Beyond the Binary: Sandwiches on Parade

Maureen Johnson recently queried her Twitter followers about where all the genderqueer authors were, as part of her larger coverflip challenge, which provoked an important discussion about gendering among book covers. I was tempted to respond: ‘right in front of you.’ Because that’s where genderqueer and other nonbinary and nongendered authors, writers, and creators are. Right here. Looking at you across the table, face to face, you just don’t see us, whether you choose not to, or you’re led astray by external social pressures.

People often seem confused when I express irritation about being sandwiched in among women. It’s meant as a compliment, it’s shorthand, it’s convenient, it’s something I should just deal with (just like women should be fine with being called members of mankind, right?). There’s significant pushback when I point out that I don’t belong on lists of women, that it’s not appropriate to call me a woman, that in fact I am something separate and distinct from a woman, while also not being a man—that I am, in fact, as extensively discussed, genderqueer.

Sometimes I feel nauseated with the amount of writing I do about my own gender, and the amount of time I have to spend asserting my gender. Few cis women and men are forced to do this, to constantly tell people their gender and to underline it repeatedly in public spaces. Few cis men and women are constantly forced to gently remind people of their gender—meanwhile, binary trans people are often misgendered, deliberately or accidentally, and forced to claw their way into society as members of given gendered groups. They must ‘pass’ and present their gender in a way deemed acceptable by the general public.

And nonbinary people? We are nowhere. We are the great invisible. Wherever we go, we are sandwiched into whatever gender seems a mostly likely fit in the eye of the beholder, even when the beholder is aware of gender issues, knows that gender and sex are more complicated than M/F, knows that nonbinary people exist. I’m often sandwiched in with ladies I respect, love, and enjoy working with, but that still doesn’t make me one of them in the sense that I don’t belong in environments designated as places where women are talked about, where the works of women are celebrated, where women are being listed.

I have a lot of issues with woman-only spaces and the way they’re managed, but such spaces do have an important social role. And to be thrown into them actively offends me. Because it not only erodes the point of such spaces, but effectively says my gender identity is invalid, and that I should be happy to be thrust into whatever box people want to stick me in unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise. I almost never see lists of genderqueer and other nonbinary writers and authors. I don’t see curated discussions about works produced by such writers. We’re just slammed in amongst the women or the men, depending on what we write about, how we look, what our assigned genders were at birth.

I don’t want to harp on about my gender constantly. There are many other things I’d much rather be doing. Yet, at the same time, I feel compelled and obliged to do so as someone who lives as an out genderqueer and who talks about gender issues, because I want to do my part for visibility. I want to be able to say ‘the genderqueer authors and writers and artists and creators are right here‘ and to have someone to point to—to make it easier for other people to come out, to work, to be accepted by society. Yet, at the same time, I have no desire to be the ‘face’ of genderqueerness, because I don’t want people to make the mistake of thinking my experience is defining, or believing that I am somehow a definitive authority on what it is to live outside the binary.

We are the sandwiches on parade, hidden amongst rows of men and women, attempting to fight our way out; perhaps it would be more accurate to call us the sandwich fillings. We are the tomatoes that want to shoot our way out, the avocado slices that don’t belong there and long to slither their way onto the plate. We are not bread, though there is absolutely nothing wrong with being bread, bread is great stuff, and it’s fantastically diverse; you’ve got your whole wheat and your rye and your thick, hearty seed breads, your gluten-free breads and your plain old which sandwich bread.

But we aren’t any of those things. And thus we should not be lumped into those groups. Instead, it’s time for people to recognise that nonbinary people, and nongendered people, and people who express their gender in other ways, including ways that fit outside Western models and conceptions of gender, deserve our own space. We deserve to be viewed as our own group, to be talked about separate of the binary genders some of us may have things in common with—working in solidarity with women and sharing certain physical characteristics doesn’t make me one of them, and at the end of the day, I go to sleep with a very different framing of my own gender than they do.

This is difficult to do when it seems like sometimes, the only way to get people to respect us is to constantly flag our gender in a way many cis people do not understand. Must everything I write now include a little biographical note about my gender? Is that what people need in order to understand the inappropriateness of glomming me in with ‘women’ as a category when it suits them?