The Trans Working Group

Non binary: more than a third checkbox

[Non binary] is a term designed to make conversation easier; it is not the end point’ – Shon Faye, The Transgender Issue

General awareness and representation of non binary gender identity has begun to rapidly increase – there are now non binary characters appearing on our screens, and this year the world’s first non binary mayor was elected right here in Wales. Whilst much of this is incredibly heart warming to see, representation is not the be all and end all of liberation and brings its own issues. Firstly, an increase in visibility inevitably creates an opening for more hate, in the form of the classic identifying as attack helicopter jokes and other Piers Morgan-esque ridicule. Though hatred is never a reason to hide, it is an unfortunate consequence to be wary of. Additionally, seeping into the mainstream online through cutesy infographics and twitter trends has resulted in a widespread limited understanding of non binary people and our gender identities. 

So what is non binary and what does it mean? Non binary is a direct rejection of rigid and restrictive notions of gender – which means it can be anything really. Many definitions I’ve seen depict gender as a spectrum with man on one end, woman on the other and non binary as anything in between but I feel that even this description is too linear and too dependent on those existing binary boxes as a starting point. Non binary gender identity is broad and complex – how I describe my own gender may be similar or completely different to my fellow non binary comrades, yet we are united by our mutual understanding of what it is like to break away from the concepts of “man” and “woman”.

It’s painful and frustrating to see non binary identity shrunk down to fit into a third binary box within the existing Western construction of gender. By failing to confront or question the gender binary cis people have created a warped and narrow conception of what it is to be non binary and associate it only with perfectly androgynous individuals, those who sit exactly halfway between masculine and feminine in both their presentation and mannerisms and use they/them pronouns – it is all about the aesthetic. It has become almost like a novelty to many who use snappy phrases such as ‘girls gays and theys’ or the vomit inducing ‘ladies and theydies’. Moreover, in many instances (such as “theydies”), non binary is reduced to “womanlite”, most notably with the spread of “womxn” a supposedly progressive and inclusive term that not only serves very little purpose but actively causes harm. If one uses this term to show an inclusion of trans women then it implies that trans women aren’t included in the simple term that already exist: women; if one uses it to include people who are non binary then it suggests that non binary identity is adjacent to being a woman. It is also notable that use of the word “womxn” and special programs aimed at “women and non binary people” largely only recognises those who were assigned female at birth within their definition of non binary – or at least the type of non binary people they allow to be included in female spaces. So afab non binary people are “basically women” and amab (assigned male at birth) non binary people are “basically men”. Once again this stems from a failure to deconstruct the cisnormative understanding of gender and the Western obsession to shove everyone into an appropriate box. 

Instead of addressing the gender system itself, much of the discourse focuses on more surface level issues such as pronouns. Pronouns can be an essential part of gender expression – being misgendered with incorrect pronouns is painful and being referred to correctly can bring euphoria, particularly in the early days of being “out”. The steady normalisation of announcing pronouns from both cis and trans people on social media, in meetings etc. is useful in reducing midgendering and assuming other people’s gender. However, it can also create situations where trans people have to announce their pronouns before they are sure whether a certain environment is trans friendly or not and therefore are forced to either misgender themselves or out themselves before they are ready and potentially endanger themselves. Pronouns are important to discuss for all of these reasons but it is vital that we do not allow conceptions of gender that begin and end with pronouns. Supporting trans people is more than just using the correct pronouns, and using the correct pronouns means very little if it is just done out of politeness. I have been called ‘they’ by people who very obviously still perceived me as a woman and continued to treat me as such, but no doubt considered themselves an ally for using the right pronoun (and I equally notice when people ignore my other pronouns and never call me ‘he’, because they will never actually perceive me as such). If we are going to continue to discuss pronouns then this has to be addressed. And if we really want to actually talk about pronouns and inclusivity, then neopronouns have to be a part of those discussions. Too often “allies” ridicule neopronouns and even express anger at the concept claiming they invalidate “real” trans people as if that is their call to make. If someone only supports trans people that they find acceptable because they can (sometimes falsely) relate them to their understanding of gender then they do not truly support trans people.

Non binary people need more than just awareness and representation – to be fully included we need to be recognised for who we are. We cannot be liberated without the deconstruction of the binary, so I urge everyone to take the time to question it and to challenge it and build a new understanding of gender in its place.

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