Tag Archives: Genderqueer

101 Makes no Sense Without Non-Binary

I was delighted this month to have two pieces published in Beyond the Binary, an online magazine for non-binary trans people. The first of these addresses the over-simplification of trans people’s experiences, and how when we are training in this subject this can actually be alienating for the audience. The article can be found here.

“people get a much better connection to trans issues in general if non-binary is properly included, and they are not sold a simplified version of trans realities”

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The Complexity of Identity

It was an odd experience, delivering trans awareness training at Nottingham Women’s Centre. I had spent many, many hours within those walls, and one thing you could always rely on was “man in the building” signs when somebody male was invited in for a meeting, training or other work.

“Should we put up “genderqueer in the building” signs?” I agonised, knowing I was walking into a building I am increasingly less comfortable NWCto be in.

The timing was strange – the very next day I would be starting on hormone therapy, a therapy that will probably in time make me look and sound more male. Since making this decision, I am constantly being challenged that I am “really a trans man”. I try to explain to people – I am currently read as a woman, but I am non-binary. In future, I may be read more often as a man, but I will still be non-binary. I may acquire some privilege for passing as a man, but given how out I am, my gender experience will continue to be complicated.

What complicates things further is that I have a lot of experiences in common with trans men, and don’t always want to be excluded from that category. This leads me to somewhat simplistic statements like “I’m a non-binary trans guy” or “I am masculine of centre”. At the same time I still feel a great deal of shared identity with women too. I do not believe there is a clear, neat line that divides our experience or sorts us neatly into boxes.

Gendered language was not made by or for trans people, and one of the key elements of this particular training was to look at how language limits our ability to tell an accurate story about ourselves. Trans language is evolving with our empowerment. We no longer speak about “sex change” and are more keen for people to understand we were always trans, that becoming more visible and/or congruent is not the same thing as becoming something we did not used to be.feinberg - crop

For non-binary people in a binary world this is a complex subject. While I was keen to centre the experience of trans women, who face the worst violence because of the double jeopardy of transmisogyny, the toxic interplay of sexism and transphobia, it was important to acknowledge they would not be the only gender variant people using the Women’s Centre. People like myself, who find ourselves in the uncomfortable no-person’s land between genders, may well find sanctuary there, as I once did.

I suggested to the trainees that we can often resolve conflicts by grasping a “both/and” principle and throwing out our belief in either/ors. “When I say I’m non-binary, for me that doesn’t mean I have no gender”, I tell them “for me personally, and this is different for others, I have a lot of gender, a complex relationship with both being a man and being a woman and sometimes something else entirely.”

Gender variance has always been treated with suspicion, and feminism has fought hard to normalise the idea of women expressing their gender in less constricted ways. As we explored language together at the training, we realised that “woman” is a wide category (“Ladies”, not so much). It is absolutely possible to include trans women and non binary folk who live predominantly as women (regardless of birth assignment) in the fold. Folks like me? Well, I don’t feel I would turn to women only spaces for support, but that’s a personal choice, and one I hope is never inflicted on anyone based on some constructed idea of how one should be a “proper woman” or “woman enough”.

The worst disservice is, of course, that gender variant people assigned female at birth have been pitted against trans women as if one or other deserves protection and inclusion but not both. But the truth is we all experience misogyny, or misplaced misogyny, in different ways and we all belong in the rather larger box labelled “those oppressed because of their gender”. The realisation is growing that the centre can be welcoming and supporting of a diversity of gender variant people, and that, rather than worrying about people forcing their way into the centre, which never actually happens, the true issue is that after a decade and a half of trans inclusion, the service is still very under-used by trans women, who are disproportionately affected by the very issues the centre is there to support, such as domestic violence and sexual assault.

Equally, gender variant folks assigned female at birth are also vulnerable. The isolation and marginalisation that comes with being transgender makes all trans folk vulnerable, and across the board within the trans community, we see increased issues related to assault, mental health, rape and childhood sexual abuse as well as domestic violence. People who feel woman enough to use a women’s centre should simply not have to worry that they will be quizzed at the door as to whether they should be there. For those concerned about safety, in all the years of trans inclusion, there have never been any incidents of cis men trying to gain entry to the centre for nefarious reasons by pretending to be trans. Cis men have other more direct ways, sadly, to violate women’s safety, and part of the learning here was to move away from imaginary panic-based scenarios and to focus on the facts of the vulnerability and need for safe space of members of the trans community.

But how do we deal with the reactions of other building visitors? Another concern. Well, how do we generally deal with people’s prejudices and put them at their ease? How did we get to the point that lesbians are accepted into women’s spaces? The process is no different here, one of modelling good practice and language, displaying comfort with trans visitors, and making trans people visible in literature and displays.

I put up a picture of Harnaam Kaur, picturedharnam right, to explore further. Harnaam is a cis (not trans) woman, but often in my training her image brings to the surface a lot of issues of prejudice – if this person wants to be a woman, I often hear, well they should make the effort to look like one. What does a woman look like? Well in this case, she looks like Harnaam Kaur, a Sikh woman who has decided to keep her natural facial hair.*

I’m thankful that the lovely workers at the centre get it, and show no prejudice. “This person is who they say they are”, is their response to the picture, and “we will use the pronouns they ask us to use and give them a welcome if they self-identify as belonging here”.

It really is that simple, a kind solution but also one that works. We struggled a bit with how to deal with non-binary folks, but in the end the solution is equally simple and elegant – if a non-binary person feels comfortable using the Women’s Centre’s services, which many of us, myself included,  wouldn’t, well then they can be there, because identity is complicated and in the end we choose the spaces and boxes and words that best fit us and avoid the ones that don’t.

With thanks to the open-hearted women of Nottingham Women’s Centre for their warmth and understanding.


*Edit: I used this image because Harnaam herself has desired these images to be used to challenge perceptions, and I chose a woman of colour rather than similarly bearded white women to bring into focus the issues of hairiness that exist for brown women. However, I have had feedback (from white people) that I am “using” a woman of colour’s story for my own purposes. I hoped I was educating people on diversity, but perhaps there’s some truth in that, so I have decided not to use this image again.

Nature and nurture and why it’s a bogus debate

Let’s talk about love, just for a second, because it’s kind of complex and unknowable and I want to make a point about complicated things being turned into dumbed-down theories . . .

[image: yellow heart-shaped leaf]

So, we know a few things about love. We know that it may be partially socially constructed (from Hollywood movies and songs, and suchlike) and partly biological (from hormones like oxytocin). We know that sometimes the concept of love is used in subtle ways to oppress women. I’m pretty certain, though, that if we saw it as only these things, we’d be accused of reducing something of value and importance. We might not really want other people’s definitions and theories imposed on our own experiences; love has a transcendent quality, that we “just feel” or “just know” in a way that can’t be reduced to biology or construction.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Yep, I’m drawing a comparison with gender. There are no proven definitions of what gender is, nor of where sex ends and gender begins, nor of how much gender is constructed and how much it is biology. Aspects of gender are oppressive, and for some, aspects of gender are valuable and meaningful. There is an endless and pointless nature/nurture debate over gender, and I’m getting a little weary of this unwinnable and pointless back and forth.

[image: book cover for Cordelia Fine's "delusions of gender" featuring a doll wearing a blue dress]Cordelia Fine, in Delusions of Gender, talks about the “sheer exhilarating tangle of a continuous interaction among genes, brain and environment.” Personally, I have something a little more pithy to say about the nature/nurture debate:

It’s both. Get over it.

What troubles me is when people turn their own experience of gender into theory they apply to others, without taking into account their own subjectivity. Often, folks who experience themselves as monogender tend to follow “nature” theories whereas more androgynous or genderqueer people tend to think of gender as less real and innate, more fluid – this would make sense for people who don’t have a profound inner sense of gender, but they are disregarding those who do, by muddling people’s genuine sense of who they are with something that has merely been enforced by society. It would be like someone who has never been in love telling the rest of the world love does not exist, or someone who has been hurt by love saying it should not exist.

ripplesSo some genderqueer or agender people assume theirs is the “real” experience and monogender people are somehow deluded; for them, gender cannot be real because they don’t experience it as real themselves. Monogender people are equally defensive of their own perspective, and can sometimes dismiss or cut across genderqueer or non-binary experiences, or say that explorations of social construction are deliberately eradicating of trans narratives.

When people disagree this much it’s probably because there are elements of truth on both sides, and a lack of empathy bridging the space between – the same thing happens with sexuality; bi people sometimes think that “everyone’s bi really” whereas gay and heterosexual people tend to be suspicious that people could (or should) really be bi.

If we move in our heads from “either/or” to “both/and” maybe we can breathe a little easier with this nature/nurture conundrum. Everyone can have their identities and we can still talk about gender oppression, and challenge our social constructions around gender. We can get behind deconstructing an artificially reinforced gender binary but still accept gender diversity and natural difference.

We don’t need to forcefully maintain gender or forcefully eradicate it. Here’s a truly radical idea – what if we simply accept people’s self-experience and self-expression, and don’t privilege or validate some identities over others? Biology may well be the dominant factor in some but not all people’s experience of gender. Having a strong sense of gender identity or not feeling gendered at all are equally valid individual experiences that could be natural or constructed or a mix of both. The individual balance of nature and nurture is impossible to measure. More importantly, “natural” does not make something more valid; if we learned the idea of love from Shakespeare that doesn’t make it meaningless when we fall head over heels.

We are all the sum of our nature and nurture and the result, however mundane or unique, should be accepted as authentic.

This blog was originally published by me here in 2013 and was a Wordpress’ editor’s pick