In the September issue of DIVA, the “lifestyle magazine for lesbian and bi women in the UK”, Meg-John 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 protesters 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-John 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-John Barker’s excellent DIVA article, this time without the apparent assumption that the people described experience gender in the same way that she does.