Beyond the Binary: Meeting People

When cis binary folks meet new people, they generally don’t need to think about the gendering issue. They might accidentally be misgendered because people have preconceived notions about what men and women look like, but they can correct the misgendering in a relatively straightforward way, and the person making the mistake will usually be very apologetic. For trans binary folks this can be more complicated, because misgendering can be dangerous, not just socially awkward, but that’s a topic for an entirely different post.

For nonbinaries, it’s a strange place to navigate. Because people gender automatically, there’s no space to provide correct information about gender. And this means that, for the most part, we are misgendered from the start when we meet by people who fit us into a binary slot based on names, appearances, ways of movement, and so forth.

What do you do?

Do you say, “hi, my name is Xyz, and I am genderqueer, just so we’re clear on that”? Do you say “actually, please don’t use ‘he’ to refer to me, because that is incorrect”? Or do you just silently submit to being misgendered because it’s too complicated and too dangerous to get into specifics with people you have just met? This is a debate I have every single time I meet a new person. Do I identify and out myself and potentially expose myself to danger, or do I erase myself in the interests of not having to deal with it? And, by extension, can I correct misgendering later, once I am more comfortable with someone, or am I going to be entangled in a morass of binarism when I try?

This is a case in which a fundamental aspect of identity is erased with every new encounter. And in which trying to correct misidentification can lead to complications. There’s no way to know how serious these complications are until the cat is out of the bag.

Because, you see, when you issue a correction about your identity, people are often surprisingly resistant. They’ve already identified you and your protest challenges their worldview. It raises uneasy questions about whether gendering is appropriate, and about the nature of gender in general. There are lots of people who genuinely believe that there are only two genders: cis male and cis female. These people get a lot of air time, even in places which are supposedly supportive to trans folks, nonbinaries, and so forth. And their prevailing attitudes make it very hard for people with variant gender expressions to feel safe.

Every time you confront and correct a misgendering which is based on the gender binary, you aren’t just asserting your identity and making sure that someone understands how to refer to/think about you. You are actively fighting a very entrenched system of attitudes, and that means that you are going to encounter pushback. Potentially lots of pushback. This is a case in which the personal is political and identifying myself really is an act of activism.

I have literally been informed that I am “just being difficult” for asserting my identity and asking that I not be misgendered. I’ve been informed to my face that I am “making things up” and “pretending” something. That I am trying to pull some kind of trick. I’m told that it’s “too confusing” and then I am asked to educate someone about my identity. Or informed “well, that’s fine, but I am going to keep on calling you ‘she’.” And I’ve heard all sorts of nasty things said behind the backs of trans* folks. We’re “disturbed” or “troubled” and “faking” and “being unreasonable” and “who ever heard of this” so it must not be real. People think that it’s safe to say these things around me because they make assumptions about my gender and I am exposed to the full spectrum of trans* hatred as a result.

And, you know, I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about the gender conversation with children, because her young son had started asking about the difference between boys and girls. And I thought “how would I approach this conversation with a child?”

With, say, a three year old, concepts like assigned sex and gender identification are, I think, a little bit too complicated. But saying “well there are boys and girls and boys have penises and girls have vaginas” makes me very uncomfortable. It erases intersex and trans* people. It hides our very existence with two neat little categories. And it teaches children to gender, and to believe that they can gender accurately and with confidence.

I get not wanting to overwhelm people with new information. I get that confusing people does not accomplish anything. But when you lay out the boundaries that way from the very start, it reinforces them and that, I think, is a problem.

I don’t really have an easy solution to this. Gender identity and assigned sex are so complicated that I have trouble explaining them to adults who are open to the idea of gender variance and who have a vague grasp on the vocabulary, and I can’t imagine how to frame the discussion in a way which makes sense to a child. You don’t want to alienate with information and words which have no meanings attached at that point in development. But you also don’t want to oversimplify. Or to make the mistake of assuming that because someone is a child, ou cannot understand things.

Or to make the mistake of going the other way, and having a child teased and tormented for being accepting of gender variance and for challenging norms about sex and gender. This is a case in which providing protection is as important as making sure that children have accurate information and that makes it a hard place to navigate.

I wonder what a difference it would make to trans* kids to know, from the start, that sex and gender are difficult and complicated things. Could you say “that’s a really great question, and the answer is actually pretty complicated,” and go from there? And say “we will probably be talking about this more in the future?” Having a penis doesn’t make you a boy. Having a vagina doesn’t make you a girl. Should we be enforcing the cis gender dichotomy by telling children this?

My friend’s child happens to be assigned male, but he sometimes gets mistaken as a girl and asked if he is a girl or a boy. The correct response, of course, is “none of your business,” and my friend has worked with him on various creative responses to that question which all say “none of your business” in a reasonably firm and polite way. But most of those responses are grounded in “does it matter?” rather than “how do you know I’m either?”