.