Beyond the Binary

(A slightly different version of part of this post has appeared at FWD.)

I know that many of my readers fall within the gender binary, identifying as either male or female, and thus, they may not think, often, about what it’s like to be nonbinary. This is not their fault; for example, I’m not an astronaut, so I don’t think very often about what it might be like to be an astronaut, and I don’t think this makes me a bad person[1. Yes, astronauts are my go-to example. Astronauts are cool!]. But I thought it might be interesting to start illustrating situations which we nonbinaries encounter, because I think it might be eye-opening for some. Especially for binary parents of nonbinary kids, I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s really difficult to navigate and it might help to have the perspective of a nonbinary to reference.

I’m just one person. I don’t and can’t speak for all people who identify as nonbinary. This means that your mileage may vary, in other words; my experiences cannot necessarily be universally applied to all nonbinaries. In part because I am frequently and repeatedly read as female, which means that I benefit from cis privilege. I can choose to be read as female and to let people identify me that way, and I am rarely in physical danger because of my gender presentation and expression. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of all nonbinaries.

Defining nonbinaries is complicated, and in this introductory post, I want to talk briefly about definition and word use so that we all know what we’re talking about as this series moves forward.

The gender binary is a construct of gender which views gender as falling into one of two camps: male or female. Under the gender binary, these are the only options. Gender essentialists believe that assigned sex at birth is also one’s gender for life. Other folks believe that it is possible for one’s binary gender identity to differ from one’s assigned sex; e.g. someone may be assigned male at birth and later realize that she is a woman. Take, for example, a person with a gender identity which differs from assigned sex in the sense that she was assigned male at birth and knows she is female or in the sense that he was assigned female at birth and knows that he is male. This individual may be referred to as a trans person or said to be trans gender (or transgender) or transsexual. These trans folks still fall within the binary, however: They have a gender identity which is male or female.

It’s important to note that intersex individuals are a problem for the gender binary. Under the rules of the binary, they should not exist, which means that being intersex is treated as a pathology which must be corrected. Historically, intersex people have been subjected to invasive surgical procedures at birth in which a gender is medically assigned. In some instances, these individuals later turn out to be trans gender (or transgender), as in the case of someone who is assigned male who later turns out to be a woman. These individuals may also later realize that they actually have a nonbinary gender identity.

The nonbinary view of gender recognizes that humans actually express and experience gender along a spectrum. Gender identity, in other words, is not as simple as “male” or “female” although these are points on the spectrum. This view does not pathologize intersex people and makes room for people who do not identify with a male or female gender. The umbrella term trans is sometimes used to refer to these individuals (and sometimes not, depending on where/who you are), and they may also be referred to as nonbinary.

In this case, trans refers to someone with a gender identity which differs from assigned sex at birth, as discussed above, but in these instances, that gender identity does not fall along the gender binary. I tend to use “nonbinary” rather than “trans” when talking about people who are not on the gender binary to avoid confusion between binary trans and nonbinary trans people. Nonbinary trans folks people may self identify as genderqueer, androgyne, neuter, third gender, intergender, genderfuck, etc. Some individuals identify as nongender or agender, which is yet another facet of the gender identity spectrum.

The umbrella term trans* is sometimes used to refer to the entire trans spectrum. I may use this term when I want to discuss all people on the trans* spectrum, including binary and nonbinary people. I do want to briefly note that not all intersex individuals identify as trans*; while they are outside the binary, this does not necessarily make them trans*. We need to avoid making the mistake of lumping intersex folks under the “trans*” umbrella, and the same holds true for some nongendered folks, who not identify and do not want to be identified as trans.

I know that this is a little bit complicated. There is a lot of material out there on this topic, and I highly recommend doing some Googling and reading if you feel adrift here. Gender identity is a really complex and nuanced issue, and this is only the very beginning of a primer to try and get some terms straight so that we can all be on the same ground.

I also want to include a note about language; I am a nonbinary, and I identify as genderqueer. That means that it’s fine to refer to me as a nonbinary, or as genderqueer, or even as trans/trans* if you like. In my case, all are correct. I prefer the gender-neutral pronoun “ou,” from strangers, for people who are looking for a pronoun to use to refer to me, but my friends often use “she”[2. I know, it’s confusing; for me it has to do with the fact that strangers using “she” erases my gender identity, whereas when my friends use it, I know that they use it in the knowledge that I am genderqueer with femme tendencies. Incidentally, I get to decide who my “friends” are and if you aren’t sure about which pronoun to use, please ask.]. However, “genderqueer” is not a blanket term for nonbinaries. It is a term for a very specific group of people within the nonbinary spectrum. Thus, when you know that someone is nonbinary but you are not quite sure about how ou identifies, do not refer to that person as genderqueer unless you hear that person use this term self-referentially.

Obviously, as a nonbinary, I subscribe to the nonbinary view of gender. And because we live in a society which is structured around the binary and which tends to center the experiences of cis people, living as a trans* person is incredibly difficult. We are assaulted because of our gender identity and expression. We are reduced to our genitals (or lack thereof). We are policed.

Part of the way to address this is to start breaking down barriers, to get people thinking about experiences which differ from their own. Deconstructing the binary and decentering cis people doesn’t threaten or hurt anyone’s gender identity, but it would make the world a lot safer for us. And that’s the whole point of the Beyond the Binary series.

7 Replies to “Beyond the Binary”

  1. I’ve actually known a few agendered folk to also refer to themselves as neutrois. I guess it’s a french word for neutral but it seems to have really spread around, at least on WiG (a trans support forum that specifically welcomes and aids nonbinaries)

    I tend to avoid pronouns when I can, literally weaving my sentences around indirect referral and names, especially when I’m not sure what someone would prefer or the situation is complicated (like a trans person who doesn’t want to be outed by proper pronoun use). It’s easier than depending on my notoriously bad memory.

    Do you mind that I usually avoid using pronouns at all when I’m talking about you as I work on absorbing ou into my lexicon?

  2. I don’t mind at all! I’m actually working on a names and pronouns post, and one of the things I would like to bring up there is that avoiding pronoun use altogether is a good way to avoid gendering or outing folks. It does sometimes require awkward circumlocutions (and sometimes rather pompous sentence structures), but that’s a price we pay for having a highly gendered language.

  3. I feel weird for not having realised that you were nonbinary. *blinks* I need to pay more attention, it seems.

    Is there a reason you use ou? I’m curious, as there are SO MANY different things people use for gender-neutral pronouns and it gets confusing x.x (the first few times I saw ‘ou’, I thought it was a typo of ‘you’, heh.)

  4. I use “ou” primarily because I like it, and I dislike (personally) the invented gender neutral pronouns (and singular “they”). [ETA: I mean “I dislike using them/having them applied to me,” not “I become horrendously upset every time I see them” or something. Since there has been confusion about this in the past.]

    “Ou” actually has a basis and history in the English language. I’ve written about ou in the past and again more recently. This does not, of course, stop everyone from reading it as a typo.

  5. Wow, a precedent

    (I’ve linked to my boyfriend who has an irrational hate of all gender-neutral pronouns that aren’t they/them/their.)

    I may start using it when I have occasion to gender-neutral. If I remember.

  6. Well, I think it’s important to note that people can and should use whichever pronouns they feel comfortable with and like (especially for self id). It gets a little trickier when it comes to pronouns people ask people to use; I for example would prefer that people call me “ou” and not “they” or “hir” or “sie” etc, but I am not going to clutch my pearls or anything if someone isn’t sure which pronoun to use and refers to me as “sie.” Actually, I might clutch my pearls if someone called me “they/them” but that’s a residual kneejerk reaction which I’m sure will stop happening eventually.

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