When Prism Press first launched, I started a feature called Pronoun Primer. It was a basic way to explain some of the ever changing terms that are used in the LGBTQIA, kink, and BDSM communities. For this edition, the focus is solely on gender. Sarah Katari has shed more light on an identity that confuses many: Non-Binary.
By Sarah Katari
There's been plenty of talk in the past 30 years on the sudden appearance of transgender people among ourselves. While catalyzing conversations like these is important, what seems to be lacking in these conversations is the fact that transgender people have always existed, and the existence of another identity entirely: nonbinary.
Looking through a traditional lens, gender (and sex) is binary.Each gender has its specific roles to be followed and any who disregard this challenge the economic, societal, and cultural success of a community.
These ideas, of course, are outdated and untrue. Gender isn't binary and the gender roles enforced today are restrictive and damaging to everyone. How probable is it that all 7 billion people in the world will either have a penis, be the sole provider, powerful, and emotionally void, or have a vagina, be nurturing, passive, and be unpredictably emotional?
A more relevant question is how do you enforce gender roles to someone who has a mixed gender? What about no gender at all?
Nonbinary people face the world against them and the added struggles of the community they are supposedly among. Similarly to racial stereotyping amongst LGBTQA+ people, gender erasure is still a problem that needs to be discussed. Nonbinary people are amongst the highest at risk to commit suicide at 41.8% (taken from the Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors survey).
Encouraging understanding, informed vocabulary, and subtle lifestyle changes can combat these obsolete views and take the necessary steps to nurture inclusion for everyone.
Understanding nonbinary [NB] as an identity begins with understanding gender as a whole.
Gender, in and of itself, is nonlinear. We all are a "color" of gender (throw away the ideal pink and blue), similar to a "color" of sexuality, rather than a stagnant point on a scale. While the majority of the queer population will agree they feel either entirely masculine or feminine (with disregard to assigned sex at birth), some feel disinclined to be one or the other, or any at all.
Rather than picturing gender as an A to B spectrum, think of it on a three-dimensional axis. If "man" was an X-axis and "woman" a Y-axis, where westernized ideas of gender are lacking is the added depth of a Z-axis. A gay man, trans* man, and cis man would all fall on this X-axis, and the same for a lesbian, trans*, and cis women on their respective Y-axis. Those disinclined to identify as a single gender or a gender entirely would fall upon the Z-axis. Using this 3-D model is much more inclusive than an A to B spectrum, and allows for unnoted variants such as gender fluidity and those who fall between all three axes.
When discussing gender, another important role to remember is the difference between presentation and pronouns.
Presentation, also known as gender expression, is one's way of demonstrating gender through their dress, act, and behavior. Presentation amongst nonbinary people can follow traditional masculine and feminine roles, but it's commonplace to mix these roles and have fun with them. The outcome can be anywhere from artfully genderbent to aggressive dismantling of stereotypical roles.
It is inappropriate and unethical to try to guess gender from presentation alone.
While Jane presents masculine with a bare chest, buzzed hair, and baggy pants, if Jane asks to be referred to as she/her, she is a masculine-presenting nonbinary woman. Similarly, John presents masculine, yet ask to be referred to as they/them. They are then a masculine-presenting nonbinary person. Notice how presentation and pronouns don't take away from nonbinary as an identity?
This brings up another important note: it's not anyone's job to figure out someone else's identity.
How one presents versus one's pronouns is entirely different for every person. To be a good ally and friend, the first lifestyle change necessary is perfecting the ability to listen.
Listening without intent to reply is a valuable skill to be used in all conversations regarding queer issues not limited to pronouns, identity, and sexuality. As pronouns will vary from person to person, and it's illogical to rely on gender expression to know another's sex, gender, or pronouns, it’s wiser to just ask.
Before approaching a stranger on the street, always respect another human being's space and existence. Avoid approaching the topic unnaturally; for example, don't strike up a conversation with someone to figure out where their identity lies, don't ask about genitalia, and don't ask whether they're a boy or a girl. It's not only rude, but it can aid to gender dysphoria. Dysphoria occurs when someone feels that their identity and the way they're perceived from the outside don't match, and causes a dissonance from personal identity, restlessness, depression, and anxiety (Budge, Rossman, & Howard, 2014).
Rather than cause someone else distress, try this: "Hey, what are your pronouns?"
A note on asking about "preferred" pronouns: there is no preference. Suggesting that someone prefers pronouns is to suggest those aren't their actual pronouns, which can cause distress in the same fashion as misgendering does. Someone's "preferred pronouns" are their pronouns, and should be respected as such.
Conversations about gender will resurface themselves through life as topics on nonbinary people, transgender people, and queer issues in general. A vital part of representation is including nonbinary as a real gender identity in these conversations. Discussing nonbinary as an identity helps dispel the notion of a two-gender-system, amplifies the importance of breaking down traditional roles, and validates any NB person within a radius.
Despite this essential role, it is possible to go farther.
Looking at the consumerist world, taking active steps towards supporting genderless brands and inclusive companies is easier than ever. Keep an eye out for those enforcing gender roles: magazines with photoshopped women on their covers, department stores' divisive toy sections, restaurants without urinals labeling a "men's" and "women's", and clothing outlets with separate girls' and boys' sections are everywhere. (These are dominant in baby departments. Two-year-olds don't care about trucks or princesses, they want to play outside and eat with their hands.)
Choosing to support specific brands against others also creates those important conversations mentioned earlier in this article.
Change starts within an individual. Living by these standards of knowledge and empathy will promote a healthier understanding of other human beings within everyone's community. Gender identity is more than the weird ways someone dresses, it is who they are and will continue to be, without regard to roles, standards, or other constraints to self-expression.
As a final note, it's important to emphasize the constantly changing world and the people who inhabit it.
Continue flexing those listening skills; queer ideas adapt alongside the changes in language and understanding of identity. In opening up the conversation of nonbinary as an identity, more will learn about who they are, how they're feeling, and that they're not alone.
Every NB person is different in preferences, pronouns, presentation, and identity labels. Throughout this article, I use nonbinary to encompass nonbinary, agender, and, for some, transgender identities. Erasure is a real and prominent issue in gender identity, and I mean no exclusion when using these umbrella terms.