Practical AndrogynyDevoted to the practicalities of ambiguous gender presentation within a binary gendered society

The binary gender system classifies all people into either female or male, man or woman. However not everyone fits neatly into these categories. Some people do not feel comfortable when assigned a traditional gender. Whether owing to choice or chance, many of these people are not readily gendered by others.

This state of perceived gender ambiguity can be described as androgyny.

Practical Androgyny is a resource for both those who are comfortably androgynous but struggle with the pressures of the binary gender system, and for those who wish to explore the possibilities of gender ambiguity. This site does not focus on the details of identity but on the practical aspects of living with, or obtaining, an appearance that defies gender classification.

How many people in the United Kingdom are nonbinary?

Posted by – December 16, 2014

This report attempts to assemble and analyse useful sources to determine how many people identify outside of the gender binary in the United Kingdom. This was in part motivated by my previous post reporting on the number of people who left the ‘sex’ question on the 2001 UK Census blank, having been cited as a figure representing how many people are not female or male in this country. I’ve chosen to focus on the UK in this follow-up post as I’m most familiar with organisations and activists based in this country, but if anyone has similar figures relating to other countries or which are more general, such as covering entire continents, then please do share them, and any corrections, in the comments.

For the purposes of this report, I am defining ‘nonbinary’ as an umbrella term for any gender (or lack of gender) that would not be adequately represented by an either/or choice between ‘man’ or ‘woman’. There is a large diversity of different experiences and identity labels that meet this definition. It is intended that all are included.

As is often the case with surveys and censuses, the presentation and wording of a question is extremely important factor in how people answer it (see for example, the controversy over how the question of religion was presented in the UK Census). If you wish to measure the numbers of people who don’t fit within binary classifications of female/male or man/woman then your choice of question will have a huge effect on the results. As such, this post will attempt where possible to report on how the gender questions were asked rather than just how they were answered.

Please note that I am not a statistician, but wherever possible the figures are sourced directly from research papers, within which full methodologies and statistical analyses are available. It is recognised that some of the surveys presented have limited value due to poor methodology or due to applying to different populations. Flaws and limitations have been described when identified. Some surveys are included to present missed opportunities, provide constructive criticism or to demonstrate wider community trends that may relate to the UK population.

Abstract

Reliable figures show that at least 0.4% of the UK population defines as nonbinary when given a 3-way choice in terms of female, male or another description. The proportion will likely be higher when the question is phrased in terms of man/woman or when multiple choices are allowed, as is shown in studies of trans and asexual populations.

Identities and experiences under the nonbinary umbrella are extremely diverse with many identifying with multiple labels. Only around 31% of nonbinary people confidently identify as trans and more than 65% are not protected by the Equality Act 2010 gender identity provisions. Surveys of trans communities found around 25 to 28% identify in some way outside of the binary.

It’s important to present your gender question in an inclusive way to help nonbinary people feel welcome to describe themselves as something other than men and women. Consultation with nonbinary, genderqueer and trans etc communities is recommended when designing surveys.

If gender is asked in terms of frequency of feeling like a man, a women, both or neither then there is evidence that more than a third of everyone may experience gender in a way that defies binary categories.

More research on nonbinary people is needed.

Contents

Surveys of the UK general population

Ideally our survey sample should be as large as possible, or should at least be designed in such a way as to produce a result that is a valid representation of the UK’s population, with a significant randomised sampling.

The United Kingdom Census 2011

Tumblr user cassolotl shares a photograph of the 2011 'What is your sex?' question, the answers are stuck out and instead the following is written 'Sex is not binary. Gender is important. What about trans people?'Although the census has, by its nature, the largest possible sample, it asks the question of gender (or in this case ‘sex’) in the worst possible way if the aim is to record whether people aren’t described well by categories like ‘female’ or ‘male’, or ‘man’ or ‘woman':

[2]   What is your sex?
□ Male       □ Female

This appeared within a demographics section between name and birth date, which both leads the reader to believe that they’re being asked for their ‘legal sex’ or the gender they were assigned at birth and offers no recognition that there can be any other options than the binary choice presented, nor space to write in a different option.

Despite this, some people did tick both boxes provided, leave both boxes empty or write something over the question on the form. The Office for National Statistics doesn’t publish counts of how many people explicitly indicated a nonbinary gender when ‘spoiling’ the question in this way (and won’t release scans of the forms for 100 years); however, there are figures for ‘non-responses’ covering all three of these possibilities and a figure for ‘multi-ticks’ indicating how many people ticked both options.

The same ‘Response and imputation rates’ report that showed a 0.4% non-response rate for ‘Sex’ in the 2001 UK Census has been released for the 2011 Census. This again found that 0.4% of Census respondents failed to give a binary response to ‘Sex’ in some way, which now accounts for 224,632 people.

It is interesting that this figure hasn’t reduced given that the 2011 UK Census heavily encouraged users to complete the census form using the Internet, with this web-based system refusing to allow entry of the census questions to continue until a single binary answer was given. It was reasonable to expect a noticeable drop in the rate, which hasn’t occurred. However, a non-response rate of 0.4% is still the lowest of all census questions with Age receiving 0.6% non-response and Marital / Civil Partnership status 3.8% non-response. Most questions range from 2 to 5% non-response with the highest being over 18%.

What has reduced is the proportion of multi-ticks recorded for ‘Sex’. In 2001 multi-ticks accounted for ~14,000 people compared to ~185,000 who answered neither (or wrote over the question). In 2011 only 4,689 people multi-ticked compared to 224,632 recorded as ‘non-response’ (this figure apparently includes multi-ticks). That’s now 2.1% of all ‘sex’ non-responses being due to both options being ticked compared to 7.0% of them in 2001. Does this mean more people wrote in responses instead or that fewer people identify as both female and male? We have no way to tell.

While it’s interesting to compare these figures and speculate about their meaning, we shouldn’t attempt to put too much significance in the UK Census Sex ‘non-response’ and multi-tick rates. We have no way to tell what non-responses were meant to indicate and, while multi-ticks seem a clear indicator of a gender that doesn’t fit the binary options presented, we have no way of knowing what proportion of people who felt erased by the question opted to make an explicit protest or correction (especially when write ins are not recorded in any way).

On top of all this, it was impossible to answer anything but a single binary option on the online version of the form and the wording of the question and its position in the form means that the fact that some people leave the ‘sex’ question blank or ‘spoil’ the question by writing over this space on the paper form cannot be in any way taken as an indicator of the numbers of people who would’ve answered outside of the binary if given more encouragement to do so.

Equality and Human Rights Commission: Measuring Gender Identity 2011/12

ehrc-logoThe Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was formed to challenge discrimination and promote human rights in the UK. Part of its role is to monitor and advocate for the protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act 2010. One of which is ‘Gender Reassignment’, with the Act protecting anyone who intends to undergo, has undergone or is undergoing any part of this process (with no requirement for a medical diagnosis).

In 2010, the EHRC found that the Office for National Statistics’ figures were inadequate for reporting on the numbers of people in the UK who qualified for this protection. The Commission also considered that there was no adequate equalities monitoring question for transgender and gender identity, when this would now be a requirement under the new public authorities Equality Duty. It was important to have a standardised question or set of questions that had been used in major national surveys, in order to provide an existing baseline for future Equality Duty monitoring questions to be analysed against.

They set about designing questions to be inclusive of all types of trans people, and not exclude any by using questions such as ‘Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned at birth?’ or ‘Do you live and work full-time in the gender role opposite to that assigned at birth?’. They reviewed, trialled and sought feedback on questions in order to ensure this.

The set of questions that were ultimately selected are as follows:

Q1 At birth, were you described as….
Please tick one option
Male □
Female □
Intersex □
I prefer not to say □

Q2 Which of the following describes how you think of yourself?
Please tick one option
Male □
Female □
In another way: □________________________

Q3 Have you gone through any part of a process (including thoughts or actions) to change from the sex you were described as at birth to the gender you identify with, or do you intend to?
(This could include changing your name, wearing different clothes, taking hormones or having gender reassignment surgery).
Yes □ -> Please go to Q4
No □ -> END

Q4 Continuing to think about these examples, which of the following options best applies to you?
Please tick one option
I am thinking about going through this process □
I am currently going through this process □
I have already been through this process □
I have been through this process, then changed back □
None of the above □_______________
I prefer not to say □

Q5 Which of the following describes how you think of yourself?
Tick all that apply
Trans man □
Trans woman □
Transsexual person □
Gender variant person □
Cross dressing/ transvestite person □
Intersex person □
In another way □_______________________
I prefer not to say □

[Note, I do not support asking for gender assigned at birth on Equality Duty monitoring questions, but am glad that ‘I prefer not to say’ has at least been included in the recommended questions. I would instead recommend making it clear that questions are asking for identity and not for body configuration or legal status.]

In 2011, these questions were used in a major national self-completion survey, performed online. In total 10,039 responses were recorded for this research, after a drop-out rate of only 0.2%. Respondents were sampled so as to be representative of the UK population. The results, released as a ‘Technical Note’ in Spring 2012, found that 38 of these respondents answered question 2 such that they “think of themselves in another way than ‘Male’ or ‘Female'”. This accounts for 0.4% of the respondents (it’s probably a coincidence that this matches the figures for ‘sex’ non-response from the last two censuses.)

The report indicates the following:

Further information about those answering ‘in another way’ at question 2 is available through the write-in answers that some respondents provided. These are varied and include: transgender, genderqueer, gender-fluid, some combination of male and female, gender neutral, genderless, a person, human, normal, androgyne and neither/none.

Barring the ‘normal’ response, which is somewhat ambiguous, this seems to indicate that it’s reasonable to take the ‘in another way’ answers as indicating a nonbinary experience of gender.

This research was designed to be statistically significant and to be used as the baseline for analysis of Equality Duty monitoring questions, so it’s therefore reasonable to use the results as indicative that approximately 0.4% of the UK population identifies themselves in another way than the gender binary options of female and male.

A breakdown of the other questions was provided allowing question 2 to be compared to questions 1 and 3 (extracted from the full Annex B breakdown, with added totals):

Think of yourself as (Q2) Described at birth as (Q1) Number of responses Percent of total Gender reassignment protected characteristic (Q3) Percent ‘yes’ to Q3
Yes No Missing
In another way Male 18 0.2% 8 10 0 44.4%
Female 17 0.2% 4 13 0 23.5%
Prefer not to specify 3 0.0% 0 2 1 0.0%
Total 38 0.4% 12 25 1 31.6%

31.6% of those who gave the ‘think of yourself in another way’ answer indicated that they were considering, were undergoing or had undergone some part of gender reassignment (answered ‘Yes’ to question 3). There was an almost equal split in the ‘birth sex’ question for the ‘another way’ group with 17 indicating female at birth, 18 indicating male at birth and 3 preferring not to say (respondents had also previously been categorised with a binary gender question, this split the ‘another way’ responses into equal sized groups). Within the question 1 assignment at birth split, twice as many who indicated that they had been assigned male at birth answered ‘Yes’ to question 3 (gender reassignment) than those who indicated that they had been assigned female at birth. Of the ‘Prefer not to say’ group, 2 answered ‘No’ to question 3 and 1 skipped the question.

For comparison, 1% of the research population (100 respondents) answered ‘Yes’ to question 3 (relating to an Equality Act 2010 definition of the ‘Gender Reassignment’ protected characteristic), and 0.03% (4 people) indicated they were intersex (none of whom gave a nonbinary answer to question 2.) The population of intersex people responding to the survey is too low to be able to extrapolate proportions of intersex people who also identify their gender ‘in another way’, but we are able to say that 12% of people who qualify for Equality Act 2010 ‘Gender Reassignment’ protected characteristic identify outside of the binary and that more than 65% of nonbinary people do not fall under the Equality Act’s protections for gender minorities.

There are a number of reasons why some nonbinary people might not be able to identify with the ‘gender reassignment’ protected characteristic description as presented. They may be alienated by the wording including ‘change’ ‘sex’ and assume this cannot apply to them, especially if they are comfortable with their body but not the gender they have been assigned. They may feel that there is no ‘process’ required to express their gender, it may be something they feel is done simply by being themself. They may feel that there is no societal role for their gender, and so no way to express this that would be recognised by others. They may have a fluid experience of gender and feel that a ‘process’ implies a permanent or long-term change which would be limiting and inappropriate. They may have a strong experience of having no gender or having a nonbinary gender, but no strong discomfort that would require this to be affirmed through transition. They may feel that their gender nonconformity is an expression of personality, sexuality or something other than gender identity and so may identify with the sex they were assigned at birth (this describes some people who would have nonetheless written ‘genderqueer’ or similar in for question 2). They may also feel that their experience of gender outside the binary is something personal to them and not to be shared with others. (And of course there are a number of equally diverse ways why some nonbinary people do strongly relate to the ‘gender reassignment’ description, up to and including having undergone some form of formal transition and/or transgender medical treatments.)

It should be noted that this report has been cited in various places as demonstrating that 1% of the UK population is transgender or gender variant. However, this 1% figure erases the 26 individuals who indicated that they identify themselves in a way other than female or male but did not relate to the description of ‘gender reassignment’. As such, the EHRC research indicates that 1.3% of the UK population is in some way transgender or gender variant. However, the figure should likely be larger as many of the objections in the previous paragraph could also apply to some binary identified individuals. Within this 1.3% of the population, 30.2% are nonbinary.

These are now the EHRC recommended monitoring questions for public authorities, so it is likely that they will continue to be used in major national surveys and applied to many smaller populations.

YouGov Daily, October 2014

YouGov DailyYouGov is a large polling site offering the promise of a £50 reward to members who answer enough weekly surveys. YouGov polls are often reported as notable in the news and are used to predict the results of upcoming elections or influence public policy. For example, a YouGov poll before the recent Scottish Independence Referendum has been credited for changing the course of the Better Together ‘No’ campaign, resulting in ‘The Vow’ promising more devolved powers to Scotland within the Union.

YouGov has a large membership and selects smaller samples from that membership to pose questions to. Based on YouGov’s published results for website polls (for example, this 2014 poll on attitudes to nudity), samples for individual polls of the UK populations appear to range from 1000 to 2000 respondents. YouGov only appears to ask panel members for a binary gender and does not report on numbers of respondents who are neither men nor women.

YouGov also provides a free polling smartphone app called ‘YouGov Daily’. This asks users 3 questions per day and reports on the results. YouGov describes this app as:

YouGov Daily is a smartphone app for a daily polling experiment. YouGov will use this panel to test ideas and get immediate feedback on polling and the YouGov experience.

Samples for this app’s questions appear to be self-selected, completed by those who choose to install the app (available on Apple’s App Store and Google Play) and answer the questions each day. It’s possible to use this app to answer polls without giving any demographic information, although there is the option to give your ‘Zip/Postcode’ and the details of your YouGov website account.

The web-based YouGov Daily results fail to report sample size or any demographics, such as whether it’s limited to the UK; however, most of the questions are clearly UK-specific. Once the user has answered, total sample size for the current question is given through the app. At the time of writing, Saturday the 6th of December 2014, the YouGov Daily app is asking about BBC political bias, if the BBC should continue to be funded by the licence fee and whether the Elgin Marbles held at the British Museum should be loaned to other countries and/or returned to Greece, all relevant to current UK news stories. As of 16:45, the current total number of respondents was 3,037. On checking again at midnight the total had reached 3,942 and the question continued to be open to responses. Results for the previous day’s questions seem to have been posted a little after 10:15 each morning, so it’s reasonable to assume that sample sizes for YouGov Daily questions are well over 3,000 and are at least in majority British.

On the morning of 22nd of October 2014, YouGov’s UK website posted the results of a 3 question YouGov Daily poll in which respondents had been asked the opening question:

You are either a man or a woman. Agree? Or disagree?
□ Agree
□ Disagree
□ Not sure

It’s likely that this question related to the news stories that week reporting that OKCupid had begun allowing (some) users to indicate additional options for gender and sexuality.

The results of this poll were 74% ‘Agree’ with ‘You are either a man or a woman’, 19% ‘Disagree’ and 7% were ‘Not sure’.

YouGov Daily poll results graph

Unfortunately, this was an ambiguously worded question. It could be taken to ask the individual ‘you’ if they are ‘a man or a woman’ or if they are something else, or it could be taken to ask the individual if they believe that it’s possible for any person to be something other than a man or a woman. (Consider, for example, how one might read a question using a similar binary statement ‘You are either gay or straight’ or ‘You are either introvert or extravert’.)

My feeling is that the full stop makes the first part into a statement, not a question, while ‘Agree? Or disagree?’ invites the reader to consider the validity of it as a general statement. The following questions were in fact clearly asking about the individual’s identity, but were not visible until the first question had been answered. Given the much higher figure than the EHRC found, it’s reasonable to assume that most respondents had a similar understanding of the question to mine, although this cannot be said for sure. However, it’s open to enough interpretation that some men or women may have answered ‘disagree’ despite believing in the existence of nonbinary people.

Due to the ambiguous wording, the only reliable conclusion that can be taken from this poll is that at least 19% of active YouGov Daily users believe that it is possible to have an existence outside of the binary categories of man or woman. The real number may in fact be higher.

Based on the YouGov description of the app as a polling experiment that allows them to test ideas, there is a chance that YouGov are considering allowing for the panelists of their main website polls to indicate genders other than Man or Woman in the future.

Surveys of the UK Trans Population

As one might expect, the population that tends to be most often asked about gender in more nuanced ways is the trans community. However, it’s important to remember that more than 65% of the people that the EHRC research above identified as identifying outside of the binary did not identify with even the most general and inclusive wording describing ‘gender reassignment’ and so may be unlikely to be found in trans groups and online communities with a heavy focus on transition.

Although official figures are limited, some trans organisations have performed research on the trans population in order to determine our needs and demographics, and have done so in a way that is inclusive of those within the trans community who do not fit within a binary model of gender.

UK Trans Info: Gender Clinic Figures 2014

UK Trans InfoAlthough UK Trans Info have asked, UK gender clinics are failing to record or report on the number of their service users who hold nonbinary genders (see page 5 – content warning on that report for misgendering by gender clinics) despite acknowledgement in a 2013 DIVA magazine article that they ‘see people from a whole spectrum of gender backgrounds with a wide variety of needs and wishes’. (It should also be noted that many gender clinic service users opt not to reveal their nonbinary identity in fear of being denied treatment).

As such, there are no official figures of the numbers of nonbinary individuals known to trans gender healthcare professionals. The ERHC figures above are the most official source of statistical information relating to nonbinary prevalence.

UK Trans Info have now stopped asking about the genders of gender clinic service users as it is clear that clinics are not recording this information in a meaningful way.

GIRES: Gender Variance In the UK: Prevalence, Incidence, Growth and Geographic Distribution 2009/11

GIRES Prevalence and Incidence reportingIn 2009 the Home Office funded the UK’s most prominent gender identity research charity, GIRES (Gender Identity Research and Education Society), to produce the Gender Variance In the UK: Prevalence, Incidence, Growth and Geographic Distribution report. This was a groundbreaking report at the time and produced valuable evidence for policymakers and service providers.

Despite the inclusive sounding ‘gender variance’ title, the 2009 GIRES report only mentions ‘genderqueer’ once when introducing ‘the broader transgender group’ in the main report and limits other mentions of gender outside the binary to the glossary section. The majority of the GIRES report talks in terms of trans men, trans women and crossdressers. Estimates of numbers are only supplied for these three groups, with ‘transgender people’ later defined as ‘those who crossdress’. This was sadly typical of the historical state of nonbinary inclusion in UK research where, even 5 years ago, a mention in a footnote or glossary was the best one might hope for. We have come a long way in a short time. However, the 2011 update to this report still states that all those who have undergone medical transition are now either trans women or trans men (I, and others, have been treated by gender clinics while openly nonbinary in this time).

GIRES have greatly improved their nonbinary inclusion in recent years. Their 2011 Trans Community Statement of Need acknowledged and included ‘non or bi-gendered folk’ and their TranzWiki categorises all support groups in terms of whether they provide support for nonbinary people. They currently describe their aims with:

GIRES’ overall aim is to improve substantially the circumstances in which gender nonconforming people live. GIRES upholds the right of all those who do not fit the typical boy/girl, man/woman tick boxes, including people who intend to change gender role completely and others whose gender identity is non-binary, to live proudly in a society that celebrates diversity.

However, their 2012 ‘Monitoring Gender Nonconformity‘ quick guide still fails to acknowledge nonbinary people in the text description, despite citing the EHRC report described above and including a version of their monitoring question. This document defines gender nonconformity with the suggested monitoring question ‘Gender Nonconformity: Does your gender identity match completely the sex you were registered at birth?’ – it nonetheless cites the EHRC ‘gender reassignment’ figure of 1% rather than the correct nonbinary-inclusive figure of 1.3%.

Hopefully, GIRES’ commitment to inclusion and celebration of nonbinary people will lead to our full inclusion in future prevalence and incidence studies and recognition that nonbinary individuals can also be and often are treated for gender dysphoria and/or ‘change their gender role completely’.

Scottish Trans Alliance: Trans Mental Health Study 2012

Trans Mental Health Study 2012The largest nonbinary inclusive survey of UK trans people that I’m aware of was performed by The Scottish Trans Alliance in partnership with TransBareAll, the Trans Resource and Empowerment Centre, Traverse Research and Sheffield Hallam University. For approximately 3 months in mid-2012, they carried out an online survey on mental health aimed at trans people in the UK and Ireland. This was announced in trans support groups, online forums and mailing lists and was also publicised using LGBT networks and professionals whose work might bring them in contact with trans people.

Ultimately, 1045 people responded to the survey; after excluding those who lived outside the UK or Ireland, were under 18 or had not given consent to take part in research, 889 people remained as the sample used for reporting.

This was an extremely important and study resulting in a valuable and often sobering report that contains far more than just the basic demographic information explored here.

Gender was asked for with the following questions:

Which of the following best describes you?
□ I have a constant and clear gender identity as a woman
□ I have a constant and clear gender identity as a man
□ I have a constant and clear non-binary gender identity
□ I have a variable or fluid non-binary gender identity
□ I have no gender identity
□ I am unsure of my gender identity
□ Other (open text field)

Do you consider yourself to be within any of the following categories?
[List of tick boxes including:
Transgender Person
Woman
Trans person
Trans woman
Man
Trans man
Female-to-Male (MtF) spectrum person
Woman with a transsexual history
Male-to-female (FtM) spectrum person
Genderqueer person
NB: only items chosen by 20% or more of respondents were included in the survey results; this list is therefore incomplete]

The results of the gender identity question (page 13), which was answered by 794 qualifying respondents, found that 65% held a ‘Constant and clear gender identity’ as a woman or a man (40% woman, 25% man), 6% answered ‘Unsure’, 3% answered ‘Other’ and 26% answered one of the options relating to a constant or variable nonbinary gender or a lack of gender identity (which could be labelled as agender or nongendered, falling under the nonbinary umbrella). The full breakdown is as follows:

Gender Identity Number Percent
Constant and clear gender identity as a woman 317 40%
Constant and clear gender identity as a man 197 25%
Variable or fluid non-binary 122 15%
Constant and clear non-binary 63 8%
Unsure 49 6%
Other 25 3%
No gender identity 21 3%
Total 794 100%

The respondents who entered ‘Other’ gave a variety of somewhat personal explanations for why they didn’t feel the other options described them. Some indicate a binary identity that’s currently personal and that they fear expressing. Others are skeptical of the concept of gender or unsure of which they qualify for. Some indicate that they’re technically genderqueer or nonbinary but use a binary gender for simplicity or for political reasons. I encourage you to read the full set of 9 examples on pages 13 and 14 of the report.

Given this breakdown, many of those who indicated ‘Other’ should be considered as identifying outside of the binary to some significant degree; however, it is clear that at least a third should in fact be considered as clearly not identifying this way. (Of course ‘Binary’ vs ‘Nonbinary’ is in itself not a binary question, categories are always more complicated than that.) This is a clear example of why a simple ‘gender ternary’ of questions such as ‘Female / Male / Other’ is of limited usefulness compared to a more inclusive set of questions.

One may conclude from these results that around 26% to 29% of trans people in the UK and Ireland identify somewhere outside the binary of man and woman. Given the example ‘Other’ responses, a conservative estimate would be to split the 3% ‘Other’ results in half and say that roughly 27.5% are nonbinary in some way.

Additionally, 21% of respondents indicated that ‘Genderqueer person’ was one of the multiple specific categories that they consider themselves to be within (no breakdown was provided to indicate how this overlapped with the answers to the gender identity question). Note, while genderqueer is sometimes used as a synonym for nonbinary or as an umbrella term for any gender outside of the binary and there is a great deal of overlap, these terms do not map perfectly onto each other with some nonbinary people not considering themselves to be genderqueer and vice versa.

Trans Media Watch: How Transgender People Experience the Media survey 2009/10

Trans Media WatchBetween 1st November 2009 and 28th of February 2010, Trans Media Watch asked self-identified transgender people based in the UK to complete an online survey on how they felt about representations of trans people in the media. 256 people completed the survey, 6 of whom were not themselves transgender but were a partner, significant other etc of a trans person.

Survey respondents were asked a demographic question about their ‘gender identity’ with the following options:

□ Man with a trans background
□ Woman with a trans background
□ FTM / trans man
□ MTF / trans woman
□ Cross-dressing / transvestite person
□ Androgyne / genderqueer / polygender person
□ Other type of gender variant person
□ Intersex person
□ Other (open text field)

(This question is quite poorly worded as it specifies an oddly limited set of specific identity labels. Given my experience of the community, I believe that a significant number of nonbinary people, including many agender people, would not consider that any of ‘androgyne’, ‘genderqueer’ or ‘polygender’ describe them well.)

Out of the total sample, 215 respondents answered the gender identity question. The report summarises this as:

59.5% (128) identified as female, 25.6% (55) as male, and 14.9% (32) as other (e.g. androgyne people).

The question allowed for multiple responses: 13 people answered that they were only ‘Androgyne / genderqueer / polygender person’, 13 more answered that they were only ‘Other type of gender variant person’. In total 38 people indicated they were ‘Androgyne / genderqueer / polygender person’ and 18 indicated they were ‘Other type of gender variant person’ (including 4 who dislike labels altogether). 3 people indicated they were both ‘Androgyne / genderqueer / polygender person’ and ‘Other type of gender variant person’. As such 53 out of the 211 transgender respondents held a gender identity that was in some way outside of or more complex than the binary options alone. This corresponds to 25.1% of the transgender sample.

As such, the demographics of this survey of UK transgender people found that 14.9% primarily identify as something other than female or male, and 25.1% have some form of nonbinary identity more complex than female or male alone. Although it should be noted that the question was poorly worded and was greatly improved on by the later and larger Scottish Trans Alliance survey above.

Surveys of other populations

The following surveys do not represent the UK population, or even subgroups within that population. I’ve included them in this article because they either go into greater demographic detail than UK research has yet done, pose extremely interesting research questions that have yet to be asked in the UK, or illustrate relevant points that are important to consider either when designing surveys or when talking about nonbinary gender in general.

United States National Transgender Discrimination Survey 2008

Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination SurveyIn 2008 the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National LGBTQ Task Force (the Task Force) launched the National Transgender Discrimination Survey studying anti-transgender discrimination in the United States. 6,450 transgender and gender nonconforming people responded to the survey over 6 months.

Gender was asked in the following way:

Q3. What is your primary gender identity today?

(A) Male/man
(B) Female/woman
(C) Part time as one gender, part time as another
(D) A gender not listed here, please specify _______

The answers to this question split as follows: 26% Male/man, 41% Female/woman, 20% Part time as one gender, part time as another and 13% A gender not listed here. It should be noted that ‘part time as one gender, part time as another’ is a description that could cover many bigender and fluid gender people and others who would consider themselves to be nonbinary or genderqueer. It could also describe binary gendered trans people who are in the process of transition or not able to present full time due to workplace discrimination or other such factors. As such it’s not possible to give a full total of people whose gender identities fall outside of binary categories based on this question.

It is unclear how surveys of United States trans populations will compare to similar surveys held in the United Kingdom, but I included this survey as an extremely valuable analysis of the ‘A gender not listed here’ respondents and the responses that were written in for option D have been published in volume 2 of the LGBTQ Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School – A Gender Not Listed Here: Genderqueers, Gender Rebels, and OtherWise in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey by Jack Harrison, Jaime Grant, and Jody L. Herman.

Not only does this analysis include details of the breakdown of these write in answers, such as:

Q3 garnered 860 written responses to GNL, many of them creative and unique, such as twidget, birl, OtherWise, and transgenderist. The majority of these respondents wrote in genderqueer, or some variation thereof, such as pangender, third gender, or hybrid. Still others chose terms that refer to third gender or genderqueers within specific cultural traditions, such as Two-Spirit (FirstNations), Mahuwahine (Hawaiian), and Aggressive (Black or African American).

It also provides detailed analysis of the demographics of the ‘A gender not listed here’ respondents, their experiences of discrimination and how these compared to the rest of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey respondents. They were found overall to be younger, less likely to be white and more likely to have experienced violence and harassment. I encourage you to read the article in full and hope for similar research to be carried out in the UK in future.

European Union Agency For Fundamental Rights: EU LGBT survey 2012

FRA: Helping to make fundamental rights a reality for everyone in the EUI would have dearly liked to have provided accurate Europe-wide figures for nonbinary people in this section, since there was a major European Union Agency For Fundamental Rights (FRA) survey of 93,079 LGBT people across the EU and Croatia in 2012 aimed at recording the everyday experiences of LGBT people in respect of discrimination.

However, while this research aimed to be inclusive of transgender people, it asked questions of gender and trans identity so poorly that there’s no way to determine for certain which of the transgender respondents even identify as men or women, let alone in other ways.

The questions asked were:

Question A2. What sex were you assigned at birth?
□ Female
□ Male

Question A3. Are / were you a transgender person?
□ Yes
□ No

Only shown if ‘Yes’ was answered for Question A3:
PLEASE SELECT ONE ANSWER THAT FITS YOU BEST –
□ Transgender
□ Transsexual
□ Woman with a transsexual past
□ Man with a transsexual past
□ Gender variant
□ Cross dresser
□ Queer
□ Other

This set-up assumed that people with transsexual pasts, genderqueer, gender variant and nonbinary people will recognise that they are intended to be included under ‘Transgender’, which is not a reasonable assumption. This set-up also erroneously assumed that anyone who did not indicate that they were transgender was represented perfectly by the sex that they were assigned at birth. Worst of all, it apparently decided that everyone who is transgender or transsexual can have their gender determined from their assigned sex alone, as this question is never otherwise asked (alternatively, the survey designers just didn’t care – transgender people were excluded from all other categories, apparently disqualified from LGB sexualities and treated only as trans).  Those who did not indicate that they were transgender were only asked their gender as assigned at birth.

The results of these deeply flawed questions do not even allow us to determine how many people who answered yes to question A3 were men or women! I, an individual nonbinary person, would not have any idea how to categorise myself given those options. I am transgender, I have a transsexual medical history, I have been categorised as ‘gender variant’ although I dislike this term, I’m queer and I’m a variety of other things such as gender neutral in identity and androgynous in presentation. I find it hard to imagine that much or any time was taken to consult with trans people about how best to represent us.

Headline results are as follows (derived from the weighted counts on pages 33 and 34 of the report):

Answered ‘Yes’ to A3 Count Percent
7,576 100%
Transgender 1,140 15.0%
Transsexual 1,347 17.8%
Woman with a transsexual past 409 5.4%
Man with a transsexual past 188 2.5%
Gender variant 575 7.6%
Cross dresser 698 9.2%
Queer 1,095 14.5%
Other 2,124 28.0%

It’s a clear sign that your question design is flawed when ‘Other’ is significantly higher than any other category. There was no facility offered to allow users to write in what they meant by ‘Other’. ‘Gender Variant’ and ‘Queer’ combined made up 22.0% of respondents who answered ‘yes’ to question A3. Based on the Scottish Trans Alliance survey responses for ‘Other’, we can conservatively assume that around half of the ‘Other’ responses are in some way outside of the gender binary categories, resulting in as much as 36.1% being in some way nonbinary. This is higher than other surveys of trans populations, but may reflect that a European or LGBT-focused survey will have different results. Alternatively, it may simply be because this survey was extremely flawed when handling gender.

Later in the survey, everyone was asked if they feel either masculine or feminine (as another binary-only option) and if they look either masculine or feminine, and then this was compared to assignment at birth to decide if they had a ‘matching gender expression’ or not (this is equally flawed, one can be extremely gender nonconforming in expression while still being ‘matching’ by this definition, and one can be androgynous, epicene or neuter, or simply not relate to the binary of ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’). Those who answered that they were transgender in question A3 were found to be almost equally ‘matching’ and ‘non-matching’ by these questions.

To conclude, this FRA research was deeply flawed and represents an extremely disappointing failure to design what could have been a groundbreaking survey in a way that was inclusive of gender minorities. This highlights the importance of taking care to be inclusive of trans people and those who don’t fit within the gender binary. It is recommended that an inclusive consultation process, such as that carried out by the EHRC, be completed before designing a survey such as this.

[Note, other EU publications, such as the European Commission Trans and intersex people: Discrimination on the grounds of sex, gender identity and gender expression report, are more inclusive of nonbinary experiences and identities but don’t provide figures relevant to this report.]

The AVEN Community Census 2014

The Asexual Visibility and Education Network, AVEN, hosts one of the largest forum communities for asexual people (those who do not experience sexual attraction) and their supporters. Earlier this year the AVEN membership were surveyed in a Community Census; the survey was also promoted on social media outlets such as Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter as well as on other online asexual community groups. The survey was online and self-selected and received a total of 14,210 responses, 10,880 of which were from respondents who were asexual, demisexual or grey-asexual.

AVEN’s membership is in no way a reflection of the United Kingdom’s population, in fact only 9% of respondents identified themselves as coming from the UK. Its membership is also very skewed towards younger people, in part due to being primarily used by people who are newly exploring their asexual spectrum identity. However, the results of this survey are notable as the AVEN membership contains an unusually high proportion of nonbinary members. As in previous surveys of membership, nonbinary individuals outnumber men in the 2014 AVEN Community Census – 62.1% were women, 24.6% were nonbinary and 13.3% were men.

Based on previous findings, it has been assumed that there was a strong overlap between nonbinary gender and asexual orientations; however, this survey found there were almost as many nonbinary individuals among the allosexual (non-asexual) respondents – 26.1% of asexual spectrum respondents vs 20.9% of allosexuals. This may imply that the large proportions of nonbinary people may be in some part due to the inclusive and safer space AVEN offers to those who experience gender outside of the binary. (As the original author of the AVEN asexuality FAQ in 2002, I can report that the forums were extremely nonbinary-friendly and open to and supportive of questioning of gender from the beginning.)

The gender questions were posed in the following way:

20. What sex were you assigned at birth?
i.e. What was written on your birth certificate
Mark only one oval.
⬭ Male
⬭ Female
⬭ Other: ______________

21. Have you ever been officially diagnosed with an intersex condition?
Mark only one oval.
⬭ No
⬭ Yes
⬭ Other: ______________

22. Which of the following best describes your current gender identity?
Mark only one oval.
⬭ Man/male
⬭ Woman/female
⬭ Other (see below)

23. If you chose “other” on the previous question, which of the following best describes
you?
Mark only one oval.
⬭ I did not choose “other”
⬭ Genderqueer
⬭ Neutrois
⬭ Agender
⬭ Bigender
⬭ Other: ______________

24. Do you consider your gender identity fluid?
Mark only one oval.
⬭ Yes
⬭ No
⬭ Unsure

25. Do you consider yourself trans?
Mark only one oval.
⬭ Yes
⬭ No
⬭ Unsure

Results for question 23AVEN Census gender identity chart were:

Gender Identity Percent
Woman/female 62.1%
Man/male 13.3%
Agender 8.5%
Genderqueer 7.3%
Neutrois 1.6%
Bigender 1.2%
Other 6.0%

It’s likely that agender people are overrepresented within the asexual community compared to other populations, as this is a high figure compared to the Trans Mental Health survey results for ‘No gender identity’. However, it’s also likely that agender individuals are also to some degree underrepresented within trans communities.

The primary reason for including the AVEN Census in this article was their inclusion of the question ‘Do you consider yourself trans?’. There is often controversy within trans and nonbinary communities over who qualifies as trans and whether it’s necessary to clarify the word with an asterisk (trans*) in order to denote inclusion of all gender variance. Of the individuals who identified as a gender other than man or woman, 31.4% considered themselves trans, 41.0% did not consider themselves trans and 27.6% were unsure. The 2014 AVEN Community Censis: Preliminary Findings report correctly highlights that:

This is an important cautionary finding for future research on asexual and nonbinary populations, as it makes it clear that asking about trans identity is not a equivalent to asking about both assigned sex at birth and current gender identity.

This finding should be taken into account when considering the surveys of trans populations above and is supported by the findings of the EHRC study, which found 31.6% of nonbinary individuals feeling they qualified for the ‘gender reassignment’ protected characteristic.

Results are not yet available on how many people have fluid gender identities, nor how the various nonbinary identities corresponds to other demographic questions.

Nonbinary Stats Survey 2013

In May 2013, nonbinary activist Cassian Lodge compiled an online self-selected survey aimed at nonbinary/genderqueer people asking statistic-gathering questions. This was promoted through Tumblr and other relevant social media outlets such as Twitter and Reddit, all of which have international reach. No supplementary demographic questions were asked. 2,061 people responded to the survey.

The gender question was asked as:

How do you describe your gender?
Tick all that apply
□ Agender
□ Androgyne
□ Bigender
□ Fluid gender
□ Genderqueer
□ Intergender
□ Neutral
□ Neutrois
□ Nonbinary
□ Third Gender
□ Trans*
□ Transgender
□ Unknown
□ Other: ______________

Nonbinary Stats Survey ChartThe results were as follows:

Gender Percent
Genderqueer 58%
Nonbinary 39%
Trans* 33%
Fluid gender 31%
Transgender 24%
Agender 22%
Neutral 17%
Androgyne 17%
Other 11%
Unknown 8%
Neutrois 7%
Bigender 7%
Third gender 4%
Intergender 2%

The 236 “other” options were either left blank or were words that only came up once or twice, such as “ambigender” and “femme” and “transmasculine”.

These results illustrate the diversity of identities among individuals active in online nonbinary and genderqueer communities. As in the Trans Media Watch survey, many respondents gave multiple descriptions of their gender when allowed to.

This also demonstrates that those who qualify for umbrella labels such as ‘nonbinary’, ‘trans*’ or ‘transgender’ may not describe themselves in that way, despite recognising that they are included within these categories.

I would welcome future surveys of online nonbinary communities with a similar range of demographic questions to those found in the AVEN Community Census and US National Transgender Discrimination Survey.

Tel-Aviv University: Queering gender: studying gender identity in ‘normative’ individuals 2013

Psychology & SexualityThis last research paper by Daphna Joel, Ricardo Tarrasch, Zohar Berman, Maya Mukamel and Effi Ziv doesn’t relate to the UK at all but was instead the result of research from Tel-Aviv University and the University of Haifa in Israel. I’ve included this study as a ‘wildcard’ because, rather than studying the general population or the trans population, it aimed to study gender identity in ‘normative’ or apparently cisgender individuals.

In the broadest terms, this study can be seen as a gender identity equivalent of the famous Kinsey Report on sexual orientation and may be the first to apply the types of gender identity research questions asked of gender dysphoric and gender nonconforming individuals to the wider population.

Participants were recruited through online invitations to various university departments, via the Israel National LGBT Task Force and other activists in the queer community, via professionals who worked with transgender individuals and via posts on the researchers’ Facebook pages. 2,225 people responded. The surveys took place online. The participants were initially asked for both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ in terms of ‘Female’, ‘Male’, ‘Transgender’ and ‘Other’.

The study focused on the 570 ‘normative’ men and 1585 ‘normative’ women who answered indicating matching ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Those who answered as ‘Other’ for either sex or gender, those whose ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ did not match, and those who indicated that they were transgender were split out from the main study population and are referred to in the report as the ‘Queer’ group. In total 17 individuals answered that their ‘sex’ was other, 36 individuals that their ‘gender’ was other, 10 individuals had a different ‘gender’ to their ‘sex’ and 18 individuals indicated that they were transgender. There was some overlap in these categories. In total there were 70 individuals in the ‘Queer’ (non-normative / transgender) group, accounting for 3.1% of people in the study.

Queering Gender Gender Identity GraphTo assess gender identity, they were all asked to rate how frequently they felt like a man, how frequently they felt like a woman, how frequently they felt like both and how frequently they felt like neither. Over 35% of the ‘normative’ individuals studied responded that they felt to some extent as the other binary gender, as both men and women and/or as neither. It was found that these feelings were more prevalent and on average stronger among the ‘Queer’ (non-normative / transgender) participants but that:

the range of scores for all measures of gender identity was highly similar in Queers and non-Queers. A similar pattern was obtained for measures of gender dysphoria and gender performance.

Feels as neither gender, feel as both gender chartsThe study participants were also asked questions about perception of gender as performance (how frequently they felt that they have to work at being a man or a woman), gender performance/conformance (how frequently they wore clothing intended for the other binary gender and used gendered language for the other binary gender) and gender contentment (answering a version of a standardised test for measuring gender dysphoria in trans individuals, but with value judgements about answers removed from the questions). Women were slightly more likely to perceive gender as performance and significantly more likely to shop from the male side of the store. There were low but non-zero levels of gender dysphoria in the ‘normative’ participants and no relationship was found between sexual orientation and dysphoria.

As is usually the case for gendered traits, there was enough overlap between the gender identities of men and women that some ‘normative’ men felt like women more often than some ‘normative’ women and vice versa. It was found that non-heterosexual people were no less likely to feel like their affirmed gender but were more likely to also feel like the other binary gender, like neither binary gender or like both. Non-heterosexual participants were also a little more likely to perceive gender as performance and more likely to not conform to gendered clothing restrictions.

This is a far more nuanced model of gender than any of the other studies and polls above provide, asking for frequency of feelings across multiple axes. It would appear that the more nuanced and detailed the gender questions, the more likely it is that simplistic binary models of gender break down and a more complex view of the diversity of gender experiences is revealed for a larger number of people.

Despite this nuance and complexity, the study authors acknowledge that they have still limited and simplified gender by asking their questions solely in terms of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (and combinations or lack thereof). Gender is more diverse than this and future studies could be designed to reflect this. The study authors also recognise that the participants were entirely Israeli and primarily Jewish. As such they are now running a similar survey aimed at a more ethnically and religiously diverse population to find if the same patterns still apply.

This is extremely detailed and interesting research and I encourage you to read the paper in full rather than relying on my summary.

It would be extremely interesting to see this or similar research performed in the UK. I would also welcome a repeat of this research with a large enough non-normative / transgender group that individual subgroups, such as those who indicated that they were nonbinary or binary trans in the basic ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ questions, could be studied and compared individually rather than grouped into a single ‘Queer’ group.

However, it should be noted that ‘feeling like’ a gender is not the same as considering oneself to be of that gender, or wishing to have that gender affirmed. The majority of the ‘normative’ participants in the study were mostly content with their affirmed genders as men and women, although a larger minority considered them to be to some degree performative. Within the 35% who experienced nonbinary feelings are a smaller group who would be likely to claim nonbinary identity were this more widely accepted and understood, but this is almost certainly a considerably lower proportion than 35%. Additionally, the surveys above that allowed multiple gender labels to be selected showed that greater proportions chose nonbinary identity labels when these could be selected in addition to man or woman. As such, some of the individuals labelled as ‘normative’ may have already identified as genderqueer, bigender, fluid-gender or some other label under the nonbinary umbrella.

Summary, analysis and recommendations

How the question of gender is asked affects how many people will respond in ways that fall outside of binary classification. Making it clear that you’re asking how the person describes or defines themself will give a more accurate answer than phrasing the question in a way that could be interpreted as asking for gender assigned at birth, legal status, body configuration or even just the ‘best fit’ binary option. I would recommend explicitly including the invitation to describe gender in another way to the binary options.

Even asking the question in terms of ‘Man’, ‘Woman’ or ‘Other’ is likely to produce a larger number of nonbinary responses than ‘Female’, ‘Male’ or ‘Other’. It is not uncommon for people to identify with the ‘sex’ assigned to the body and/or the role placed upon them in society, but to consider their gender to be something more complex. Asking for ‘Other’ in the context of ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ is likely to reduce the number of people identifying outside of the binary to the lowest possible figure, those who feel strongly enough to reject classification with binary ‘sex’ as well as the man/woman binary (this will be even more so if distinction from gender assigned at birth isn’t established first). As such, I would recommend amending the the EHRC’s monitoring question to ‘Which of the following describes how you think of yourself? Man, Woman or In another way (please specify)’.

Based on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s large scale survey, 0.4% of the UK population feel strongly enough about not being female or male to describe their gender in another way. The gender self-descriptions that these people wrote in indicate that they mostly hold specific nonbinary identities such as genderqueer, genderless, gender-fluid etc. 0.4% is likely the most conservative estimate for the number of nonbinary people in the UK, but may reflect the numbers who would pursue some form of nonbinary legal status. This figure is consistent with the number of people who skipped, multi-ticked or spoiled the ‘sex’ question in the last 2 UK Censuses, although the census data should be considered highly unreliable for determining gender identity. When combined with the overlapping EHRC figure of 1% of the population qualifying for ‘gender reassignment’ protection, at least 1.3% of the UK population is in some way transgender or gender variant, of which 30.2% are nonbinary.

Surveys of the UK trans and gender variant population (those active in online communities or in contact with service providers) found that around 25 to 28% of trans people identify in ways that can’t be described by the binary options alone. Higher proportions will respond in these terms if there is the option to select multiple answers in describing a single person’s gender and/or there is acknowledgement of fluid-, bi- and polygender experience. The Trans Media Watch survey had a much lower proportion of those choosing a nonbinary classification once those who had also responded that they were a man or woman had been discounted (14% vs 25%). All surveys allowing multiple choices found a diversity of different overlapping identities. As such, it is recommended that gender questions should allow multiple answers from a list of common nonbinary identities, including genderqueer, genderfluid, agender etc, as well as the ability to write in additional self-descriptions. This should be a separate question to the choice of ‘Man, Woman or In another way’.

Where possible, avoid asking gender questions in terms of a limited set of specific nonbinary identities or in terms of a single umbrella term. Only a minority of people who describe themselves in another way to ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ would recognise that they are included in ‘Are you nonbinary?’ or even the longer established ‘Are you genderqueer?’, fewer still if the question phrased such as ‘Are you non- or bi-gendered?’ or ‘Are you an Androgyne / Genderqueer / Polygender person?’ etc, but the intention is to record all who identify as something other than (or more than) a man or a woman.

Some respondents to the Trans Mental Health survey indicated that they presented a more normative and binary view of their gender experience to gender professionals out of fear of being denied access to healthcare or services. This is a commonly expressed fear within nonbinary community forums and likely results in gender professionals having a much more conservative view of the number of nonbinary and genderqueer individuals they work with.

However, it is important to be aware that, in 3 different surveys, only around 31% of those identifying outside of the gender binary considered themselves to either definitely be ‘trans’ or to fit the description of the ‘gender reassignment’ protected characteristic. This shows that a majority of nonbinary people are not protected by the Equality Act 2010’s provisions for gender minorities and that, despite advocating strongly for ‘trans’ and ‘transgender’ to be inclusive of all gender minorities, it is necessary to explicitly and prominently include nonbinary people in order for all to feel welcome.

Do not assume that surveys of trans people will be fully representative of nonbinary populations, or that nonbinary people will (or won’t) consider themselves to be trans. It is likely that some nonbinary people will consider themselves to be both or neither of transgender and cisgender, or to be trans in some ways but not in others. Some may consider themselves to be trans* but not trans, or transgender but not trans (or vice versa). Others very strongly claim their transgender identity and defend their place in the trans community. Do not define trans or transgender in ways that exclude nonbinary people and do not assume that there isn’t overlap between those who experience dysphoria and transition and those who experience gender in ways that can’t be described by a gender binary.

If you are designing a survey or study and wish to be inclusive of nonbinary people, it is recommended that you consult with members of various nonbinary, genderqueer, trans and gender nonconforming communities in order to ensure that your questions do not inadvertently exclude, erase, make assumptions about or outright offend some members of those groups. The EHRC performed a consultation and workshopping process when designing their recommended gender monitoring questions that may be a useful guide to those conducting future research. Badly designed survey questions making poor assumptions can prevent many gender variant people from answering relevant questions, or even make it impossible to determine exactly how many people are men or women, let alone nonbinary, as the EU LGBT survey illustrated.

I would like to encourage future surveys and studies of the nonbinary population to ask and report on a range of other demographic questions similar to those asked in the United States National Transgender Discrimination Survey 2008. UK research covering nonbinary gender has yet to reveal the kinds of useful insights provided in the American study, although the Trans Mental Health study has made a start towards this.

The majority of the research presented above highlights people who actively identify outside of the gender binary. Figures highlighted show how many people think of themselves as something other than men or women, or as something in addition to being a man and/or woman. It is important to recognise that there is a wide diversity of different, varied and complex experiences under the umbrella term ‘nonbinary’. This should not be treated as a ‘ternary gender system’, simply adding one more ‘nonbinary’ option as an extension to the binary. Nonbinary people are not a homogenous group and knowing that someone is ‘nonbinary’ alone tells you very little about how that person experiences and expresses gender.

Currently there is limited public awareness of nonbinary gender, with around three quarters firmly believing in a binary system of only men and womenThe Israeli ‘Queering Gender’ study found that over a third of those who do not identify as trans or gender variant nonetheless have experiences and feelings of gender that defy classification within a rigid binary system, with those participants feeling like the other binary gender, both binary genders and/or neither binary gender to some significant degree. This may indicate that greater public understanding and acceptance of nonbinary gender would lead to more individuals recognising that they are not well described by ‘man’ or ‘woman’.

When was the Mx gender-inclusive title created?

Posted by – August 28, 2014

MxA new version of the excellent Mx Evidence document establishing usage and acceptance of the Mx gender-inclusive title (equivalent to Miss, Mr or Ms) in the United Kingdom has recently been released by the Genderqueer Activist site (run by activist Cassian Lodge). This records examples of acceptance by organisations such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA),  National Health Service (NHS), various banks and utilities, councils and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

The document starts with the summary that Mx was created around the turn of the century, resulting in other sites covering the document also making this claim. This description bothered me because I’ve been frequenting transgender and genderqueer online discussion spaces since 1999 and, while 2000 was around the time I first saw it described, Mx was always presented as an idea that had been around for a long time.

Unfortunately most of online safe community discussion spaces of the late 1990s are impossible to search today. They were in private mailing lists whose archives are now gone or are locked away with no moderator to approve new members. Most of the genderqueer websites of this era are long gone and no longer searchable. However the more public discussion spaces provided by Usenet newsgroups have been archived and can still be accessed and searched today using features of Google Groups (formerly Deja News).

It’s somewhat challenging to search for Mx as a title when the these two letters can also refer to, variously, Mexican domain names, email server settings, Emacs commands, camera models, motorbikes, nuclear missiles and graphing calculators, but I was able to come up with some examples.

The Google Groups Usenet archive extends back to 1981 and the earliest example I found of someone suggesting and using Mx (albeit as a one off) was in July 1982 on the newsgroup net.nlang during one of their frequent discussions of gender neutral pronouns (intended to be used to refer to anyone without giving their gender) and nonsexist gender neutral language (such as ‘chairperson’ and  ‘womyn’):

Subject: More words and sex
Newsgroups: net.nlang
Posted: Fri Jul 9 15:48:43 1982

while we’re at it, let’s get rid of all this Miss/Mrs/Mr/Ms crap.
It wasn’t much of a step to go from Miss/Mrs to Ms; after all,
the issue should be that gender is unimportant. How about one
generic title for everyone? For instance, M. Smith, M. Jones.
But that’s flawed, it might be confused with Monsieur, a blatantly
sexist word. From now on, we should all go by Mx, pronounced
“mix” or “mux.” This will make the world safe for democracy by
concealing our genders from the sexist element.

Mx. John Eldridge                harpo!floyd!jce

Within the context of the discussion this appears to have been a somewhat facetious suggestion (context is difficult to gauge as this was before the practice of quoting of the message you’re replying to), although there is a sincere mention of the gender neutral pronoun ’tis’ around the same time.

The Mx suggestion got a positive mention in a discussion on net.women in January 1985, initially crossposted to net.nlang:

Subject: Re: Gender-specific honorifics
Newsgroups: net.nlang,net.women
Posted: Wed Jan 30 22:45:12 1985

I got one netter’s intesting suggestin that the all purpose honorific should
be Mx. (I think it’s nice to use the algebraic “x” for unknown. Very
elegant.)

Then my husband Barry suggested it would be more in keeping with the spirit
of UNIX to write it as M*.

(And besides that way there’s less chance of fallout from missile makers.)

–Lee Gold

That post references how the x is intended to be a wildcard character. Posts responding to this message on net.women humorously riff on how this would be pronounced, suggest an alternative asterisk pronunciation and correct the UNIX wildcard character. This was within a wider discussion of gender neutral language.

The earliest reference I can find to the idea of Mx being a mixture of gender titles comes in December 1998 on the newsgroup alt.callahans:

Subject: Re: Minor rant: Names
Newsgroups: alt.callahans
Date: 1998/12/09

[…]
I, for one, would like to see something like Mx. Mister, Missus, Miss,
and Mizz all rolled into one M(i)x. Mx. Asteris, Mx. S. Robinson, Mx. J.
Marshall, etc. You get the idea.

Ravan

This was posted in response to someone complaining about the gendered nature of titles, specifically referencing how titles forced them to reveal whether they had ‘an innie or an outie’.

It’s difficult to find examples of people using Mx as their title on Usenet as there was no convention to include a title in ones author name or sign off and because additional search terms are needed to filter from the large number of irrelevant results. However the earliest reference I could find to someone talking about actively using Mx as their title was in October 1998 during a crossposted discussion nominally about vegetarianism and vitamin B12 but by this point about gender bias in language, posted on various UK newsgroups including uk.misc and uk.politics.animals:

Subject: Re: Vegetarianism and B12 deficiency (was Re: Organic GE)
Newsgroups: uk.misc,soc.culture.british,rec.food.veg,uk.politics.animals, uk.people.teens,soc.culture.scottish,uk.environment
Date: 1998/10/19

[…]
Occasionally I have used the title ‘Mx’ before my name, with the idea
that it leaves in question whether I a woman or a man or somethinng in
between and gives no idea of my maritial status.


Gnome 11

That example is also the first occurrence I found that made any reference to nonbinary people (‘or something in between’). It was posted in response to someone discussing the connotations that had arisen from using Ms rather than Miss or Mrs.

Hopefully this evidence has established that the idea of the Mx gender neutral title was suggested well before 2000 and that it was being used by some people during the 1990s. Of course much of its use was happening away from online discussions in day to day interactions and requests to organisations, but when it comes to establishing the validity of a word evidence of longterm written usage tends to hold more weight.

What is notable about what happened after 2000 though is that Mx begins to be talked about specifically in relation to transgender and androgynous people, rather than as a gender neutral title that could be used without any connotation of what the person’s gender was. For example, the earliest example I found of Mx being given as the title for an androgyne came in a February 2001 post to rec.arts.dr-who (coincidentally the same month as the earliest discussion in my email archives).

I’ve written before about later inventions added to Mx where expanded names and pronunciations were suggested with ‘Mixture’ first appearing in mailing list archives in 2002 and ‘Mixter’ years later still.

While everyone who uses the title has their own way of explaining it, my personal preference remains for the pronunciation of ‘mux’, one of the two originally suggested in 1982. I feel that this gives no connotation of ‘mixed genders’ and is the most distinctive sounding option, less likely to misheard as ‘miss’ (for ‘mix’) or ‘mister’ (for ‘mixture’ and ‘mixter’).

Perhaps a more accurate way of explaining the origins of the Mx title to others is to say that it was created in the early 1980s and gradually began to be used more widely from the late 90s into the turn of the century. Either way, it’s well overdue more widespread acceptance and recognition.

(Note: If you’re aware of any earlier verifiable examples than these, do please let me know).

Related: Cassian Lodge has published a survey of people who use Mx asking how they pronounce it.

About that often misunderstood asterisk

Posted by – October 31, 2013

Recently this post by Natalie Reed on the use of ‘trans*’ was proving controversial among many of the nonbinary and genderqueer people I follow on Twitter. I’ve talked about ‘trans*’ before, most recently when answering the Beyond The Binary panel, question 4.

I personally have mixed feelings about words involving punctuation marks, especially ones that confuse search functions and hashtags, look like footnotes and don’t sound any different when spoken (unless you say ‘trans star’). I also strongly feel that ‘trans’ should be able to include everyone who’s in any way gender variant, genderqueer or gender role nonconforming (I’m firmly in the Leslie Feinburg Trans Liberation camp on this one). I’ve tried in the past to write resources to help keep trans and transgender the inclusive umbrella terms I feel they were meant to be.

Why people felt the need to add the asterisk

‘Trans’ was originally intended to be an inclusive term, not just including people who could access medical labels like ‘transsexual’, but including everyone under the wider transgender umbrella. However in day to day usage, the concept tends to be conflated with transition from the gender one was assigned at birth to another.

I think that this is in no small part due to how the constructions ‘trans man’, ‘trans woman’ and by extension ‘trans person’ seem to make it clear what ‘trans’ is meant to denote. Because this prefix usage is so ubiquitous, it’s also common to see this prefix separated out, with ‘trans’ falling elsewhere in a sentence, or on its own entirely, but still having the same connotations.

Perhaps I can make the issue with this clearer with an example (chosen out of the myriad possible as quite a common situation that was originally one of the primary things ‘transgender’ was used to describe). Take someone who was assigned male at birth, sees himself as a man, but also identifies as transgender by way of gender expression, and presents in clothing, hair and makeup that society would see as crossdressing. That person is clearly trans* and I would hope that he would also be included fully in transgender (although I’ve seen plenty of trans and nonbinary people argue otherwise, and plenty of definitions of transgender that would exclude him), but if I were to describe him as a ‘trans man’ that would not be the ‘correct’ usage – resources, information and organisations restricted to trans men would not include him, because ‘trans’ means something specific in this context. If he concludes that he’s not ‘trans’ but is transgender, genderqueer, transvestite or any number of other labels because of this, and therefore ‘trans*’ but not ‘trans’, I don’t think that decision would be difficult to understand.

The fact is that most transgender organisations and people writing about trans stuff (including me most of the time, frankly) don’t spend equal time talking about people who don’t have dysphoria, or don’t have anything to ‘transition to’, or whose gender changes too often for any one transition to make practical sense, or who transitioned medically but later officially ‘detransitioned’, or who did what they consider to be transition for them but are still usually seen as the gender they were assigned at birth, even in some trans and nonbinary spaces.

People using ‘trans’ don’t often talk about people who are transgender by way of gender expression not identity, or who don’t have a gender identity, or whose gender identity changes at different times. They don’t tend to cover people who feel that they are both cisgender and transgender in different ways, or who feel uncomfortable with gender but can’t see their experience reflected in any of the narratives, or if they do they use words other than ‘trans’ to describe this.

I believe that all those people fit my ideal inclusive definition of ‘trans’ and ‘transgender’, and I think that they should be able to feel comfortable using ‘trans’ for themselves if they wish. But I also know that for many of them, being in trans spaces is to expect and experience casual erasure and microaggressions, or even outright policing and hostility. And that no one has the right to insist that someone must be comfortable with a term they find problematic and unwelcoming.

Because of all this, ‘trans*’ was suggested as a way to explicitly include the genderqueer, gender variant, gender role nonconforming, crossdressing, fluid gender, agender etc people who didn’t feel ‘trans enough’ to know if they would be included otherwise. To say, “we know you’re usually pushed out of or erased by these sorts of things, but we’re trying to do better”. It’s meant to be a shorthand when space is limited, and it’s meant be backed up by actual inclusion in both words, policies and actions. But it exists as a quick and easy way to show those people who are used to being pushed out of trans spaces that yes, this is for you too.

And because it is a more comfortable and less pressured term for some people, there are now good numbers of people who feel more comfortable with ‘trans*’ than ‘trans’, or who still don’t consider themselves ‘trans’ but will use ‘trans*’, or who aren’t fully comfortable with any form of ‘trans’ but understand that ‘trans*’ is more welcoming to them. There are now even those who identify with ‘trans*’ itself as their primary label of self description.

I don’t believe that ‘trans*’ has done more to push people out of ‘trans’ than make people feel included. I believe that they were already feeling pretty strongly pushed and excluded before this. From what I’ve seen, it’s pulled in more people who previously only felt comfortable with descriptions like ‘transgender’, ‘not cisgender’, ‘genderqueer’ etc and allowed them to also use ‘trans’ or ‘trans*’ for themselves.

Who owns, and gets to criticise ‘trans*’?

While I do have problems with the way ‘trans*’ is constructed, and do find it unwieldy and somewhat inconvenient to use, I’m also very cautious about criticising something that is another person’s identity, or the only gesture that keeps some marginalised transgender people from disengaging from trans communities entirely.

I know that I shouldn’t really be criticising it, because ‘trans*’ isn’t really FOR me. It’s for people who have to defend themselves and their right to use ‘trans’ because other trans people outright tell them that they’re not allowed to. It’s for people who almost never see ‘trans’ used in a way that doesn’t casually erase their experience. And it’s for the people who are questioning whether they really qualify. And also for those who are certain that ‘trans’ definitely doesn’t include them, because they looked and already decided that it was talking about something different to their transgender, gender variant or gender role nonconforming experience. It’s for people who already discounted that ‘trans’ could include them and chose different words for self description, who have only come back to trans spaces at all since the asterisk has included them.

I also know that, even if I wanted to, I don’t get to say whether we should only say ‘trans’ or that people who use ‘trans*’ for themselves should choose a different word. And that’s because it’s not my word to criticise. As someone who’s confident that ‘trans’ and ‘trans person’ DO include me, it’s not me who would lose out if ‘trans*’ was taken away. Yes, I’m nonbinary, genderqueer and mostly agender and these are reasons that people are excluded, and reasons why I remember how crappy it is to be unsure, starting out and not feel welcomed or even understood by any groups or resources. But I now speak from the position of having a gender dysphoria diagnosis, validation from gender specialists and a clear transsexual medical history (albeit a nonstandard one).

If someone were to erase, ignore or dismiss my right to define as a trans person now (and it does certainly happen), I can laugh them out of the room. I know that I fit almost every part of the transition narrative except the binary gender that some people expect, and even then I can point those people to the DSM-5 and version 7 of the Standards of Care to show that ‘an other gender’ is now officially legitimised (even if many gender clinics are trying to avoid following those guidelines).

Do I think that fitting the narratives or having medical validation should be in any way relevant to who gets to count as ‘trans’? No, absolutely not, I would strongly reject that assertion. But I also can’t ignore the fact that this does nonetheless grant me a type of privilege, security or confidence that other types of transgender, gender variant and gender role nonconforming people might not have in many trans spaces.

It isn’t necessarily whether your gender fits the binary options that defines whether you’re secure enough in these spaces to not need more than just ‘trans’ to welcome you in (and, of course, I don’t just mean words or a symbol as ‘more’ here, I mean some actual inclusivity work to back that up and make sure they actually mean anything real), it’s whether you fit enough of the dominant transgender narrative. If you’re not one of the people who is used to being erased in the vast majority of ‘Trans 101′ primers, even the ones that include nonbinary identities in some way, then the asterisk probably isn’t meant for you.

Reasons for respectful, constructive criticism

All this said though, there is legitimate criticism of the way ‘trans*’ is misused, usually by people who don’t need the asterisk themselves. This isn’t to criticise the identities and experiences of anyone who uses ‘trans*’ for themselves, but to look at certain problematic ways that it’s used by or about others.

Since this current wave of criticism and controversy started, I’ve seen plenty of people who have previously used ‘trans*’ to describe others, make it clear from their comments that they had very little idea what the connotations of ‘trans*’ were actually meant to be. Most of them seem to have just assumed that it meant ‘transsexual and transgender’ (but not the all inclusive umbrella term form of transgender), some others thought it meant ‘binary and nonbinary’. This is worrying, but explains a lot of confusing misuse I’ve observed.

Since ‘trans*’ has spread and been adopted outside of the groups who coined and popularised it, I’ve seen way too many posts and discussions using ‘trans*’ in a way that excludes the people it was meant to be including (like the people who actually use the label) by, for example, talking in terms of transition or in terms of dysphoria or in terms of gender identity, using words that imply that these are universal experiences for all ‘trans* people’.

If we put an asterisk on the end of ‘trans’ and don’t change anything else, this could genuinely be worse than nothing. It really is ‘inclusion theatre’ as Reed suggests, no better than people who use ‘LGBT’ interchangeably with ‘gay’.

That trend honestly makes me wonder if we do need another word that makes the intentions of wide inclusion and not needing to fit the narratives as clear as possible, one that people can’t misconstrue. But then it also makes me wonder if there’s a general trend by which any word or umbrella term coined by marginalised people to include a wide disparate group who don’t fit the dominant narrative (e.g. ‘transgender’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘trans*’ etc) will ultimately end up being associated with the most visible group of people within that umbrella. Either way, we definitely do need more primers, resources and articles like this one that make it harder to misunderstand the intentions and connotations of the asterisk.

It’s also important to consider the types of exclusion that ‘trans*’ doesn’t address. There is no shortage of examples of events that advertised trans* inclusivity but in practice excluded some segment of the trans* umbrella. Intersectional oppressions are often at work here, be it the privileging of masculinity or androgyny, transmisogynistic exclusion of trans women or of people based on the gender they were assigned at birth. There’s also the intersectional oppressions that can affect people regardless of how they are trans*, be it the privileging of certain ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds, or the lack of effort taken to accommodate the access needs of all abilities and disabilities.

So what now?

The situation with ‘trans*’ isn’t perfect, and I’ve seen a lot of criticism from people on all sides of this discussion, including some marginalised people who don’t use ‘trans*’ and do feel that they have to resist the pressure caused by the existence, and potential policing, of there being two variations on ‘trans’.

And yes, maybe I’d prefer a better word, but it isn’t really my word to critique, it’s not me who needs it. ‘Trans*’ isn’t there for people who fit the narratives and feel comfortable owning ‘trans person’, it’s for all those whose experience of gender differs not just from societal norms but also from perceived trans community norms, who wouldn’t have shown up at an event or used a service otherwise, unless there was something to say that yes, this really is for you too.

Wherever you fall in this debate, whether you want to use ‘trans*’ or not, I’d suggest that the way to make a real difference is to actually demonstrate inclusivity, in your words, in your descriptions and in your actions. Don’t just use ‘trans’ or ‘trans*’ thoughtlessly, but actually consider who it is that needs transgender resources, events and services but doesn’t feel ‘trans enough’ to use them, or who experiences discomfort, erasure, policing or even outright hostility when they try to get involved. Think about what you can do to actually include everyone under the wider transgender, gender variant and gender role nonconforming umbrellas, and how to demonstrate this clearly to make them all feel welcome and included.

Lesbilicious writer asks how ‘helpful’ nonbinary gender is

Posted by – September 21, 2013

Lesbilicious logoIn the September issue of DIVA, the “lifestyle magazine for lesbian and bi women in the UK”, Meg Barker wrote a feature article ‘Gender beyond the binary’ (featured on the cover as ‘Queering Gender’) exploring nonbinary gender identities.

In response to this article, Hattie Lucas wrote an article for Lesbilicious “the web’s tastiest lesbian magazine” asking ‘Non-binary gender identities: how helpful are they for challenging gender rules?’

The Lesbilicious article discusses how nonbinary identities “have become ridiculous and provide fruit ripe for satire”, goes on to ridicule the “laughable” idea of asking for preferred pronouns and to generally conclude that having a nonbinary gender is impractical. Ultimately it focuses on how helpful adopting nonbinary identities can be for challenging the rules and roles around gender, and concludes that we’re as unlikely to cause a shift in public conscious as the Monster raving loony party.

Having been unable to access more than the first few paragraphs of the original DIVA article, I felt sure that it must have somehow misrepresented all nonbinary people as personal-as-political protestors choosing to adopt our identities as a challenge to society’s rigid gender roles. So I paid for and downloaded the September issue and read it for myself.

It turns out that Meg Barker’s article quite clearly and sensitively explains that those of us with nonbinary identities are people who don’t fit into the gender binary, a small but significant minority of trans* and/or intersex people who are unable to feel comfortable with living as either their assigned gender or the other binary alternative. The article discusses several ways that we, as a diverse group, have found language that authentically expresses our genders (or lack of gender) and pronouns that respect them. Talks about the difficulties of doing this and how gender clinics are gradually recognising the validity of our experiences and helping those of us who need it to access treatment for our gender dysphoria.

It does early on, while listing the meanings of various labels say that “Some […] explicitly want to challenge the binary (genderqueer or genderfuck)”, which I think is unfortunately ambiguous wording that should have made it clearer that it’s only some of the people using those labels who might want to do that, and that both are usually also from a position of self-expression. It might also have explained that someone engaging in genderfuck is usually presenting an intentionally challenging mixture of different gender cues that attempts to break the gender perceptions of others, not actually (usually) an identity in itself. But this was a detailed article limited to two pages of the magazine and so had to edit out at least some of the specifics.

It also concludes by mentioning that our existence can teach everyone that “gender is more complex than box M or box F” and that “humans are more creative than the boxes we’d like to give ourselves”, which may be some of the source of confusion due to its general message. But to take these two lines within an article that repeatedly talks about things like “being true to your experience” and “an authentic sense of self outside of the gender binary”, and then assume that all nonbinary gender is some kind of practical strategy for “challenging gender rules”, seems like an impressive failure to empathise with the personal stories within.

As most of the commenters on that article have said, most nonbinary people disclose, ask for their preferred pronouns and/or transition in order to authentically express who we are, or in many cases to resolve gender dysphoria that can be as significant as any binary trans* person’s.

Yes, many people who disclose or present their nonbinary status do so in order to challenge gender rules and conceptions that don’t include them, but this isn’t usually the primary motivation.

I can speak from my personal experience as an androgynously presenting gender neutral person and say that I most definitely didn’t transition with hormone treatments and surgery, or disclose my identity and preferred pronouns in order to educate people or break rules. I did it to be able to be comfortable in my skin and not feel like a fraud around others. This is who I am, not some kind of intentionally political statement, even if being myself in the world does sometimes have this kind of effect.

Yes, I would like to expand society’s understanding of gender and tolerance of gender variance, in so far as I’d like to be able to go through life without being misgendered or assaulted, without ‘respectful’ language hurting me, and without irrelevant details of my birth assignment and genital configuration being exposed by documentation. I realise that in today’s society this is often impractical and open to ridicule, but it is the reality of my existence.

I didn’t get to choose whether or not to have gender dysphoria and what type of transition, gender expression and language resolved it. I was able to choose a label and a description that helped me find comfort, helped people to understand me, and helped me to find others who felt the same way. I think that’s the measure by which our labels, gender expressions and pronouns should be judged, as that is their actual purpose, even if they have the side effect of also expanding some people’s conceptions of gender.

I hope Hattie Lucas will think again about nonbinary gender, and re-read Meg Barker’s excellent DIVA article, this time without the apparent assumption that the people described experience gender in the same way that she does.

A call for questions about gender beyond the binary

Posted by – May 4, 2013

After a successful project where a panel of trans people answered 21 questions, CN Lester is again asking for questions about trans* issues, this time focusing on the experiences of people with genders beyond the binary.

A new panel has been formed, and I’m pleased to be among the people who’ll be answering your questions after the 8th of May.

Do you have questions about genderqueer, androgyny, nonbinary and gender variant etc issues you’ve been embarrassed to ask? It doesn’t matter whether you think they’re extremely basic questions that should be obvious or if you’re worried they’ll upset us, please ask. Think of this as like an amnesty for questions you haven’t been sure about asking but genuinely don’t understand.

Once we’ve answered the questions, this will form a 101 resource for helping people to understand genders that can’t be explained with just ‘man’ or ‘woman’, so the most questions we have, the better we’ll be able to help.

Please go here and add your questions by Wednesday the 8th of May

Update: The master post of all 24 Beyond The Binary panel questions is here. Thanks to everyone who posed us questions, and to CN for doing such a brilliant job bringing it all together!

Nonbinary gender information and practical resources wiki

Posted by – January 27, 2013

nonbinary.orgYou may have noticed that this site has been conspicuously low on updates in recent months, and for this I apologise. I’m hoping that this will change in the near future, but in the meantime I wanted to draw your attention to a related project that I sent up last year.

Nonbinary.org has aspirations to create a nonbinary gender visibility, education and advocacy network, arguing for equal access to employment, services and medical treatment for those who don’t fit the gender binary. In its current state it’s a wiki open for anyone to edit, collecting information about all types of nonbinary gender identity and expression, including the kinds of practical resources that Practical Androgyny aims to provide.

Rather than focusing on androgyny or any other single presentation or identity alone, Nonbinary.org hopes to unite all gender variant and nonconforming people whose experience falls outside the binary. Rather than relying on the health, energy, attention and ability of one person, the wiki structure allows anyone to edit or add to the information and resources collected on the site.

Several people have already got involved. As well as articles by myself covering concepts such as the history and usage of the term genderqueer and agender identity, numerous people have contributed to the section on the recognition of nonbinary identities in the UK started by Lottiotta and there are lengthy articles on subjects such as nonbinary transition and UK NHS healthcare by MxZirself.

There’s a lot more work to do and numerous gaps in our coverage, and so new users are welcome and encouraged. If you’re able to provide resources and information relevant to your gender identity or expression, or to your region or country, do please consider getting involved!

WAM!-It-Yourself: Improving Media Coverage Beyond The Binary

Posted by – April 3, 2012

WAM!-It-YourselfOn Sunday March the 25th I took part in a radio-style talk show looking at how the media covers nonbinary and nonconforming gender and what we can do to make that coverage better.

Hosted by Avory Faucette of QueerFeminism.com and Radically Queer as part of Women Action Media‘s WAM!-It-Yourself events, the show featured guests with expertise in gender-neutral parenting, nonbinary identities, and media coverage of transgender issues. The discussion looked closely at some misunderstandings the media makes and how we can take action to educate and improve coverage.

As well as myself, guest included Arwyn Daemyir, creator of Raising My Boychick; Gunner Scott, Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition and Marilyn Roxie, creator of Genderqueer Identities and intern at the Center for Sex & Culture.

During the discussion we considered topics including major media coverage of gender-neutral parenting and education in 2011, the media’s refusal to take supermodel Andrej Pejic’s stated identity seriously, and what articles on genderqueer and other identities get right and wrong. We also explored the best way to cover less familiar gender identities, how journalists can describe gender in a way that is less harmful to nonbinary or questioning individuals, and how blogs and social media are changing the conversation.

As well as speaking as an androgynously presenting nonbinary person, I also added a UK perspective and raised the differences between North American and British media coverage and activism.

Listen to the entire show as a streamed recording. My contribution begins at around 45 minutes but I’d recommend listening from the beginning. A transcript will be available within the next few weeks.

Resources mentioned

Trans Camp video responses

Posted by – January 12, 2012

The UK trans* activist organisation Trans Media Action is running Trans Camp on January 13th at the offices of Channel 4.

Trans Camp will bring together trans* people, developers, designers and innovators to come up with ideas to improve the lives of trans* people using web technologies and the media.

In order to make sure the widest range of experiences are covered, they asked for one minute video responses from trans* people around the UK explaining their experiences of childhood, media, comedy and family. (At the time of writing, you still have a day to upload videos of your own).

The following are my responses to the four questions Trans Media Action posed for Trans Camp:

CHILDHOOD: For those of you who knew, what was it like growing up as a trans child?

I didn’t know, but I chose to talk about how I was still a trans* child:


TransCamp. Childhood: Nat in Nottingham

Transcript

I didn’t know I was a trans* child but I was still trans*.

I was lucky enough to have a pretty gender neutral upbringing. No one in my family really cared about gender roles and there was very little gender segregation at my primary school, so I managed to just be myself, be friends with who I wanted and was happily oblivious to just how much of a problem gender was going to become for me.

I didn’t realise I was trans* until my late teens, but I knew I was different from about age 12.

Other kids at secondary school made a really big deal about gender and I was immediately singled out for being a bit weird and not performing my assigned gender in the way that peer pressure demanded.

This had a particularly negative effect on me because I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my body as puberty began.

For most of my teens I was an unhappy kid who desperately wanted to fit in and be normal, but everything I did to try to conform just made me feel even worse about myself.

I desperately needed to be told what transgender was, how it could be a positive thing and how it could be me.

Notes

I often wonder if things would’ve gone differently had I realised that I could do something about it when I had the revelation aged 17 that I was supposed to be androgynous, and if I’d have had that revelation any earlier if this sort of thing were talked about as normal in schools or on TV.

As it was, it took until I was 19 to realise that I was so unhappy with my body that I ‘must be transsexual’ and another two years after transition to stop struggling to live with another gender role that made me just as uncomfortable as the first.

MEDIA: How does media coverage of trans people affect you?

I chose to talk about nonbinary erasure and misrepresentation:


TransCamp. Media: Nat in Nottingham

Transcript

I’m nonbinary, that means I live as something other than a woman or a man. It also means I have next to no representation in the media.

Even in documentaries featuring trans* people with genderqueer or gender binary challenging identities or histories, like some of the participants in My Transsexual Summer, these are simplified, glossed over or completely edited out in fear of ‘confusing’ the general public.

If my life experiences are ever touched upon, they’re simplified to the point of misrepresentation. If I’m to be hinted at, it’s in the suggestion that some people are ‘in between’.

My gender and my body are not ‘between’ anything. My gender is not a balancing act. I’m not in the middle ground, I haven’t gone halfway and stopped. I am not half a woman and half a man, I’m not following two sets of sexist stereotypes. I do not ‘pick and choose’ about gender. And I’m not ‘on the fence’. And I’ve definitely not ‘de-transitioned’.

I’m a trans* person, I’m doing what I need to do to be true to myself.

Notes

Of course not all nonbinary people object to being described as ‘in between'; that’s an accurate description of some people’s gender identities. But there are many more people besides me whose experiences of being agender, bigender, fluid gender, genderqueer etc are erased by that simplification.

In my case, I experienced gender dysphoria and I did what it was necessary to do to become comfortable with my body. Doing so didn’t fix my social dysphoria though. I tried to be a ‘classic transsexual’, I tried to pretend to be a gender I didn’t truly feel I was. But I found ‘passing’ made me just as socially dysphoric as my assigned gender role had done.

It turned out that transition just wasn’t the perfect ‘package deal’ I’d been sold in the brochure, I had to go off the beaten track to find my own way to authentically express myself to the world.

It would be nice to see this represented in the media at all, especially on TV shows where some of the participants have similar feelings.

(And no, ‘androgyny’ and ‘androgyne’ don’t have to mean ‘in between’; the dictionary definition boils down to ‘having both male and female traits’, and anyway that’s my appearance not my gender).

COMEDY: How do comedy portrayals of trans people affect you?

I talk about how comedy tends to only give problematic representations of a small subset of trans* experiences, and how it could be better:


TransCamp. Comedy: Nat in Nottingham

Transcript

When I tell people I’m trans*, comedy stereotypes often spring to their minds, but they almost always have the wrong idea. There aren’t many television comedy portrayals of androgynous or nonbinary people. Only the early 90s androgynous Saturday Night Live character ‘Pat’ springs to mind.

There are also almost no trans* men in TV comedy, and trans* women are either laughed at for not being able to ‘pass’ – like the deep voiced and hairy chested Barbara from League of Gentlemen – or shown as attractive, feminine and desirable, but with the punchline that they are ‘really a man’.

Comedy shouldn’t make fun of things people can’t help, but it could focus on the things they do. Trans* experiences are often funny. Barbara could’ve been brilliant satire if she was just a woman who over-shared about her transition.

Better still, comedy could focus on the often amusing ways that others react to trans* people – at their best the Pat skits drew their humour from the ridiculous lengths that polite people went to when unable to gender someone, of course, they never asked! – And this invited the audience to think twice about the nature of gender – something I’d like to see more!

Notes

I didn’t have time to mention the standup comedy of Andrew O’Neill whose material about being treated as androgynous while crossdressing has me grinning and nodding in recognition. But, as I hadn’t seen that in the media but in person, it didn’t make the cut down to one minute.

I don’t mean to imply that the SNL Pat sketches were perfect, only what they managed to do when they’re at their best. The Pat character is hardly a positive representation (although it’s nice to see the trope of androgynous people as highly sexual and desirable completely avoided!) and the movie spinoff It’s Pat is frankly terrible.

Is Pat really a trans* character? We’ve no way to know for sure as the character’s identity is ambiguous. In fact ambiguity is rather the point. However the character clearly transgress gender roles and transcends other people’s attempts to gender them, so that counts as trans* to me.

FAMILY: How have you experienced support, or lack of, from family and friends?

I talk about having a supportive family despite there being very few success stories to point to in the media when I first came out:


TransCamp. Family: Nat in Nottingham

Transcript

My family are accepting and supportive of me, they’ve never shown any disapproval of anything I’ve needed to do to be happy and true to myself. They’ve never had a problem with using my name and pronouns of preference. In fact my parents have become adept at gender neutral language, I often find myself being introduced to their friends with ‘this is my eldest, Nat’.

I know I’m very lucky in this respect, but I also know it’s clear to them and anyone else that my ‘transition’ was undoubtedly right for me, and I’m happier, confident and more successful having resolved my gender dysphoria.

That wasn’t always the case though. When I first came out as trans* in the late 90s, my parents had to make a ‘leap of faith’. All they ever wanted was for me to be happy and loved, but unlike if I’d come out as gay, there were no obvious ‘trans* success stories’ in the media, no trans* news readers or TV presenters, no trans* politicians. I couldn’t hand them a newspaper list of Influential Trans* People or pick up a trans*-focused magazine equivalent to Diva or Gay Times.

My parents were essentially ignorant to the trans* experience and so I had to become my own positive example.

Notes

I didn’t have time during the video to make it clear that I was coming out as a classic binary transsexual the first time around, when my family were most concerned and most in need of positive role models and representation to reassure them.

When I came out as being neither binary gender and living androgynously they’d had two years of seeing that I was clearly happier with myself and able to be loved and liked by others, so they were a lot less concerned and trusted me to know myself and what was right for me.

View all the Trans Camp video responses as a YouTube playlist


* The asterisk at the end of ‘trans*’ denotes that this is the wider inclusive form of trans that includes all transgender, transsexual, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant and gender nonconforming people regardless of gender identity or expression.

Vocal androgyny in speech and singing

Posted by – October 31, 2011


Video: Practical Androgyny – Vocal androgyny in speech and singing – Download audio-only version

Video Summary

Full summary of the video follows with links to all the people and songs mentioned. Alternatively you can skip directly to the bonus content at the end.

Introduction

The video talks about vocal androgyny, both in speaking voice and in singing voice.

I’ve seen a lot of videos out there aimed a binary transgender people (so, guys or girls) looking to develop a voice that is more easily perceived as their true gender rather than their assigned gender, but there’s very few for nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant or gender nonconforming people who wish to produce an ambiguous, more androgynous voice that defies binary gender classification.

I like singing, it’s really important for me and I think my singing has helped me to gain more control of my voice in general, so I think it’s right to cover both speaking voice and singing voice in the same overview video.

Before I start, here’s a bit about me; I’m nonbinary, my gender is complicated but I live as ‘gender neutral’ with an androgynous presentation. I transitioned medically about 12 years ago but still experienced gender dysphoria from what was supposed to be ‘passing’, so about two years later I transitioned again to a more intentionally androgynous state. I’ve been presenting androgynously for over a decade now.

Obviously my voice has been changed by testosterone (I have quite a lot of resonance in my chest), but I’m lucky enough to have ended in a the higher end of a male range – I sing as a high tenor, possibly a little low alto too.

I want this video to be as useful to as many people as possible so I’m going to try to cover a lot of different types of voices, not just those like mine, but obviously I have the most experience with my voice! But I’ll try to cover people whose voices are higher than mine or lower than mine.

I don’t want to make assumptions about whether your voice has been affected by testosterone, or if it has I don’t want to assume when and why that happened. I’m also only going to assume your aiming to be more vocally ambiguous, nothing about your gender or identity – for all I know you could even be a cisgender voice actor looking for tips or you could be looking at this out of sheer curiosity!

I’m not a vocal expert or a trained singer, I have very little formal training (I had two singing lessons over the summer, that’s it). So I’m self-taught – expect any music theory I try to include to be a little bit wonky!

I have been dysphoric about my voice for a very long time. When I was a teenager I used to cope with my voice my being a mimic, singing in the voices of other people. I could sing songs I loved and think it wasn’t my voice but someone else’s, so disconnect from the fact that they were assigned a gender by those listening to me.

I’ve never felt comfortable with either binary gender and I’ve always been drawn towards androgyny, so I’ve been exposed to and singing like the voices of vocally androgynous people for most of my life. I think as a result I think I’ve become at least a bit more adept at controlling my voice.

Warming Up

If you’re going to work though these exercises yourself, especially if you’re planning to sing, be sure to relax (very important!), keep your back straight, loosen your shoulders and keep them relaxed but don’t slouch forwards (although I realise many trans* people have issues around their chests and prefer slouching posture). I’ve already warmed up, you have a vocal warm up of your own, maybe sing a little and get used to finding the lowest and highest pitches your voice is comfortable at. I have some sweet ginger tea here and as I’m asthmatic I also just took my inhaler as a pre-emptive strike (my doctor recommends this).

Pitch

OK so let’s start off with vocal pitch, how high or how low your voice is. Most people believe this is the only vocal gender cue. The pitch of your voice can be extended by altering where you’re speaking from, which part of your body is being allowed to resonate. Obviously your voice comes from your throat, but it’s affected by whether you’re making use of the ‘resonance chamber’ in your chest. The two extremes are singing from your chest only, or singing from your throat only. These are typically conceived of as a ‘chest voice’ and a ‘head voice’.

You’ve heard my normal speaking voice, well here’s my unaltered singing voice with nothing fancy going on

[Sings a verse of Second Hand Songs by Jonathan Turner]

Chest Voice

As I said before, my voice is affected by testosterone so my chest voice is quite resonant and so gives a more impressive contrast, so I’ll start there. Despite my vocal range not going down particularly low, it still sounds impressively deep compared to normal when I speak or sing in chest voice. Even if your voice has not been affected by testosterone and won’t be so dramatic, you will have a chest voice that you can speak in to emphasise the deepest parts of your voice (Look for resources aimed at men with high voices and naturally transitioning trans guys for help with this [if you have recommendations for these, please suggest them in the comments!]).

[Humorous chest voice example sounding like a pretentious Shakespearian actor and Brian Blessed]

My go to song for singing in chest voice alone is Mmm mmm mmm mmm by the Crash Test Dummies:

[Sings a verse of that]

If you’re planning on taking testosterone, I recommend singing that every day to track your progress as it’ll be deeply satisfying when your chest resonance kicks in.

Head Voice

So head voice is cutting out the chest entirely and only talking from the head, and I can go even higher and push into falsetto which with my particular sounds kind of unnatural and babyish or like a cartoon character, but can be useful for hitting higher notes. Depending on what your range is like, your falsetto may sound totally different to mine and might be something you’ll use far more than me.

If you’re interested in learning how to do push your pitch up like that, search for tutorials aimed at helping trans women to find voices they’re comfortable with, there are some excellent and very effective tutorials out there [again, I’m looking for recommendations of resources to link to – please comment below!].

As an example of me singing in head voice without putting on any of the vocal techniques I’ll look at later, I’ll sing something that sounds almost like a choir boy:

[Sings a verse from Who Will Buy This Wonderful Morning from Oliver!]

Now you’ll have noticed while I was going in and out of those examples that it’s perfectly possible to start in the chest voice, raise the pitch, gradually add more and more head voice and take away chest voice until you’re talking in head voice alone. Obviously regardless of what vocal range you have, somewhere within that process will be your ‘androgynous pitch’.

It’s been my experience that although voice pitch is a gender cue, it’s not necessarily the highest point your voice goes but the range it covers. If you have a voice with audible chest resonance under it, it can be quite high and still perceived as male or androgynous.

Mixing Both

If you’ve done any singing lessons you’ve probably been taught that mastering your chest and head voices is vital and the richest, most pleasing singing voices mix the qualities of both the head and chest voice into one unified sound. I’ve certainly found that this is something I tend to do when I’m singing androgynously, and you’ll likely hear that almost all the voices I’ll sing in (and the singers I’m mimicking) from now on have that quality to some degree.

As for speaking voice, my own speaking voice (as well as varying wildly in pitch depending on what I’m thinking and who I’m speaking to), having analysed it with a pitch range analysis computer program, has a low chest voice firmly in the male range and a high head voice that’s outside of the male range that I somehow unconsciously mix together as I speak. This results in my voice being surprisingly androgynous. Often if I’m passed between two people on the phone one may read me as female, the other as male. Which is annoying sometimes but also kind of brilliant as it means I’m ‘passing’ as androgynous.

Other factors

Vocal gender cues aren’t just based on pitch. The average vocal ranges for adult female-assigned (not affected by testosterone) voices and male-assigned voices affected by testosterone overlap quite comfortably. There are plenty of well known female voices that are well within the male range and vice versa. Pitch is not the only signifier of gender – intonation, speech patterns, range, choice of words and degree of chest resonance are all factors. If we’re in that overlap then the way they speak, like an accent, is what causes people to read their voices as female or male.

For example, Joanna Lumley of Perdy from the Avengers and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous has a particularly low voice that’s nonetheless perceived as female. That’s all down to intonation, speech patterns and a kind of whispery husky quality.

If you have a high voice, you could adopt aspects of the voice and intonations of Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones – this voice is quite high but it’s kept quite flat and drawn out.

[Speaks ‘in the voices’ of each as demonstration]

Obviously those were both extremely exaggerated and quite poor impersonations, but I’m not trying to sound like them exactly, I’m trying to take on certain qualities of their voices. By learning to do that and listening to the results, you can find places you can push your voice that sound more like you while keeping those androgynous qualities. I recommend listening around for celebrities of the other binary gender to your assignment with a speaking pitch similar to the highest or lowest (which every you’re aiming for) pitch you’re able to comfortably speak in, then practice taking on aspects of their voices.

Mimicking androgynously toned singers

Now for singing voice, there are a number of singers who sing in an androgynous way and within the female/male pitch range overlap. Find one that fits into your range and work to perfect singing in that style. Yes, you’re doing an impersonation but you’re really not singing in someone else’s voice. You’ll notice that when I sing ‘as’ other singers, I still sound like myself, I’m still using my voice and putting my unique interpretation on the end result. So it starts as mimicry, but really you’re singing in your voice just finding new ranges and techniques that you can adopt, and making all of these songs and vocal styles your own. So well done!

Singers featured:

James Blunt – Beautiful – Has quite a high voice

Tracy Chapman – Fast Car – Her voice is androgynous and lower than James Blunt’s

Nico – These Days – Her voice was useful to me as it involves going down to low notes without shifting into chest voice

Tori Amos – Cornflake Girl – Is in high tenor-ish range but firmly female sounding

Thom Yorke of Radiohead – Karma Police – Is in a similar range to Tori Amos but sounds male

Mama Cass Eliot – Dream A Little Dream of Me – Lower than Tori Amos and female sounding, could be more comfortable for lower voices to mimic

Soul music is often sung in a rich, multi-toned, androgynous style, for example a male singer and a female singer who have similar voices:

Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

Nina Simone – Feeling good

If you want to learn the tropes of this vocal style, start with someone really exaggerated and work back to more natural sound, I personally learned to sing this way by impersonating Heather Small from M People.

Higher or thinner voices

If you have a higher voice and you’re looking for someone to mimic, try the legendary David McAlmont whose high male voice is mostly out of my range.

If you can only sing in a ‘thin’ high range, like a falsetto, you could find singers who have particularly high/reedy voice but manage to make that sound strong or androgynous. My favourite example of this are Skin from Skunk Anansie who talks in a surprisingly ‘small’ voice but has a bold ‘big’ singing voice:

Skin – Skunk Anansie – Brazen

And for a Male androgynous falsetto voice try icon Brian Molko from Placebo, my favourite of his is:

Placebo – 36 Degrees

If you have a female sounding ‘thinner’ high voice and you want to sound more male, try mimicking male singers with a classically falsetto sound. Jimmy Somerville is probably the archetypal example.

Wrapping up

Once you’ve mastered singing in a more androgynous way, then talking that way becomes kind of trivial. People with speak impairments like stammers often learn to sing as speech therapy and then put themselves in a singing state of mind while talking (this also means you can pretend your entire life is musical theatre, fabulous dharling!)

If you’ve got good at singing in the styles or androgynous singers within your range, you shouldn’t have too much problem taking a singer outside your range and pushing the song into a range you can achieve. So if you come across other singers with androgynous vocal qualities you wish to emulate, try singing in their style but in a lower or higher key to match your voice. If this proves difficult, listen to other singers in the same genre (my go to genre seems to be soul, yours may well be different) and start by emulating one closer to your comfort point.

You should also be able to take the aspects of other voices you’ve sung in and apply them to songs by other people, so sing a well known song in the style of a different singer, or mix up all the qualities you like from the voices you’ve mimicked and the new aspects of your voice you’ve developed to sing an interpretation that’s uniquely yours.

Well that’s the end, I hope you’ve found my perspective helpful!

[I end by singing my own personal interpretation of the Christina Aguilera song Beautiful, which on listening back sounds like a mash up of Tracy Chapman and Alex Parks‘ styles]

Bonus content

Speaking voice as an accent or an impersonation

A tip I meant to include in the video but don’t seem to have mentioned is to suggest that intentionally mimicking a particular person or a particular accent can be helpful when trying to learn a new vocal pitch or speech pattern.

When you put on an accent or do an impression of someone, you’re moving your voice into another ‘character’ rather than trying to make your own voice sound different. So it may be helpful to conceptualise your androgynous voice in the same way, as a character or accent you can move in and out of (as you’ll have seen me do several times throughout the video, including several times where I get ‘stuck’ in the wrong one!).

I think it’s significant that trans women who transition in a different city or country to where they grew up often find that the accent they were surrounded by when undergoing speech therapy ‘sticks’ with their new voice but report that their pre-transition voice in the lower pitch remains associated with the accent they grew up with.

Giving your voice more or less of a ‘singsong’ quality

Generally people who have been socialised in a female gender role tend to have a more expressive and singsong quality to their voice, while those socialised in a male gender role tend to keep their voice constrained in a lower range. Female socialisation also encourages women to raise the pitch of their voices slightly when talking to someone in a friendly tone.

Resources aimed at helping trans women to ‘pass’ vocally should be helpful in giving you a toolbox or palette of vocal social gender cues that you can then intentionally play up or suppress as you balance the other cues in your voice like pitch, range and husky qualities (as explained in the video).

There are also resources aimed at men with high voices (something that is deemed to be negative in our gender conformist hetero/cisnormative society) who wish to deepen their voices and naturally transitioning trans guys looking to make their voices more easily perceived by others as male without taking testosterone. These may well also give you tips that you can play up or play down (or do the opposite of!) to balance whatever vocal gender cues you’re trying to negate or blur.

If you have recommendations for your favourite existing voice therapy or voice training resources, please share them in the comments below!

Other singers with androgynous voices

My favourite sound is soulful and I tended to go back to soul singers for my examples, but there are a lot of androgynous voices out there across all sorts of genres. Look for the genre that resonates with you, fits your personality and feels like your most authentic self-expression.

Here are some vocally androgynous singers I love to listen to:

David McAlmont – One of the most influential singers in my teenage years. I briefly tried to sing the McAlmont and Butler song Yes in the video then realised it was too high for my range.

Alison Moyet – One of the most often cited female vocalists with androgynous vocal qualities

Greg Gilbert of Delays – Indie guitar band with a higher pitched male vocalist with a pleasant sound

Tanita Tikaram – Female vocalist with a lower voice that has ‘sultry’ aspects

Chris Colfer of The Glee Cast – Famous for having an amazingly pure sounding high voice with an impressive range. Much like with David McAlmont, I can’t hit half the notes in the high end of his range

D. Lucille Campbell of Help Stamp Out Lonliness – Strikingly similar to Nico but sings in a contemporary Indie style

CN LesterGenderqueer singer who sings early, classical and contemporary music. Their contemporary music tends to be in the high tenor range. (I recommend the song ‘Brackets’ on the EP Resurrection Men but all are fabulous)

Adèle Anderson of cabaret group Facinating AidaFamous trans woman singer whose voice was affected by male puberty but is firmly female sounding. She sings the lower pitched parts in the female cabaret group

Antony Heggarty of Antony and the Johnsons – Mecury music award winning transgender singer who seeks ‘an equilibrium between the genders’. Has a distinctive androgynous sound in the high tenor range

Alex Parks – Not necessarily androgynous but has an incredibly distinctive voice, one of my favourite singers of all time (you can hear her influence in my closing song)

If you’re looking for pop music, I’m afraid that’s not really my genre but Darren Hayes of Savage Garden and the ubiquitous Justin Bieber come to mind.

As I keep saying, please suggest your own favourite vocally androgynous singers in the comments below!

Useful links and resources

Practical Androgyny: Vocal androgyny: Speaking voice – From the Practical Androgyny Tumblr (which you should all be following!), talks about the voice pitch range analysing software I mentioned in the video

CN Lester’s Singing and vocal production for trans guys – Video tutorial aimed at trans guys but likely to be useful for everyone [disclosure – CN has given me two singing lessons in the past]

TransgenderVoice.net: Genderqueer – The genderqueer section from a transgender-specialising speech therapist’s website

Transguys.com: Testosterone and the trans male singing voice – Fantastic article full of videos about the affects of testosterone on the singing voice and the best way to transition using testosterone without losing your singing voice (NB, assumes male identity)

The Straight Dope: “That was a guy singing?!” wrong calls on singers’ genders thread – Useful for finding more androgynous voices

Please suggest your own resources in the comments!

Update: CN Lester’s Trans Beauty: Vocal Edition part 1 was inspired by this article – Packed with classical music videos showcasing high male/androgynous roles and female tenors, baritones and basses!

Being Constructive About the Independent on Sunday Pink List

Posted by – October 29, 2011

The Independent on Sunday Pink List 2011Last weekend the UK Independent on Sunday released their annual ‘Pink List’, described each year as a ‘celebration of the gay and lesbian community’. It’s been a tradition of mine to look through lists such as these each year and bemoan the lack of representation for the wider LGBT and queer communities. Last year’s list produced a lot of justified criticism for not including any visibly bisexual or openly trans* people and not representing the grassroots activists within the LGBT community. It’s been very easy to be critical of a list of ‘influential British LGBT people’ that reads as a hierarchy of mainly cisgender (as in, not identifying as trans*), apparently able-bodied, gay and lesbian famous people and politicians who mostly live in England, mainly London. Cynicism is especially easy when it’s arranged as a league table complete with comparisons to where each entry charted in the previous year.

Since last year’s list was released, Time Out Magazine produced an even more problematically structured ‘Pride Power’ list, which at least included one openly trans* person, highly deserving activist Christine Burns MBE, albeit handled in a pretty problematic way. As you’ll see from that blog post and its comments, that spurred Christine and the equally wonderful Trans Media Watch to put pressure on the Independent on Sunday to produce a truly trans* inclusive Pink List this year. As a result of this campaigning, and I’m sure pressure from other parts of the LGBT community, the IoS appointed trans* journalist and activist Paris Lees to the panel of judges and asked their readers to put forward their own ‘unsung champions’ and ‘heroes’ of the LGBT community for inclusion in the nominees for the 2011 list.

Real Progress

With those announced changes, I approached this year’s Pink List with some degree of optimism, and I was indeed extremely pleased to see a considerably improved list with:

  • The frankly amazing teacher Elly Barnes, who has done invaluable work to exorcise the ghost of Section 28 from the nation’s schools, in the top position
  • A performer clearly described as bisexual in the third position
  • More women included in top positions
  • An openly intersex activist in the ‘Nice to meet you section’
  • Six trans women and one trans man in the numbered league table
  • Another two trans women and one trans man in the Lifetime Achievement Awards
  • And yet another trans woman in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section

Note though, five of trans women included were not explicitly noted as trans*.

It was clear that this wasn’t just a small step towards token trans* representation as I’d worried, but a significant jump towards treating trans* people as equally valid members of the LGBT community.

Valid Criticism

Is the list perfect? No, by no means. It’s still arranged in league table format, it’s still mainly white, English, well educated, apparently able-bodied (there is not one mention of ‘disabled’, ‘disability’ or any particular impairments on the entire list), apparently dyadic (non-intersex) people. People who lampoon these things as ‘Pride Privilege Lists’ still have much to rightfully criticise.

My traditional scouring of the list has been to look for bisexual representation and, despite singer-songwriter Jessie J now appearing in third position with a clear declaration of bisexuality, there are no other entries described as ‘bi’ or ‘bisexual’. All other uses of ‘bisexual’ are simply writing out LGBT or ‘gay and bisexual’, there is not one usage of the term ‘bi’ which is preferred within the UK Bi Community or the word ‘queer’, my label of choice. There are other people on the list who I know are bisexual, but not one of them is identified as such, and so bi invisibility continues. As a long term active member of the UK Bi Community, which is hugely accepting of queer-identified, trans*, nonbinary and genderqueer people such as myself, I was particularly disappointed to see all the hard working bisexual activists overlooked yet again.

This year the Bi Community focused its visibility activism efforts onto equal bi inclusion in the Lesbian and Gay Foundation’s ‘Homo Heroes’ award, gaining hugely deserving nominees in four categories (none of whom won the popular vote). It’s quite telling that the trans community aimed its visibility activism one way, the bi community another and the end result was that two prominent perviously ‘lesbian and gay’ lists gained more inclusive representation for one of the usually overlooked B and T but not the other (although one of the bi ‘Homo Heroes’ nominees is also trans*, so L, G, B and T are all represented there). I think it’s highly likely that the next Bi Activist Weekend will be discussing strategy to get a bi activist judge on next year’s Pink List panel.

So yes, there is much to criticise and much of my immediate response (on Twitter) after congratulating those listed was to critique the list’s failings. Many others in the trans* community (and beyond) have criticised the list too, some with anger at how the trans* people who were included were all transitioned binary transsexual, mainly trans women rather than trans men, not people of colour and mostly from England rather than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was considerable disappointment that not one openly nonbinary (living as neither a woman nor a man) or explicitly genderqueer (identifying as challenging the gender binary through non-normative gender expression – your definitions may vary, I find the distinction useful) person was included. The trans* people who were included all fit the dominant transgender narrative of cross-binary gender identity and transition.

Some people defending the lack of such people on the list have argued that no British nonbinary, genderqueer or solely gender nonconforming (as in not trans* in other respects) people have done anything notable enough yet and this will come with time. While this may be true of activists (those prominent in the field live overseas while British activists have only come to the fore recently), it isn’t the case of performers and famous people. What about Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror and Crystal Maze fame who came out as nonbinary transgender in 2009? What about stand up comedian, world famous actor, ‘executive transvestite’ and ‘male tomboy’ Eddie Izzard who has helped normalise femme male gender expression, has been an inspiration to a huge number of trans* people of all stripes for years and who recently ran seven weeks of back-to-back marathons (with Sundays off) across the UK to raise money for Sport Relief? Personally I’d have liked to see at least one nonbinary or genderqueer activist or performer on the ‘Nice to meet you’ list and I am hugely disappointed that CN Lester was overlooked for that honour. But I am hopeful for next year.

Unfortunately much of the perfectly valid criticism of the structure and composition of the list inadvertently reads as an attack on the trans women and men who are on the list for the first time this year. There is a very uncomfortable air of belittling or dismissing the achievements of the people who are on the list, because they are ‘tokenism’ or because others ‘more deserving’ are not there. Some of the critiques feel like they’re dragging those people down rather than lifting others up, which CN Lester eloquently describes and confronts here.

This Stuff Is Important

Much like CN, I had an ‘inspiration board’ on the wall of my teenage bedroom, full of printed out song lyrics, pictures and newspaper clippings that kept me going through my last couple of years as a closeted queer teenager at a rural comprehensive school (1996 to 98). My board included people like teenage Age Of Consent campaigners Chris Morris (who was the same age as me) and Euan Sutherland, and famous performers like Ellen Degeneres, Wilson Cruz, Brian Molko, David McAlmont, Ani DiFranco, Michael Stipe and Skin from Skunk Anansie. Being surrounded by images of successful queer and gender nonconforming people and listening to their music made me feel like less of a freak and gave me hope for the future.

As a community, we need visible inspirational ‘heroes’ to look up to. Some people survive, get through it and are inspired to succeed and perhaps become activists themselves due to newspaper articles just like this one. It is possible to critique the form of an award and the nature of the organisation that issued it while still seeing it as important and valuable. As little as I believe in the honours system and the monarchy, I still found it incredibly significant and inspiring when the establishment recognised the work of trans* activist Christine Burns by issuing her with an MBE in 2004 and Stephen Whittle by issuing him with an OBE in 2005.

Being Constructive

I see these lists and the tendency to single out certain prominent famous and notable people for recognition and awards as only problematic in isolation. If we let this be the only way that trans*, queer and LGBT people are celebrated in our communities, then yes, it is problematic. If we let this start a conversation about who else should be recognised and celebrated, the hard work that so many others do in our communities and all the different ways people make a difference, then it becomes just one of many ways that the deserving, inspiring people in our communities receive thanks.

When Dan Savage started the It Gets Better campaign, I was among the critics who found it deeply problematic. But it started a conversation that prompted complementary and constructive campaigns that focused on helping young people to Make It Better, and inspired many other It Gets Better videos that weren’t problematic in the ways that Savage’s had been. There are now some amazing trans* and queer It Gets Better videos out there and no end of testimonials from people saying how seeing them has helped them in the way my inspiration board helped me.

I would like to see positive and constructive reactions amongst the justified critiques of the organisation and form of the current Pink List. While campaigning for next year’s list to end bi invisibility, recognise bisexual, pansexual, asexual and queer activists and include more trans men, nonbinary, genderqueer and gender nonconforming people, we should also be putting forward our own lists of inspiring queer and trans* people, and thanking and celebrating all those who inspired us personally, or who have worked to make our lives better as queer or trans* people.

As such, last night I asked my Twitter followers to indulge me for a while as I thanked those who had inspired me. Rather than focusing solely on individuals, I tried to thank entire groups and classes of people who have helped our communities, while highlighting particular examples that I’ve personally come across and been inspired by. My own personal Inspiration List. You can read it in my Twitter favourites, starting at 10:12pm. Note, there are many many more people who I could name (each category was limited to 136 characters) and, as I was reacting to a list of inspirational British LGBT people, my list was intentionally focused on people from the UK. I would write a very different list if I was including those who are active in other countries and internationally.

I would love to read other people’s Inspiration Lists, especially international lists and lists covering queer and trans* communities of which I’m not a member. I encourage you all to thank everyone who’s inspired you, made it easier to be queer, trans* or gender nonconforming or helped you or your communities in practical ways.

Deserving Their Recognition

And let’s not forget that we do have eleven openly trans* people and several more trans* allies recognised within the Pink List article. Forget the numbering and the different categories and focus on the recognition these people have been rightfully given. As I said above, I want to see more trans* people included, more trans men, more trans* people assigned female at birth, more nonbinary, openly genderqueer and solely gender nonconforming people, and I want us to work towards getting those people into next year’s list and given recognition through our own community efforts, independent of The Independent. But let’s not play down the hugely important work those who are listed have done to represent, inspire and improve the lives of all trans* people.

So here’s my personal take on how some of the trans* people who are recognised in this year’s Pink List article have inspired and represented me as a nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, queer-identified, atypically transitioning, androgynously presenting trans* person…

Longterm Inspirations

I was extremely pleased to see people who have been personal longterm inspirations to me on the lists:

Stephen Whittle and Christine Burns, whose campaigning work for Press For Change was a practical help and inspiration to me while transitioning in the late 1990s, especially as their website and resources recognised that not all ‘trans people’ they campaigned for transition in the same way or at all, live ‘full time in role’ or identify as simply female or simply male.

It is thanks to Press For Change that Britain now has legal employment and provision of goods and services protection for trans* people (by adding the protected class of ‘gender reassignment’), including the changes in the Equality Act 2010 that mean those protections are no longer prerequisite on a ‘gender specialist’ psychiatrist’s approval or any medical treatments. Stephen has also featured in two prominent television documentaries about transsexual men and numerous trans* publications, providing inspiration to many. As mentioned above, Christine is one of the most vocal campaigners for recognition of the full diversity of trans* activists and influential people in lists such as these.

Travel writer Jan Morris whose groundbreaking 1974 memoir Conundrum and its journey through her transition (most notably chapter 12) was my first exposure to the reality that it was possible for me to become androgynous, it wasn’t just something that some people were naturally gifted with that I could never achieve. I cannot overstate how important this was to me and how much hope and inspiration it gave me as a dysphoric nonbinary person trying to find comfort with my body and social role.

Activists I Admire

I was also overjoyed to see recognition given to current activists who I admire, all of whom have in some way helped nonbinary and gender nonconforming trans* people as part of their work to represent the entire trans* community:

Sarah Brown, Britain’s only openly transgender activist serving in an elected political position; a Liberal Democrat Cambridge City Councillor, and chair of the Lib Dem Transgender Working Group. Sarah was instrumental (along with Zoe O’Connell) in influencing Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert to raise the issue of gender neutral documentation such as passports in the House of Commons. Something that will be vitally important to many nonbinary, genderqueer, transgender and gender nonconforming people in this country (including myself).

Jay Stewart of Gendered Intelligence, an organisation that does hugely important creative work with young transgender and genderqueer people and is explicitly inclusive of the wider transgender spectrum. Jay organised the wonderfully positive and inclusive Trans Community Conference, that I was lucky enough to attend this year, and was previously the chair of FTM London, an AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans* support and social group known for being inclusive of all identities and expressions within the wider transgender spectrum. I have briefly spoken with Jay and seen him speak from stage and on video. He comes across as someone who comfortably challenges stereotypical assumptions that all trans men are hyper-masculine. Read him here encouraging readers of the Times Educational Supplement to celebrate transgender students and allow male assigned students to express femininity in their schools.

Journalist Juliet Jacques (in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section) whose blogging for The Guardian has talked frankly about the process of coming to terms with being a trans woman and undergoing transition in a very public and visible way that has exposed the human story behind trans* people’s lives to a whole new audience. In her earlier articles, Juliet talks about how she did not have the stereotypical transsexual childhood story (in a way I hugely identified with), and tried on and explored numerous transgender identities and communities before transitioning. She writes about having been drawn to male crossdressers, made to feel less alone by the comedy of ‘action transvestite’ Eddy Izzard and going through years of identifying as a gay male crossdresser and later ‘transgender’ as described by Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein. As such she is one of the few journalists to have written about transgender people who ‘live beyond the traditional gender binary’ in a mainstream outlet.

Creative People

Creativity and consuming the creative works of others is hugely important to me. As such, I was pleased to see three creative trans women whose work I enjoy recognised in the lists as much for their non-activist careers and artistic merits as their work as ‘professional trans people':

Roz Kaveney is given recognition as a poet and novelist. I first saw Roz on television talking about science fiction and fantasy, then later met her in person through science fiction conventions (where she is well known and respected in the community of authors and fans). If you like a science fiction or fantasy author, Roz is probably friends with them. I later learned she is openly transsexual from her (highly recommended) poetry LiveJournal and from there found her Twitter feed, where she’s shared sonnets about transgender history, remembrance and bodies [NSFW], and challenged the prejudices of others (most notably Julie Bindel) in a relentlessly reasonable and open minded way. Roz is notable to the nonbinary community for having talked about neutrois (agender) identity along with the wider inclusive meaning of transgender, for the Guardian newspaper’s blog in June 2010.

Comedian Bethany Black is given recognition for being successful in the competitive and male dominated world of stand up comedy while being openly transsexual. She describes herself as “Britain’s only Goth, lesbian, transsexual stand-up comedian” and challenges binary transgender stereotypes enough to proudly feature in the MtF Butches Tumblr. She’s also very funny.

Actress and singer Adèle Anderson of marvellous humorous female cabaret group Facinating Aida is recognised under ‘lifetime achievement’. Adèle is recognised for her acting and singing career, and her campaigning for the British Humanist Association, most notably against the Pope’s recent state visit to the UK. Adèle came out as a trans woman in the mid-1980s after success while ‘stealth’, in part due to pressure from the press, she later talked publicly about how difficult that process was. As a transgender singer and lover of comedy music, I personally find inspiration in Adèle and her willingness to pursue a singing career despite the risk of it outing her.

To Conclude…

So while I am not aware of any nonbinary, genderqueer-identified or solely gender nonconforming trans* people recognised on the Pink List this year, every one of the trans* people listed above has either worked for their rights and/or recognition in some way, or challenged binary gender roles and the public’s stereotypical view of transgender people through their openness, their humour or their own gender nonconformity. I don’t know about you but, as a genderqueer and nonbinary person, I think that’s worth celebrating.

And let’s not overlook the significance of the inclusion of openly intersex activist and LGBTQQi addiction specialist Sarah Graham recognised in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section, who has been frank and open about her life experiences in an article for The Independent and an episode of the BBC radio programme The Essay broadcast on Radio 3.

Finally, we should not forget all the people on the list who work for trans* people as part of their careers or wider LGBT activism. I want to wrap up this article by pointing you at a video of the person who made the number one spot in this year’s Pink List, Elly Barnes talking about how her Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans History Month work in schools led to her pupils being exposed to positive queer and trans* role models in assembly and taught in science classes about how gender variance and transition is a normal part of some people’s lives. If Elly’s recognition in the Pink List leads to just one other teacher following her example and achieving the same, then it will have been an indisputable success.


* The asterisk at the end of ‘trans*’ denotes that this is the wider inclusive form of trans that includes all transgender, transsexual, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant and gender nonconforming people regardless of gender identity or expression.