Being non-binary in a binary world
October 03, 2020
Whenever we take action based on information we have not verified, we are making assumptions. It is perfectly natural to act based on these assumptions, instead of verifying them before acting. We make assumptions all the time - we'd never get anything done otherwise - but assumptions also have the potential to be harmful, when they affect how we perceive and interact with others.
Throughout my life, people have assumed things about me, as well. Specifically, around gender: people used to assume I'm a boy, which turned out to be incorrect. However, people now assume I'm a girl, and that is also incorrect.
I'm non-binary. What this means to me is my sense of gender is different from being a boy or a girl. I'm neither. As such, I use the gender-neutral pronoun 'they/them' to refer to myself.
Being non-binary and being transgender, or 'trans' for short, are separate, yet related, concepts. Being transgender means that your experience of gender does not match what you were assigned at birth, whereas being non-binary means that your experience of your gender does not match being exclusively masculine or feminine: the two binary genders. Therefore, being non-binary falls under the trans umbrella. For any mathematicians reading this, you could say that the set of non-binary people is a subset of transgender people. At the same time, it is important to recognise that not everyone who is non-binary sees themselves as trans. As with anything, diverse perspectives lead to diverse interpretations of the same words.
I use the term 'assigned at birth' deliberately. For cis people (those who identify with their assigned gender - people who aren't trans) who don't know much about us, it's usual to say 'born as.' She was 'born a boy' or he was 'born a girl'. But that's not accurate, trans people were always their true genders. I was always non-binary, it just took me a while to realise that!
There is a lot of confusion around gender and biology, much of which is caused by applying traditionally binary views of gender and sex to factors which are in practice much more complex. Names, body shapes, voice tones, facial hair: none of these have an intrinsic gender. I am non-binary, and therefore so is my body. 'Sophie' is a typically female name, but I am non-binary, and therefore in my case, Sophie is a non-binary name.
This should not be a new concept. In fact, some non-Western societies have traditionally held a non-binary view of gender. Our previously gendered views on hobbies have been changing for some time. Activities (like football) that in the past were seen as only for a specific gender, are now being enjoyed by other people too. All I am doing here is extending the idea to people's bodies, an idea which helped me realise I was non-binary in the first place. If I'm not intrinsically anything but what I say I am, then what do I want to say? Who do I want to be, given the freedom to decide?
When people find out I'm neither a boy or a girl, often the first thing they ask is 'well, what are you then?' And the answer is that I don't know! I don't feel like I HAVE to be anything, and that's incredibly freeing. I don't put any pressure on myself to 'act like a girl' because I know I'm not one. But that doesn't mean I don't feel any kind of pressure to conform, to be what everyone expects me to be.
I first realised I was trans back in sixth form. When I tried to come out, people's responses ranged from confused to condescending to hostile. People couldn't comprehend the notion that I wasn't who they thought I was, so they lashed out. Eventually, the weight of all those expectations became too much. I retreated back into the closet until I could go to university and try transitioning again.
At university, it turned out much easier. University life is famed for being a welcoming, supportive environment and a place to learn more about yourself. I wasn't the only one at my university to transition, too, which meant we could help each other through it. But most of all, I felt safe to explore, and to be myself, whoever that turned out to be. And I turned out to not be a girl at all!
Then I graduated from university and started work. Leaving the relaxed university environment meant once again dealing with societal assumptions and pressures. This was scary to me. I wanted to be perceived as non-binary but didn't want to keep having to explain and justify my identity. My first job was welcoming enough, but that fear never truly went away. I didn't want to take the risk that they'd take it poorly.
I don't generally experience what people would refer to as transphobia. I'm relatively fortunate in that I 'pass' for a woman, so people tend to assume I am one until told otherwise. However, that meant that I was being perceived as someone I'm not. I don't want to make a big fuss about who I am. I just wanted to be someone who does their job to the best of their ability.
I was stuck between a rock and a hard place with regards to coming out or not. People assumed a binary gender for me, so I couldn't avoid being misgendered without coming out. This is why I'm telling this story, now that I've made the decision to be out.
I'm fortunate enough now to be working at Auto Trader, which is explicitly and openly supportive of LGBT+ colleagues. Many trans people don't have that luxury. Many suffer in silence, unable to come out and be who they really are.
So, what can we do about this? How can we collectively build an environment where people feel safe coming out and being openly non-binary and/or trans? Here are some suggestions for practical things we can all do in our daily lives.
Consciously make fewer assumptions about who people are
Allow them the space to be themselves. If you think it might be appropriate, it should be okay to ask for things like pronouns, instead of assuming them. Of course, it is perfectly natural to make assumptions, and we shouldn't try to stop making any at all. This leads nicely into my next suggestion:
Listen when your assumptions are challenged
How we react when our assumptions are challenged is important. We must not get defensive and try to argue, especially for something as important as someone coming out to us! That's a very quick way to destroy relationships, especially if the person in question trusts you or considers you a friend!
Coming out gets boring!
When someone comes out to you, a good rule of thumb that I've seen is to match the energy of the person coming out to you. If they're casual about it, then they probably don't want you to make a big deal out of it, and vice versa! We don't only come out once. LGBT people of any gender or sexuality find themselves regularly having to come out to new people for the rest of their lives, and that's because of assumptions that are made. Coming out for the first time was a huge, scary moment for me. I needed to know I was supported for who I am. However, years down the line it's as mundane as telling you my name.
Make it easy to come out!
We shouldn't force people to come out when they're not ready to. But we can make it less stressful when they are. Most organisations have the ability to offer employees an optional way to display some additional information in a personal profile. Something like that is a perfect place to offer a pronoun field if you have the ability to do so. When I first started at Auto Trader, I noticed we have custom fields in our Slack profiles which allow people to express their pronouns and name pronunciation. This went a long way towards letting me know that I would be seen for who I am.
I hope you've found this post informative, and that you come away with an understanding that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. People can usually sense whether the intention behind a question is good or bad, whether or not the question is phrased perfectly.