Words Matter: Non-Binary Gender

Words Matter: Non-Binary Gender

Thanks so much to Reina Shimizu who interviewed me for Vogue Japan this month in their ‘words matter’ section on non-binary gender. Here’s the English language version of the interview:

What is the definition of non-binary (gender)?

Non-binary gender means identifying as a gender other than man or woman. It includes people who experience their gender as somewhere between male and female, people who don’t feel that they have a gender, people who are both masculine and feminine, and people who have a gender beyond the binary of man or woman.

Why do we need this term?

We need a concept for non-binary gender because so many people experience their gender in ways outside the man/woman binary. One recent study found that over a third of people experience themselves as – to some extent – ‘the other gender, neither gender, or both genders’. 

Around the world there are many cultures who don’t have the binary man/woman gender system, including places where there are three or five genders, and where gender is tied to other aspects of a person such as sexuality or spirituality, so it doesn’t make sense to ask somebody’s gender separate to that. To be culturally inclusive we need to include non-binary genders, which is why many countries now include a third gender option on passports. 

Why are we getting more and more interested in the term now?

In countries that do have a binary man/woman gender system, more and more people are identifying as non-binary. The internet has helped people to form communities around non-binary gender and to begin to fight for rights and recognition.

At the same time, people have recognised that the binary gender system isn’t working well for anybody. Many men and women suffer because of rigid ideas of what it means to be a ‘real man’ or ‘real woman’. For example, high suicide rates in men have been linked to cultural norms that men shouldn’t display emotion or seek support. High rates of depression in women have been linked to norms that women’s lives should be based around pleasing others. The binary gender system isn’t working well for anybody.

What are the difficulties of lives of non-binary people in today’s society? Is the situation improving?

In cultures that still have binary gender systems there is a big problem with invisibility. Non-binary people are misgendered many times a day, by people calling them ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’, for example, or referring to them with ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns. They may also struggle to find a bathroom to use which isn’t gendered, and to be treated as a non-binary person in their workplace or educational institution, or by health professionals.

We know that being treated by the world in ways that conflict with your way of experiencing yourself takes a big toll on mental health. Many non-binary people also experience transphobic discrimination, bullying, and even violence. 

What do we need to change? How can we achieve the change?

We need a cultural shift, in binary gender countries, to recognise non-binary genders as legitimate. That means changing policies to include non-binary gender legally, ensuring the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms and changing areas, and giving the option of ‘they’ pronouns and the title ‘Mx’ or their equivalent.

An important step in achieving this change is cultural awareness, which is slowly happening through non-binary actors playing non-binary characters on TV shows like Billions and Grey’s Anatomy, and non-binary creators like CN Lester, Jeffrey Marsh, Sam Smith, and Travis Alabanza producing awesome media content. 

What are the challenges in order that non-binary should be widely accepted?

It is challenging to get many people – in binary gender cultures – to acknowledge the existence of non-binary gender. This is despite the fact that, even in such cultures, the idea of two ‘opposite’ genders is actually a relative recent thing. Previously women were seen as an inferior version of men. Also, historically there have always been people who didn’t fit into the binary gender system. 

According to the GIDS website, “There are many ways in which people identify or present in a non-binary manner, and perhaps we all do in some respects.” Could you elaborate on this, using some examples?

Most people experience and express themselves in some ways that don’t conform to the gender they’re generally seen as being. Most men have some stereotypically feminine characteristics (such as sensitivity, nurturing behaviours, or caring about appearance), and most women have some stereotypically masculine characteristics (such as competitiveness, toughness, or being focused on their career). Many women wear ‘masculine’ clothes, and perform ‘masculine’ roles, although there is generally more stigma about men doing the ‘feminine’ equivalent.

While only a few percent of people – so far – identify as non-binary in binary cultures, far more experience and express themselves in somewhat non-binary ways. Of course it is fine for them to do so and identify as a man, as a woman, and/or as a non-binary person.

Will there be any benefits for society and all people if non-binary is widely accepted? What are they?

Huge benefits because it will open up the possibility for everyone to loosen their grip on rigid gender binaries. Boys in binary cultures grow up finding it hard to express or name emotions other than anger. This means they are far more likely to act out their distress in aggressive ways when they’re older, potentially hurting others and themselves, and being convicted of crimes. Girls in binary cultures grow up very focused on appearance and relationships, and believing boys are ‘better’ than them. This means they can find it hard to tune into their own needs and boundaries, and express these, which takes a major toll on their mental and physical health. 

There may be people who cannot easily understand or accept the concept of non-binary as they are socially conditioned to see all people either men or women. Is there any effective way to make non-binary more accessible for those people?

Luckily we have many wonderful non-binary creators who write about being non-binary, put out non-binary theatre and art, and portray non-binary people on TV and in movies. Follow some of them on social media, and check out their content.

Also it is a great idea to reflect on your own experience of gender, to recognise how it isn’t completely binary. Check out my books to help with this: How to Understand Your Gender, and Gender: A Graphic Guide.

It’s helpful to remind those who struggle with the concept of non-binary that the way we understand gender is always changing. Even the cultural roles of men and women will have changed a great deal in their lifetime, and certainly in the last century or two, and that is a great thing.

However, there will sadly be some people who are impossible to convince. If you’re non-binary yourself, you may want to get support from trans and non-binary organisations, or groups online, as it can be very hard if friends and family dismiss your identity.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).