Pretty much everything that we understand in life revolves around social constructions. Concepts such as time, gender, race, power, wealth, class, power, and even sexuality are nothing more than categories that humans made up so we can organize a diverse and often confusing world. These categories symbolize something that we can see, but under the surface, they have no intrinsic hierarchical value. We place them on a hierarchy because hierarchy is binary, meaning that it has two defined end-points that may be opposites or range from low to high. As a society, we are finally beginning to see that many of these categories exist on a spectrum, rather than as dichotomous opposites. Many philosophical thinkers and many ancient cultures go beyond a binary spectrum to concepts of cycles and webs, and these concepts can also be applied to identity and gender. Western academia is just beginning to catch up to these ideas in many areas… but I digress.
Unfortunately, human ingenuity has used these classifications to both define human value and worth, as well as used each of them to perpetuate structures of inequality and oppression. Because we in the US place a high value on individualism, freedom, and liberty, we have historically celebrated advances in human rights, and are currently experiencing a resurgence in cultural shifts toward people demanding civil liberties and rights where they have been systematically denied, with oppressed groups of people wanting recognition as viable, productive, worthy members of society despite their differences. This is where deconstruction comes in to play. What we are experiencing is the deconstruction of what we call traditional values, beliefs, mores, and institutions as a result. The lengths to which people cling to these traditions are correlative with the individual’s place within those structures and the fear of losing value within a given society. This is especially true of groups who have the least education. Without critical thinking skills and understanding of social progress from a historical perspective, we default to the categorical thinking with which we are most familiar rather than questioning the status quo.
This brings me to the example of non-binary gender identity as part of the spectrum of human experience. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine asked me “what happened to gender?”. She is a strong feminist, and is very politically active, and harbors no ill-will toward LGBTQ+ people, and was coming from a place of genuine curiosity. She was genuinely confused about what she saw as a trend toward non-binary gender identity and expression and how it relates to gender parity efforts between men and women. I had a similar question last year from another friend whose child came out as non-binary at the age of 12. While I was in the process of trying to understand my own gender identity, I found it difficult to articulate the differences and clumsily explained the spectrum and identity and exploration. At the time my first friend asked about non-binary identities, I was still looking at gender-identity from a binary perspective and was mostly focused on gender differences between men and women. By the time my second friend asked about it, I was well into my own process of defining my own identity, but still getting in touch with the nature of identity as a social construct on such a personal level. As a result of these questions and my own process of coming out, I’ve been posting on social media about Transgender issues increasingly over the past couple of years. This, of course, has resulted in a lot of questions asking what terms like Non-Binary, Genderqueer, Genderfluid, and Agender mean. While pop-culture offers Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner as examples of what Transgender looks like, those examples do not reflect everyday existence and visibility for most Transgender and Non-Binary identities.
We see gender as binary because gender is a social construction, which means that we are taught how to behave like a boy or a girl from the time we are born, based on our sex as defined by the genitalia with which we are born. As a side note, people born with “ambiguous” sex characteristics, most notably genitalia but also involves chromosomes, hormones, genes, and secondary sex characteristics (fat distribution, body hair, voice, etc.) constitute a small percentage of our overall population and have also been marginalized in most western societies. The appropriate term for this is intersex and applies to physical sex rather than gender identity. This should be a third sex category, but to date in most American states, it is not, which forces those who are intersex to choose a category to which they do not belong (or who have it forced upon them without consent at birth through sex-assignment surgeries and hormone therapies, which sometimes has both unnecessary and inhumane social and emotional consequences when the child is socialized as a gender with which they don’t identify). Because sex and gender are not synonymous, and because our society is still engaging in gender wars between the constructs of male and female, as a society we are still trying to understand gender identity on multiple levels. Once a child is born, they are assigned a gender based on the observable biological sex characteristics and are then socialized to cisgender/heteronormative standards of female or male gender roles and expressions. These are heavily policed through media, social interactions, and in many cases, threats and/or use of violence.
In western society, non-binary people are highly misunderstood, because we don’t fit into society’s ideas of either/or, and people have a psychological need to categorize ourselves so that we can make sense of all of the differences we perceive. While I can’t speak for other people’s experience, I can share my own as one of many diverse examples of what non-binary identity looks like.
For me, gender identity is as much about gender roles and traits as well as presentation, and the fact that I never felt right being boxed in as either masculine or feminine in my presentation. As a young adult, I would swing back and forth between femme and butch every couple of years, never feeling quite right with either. I couldn’t put words to it, and when I tried, I would verbally vomit a confusing mess of examples of how I felt with which few people I knew could identify. When I moved to my current community, I went back into the closet as queer in general after a frightening homophobic harassment experience, and it took 7 years before I started to come out again as queer, and 3 more to really start to define my own gender identity.
I came out as bisexual (now expanded to demisexual, poly and panromantic) as a teenager, and had Trans friends, but didn’t learn the term non-binary until I was 35. When I learned about non-binary, it was taught by a cis-male professor who presented it as something akin to androgynous, which wasn’t something with which I could identify. The books I’d read on Trans experience and history at that point were similar, and never quite fit. The closest book that fit for me in terms of gender roles in relationships, personality traits, and part of my presentation was Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, but even that didn’t fit entirely because I always felt like a part of me was missing when I was strictly butch or femme in my presentation. However, Stone Butch Blues helped me to define my gender by gender roles and traits as much as presentation. I grew up climbing trees, fishing, working on cars, enjoying fiber arts and design, playing music, dancing, and being crafty, and I hated being boxed-in to anything associated with one gender. I have a very definitive feminine side but felt like I was drowning in the expectations of femininity and aside from my presentation (how I dress), the most feminine parts of me were identified at best with other people’s expectations and an obsession with my appearance and at worst, with victimhood. I also have a very definitive masculine side, that has been mostly suppressed, ignored, or written off as tomboy or butch. Every couple of years I would swing from femme to butch presentation until my early 30’s when I was experiencing other major emotional crises, after which I resorted to hyper-feminity as a shield from other triggers. When I started really looking at my identity and what felt right for me without the input or opinions of others, I found that I have always felt happiest when I am able to express either or both gender traits, roles and expressions at any given time, and feel best when I can be fluid within and between these.
I’d also had relationships with one Trans male and dated a couple of very butch women who have had the same question about gender-identity and my two closest childhood friends both came out as Trans/Nonbinary much earlier than I did (one in their 20’s and the other in their 30’s), and a few other friends who are Trans. These folx were the ones that really helped me in finding my own definition. They allowed me to explore my feelings and ideas around my own identity and to really explore the middle of the spectrum. They listened as I (sometimes incoherently) babbled about my questions and feelings. They introduced me to an activist group and many folx in cities with large queer communities, and I spent a lot of time getting to know people with whom I resonated… finally feeling for the first time in my life that I fit in and didn’t have to present as either/or… and even sometimes, as just one. I could just be me, and I could do it in a place where I felt safe. I started hanging out a lot more in places where I felt safe exploring my gender identity with my friends, then gradually started transitioning my presentation in my own community. During the times that I spent in larger cities with my friends, I met people on all points on the gender-identity spectrum and found that some Trans folx are very binary oriented, while others are nearer to the middle of the spectrum, or even outside of the spectrum entirely. Then about 2 years ago, I saw the term “femme-identified non-binary” on a friend’s Trans Visibility Project website and I had one of those “holy-$#!%” epiphanies. I finally had words to match how I felt. My gender identity has since broadened beyond femme-identified to a gender-fluid expression of non-binary identity.
I’m still in the process of coming out and transition… but then again, life is fluid and ever changing, so I don’t see this as an event as much as I do a progression. When I first came out, I found it easier with strangers and my closest friends than with acquaintances or family who operate on preconceptions of my gender identity based on my physical body and often without any understanding of what non-binary means. My pronouns are Xe/They and Mx, but until recently, I often didn’t fuss over pronouns with most straight-cis people because of the amount of energy and emotional work that it took to explain the difference between non-binary and Trans to straight-cis folx who can’t see past my body shape or the timbre of my voice. I didn’t mind having those conversations with people who really care to learn, but I still don’t have the time, patience, or energy for those who want to remain ignorant. That said, I can’t begin to stress how important correct pronoun usage is for people who have felt invisible and misunderstood our whole lives, and as I have felt safer in coming out, it has become increasingly more important for me to let people know my own pronouns and educate people on their correct usage. Having worn the shoes of ignorance in my own understanding of gender identity, I have more patience than most of my friends regarding pronoun usage as it took me nearly a year to stop constantly correcting myself when referring to one of my friends after they came out as Trans. However, my own patience is not unlimited, and it is vitally important on a social level that we learn to use the correct terms with which any person identifies when it comes to gender (or names, race, or any other construct).
I share my experience as a tool for learning and understanding. Those who want to know more are welcome to ask about my experience and to do their own research on identity and diversity. Those who choose not to understand who I am don’t have a place in my personal circles. We live in a diverse society which means that we have a wide variety of ideas regarding identity, morality, ethics, pride and dignity. Ignorance is a choice to not recognize the dynamics that created the society in which we live and how we are participating in and benefitting from those dynamics. I choose to live with dignity and pride and share my own experience to help others more fully become who they were meant to be.
If you would like to learn more, an important resource for a closer look at the non-binary spectrum is this incredible photo project, Here: Portraits Beyond the Binary, which captures the beauty, resilience, and diversity of Folx on the Transgender part of the gender-identity spectrum. One of my dearest lifelong friends has been working on this project for several years, and I’m grateful to them for this labor of love because it is this kind of dedication to visibility that saves lives and gives a face, a name, a story, and a portrait of a human heart that wants to love and be loved and accepted for who we are.