As the visibility of the binary trans community begins to grow in fits and starts, sometimes in positive ways and sometimes in negative ways, nonbinary and otherwise gender nonconforming people are also speaking out. The world of gender identity and personal relationships to gender is changing extremely quickly, and the nonbinary and otherwise gender nonconforming community came up hard and fast. It definitely took many by surprise, and there’s a bit of a meme floating around in some parts of the binary trans community that the activism of their siblings is somehow hurting the cause.
There are a lot of reasons why people think this way. Some argue that it’s muddling the conversation about transition, and making it harder for transgender people to access transition services. Others seem to believe that people are making a joke or game out of gender, turning it into something trendy, and again creating tensions, particularly for trans women — cis people already treat trans women like men dressing up in women’s clothing for the purpose of doing something sinister, and the fear of anything that might delegitimise the trans experience is rooted in very real concerns. There are lots of other issues being expressed, especially by older trans people who had to fight tooth and nail for everything they had, who repeatedly broke boundaries and charted new frontiers because they had nothing to build on.
Because let’s be clear, here: The Western nonbinary and gender nonconforming movement, which is what this piece is about, would not have been possible without the heroic work of the binary trans rights movement. Pathways to transition come courtesy a community that demanded that the medical world pay attention to, and meet, their needs. Conversations about gender diversity came at the cost of the sometimes fatal war for binary trans rights and recognition. When binary trans people started rejecting stealth and being open about who they were, that had a profound impact on nonbinary and otherwise gender nonconforming people.
The nonbinary and gender nonconforming movement is rooted in a great deal of work done across the spectrum, not just in the realm of trans rights, but also feminism, and racial equality, and disability rights. But because it deals so intimately with gender, it perforce is wound deeply together with the binary trans movement. We have binary trans people to thank for endocrinologists and other care providers who have the competency to offer estrogen and testosterone therapy for trans people. We have them to thank as well for the fact that there are surgeons who specialise in gender confirmation surgery, and health plans that cover transition-related care. No matter what your gender is, top surgery to remove your breasts and reshape your chest would not be available if trans men hadn’t beaten down the door for it. If you’ve received a vaginal reconstruction or a phalloplasty, it’s because of trans women and men who were willing to be the pioneers for those incredibly complicated and delicate procedures. If you’ve come out at work and received legal protections, it’s because the binary trans community has been fighting for those protections for years.
And it’s important to acknowledge the huge debt of thanks as well as the interrelationship here, even as the nonbinary and otherwise gender nonconforming community pushes forward to meet needs of its own, to pioneer what transition looks like in the 21st century, and, I would hope, works in solidarity with binary siblings to help them achieve the rights they need and deserve. This is a struggle that’s far from over. And there’s a great deal of crossover between the two communities — numerous older trans and cis people alike say they would have identified with nonbinary and gender nonconforming people in youth if they’d been able to. Some nonbinary and gender nonconforming people start to pursue medical and surgical transition, and realise that they’re actually binary in the process. Keeping lines of communication open is important.
But one thing nonbinary and otherwise gender nonconforming people aren’t doing is ‘ruining’ anything. Their push for transition services, for example, has rendered the brutal, archaic, and transphobic Benjamin Standard effectively irrelevant, and a growing number of health care providers are abandoning it. That means that people who want medical transition have much easier access to it, which is more cost effective, but also life-saving. You don’t have to spend a year or more proving that you’re ‘trans enough’ for medical gatekeepers to access hormone therapy or gender confirmation surgeries, and that’s a big deal. Far from creating problems with both social and medical transition, nonbinary and otherwise gender nonconforming people have broken down walls, just like their binary trans siblings did before.
When it comes to changing the way people think about gender, nonbinary and otherwise gender nonconforming people are certainly pushing at the boundaries of gender, at what it means to be a man, a woman, or anything else, but they’re not playing games. In fact, they’re speaking out very openly about the dysphoria they experience, and the need for a more inclusive world. As with binary trans visibility, their experience moves in positive and negative ways, steps forward, steps back. Sometimes that’s prominent nonbinary celebrities breaking down stigma and talking about their lives. Sometimes it’s people mocking nonbinary people, ‘made up genders,’ and binary trans people by extension. That’s going to happen with or without a visible and active nonbinary and otherwise gender nonconforming movement, but here’s the thing: When you acknowledge that movement, and work in solidarity with it, you have twice the power. And that is an unadulterated good.
The struggles of the two movements are not identical, and shouldn’t be folded together, but there’s a lot of ground for common solidarity when it’s paired with respect from both sides.
Image: 2013 Rally for Transgender Equality, Ted Eytan, Flickr