We have to deconstruct what we have been taught about the gender binary, and that is why non-binary visibility is pivotal in the fight for both transgender and non-binary rights.
In 2014, TIME magazine, dubbed the year, ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’. But what does that entail? Indeed, the focus on the transgender community has become more prominent in recent years. But although our voices are loud, the push back from larger society has always been louder, and serves as an erasure.
But there’s something far more sinister going on, that no one seems to care about. You see, whenever we discuss gender identity, the topic of discussion always focuses on either transgender women or transgender men. And the more cis-passing you look, the more privilege you are awarded for fitting into a cisnormative box and the more your voice is amplified.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that most narratives often centers transgender people who fit into the binary of man and woman while leaving out part of the spectrum. To be non-binary (or enby), is to be a person who doesn’t identify as strictly male or female. Enby people can exist along a spectrum, within various degrees of male or female, while others do not identify with gender binary at all, such as those who are agender.
The problem with erasing the visibility of enby people is that it continues to reinforce that gender is a binary, which it is not. It also does more harm for transgender people who do not identify as enby. Trans men and trans women cannot always have access to the cisnormative perception of what a man or woman are expected to look like, layman terms for being forced into a rigid box they literally cannot fit into.
We have to deconstruct what we have been taught about the gender binary, and that is why non-binary visibility is pivotal in the fight for both transgender and non-binary rights. In order to amplify the voices of enby people, we interviewed eight people about their experiences, the hurdles they have faced both in cisgender society and within the LGBTQ+ community, and things they would like everyone to learn or unlearn about gender binary or gender fluidity.
(Interviews have been shortened and condensed)
“The best way I can sum up the hurdles of the non-binary experience is the need to explain, define and justify my own identity to people. A lot of people still just don’t know what non-binary means. I’m very used to being the first non-binary person that people have ever met. I’ve been out for almost four years now, and even within the LGBT community, I was the first person to use “they/them” pronouns that a lot of my friends knew. On the one hand, it’s super gratifying to see how many more people have felt like they can come out since then, and I’m really proud to have helped pave the way for that. But on the other hand, it’s very tiring, because I still have to spend a lot of energy explaining myself.
I’ve encountered some trans people who seem to see me and the fact that I’m non-binary as a setback to the trans community. They’ll say things like, “We can’t expect the general public to be ready for things that are too weird,” like I don’t deserve representation as much as binary trans people. Or if I say, “I want to try to campaign to get Mx. added to forms as a title option” and they’ll say things like, “I don’t want Mx. on forms because I prefer Mr./Ms.” It’s like some people are so focused on what’s affirming for them that they don’t even care that what’s affirming for me isn’t even an option. I think it’s important to think about how we can better support our siblings in the LGBT community who don’t have the exact same struggles as us.
I think it’s important to realize that being gender fluid isn’t the only way to be non-binary! I’m non-binary because I’m not really a man or a woman, but I don’t identify as gender fluid because my non-man-non-woman-ness is pretty consistent.
I also think being open to gender fluidity is really important because I think everyone should be afforded the opportunity to explore their own gender. People can be very harsh on younger kids who are exploring the chance that they might be trans because there’s this weird perception that some of them are “faking it.” But if a kid plays with their gender expression for a while or even thinks that they’re trans for a while and then ends up realizing that they’re not, that’s not “faking,” that’s just self discovery.”
“As a non-binary person who passes as the gender they were assigned at birth, I feel like it’s important for people to unlearn the idea that gender is supposed to look any certain way. Gender is multi-faceted, with expression differing from identity, differing from others perception of you. There are many different ways to be a certain gender, and gender is co-created and influenced by other categories of identity, such as, class, race, ability and sexuality. My biggest challenge with cis people, is getting them to understand that there are many different forms of masculinity and femininity, and many different ways to be outside of or in-between that binary construction. As a person who studies gender theory, I would encourage people to read more! And not just theory, but narratives from other non-binary people as well.”
“I believe that we are all gender fluid to an extent. I’m not referring to the surface level of how you present yourself to society, but more intrinsically — in your soul.
We don’t have the ability to choose the body we roam the Earth in, we can’t help that, but we do choose how we care for it. To be masculine does not mean your body is male, and to be feminine does not mean your body is female. Anyone who lives freely can portray one or both or none as they feel moved to do so. It doesn’t have to be related to sex organs, which society is so keen on reducing us to. It doesn’t have to be related to who we are attracted to or who we are in a relationship with.
Being non-binary for me, almost feels like a rebellion against what society expects me to be. None of us should be forced to live by labels that were created before we were born. The reality is, we can all choose how we fit or don’t fit, and no one can tell us any different.
In my experience, it seems to be easier for the LGBT community to accept gender fluidity. I think that’s because they can relate and eventually learn to ignore the negativity. Cisgender people have a harder time because they feel they are part of a “normal” society, while we are seen as “the other”, or just something different, and they want to normalize us into the binary perspective for their own comfort. If a person sees me as “sir” or “ma’am” they are seeing THEIR version of who they think I am, and they are seeing that version in passing.
When I realized my version of me is all that matters, there were no hurdles to face with my non-binary identity. The hurdles are for those who don’t understand, or who cannot relate because they are afraid to color outside of the lines.”
“As an agender individual who uses they/them pronouns, I think the biggest hurdle I’ve faced is that people don’t believe I exist. There’s this prevailing school of thought within both cisgender society and the LGBT community that there are only two (binary) genders.
At a transgender conference held by my local LGBT Center a couple of years ago—in a room full of transgender people—I was informed that my pronouns were grammatically incorrect and difficult to use. Sometimes I’ve had an easier time training coworkers to use my pronouns than transgender women and men.
When I’m asked about my identity, one of the first questions that comes up is what my plans are concerning transitioning. Though it’s no one’s business, it bothers me that the real underlying question is “What gender are you trying to look like?” I’ve had doctors tell me to make definite decisions regarding my transition and past boyfriends suggest I start taking testosterone and use “he/him” pronouns when referring to me. I’ve tried both “he/him” pronouns and hormone replacement therapy and am still not sure either are for me. I wear a binder and have a low voice but wear my hair long and don’t shy away from makeup. I feel much better existing beyond the binary. Having people try to impose a binary on me to make sense of my existence is both frustrating and dismaying.
I’ve had to learn to live my truth — like so many others are doing, and just be me. I’ve had to come to terms with the concept that other genders beyond the binary may not be recognized within my lifetime and the majority of strangers I interact with everyday will impose their own assumptions and gender labels of me. My only hope is that so many people in my life who love and respect me do use my pronouns and believe in my gender identity. I also like to remind myself of the few times strangers have settled on using ‘they’ pronouns, to refer to me, when I’ve visually confused them — though these strangers apologized for using “they/them”, it’s a strand of hope that some people are starting to embrace the unknown, even if they feel confused by it.”
“It costs you nothing to respect or even defend enby identities. Reducing gender to the male and female binary by linking it to anatomy, presentation, or sexuality, is scientifically wrong; all of them operate on a spectrum, and have absolutely nothing to do with one another. You can be whatever gender you are, whenever you are, and it can be subject to change over any length of time, or not. No one knows you better than yourself. Gender binary isn’t real, it only has real consequences because society tries to force it upon us.”
“My experience as a non-binary person, raised and living in the south is one met with misunderstanding and willful ignorance. Here in the south, the gendering of complete strangers is the norm. Sir/ma’am is used casually as a way to show respect, but when I assert that I am neither of these titles, all attempts at respectful consideration fly out the window. I am constantly torn between outing myself or “letting it slide” just to maintain peace. But there is some hope. I recently led a non-binary discussion group here in Austin’s QTPOC community center, and it was nice—no it was more than nice, it was a tremendous relief—to be able to hold a space for queer and trans non-binary people of color to talk about the various intersections we frequent as we live our lives. I feel more empowered after that discussion to continue to advocate for gender inclusivity when it comes to non-binary identities as most of the take away from the meeting was that no one had access to such a safe space before.
I’m not one to believe in allies, but to people who wish to shed some of the cisnormative learnings of their past, I quote the great Master Yoda: “do or do not; there is no try.” Either commit to understanding and including non-binary people or don’t and keep our mentions out of your conversation. Our attempts at doing that is where I feel we run into messy identity politics, that cis people will inevitably inject and project their own feelings, and non-binary people are once again left defenseless or worse, we try to console. Either way our needs aren’t met.
The resources to learn about non-binary people are abundant, and I understand there’s an unlearning process so I’m doing a lot of it myself. No one is perfect, and even as a non-binary person, I find myself misgendering my own self, both intentionally and otherwise, to try to “fit in” in cis society. I do more than just learn pronouns and honorifics. I use them. And everyone should. We aren’t a made up population. We are your family, coworkers, neighbors, friends and acquaintances. We deserve to be seen. We deserve to feel validated.”
“I want people to unlearn the idea that you have to see a person’s gender to humanize them. I grew up being mocked because people could not read me as a girl or a boy. It was like, because my gender was not visible to them, I had a living, breathing target on my back, day-in and day-out. I remember vividly begging someone at 7:30 a.m. in middle school to at least wait until I finished my free breakfast to start making fun of me. It made it so much harder for me to understand that I was agender, because I wanted so badly to fit in. Grown adults still do this to my gender non-conforming friends. Why? Why bother someone who is just existing as themselves? It sounds sad and it sounds simple, but really, I just want people to stop harassing my friends.”
“I identify myself as a non-binary trans gal. The wording I use for myself is so specific, because I feel like there’s a lot of binary restrictions — enforced by people from both inside and outside the community, that come with using a label like “trans woman”. My gender is fluid. More times than not — I identify with womanhood. At other times, I only identify with femininity. I experience womanhood in a way that doesn’t fit into boundaries of the gender binary, so my gender identity is one that goes into both non-binary and trans women labels. I use the word, “gal”, because it feels more true to who I am, and serves as a symbol of my countryside upbringing.
I think a big issue non-binary gals that look like myself run into — is a visibility void. These days, I am hesitant to join in on mainstream trans hashtags after an experience where I used #girlslikeus and suddenly began receiving seemingly endless notifications where my expression was being ripped to shreds. Not only by cisgender people, but also by binary trans women. After hours of blocking and reporting (with help from friends), I finally just gave up and deleted the post. After that, it became painfully noticeable to me that in the major photo ops in relation to that and similar hashtags, gals like me weren’t being seen with the rest. In clapbacks against cis men’s transmisogyny, the joke of “haha! My crew of trans women and I actually meet your beauty standards, but we don’t want you!” leaves us thrown under the bus with an even more visible target on us.
Something I really wish more people understood is that gender is not determined by clothing or makeup. Things like clothing and makeup are merely tools for expression of someone’s gender, if they choose to utilize them that way. My gender does not become more or less feminine based on changes in my appearance. That is not how any of this works.”