Some personal perspectives on non binary gender identity

I’ve read a couple of really interesting and illuminating articles recently in which people who don’t identify as either male or female talk about what that means for them. In yesterday’s Daily Record, there was an interview with NUS Scotland’s transgender representative Drew O’Donnell.

And while Drew says they know many people may find their ever-changing gender difficult to understand, they say people need to learn to be more understanding.

Drew, 23, of Paisley, said: “I’ve been told there are 37 different types of gender – a lot more than simply male and female.

“Even I can’t remember them all but when people ask me about it, I try to explain to them that sex and gender are two different things.

“The singer Cher has a transgender son who said, ‘Gender is between your ears, not between your legs’ and for me that describes it well. Gender is what you feel – and sometimes I might feel two thirds male and only one third female while the next day, I might feel two thirds female and only one third male.

“Some days I feel absolutely gender neutral – neither more male nor more female and that is totally fine too. I have three genders – the more feminine me, the more masculine me and the gender neutral me – but I am still the same one person.

“When I am feeling more feminine I will wear more feminine clothes – not skirts or dresses but clothes that have a more feminine than masculine look to them.

“I will wear make-up – I like eye shadow, eye liner and nail polish. And I have even coached my voice to sound more feminine.

“On days where I feel more masculine, my clothes are much more boyish and I won’t wear make-up. On gender neutral days, I’m somewhere in the middle.”

Last month, academic and counsellor Dr Meg John Barker talked to Beyond the binary UK about their experience:

The word I generally use for my gender is non-binary because I think it’s one that is fairly easy to explain to people who aren’t familiar with it: “‘Binary’ means that our culture generally divides people into men and women, and I don’t really fit in either of those boxes”. I’m aware that non-binary is really an umbrella term for lots of other terms and the best one of those for me would be genderqueer because I question of the usefulness of the gender binary more broadly than just my own experience.

In terms of my gender expression, I use the pronoun ‘they’ for myself, and ask other people to use it for preference. I buy ‘men’s clothes’ because they feel most ‘me’ and most comfortable (Fat Face seems to design clothes for exactly my body shape and taste so I mostly shop there. Also non-gendered changing rooms ftw!)

I changed my name earlier this year to Meg John for many reasons, but particularly because I like the way it includes names that are generally associated with femininity and with masculinity (both of which are meaningful to me). I like the fact that when I initially made that change I was using ‘John’ as a middle name, but some close people started referring to me as ‘Meg John’ and that felt really affirming and fitting, so I’ve begun using that more and more. I like the way that identity can be positively relational in this way.

The world in which Drew and Meg John live, though, is one which expects you to choose between two rigid options many times a day:

Everyday experiences are probably the most challenging where people address me with female pronouns or titles (madam and lady are ones that particularly grate for me!) It feels good to get some ‘sirs’ mixed in with that, as I do, but even then I’m aware that we’re a long way away from people doing away with gendered words entirely. Similarly there can be a tug each time I’m forced to choose a toilet, a box on a form, or changing room. Those micro-moments over the course of a day can add up to a weary feeling by the end of it. Then there are the times when somebody you thought would get it really doesn’t: like a copy editor changing all my ‘theys’ to ‘shes’ without checking, or a queer academic criticising non-binary for remaining part of identity politics.

I try – although definitely don’t always succeed – to hold this all lightly. I don’t want to make who I am all about being non-binary because I’m a lot of other things as well. Also I don’t want to see the world entirely through that lens all the time because it’s exhausting. Additionally I’m aware of how many other people don’t even have the possibilities that I do to express a gender that fits me because it would result in violence, losing their job, being ostracised, or other horrendous outcomes.

Part of the reason for sharing all of this is that many people aren’t familiar with the concept of non binary gender. As politically aware people, it’s important, too, to realise that there are some things we can encourage our state to do which, without much trouble, can make life so much easier for non binary people. One of them is simply to give them the chance to choose a non binary identity on official forms, the X marker that Julian Huppert has campaigned for with several Early Day Motions for example. It is the most basic of courtesies to enable people to identify in the way that they choose and we need to be more understanding and open.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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16 Comments

  • @ Caron: Surely what you feel you are can’t make it so in and of it’s self? People feel what they feel but surely reality is what it is?

    For example, if you were born a male, have male parts ,and feel like a female then surely you are still male until you have some sort of surgery or something to change your gender? Or can you be male one day and female the next?

    I am male. On those what sex are you questions on forms I surely couldn’t just write male or female depending on what I felt at the time?

    I have a lot of sympathy for people who don’t feel like the gender they were born with, but how can their simply thinking they are not what they were born alone make it so? Wouldn’t they need a sex change operation to do that or something?

    What am I missing or not getting here?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 13th Jan '15 - 7:52pm

    I don’t think it’s your place, to be honest to get or not get anything. You just have to listen to other people’s experiences and accept that that is how it is for them. Just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean that you can’t understand how it is for other people.

  • @Caron: True. But what is being asked of me? I honestly don’t understand what I am being asked to recognise? Am I being asked to accept that someone is whatever sex they say they feel like they are, and that this can change on a day today basis for some people?

    What does the law say about this? When does someone’s sex change legally? When they say it does or does it require something else to be legal? And do you think the law matters?

  • Jayne Mansfield 13th Jan '15 - 9:11pm

    @ Mr Wallace,
    It seems that the law has a lot of catching up to do.

    I think at the very least, there should be boxes on official forms to acknowledge that there are people who are non binary, because at the moment their existence is unacknowledged and that must be deeply hurtful.

  • @Jayne Mansfield: I agree, the law probably does have a lot of catching up to do. But I suspect that doing it in practice might be a little tricky or else why hasn’t it been done already? Nevertheless trying to accommodate everyone is something that I think we as a society should strive to do, even if it isn’t always straight forward.

    But I really I don’t understand how I could actually be which ever sex that I say that I am regardless of what I was born and what was still between my legs. If I got sent to jail for example, surely I couldn’t just have myself sent to a female prison by saying that I ‘felt between my ears’ that I was female; which is what would happen if me saying I felt that this was so actually made it so legally?

    But what do we call people who say they are something that the law says they are not? For example. Is that American hero Chelsea Manning who let us know a lot of what was hidden from us about the Iraq war a woman now simply because they say they are? Or does the law need to recognise it too? And at what point does the law recognise it? I honestly have no idea.

    Maybe that is why the law hasn’t been updated, because it is confusing. I mean somewhere in that article it was claimed that there were 37 different gender types. I can’t really get me head round that. I’d be lying if I said I could understand how there are 37 different genders that a person could be.

  • Adam Phillips 13th Jan '15 - 10:18pm

    If you saw the news about Leelah Alcorn, you might like to check out this new e-learning resource from the Gender Identity Education and Research Society:
    http://www.nlmscontent.nesc.nhs.uk/sabp/gv

  • Jayne Mansfield 13th Jan '15 - 10:44pm

    @ Mr Wallace,
    I’m as confused as you are, but we are the fortunate ones. I can’t imagine how confusing it must be for non binary people growing up in a binary gendered world.

    @ Adam Phillips,
    Thank you. I shall have to read it in chunks.

  • Lauren Salerno 14th Jan '15 - 7:30am

    Mr Wallace – sex is physical gender is psychological both are innate – psychologically not all people are wired to fit into neat little male / female boxes

    Whether or not you or anyone else gets it is irrelevant let people be people and let’s recognise that there are more genders than male and female

  • The situation is complex, and is more difficult to fully resolve that the absolutists on either side of the argument will accept. It’s true that much of the time, the asking of “sex” or “gender” is totally unnecessary – whether someone is a Mr, Mrs, Miss, Mx, or X is utterly irreverent, and we could just drop that box from most (non-medical) forms without much trouble.

    Whether people wear make-up or skirts or trousers is irrelevant, for sure. It’s great that we are doing away with all that nonsense. However, if someone with a penis just said “I am feeling mostly female today” and walked into the ladies changing-rooms at a swimming-pool there would be trouble.

    It’s true that whether someone calls themselves Miss or X or whatever is irrelevant to you, and you should have no opinion on it. However, if that person takes offence or reacts negatively to you because you happen to call them Miss rather than X, then that is an issue. It’s one thing to say there are 37 genders and you will choose which one you want. It’s another thing to expect everyone else to understand those 37 genders and get your one right.

  • Not persuaded by the last point there MBoy.

    Whether gender, sexuality or other things most people develop pretty good antennae for tone and intent. I can spot the difference pretty reliably between someone who just malpronouned me a dozen times in a row from clumsiness or lack of awareness, versus someone who is doing so because they are happily complicit in deaths like Leelah’s.

    It’s a skill that takes a little bit of honing, but that comes to most of us with time.

  • Jayne Mansfield 14th Jan '15 - 6:16pm

    I have now completed module 1 and I thought that it was an excellent learning aid.

    Although some countries allow for ‘unspecified’ on a passport, couldn’t there be problems when a person wants to travel to a country that does not allow for this?

  • @mboy As a woman I’ve no problem with someone presenting as and identifying as female using the same changing area or public loo as me. It seems to me extremely unlikely that someone identifying as female (for instance, a pre-op transexual or someone who was non-binary but more comfortable in female settings) would take the opportunity to display a penis to the large number of women present. And I’m not in the habit of asking people – especially strangers – about their genitalia. (Am I unusual in this? Surely not.) It does, however, seem to me that someone presenting as female, regardless of genitalia, might be at considerable risk in a male changing room or public loo.

  • What Kathz said.

    Also, gender neutral changing rooms and loos are really not that big a problem. Our local pool has a non-gendered changing village, and it’s great. There are still cubicles to get changed in, and the showers have doors on, so everyone can have the same level of privacy one would expect, but everyone uses it, whatever their gender.

  • (in case it’s not clear, the reason I think it;s great is that there is no policing of gender; nobody gets thrown out for appearing to be the “wrong” gender, and nobody cares what anyone else’s gender is.

  • Jayne Mansfield 15th Jan '15 - 11:34am

    When one starts to analyse potential problems, they seem to melt away. As has been said, there are already mixed changing rooms at swimming pools, just as there are a variety of different swimming session, most of them mixed. I noted from American dramas that mixed cloakrooms and lavatories have been in existence there for many years. I just wish someone would teach males to put the seat down after use.

  • @MBoy “However, if someone with a penis just said “I am feeling mostly female today” and walked into the ladies changing-rooms at a swimming-pool there would be trouble.”

    – I’ve a feeling that is exactly what would happen if the law allowed people to simply define their own gender based on whatever sex the felt like at any given time. Most people wouldn’t abuse such freedoms, but I think enough people would abuse that to make such a system unworkable. What if someone in jail with a penis just decided they felt like a women and needed transformed to a women’s prison as a result? If all people were angels no law would be needed, but they’re not and just letting people legally define their own sex on a day today basis I think would be abused by a small minority.

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