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Is it time to say goodbye to the non-binary in gender?

Being defined by a negative speaks more of bureaucracy than of sex or self-expression. 

Trans*march Berlin 2014. Credit: Flickr/Franziska Neumeister. Some rights reserved.

For many years, various terms have been trialled to express a different position on gender—neither man nor woman but somewhere in-between, or simply a third space: agender, non-gendered, pan-gender, trans*, genderqueer and now non-binary, a recent entry on the list that seems to be gaining in popularity—but which I think should be questioned.

I feel some nagging discomfort about the language of in-betweeness, yet in so many ways it expresses my ambivalent feelings about my own gender. Resistance to the language of non-binary can mean making bedfellows of some sexual conservatives, but my critique of the term comes out of queer culture itself.

Alternative pronouns have long been tested out as alternatives to our default reliance on ‘he’ and ‘she.’ Although ‘they’ is now more common, ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ were less successful. I remember seeing these terms on writer and activist Leslie Feinberg’s website when I was a teenager, just after reading hir novel Stone Butch Blues, and finding the notion exciting, disorienting, strange, beautiful and suspiciously unlikely to catch on.

Genderqueer came under fire for being used predominantly—and in some contexts almost exclusively—by female-assigned people. Why was being genderqueer so common in lesbian communities and so rare among gay men? Was it simply a political statement or was it a form of being trans? And how did this relate to the small numbers of trans woman in queer spaces?

Perhaps genderqueer is an example of what the writer Julia Serano critiques as the queer community’s ‘subversivism’, its valuing of gender non-conformity as a political or moral good. There were also campaigns to ‘save the butch’ as some butch lesbians began to transition and live as men. This debate was always complex and contested, and collective conversations about gender were often fraught with deep and personal pain.

My chief concern is that non-binary language feels like it’s stabilising that space of in-between with some potentially damaging consequences. For sure, the gender binary is responsible for violence against the majority of humanity, as Sofa Gradin notes on Transformation: “in the fact that women die every week as a result of domestic violence; that men commit suicide and violent crime since they aren't taught how to express their feelings socially. The fact that transgender people are being murdered and that lesbian and gay people face violent abuse because their church, school, family or the media says that they are sick.”

But the language of non-binary as a marker of identity can’t in itself raise the profile of this violence. It provides a space for some people to find a home, and I’m happy that this space exists. It’s exciting that so many people feel able to declare that the gender they’ve been assigned simply doesn’t accord with their experience of the world, and that when this is declared, people are starting to listen.

Mainstream newspapers publish articles about non-binary experiences (sometimes thoughtful and respectful); toilets are starting to become gender neutral; and my students at Goldsmiths and Birkbeck now state their pronouns in the first class of the year. My child-self who declared herself neither a girl nor a boy could not have imagined that such a world was possible.

Yet I miss the utopianism of previous ways of honouring these feelings. In the absence of a clear, single term, we had to make up new ones of our own. We reclaimed ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ (and would carefully deliberate over labelling ourselves soft or hard, high or low, top or bottom). We put the word ‘queer’ in front of everything: queer tango, queer volleyball, queer sailing, queer crochet, queer techno—even queer brunch. We bemoaned the fact that maybe queer didn’t mean anything anymore.

We dismissed capital-L-lesbians and watched every TV show about the lower case variety. Our critique of The L Word was only matched in fervour by our devotion to actually watching it. These weren’t effective strategies to bring down the gender binary (or anything else), but they were irreverent and sometimes idealistic, and often geared towards fucking, or at least some flirting.

Despite our post-gender claims, these queer worlds were mostly made up of people who had been assigned female at birth, yet this joyful and ridiculous obsession with categories and self-naming was a staple all kinds of LGBTQ culture. I giggled in delight recently when overhearing an older gay man refer to himself as a ‘futch’ (femme-butch) on the hunt for ‘bussy’ (boy-pussy). It reminded me that back in the day, before I’d met any queers and was a lipstick-lez-fag-hag trying to make sense of being a homo in the provinces, all the gay boys used to call each other ‘she’—a practice that was equal parts misogynist insult and defiant marker of belonging. 

Perhaps ‘non-binary’ is part of this tradition of finding new language to express a murky and beautiful third space, yet I struggle to find any poetry in that label. To me, being defined by a negative speaks more of bureaucracy than of sex or self-expression. And I worry that it makes being a man or a woman seem complicit, an act of false consciousness, as though identifying as such is somehow to accept the gender binary and all the violence that comes with it. One of queer culture’s flaws has always been a kind of superiority complex—a habitual sense that we are smarter, hotter, and having better sex than boring old straight people. Perhaps it’s time to rethink this self-righteousness.

Given that I never get through the week without someone assuming that I’m in the wrong toilet or calling me ‘sir,’ I’m loathe to accept the idea that I’m laden with cisprivilege. Yet I am female-assigned and identify as a woman. Despite often not passing as a woman, and not really knowing if I feel like one, I can’t imagine giving up that term. I want ‘woman’ to be big and spacious enough to encompass all kinds of people, regardless of what we wear or how we look. Given my ambivalence about my gender, identifying as a woman sometimes feels like an active, political, public choice. It’s not always a choice I find easy or that makes me happy, and sometimes it’s a choice that hurts, but it’s one I keep on making.

So where does this leave me and the rest of you? I don’t have easy answers to any of these questions, but I’m sad at what is being lost, both in terms of histories and in terms of other, more exciting futures. Despite my misgivings, I’m not suggesting that we throw out non-binary language and ideas altogether. These things evolve, and there’s no sense in trying to hold back the tide. But I think we should hedge our bets a little more, and loosen our grip on certainty. I know I’ve prevented myself from growing and changing by holding on too tightly to what I think I know.

What if we tried to embrace that uncertainty? What if some days, rather than declaring our identities, we simply refused to state them? Or, instead of stating our personal pronouns at the start of a meeting, why not experiment with calling everyone ‘they’ right throughout one week?

Rather than adding an extra box on a form to accommodate more identities (as the UK’s Metro Bank have done by adding a ‘third gender’ category), why don’t we just take the day off bureaucracy altogether, and spend our time fucking, or listening to Prince? Isn’t the real battle over where Metro Bank invests their money rather than how they label their customers? Why not campaign to remove all gendered categories from public life instead of adding on more options?

When I have this conversation in person, I often argue that this is all a distraction, and that we simply need to spend our time fighting patriarchy and the state. I say in no uncertain terms that cis, straight women live more deeply and painfully in the patriarchy than I do; that it’s a feminist movement that will bring these systems down and not a queer one or a trans one or a non-binary one.

I stand by this argument, but I also wonder why I make it so stridently, with such a refusal of the queer gender politics that formed me. Perhaps it’s because I fear that making non-binary a category rather than a movement could make it even harder to define as a woman, a position it’s already hard to inhabit in a sexist world—and because I wonder whether turning ‘binary’ and ‘non-binary’ identities into opposites is itself a mirror image of the dogma we’re trying to resist.

I think the challenge might simply be to learn to live in these uncertainties—to say that we don’t know all the answers, that non-binary language both affirms and contests gender norms, that our language will always be imperfect. When you hold a position that is often ridiculed or derided as gender non-conformity often is, it’s natural to try to defend it, to hold it tight and raise it high, elevated beyond critique.

But a tight grip can stifle creativity and critical thought. Instead, we should keep on pushing ourselves and each other to question these categories, not just man and woman but trans and non-binary too. Since gender categories shape the world for everyone—not just those who defy gender norms—these conversations couldn’t be more urgent.

About the author

Sita Balani is doing a PhD at King's College London and teaching at Goldsmiths College and Birkbeck College. She is the Books Editor at Diva magazine and has contributed to Feminist Review, Ceasefire, Photoworks, and Novara Media. Follow Sita on twitter @sitainshort.


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