Pride season is now well under way, and the chances are that you’ve heard of some of the other special dates in the LGBTQIA+ calendar, like Transgender Day of Visibility in March, International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) in May, and Trans Day of Remembrance at the end of November. But did you know that 14th July is International Non-Binary People’s Day?
‘Non-binary people’ is an umbrella term referring to everyone who doesn’t experience themselves as being either fully male or fully female (i.e. within the gender binary). Non-binary gender identities have always existed and been acknowledged in different cultures, e.g. the Native American ‘Two-Spirit’ people, the Hijra of India, the Muxes of Mexico, the Kathoeys of Thailand, and the five genders recognised in Sulawesi, Indonesia; but in Western societies, it’s only in the past decade or so that non-binary people have started finding a language to talk about who they are. There are many different non-binary genders, but some of the most widely known are:
- Genderfluid – a person whose gender identity changes over time, e.g. they may feel more masculine on some days and more feminine on others
- Agender – a person who does not identify with any gender
- Bigender – a person who identifies with two separate genders, usually male and female, all the time
- Neutrois – a person who sees themselves as a ‘third gender’ or neutral gender
- Demiboy / demiguy – a person whose gender identity is on the masculine side of the spectrum, but doesn’t fully identify as a man
- Demigirl – a person whose gender identity is on the feminine side of the spectrum, but doesn’t fully identify as a woman
- Non-binary (nb) transfeminine / trans femme – a person who was assigned male at birth and now has a gender identity on the feminine side of the spectrum
- Non-binary (nb) transmasculine / trans masc – a person who was assigned female at birth and now has a gender identity on the masculine side of the spectrum
- Genderqueer – a person who rejects the idea of binary gender (male/female) or chooses to identify themselves in a way that doesn’t limit them to a binary gender; the term ‘genderqueer’ shouldn’t be used to refer to a person unless they use it themselves, as ‘queer’ was once used as a slur.
Non-binary genders are complex and often overlapping, and it can take people a long time to figure out which labels - if any - best fit the way that they feel inside. Most (although not all) non-binary people also identify as transgender, since their gender identity – their own internal sense of who they are as people – doesn’t match the ‘M’ or ‘F’ that was assigned to them at birth and printed on their original birth certificate.
The pressure to identify with that ‘M’ or ‘F’ can be immense, especially in conservative families and some religious communities; and while many trans men and trans women report knowing exactly who they were from the age of five or even younger, the situation is often more complicated for non-binary people. It’s often experienced as a vague sense of ‘wrongness’, being different and not fitting in, a general malaise and dissatisfaction with life, or a feeling of failure.
For me, discovering the term ‘non-binary’ was both a revelation and a relief. It created a space in which I felt safe to admit, “I don’t always feel like a woman… In fact, I very rarely feel like a woman… Oh, all right, if I’m completely honest with myself, the truth is that I’m not a woman.” I started coming out as non-binary in November 2017, changing from a very feminine name to the unisex name Ashley.
At first I assumed I was somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, maybe bigender or genderfluid; but the more I gave myself permission to explore my gender identity, the more I discovered that dressing in a more typically ‘masculine’ style made me feel more comfortable. I started introducing myself as transmasculine, or sometimes jokingly as ‘just an ordinary demi-guy’ (inspired by the character Maui from Disney’s Moana). When I bought my first chest binder, though, I was amazed to discover that binding wasn’t just a matter of what I looked like, or what kind of clothes I could get away with wearing; it brought with it an overwhelming feeling of rightness, of being in a body that was the right shape for my soul at last. The weird sense of being wrong or ‘off-kilter’ that had plagued me all my life finally had a name: gender dysphoria. I still introduce myself as transmasculine or non-binary on some days, and in some situations, but more often I’ll just refer to myself as a trans guy or a transgender man.
Not everyone’s story of finding their ‘happy place’, in terms of gender identity, is the same as mine. For many people, it works the other way around. They recognise they’re transgender, perhaps even start a process of medical transition, and then discover that things aren’t quite as simple as they imagined. They aren’t transgender men, or transgender women, after all: they’re non-binary. This might translate into using the title ‘Mx’, instead of Mr or Ms, and/or asking to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns: the singular ‘they/them/their’ (e.g. ‘Have you seen Alex? No, they aren’t in today…’) or neopronouns like ‘ze/hir/hirs’ or ‘xe/xem/xis’.
Awareness of non-binary people is growing, thanks to the tireless work of activists like Fox Fisher, Owl (Ugla Stefania), Ayla Holdom, and the team working on the ‘Beyond the Binary’ website and ‘My Genderation’ films. Yet discrimination, erasure, bullying, harassment and ‘enbyphobia’ (enby = NB, an abbreviation for non-binary) are still rife, and non-binary people are often ridiculed in the press, on social media, or on live TV – sometimes even by other trans people. Admitting to being non-binary can sometimes make it more difficult to gain approval for medical treatments, such as hormones or surgery, that can reduce the intense psychological pain of dysphoria.
In the UK, the battle for official recognition of non-binary gender identities goes on. While a campaign to include a non-binary gender option on passports was recently rejected, the upcoming consultation on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act will include the question of whether people should be allowed to register their legal gender as ‘non-binary’. This July 14th, why not take a moment to do some research (using blogs written by non-binary people themselves), write a supportive post on social media with the hashtag #nonbinary, or sign a petition to the UK Government to stand up for non-binary people’s right to be legally recognised as who they are?