Sunday, July 17, 2011


“Non-Binary” Person Isn’t Male, Female or Anything “In Between”


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

— William Shakespeare, Hamlet

The first time I met Red, special projects coordinator for the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, they introduced themselves as “non-binary.” That piqued my journalist’s curiosity and I decided then and there that I wanted to interview them. Red explained that “non-binary” means someone who does not consider themselves male or female. I ran into them a few other times before setting up the interview — at which I learned that “they,” “them” and “their,” along with the normally plural verb forms that go with them, are the proper ways to refer to a non-binary person even if you’re only describing one individual. [Please see Red’s comment below.]

The interview was unusual because I’ve rarely had someone use a word — either an unusual term like “cisgender” (the opposite of “Transgender”) or a familiar one used in an uncommon way (like “pronoun” used as a verb) — and then say, “What I mean by that is … ” as often as Red did. As we discussed in the interview, even a relatively non-gendered language such as English has the gender binary built into so many of its words and turns of phrase that it’s difficult to adapt it to describing a non-binary person.

Red is living a life that makes them, in essence, a minority within a minority within a minority. Transgender people are a relatively small, though significant, part of the Queer community; and Red is a minority among Transgender people because most Transgender people accept a binary concept of gender and simply believe that their inner being doesn’t match the physiology of the body they were born into or the gender they were, to use one of those phrases whose meaning Red had to explain to me, “coercively assigned” at birth.

But just as Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals have slowly, grudgingly but ultimately come to accept Transgender people as a legitimate part of our community, it’s likely that within a few years it won’t seem that unusual that a person might identify not as male, not as female, but as something unique and beautiful within what Red calls the “cloud” of available gender identities.

Zenger’s: When we met, you described yourself as “non-binary.” What does that mean?

Red: It’s very common for people to identify as either male or female, as a man or as a woman. Those are considered the two binary genders that people are mostly aware of. A lot of Transgender people identify as either a Transgender man or a Transgender woman. I do not identify as either a man or a woman, so to that end I am non-binary.

There are other words I use for myself, such as “Genderqueer.” But because the term “queer” is very confusing, or even offensive, to a certain generation of folks, there are times when I avoid using the term “Genderqueer.”

I should add that “non-binary” can also apply to folks who don’t identify as Transgender at all, but who identify as somewhere outside of just the two binary poles. Now, if you want to get more complicated — that’s the easy answer.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you give me a little of your background, and how —

Red: My background in terms of gender, or what? What kind of background are you looking for?

Zenger’s: Your life generally, and specifically how you came to an awareness that you were neither male nor female, and how it impacted your life.

Red: O.K. I was assigned, coercively assigned, female at birth. So I’m starting at that point. I identified —

Zenger’s: “Coercively” — you mean, you are actually biologically Intersex?

Red: No. The term “coercively assigned female at birth,” or “coercively assigned male at birth,” is a way of explaining how the world decided what my gender was. That’s true of every single person. You were actually assigned male at birth, just as I was assigned female at birth, and when I say “coercively” I mean it’s done without the consent of the person. When you’re a baby — or even prenatal — you can’t consent to being assigned anything. And that’s true of folks who are Intersex as well as of folks who are not. So I was assigned female at birth. I’m not Intersex.

I grew up just like a normal kid, just going about my business, not really thinking about anything. And for a long time I identified as cisgender. I’ll just define that for you. “Cisgender” is basically a way of saying not Transgender, but instead of making it sound like not being Transgender is the “normal” thing, we use “cisgender” as the term. It means someone who identifies the same way as they were assigned at birth. Whereas Transgender would mean I don’t identify the same way as I was assigned at birth.

Zenger’s: These are the sorts of things that people understand: “O.K., you have the body of one, and that’s how you think of yourself,” or, “You have the body of one but you really think of yourself as the other.”

Red: That, again, is very binary thinking. The whole concept of being Transgender, the story that often gets told is, “I was born with the wrong body,” or, “I’m the opposite.” So it can be really hard if you don’t feel like you ought to be “the opposite,” which is true in my case. It was actually hard for me to come to an understanding of my gender, because our world is so binary. Being Transgender can include not that I want to cross over to the other side — as if there are only two sides — but that I just don’t identify the way I was assigned at birth.

When I hit puberty, that’s when things started to shift for me. But I still didn’t have the words for it. Puberty, when the body starts to change and hormones start shifting things for you, is when I began to realize that I wasn’t thrilled with the way my body was turning out. I started to realize I wanted to be more androgynous, and I was frustrated that I didn’t look that way. I spent a lot of years trying to find ways to make myself feel better in my body, trying to accept myself the way I was.

I became a very active feminist and very involved in the Queer community. I came out as Queer around the time I turned 18, when I got into college. By “Queer” I mean my sexual orientation, as opposed to “Genderqueer,” which is my gender identity. I started getting very involved and active, and that was a way for me to channel some of the things I was feeling, some of the frustrations and some of the ways in which I felt I was different.

It took me a lot longer, though — not until recently — that I started to really understand where my gender identity was located in all of this. And that’s true even though I spent the last 10 years of my life very, very active and involved with other Transgender people. I still identified as cisgender and felt like that wasn’t necessarily my community or my identity.

It actually wasn’t until some other things shifted in my life that I really started to question my gender. It was a really difficult process, and it happened very slowly, over the course of a lot of months. The hardest thing for me is that I did not want to appropriate other people’s identities, and I didn’t feel like I necessarily belonged in the Transgender community, because my story wasn’t the same as most of the stories I had heard.

I didn’t fit into a lot of the popular notions of what it means to be Transgender, and how people think about themselves, and wishing I had a man’s body, or that I was waking up every morning and feeling like I wanted to kill myself. I did not experience these things. So it took me a lot longer, I think, to know where I was in all of that, and to even begin to find words that applied to me, because a lot of the language, a lot of the terminology, in the community is not built for me. “FTM,” “MTF”: these are not terms I identify with.

Zenger’s: I remember once interviewing a male-to-female Transgender person who had transitioned long before I knew her, and she said the test for your gender identity was, “When you look in the mirror, what do you see in your head?” So what do you see in your head?

Red: That is a very, very good question! It’s actually a really complicated one. It’s one thing to ask somebody what pronouns they want used, or how they want to be referred to. But to pinpoint someone’s gender, in this really broad, three-dimensional space that I envision gender in, is a lot harder. So I think the best way to describe it is that, as I’ve already said, I’m neither a man nor a woman.

I feel even the concept of a “spectrum” between male and female is not a very true or applicable way of thinking about gender for me. I don’t actually experience myself as being “between” male or female. I see myself outside of that completely. I think about my identity really as sort of this “other” thing, and I wouldn’t even say a “third” gender because I actually think there are many, many genders out there. Each of us has a unique sense of our own identity. We just don’t have a lot of words to describe it, and so we’re limited by the language.

I know folks who are agender, which means they have no gender at all, and so the whole concept of gender just seems foreign to them. They’re aware of what gender means to other people, but they just don’t experience it. I know folks who identify as neutrois [pronounced, French-style, “Nu-TWAH”], and then folks who identify as androgynous — not just as an adjective but actually as a noun, someone who is an androgyne. I know folks who identify as Genderqueer, gender-fluid, genderless, gender-neutral. There are folks who identify as bi-gender, which is based on the binary; “bi-gender” means that someone experiences themselves as both male and female at the same time.

Once you start seeing all these different identities, you start to realize there isn’t just a spectrum, or a continuum. There’s actually sort of a cloud of all these different identities. I envision myself as somewhere in that cloud, and when I look in the mirror, I know that the body I would feel more comfortable in would be more androgynous. And I would be happier if the world read me correctly, as being non-binary. And that includes using the correct pronouns for me, which are “they,” “them,” “theirs.”

Zenger’s: I feel like I’ve stepped into The Twilight Zone.

Red: Why do you say that?

Zenger’s: Well, for one thing, this is something that I don’t relate to on a personal level. I’ve never had any doubt about my gender identity, and I daresay most people reading this — including, as you pointed out, most Transgender people reading this — are going to think, “Gee, I never had any doubt about my gender identity, either.”

Red: Right.

Zenger’s: There are men, and there are women, and there are a subset of people who feel like they were born into the wrong body for that, but I guess —

Red: It is, though — it is more common than you would guess. The more I talk to people; the more I share my own experience, and my own sense of myself — the more I find people coming out of the woodwork and saying, “Oh, my goodness, I think that’s also how I think about myself. I just didn’t have a way to think about it. Nobody else talks about it.” And this is true of people who for the most part, to the world, identify as cisgender, identify the same way they were assigned at birth.

I have a number of friends back in Boston who were assigned female as birth, still present as female, still for all intents and purposes look female, to the world, but in reality their gender is a lot more complicated. You can be femme and be assigned female at birth, and still not feel like you are cisgender: feel like your gender is not binary. And the same thing for people who are assigned male at birth, and who may feel femme, or butch, or anything, and they realize that they don’t necessarily feel like their gender is binary.

It is confusing to folks who have no sense of this internally for themselves; who feel very much, as you said, “I’ve never questioned my gender. I’ve never thought of myself as being anything other than one of the two binary ideas.” But the more I talk about it, the more folks relate to what I’m saying. I’m always surprised, honestly, when folks tell me this, because it can feel very isolating to not have conversations about this with other people, and to not have it talked about within the broader community, even in the Transgender community.

Zenger’s: I think we keep coming back to the whole question of language. The language is set up under the assumption that there are two genders, and only two; and even English, which is a considerably less gendered language than many, still runs into these problems.

Red: Which I notice on a daily basis when people struggle with my pronoun, struggle to talk about me or talk to me in a correct way. People “ma’am” me or refer to me as a “lady” all the time, which is endlessly frustrating to me. And there are other things in our language: talking to someone as your niece or your nephew, or other familial relations. At least with “child” and “sibling” we have a few gender-neutral options, but we don’t have a lot of gender-neutral ways of talking about people. So, yes, language is part of it. Visibility.

There’s something else that’s really important to understand, too, which is there is a lot of pressure on the Transgender community to make ourselves palatable to the cisgender world and to make us seem less threatening to the established ways of thinking; to say, “Hey, look, we’re just the same as everybody else” — which we are — but the finger gets pointed, “Oh, you’re an angry Transgender person. You’re getting too upset about the little things, such as how you’re pronouned. Or you just want attention, or you just want special treatment.” These are the barbs that are pointed at Trans folks who are just trying to be treated with the same respect that any cisgender person gets on a daily basis: to be referred to in the way you see yourself, and to have the rest of the world refer to you in that way.

So one of the things that happens is that many people in the Trans community try really hard to not rock the boat and to tell this sort of unified story of what it means to be a Transgender person. The story is that, “I have known ever since I was young that I was Transgender,” because what that proves is, “This isn’t just a choice I’m making, this is something that is real and permanent and long-lasting, and if I started to be aware of it when I was two or three years old, therefore you can’t dispute it.”

Or the idea that “I was born into the wrong body.” Well, as soon as you start to say, “I don’t know what kind of body I should have been born into, but I know that this isn’t necessarily the body I want,” that throws things into a tizzy for a lot of folks. Saying, “I was born into the wrong body, I want to be the opposite,” is clear. It’s something that the cisgender community might be able to understand — even if it’s not true.

Zenger’s: Or even if it is true for some people, but not for others.

Red: Right, and I don’t dispute that there are a lot of people for whom they knew at three, four or five years old. That’s absolutely the case. There are a lot of people who do absolutely feel very, very binary; always felt like they were the opposite — and I don’t even like using the term “opposite,” but really felt like they were the other binary option, who always sort of had this sense of thinking or being a man or a woman, and everything else just didn’t match up. My existence, and the existence of other non-binary people, does complicate that story.

Zenger’s: One of the things that drives me nuts about the Gay community — you know, Gay, Queer, “LGBT,” whatever you want to call it — is that Gays and Lesbians in particular have clung to this “we were born this way” narrative. As I keep pointing out, rather than take a look at that in a way that would accommodate the reality of Bisexual and Transgender people, they just stick two more letters on the name of everything —

Red: Right.

Zenger’s: — without saying, “Wait a minute,” because to my mind the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people contradicts the whole idea of a binary sexual orientation that people are born into and can’t change, can’t behave any differently, can’t will themselves to do something else, or follow in more directions than one.

Red: I think the reality is that many people do change over time. You may have identified one way early on, and you may change the more you start to understand about yourself and the world — and maybe things actually do shift. The reality is that I definitely identified as cisgender for a very long time. My identifying as non-binary Transgender now does not change the fact that I experienced myself as cisgender for many, many years. And the fact that I identified as cisgender doesn’t make me any less Transgender now.

I think that for many Bisexual and Queer people who identify as neither heterosexual nor homosexual, it’s similar. You may have really felt strongly that you were “straight” or that you were “Gay” at one point in your life, and then come to a different understanding of yourself based on real experiences, real relationships, real interactions with other people, or with yourself.

Zenger’s: In fact, one of the most common coming-out stories in the Bi community is, “First I thought I was straight, then I thought I was Gay, then I realized I was Bi.”

Red: I think that’s very much based on this idea that we have to be one or the other, and that there aren’t options in the middle; there’s not a “cloud of sexual orientations” options, there are only two. Certainly when I came out with my sexual orientation — how old was I? I think I said I was 18 — initially I came out as Bisexual, and very quickly — and this goes to show how early I was aware that there were people who experience their gender as being non-binary. But I still didn’t identify this way. I very quickly started to identify as “Queer” instead of Bisexual, for that reason, because “Bisexual” implies that there are only two genders to whom I can be attracted.

Now, I do think that there are people who can be Bisexual. For example, if you say, “I am attracted only to women and neutrois people,” then you could legitimately claim to be Bisexual. “I choose two genders out of all the many, that I am attracted to,” or, “I am attracted to men and women, but not to people who identify as Genderqueer or gender-neutral,” you know, certainly. But to me, yes, so very, very quickly I started to identify as Queer, and this was many years before I even started to understand and question my own gender identity. I was aware of that in terms of my sexual orientation.

Zenger’s: So how would you describe your sexual orientation now?

Red: Queer. I know that word, again, carries a lot of really heavy baggage for a lot of people, depending on your generation. For me, it carries two things. One, it is a reclamation of the word. But the key point is that I am attracted to people regardless of their gender. I am attracted to people of all different kinds of genders, and I have had relationships with people of all different kinds of genders. The other piece is explicitly political, and what it is is it says nobody else but me gets to define and categorize and label my sexual orientation.

In a lot of ways the term “Genderqueer,” for my gender identity, is similar. There are obvious differences, because it has nothing to do with my attraction to other people. It has nothing to do with anyone but me, but it is about saying, “I’m not categorizable in the binary.”

Zenger’s: So what do you want people reading this to take away from it?

Red: Well, the first is, I want people to know that there are those of us out there — we exist — whose gender is more complicated and less familiar, but that we are no less deserving of respect. Starting to think about gender as being a more complicated — and more interesting, frankly — topic might seem scary to a whole lot of people. It might seem really confusing, but it’s a really important step for us in order to be able really to understand oppression, the way our culture is oppressive, and to make changes to that. I’m an activist at heart. I’m an organizer. For the last 10 years I’ve been doing anti-oppression work. There are certain things we can do to start really changing the way our culture privileges people who are binary, even other Transgender people.

Trans folks definitely — all Trans folks, binary or not — experience oppression, but there’s this interesting oppression that occurs when people are not binary. The bathroom thing is a perfect example. I would love every bathroom to be gender-neutral, and that may mean single stalls for every single bathroom. It may mean bathrooms in which people of all genders can enter the same, and each stall, toilet, whatever has a door on it, and we all use the same sinks. I don’t know. I don’t see how I can look at the sign on the door and see a figure with a skirt, or a figure without a skirt, and point to one and say, “That’s me.”

Zenger’s: For the record, we should note that we are doing this interview in a space with a non-gendered restroom.

Red: Yes. It does have a symbol on it, though.

Zenger’s: It has three symbols on it.

Red: Yes, the female, the male, and the handicapped, which has become the universal symbol that this is a single-stall, handicapped-accessible, gender-neutral bathroom.

Zenger’s: But there’s also a line between the female and the male, and maybe you can interpret yourself as being somewhere on that line.

Red: I am the line! So I think what I want people to take away is a broader sense of what gender is, because I think most people aren’t even — haven’t really thought about their own gender, have never had to question it, and so start to think about it. It can be fun to think about it. And also really start understanding what it means to respect people whose genders are not binary, who are Trans. Pronouning people correctly is really, really important. Referring to them by the terms and the names that they’ve asked to be referred to, and being able to talk about Trans issues more easily, would be a nice thing in our community.

The nicest thing that someone ever did — and the first time I ever felt supported as a non-binary Trans person — I was out with a friend whom I had only met a few weeks before. We’d had several conversations about gender identity when I came out to him, and we had met some other people at the event that we were at, some people neither one of us knew. As I tried to explain my preferred pronouns, and the way I wanted to be addressed, the people we were talking to started coming up with the same excuses I’ve heard so many times, which primarily are, “Those pronouns aren’t common,” “I don’t know how to use them,” and specifically about using they-them-theirs, “Well, those are plural pronouns. Those aren’t singular pronouns, so that’s grammatically incorrect.” There are a lot of ways I can dispute that, but —

Zenger’s: It was like, “What decade are we in, again?” For at least 20 or 30 years now it’s become a convention to use “they” as a singular pronoun when it could mean he or she.

Red: Actually, it’s been going on for hundreds of years. Shakespeare and a lot of writers about 100 years ago started using “they” as a singular. So we are by far not the first generation to use it, and we won’t be the last. But it is an excuse. Grammar Nazis love to use that as an excuse to dismiss my identity. And the nicest thing that ever happened to me was that my friend stepped in, without my ever asking for help, without me even saying anything to him. He jumped right in, after having known me only a few short weeks, and explained to this couple that, for example, if I were talking about a friend of mine who likes pizza, you might actually say to me, “Well, what kind of pizza do they like?”

You would refer to them as “they” if you don’t know their gender identity, and we do this all the time, constantly, without thinking about it. But as soon as I ask someone to do that, I purposefully and intentionally say this is how I want to be called, that’s when people have a problem with it and start forgetting or mispronouning me. But if someone doesn’t even know my gender identity, they will automatically use the term “they.” So what I’d love is to see more allies speaking up, correcting when people are mispronouning or misgendering other people, creating space for us, really.


After the original article was published in Zenger’s Newsmagazine and posted above, Red sent the following e-mail and asked that their reference to pronouns be corrected. Zenger’s elected to run their comment in its entirety:

Hi Mark,

I just had a chance to see the article in print the other day. Overall I thought it was really great, and you managed to take a rambling interview and condense it into something readable!

I did see something at the beginning that I’d like to bring to your attention. There’s an implication that I’m saying that the only acceptable pronouns for a non-binary person are they/them/theirs. But that’s not actually true and I wanted to clarify.

Folks use all kinds of gender-neutral pronouns including: sie/hir/hirs; ze/zan; zhe/zhim/zher; e; v; em; xe; etc. Quite a number of Genderqueer people even use binary pronouns: she/her/hers; he/him/his. When I say the correct way to refer to me is they/them/theirs, I’m speaking only about myself and others who use that pronoun set.

I’m wondering if you’d make that correction. I imagine it’s pretty alienating to folks who don’t use my pronouns to read this.

Thanks and very best,