Being a non-binary ally, and standing by identities other than your own
I have talked about being an ally previously, and one of the reasons for this is due to being struck by various videos and blogs I have read with respect to non-binary (NB) identities. Or, more precisely, those media argued that you cannot be a trans advocate without considering and accounting for non-binary folk in your intersectionality. This perplexed me, for why would I not be NB inclusive, as their identities are equally valid under the trans and rainbow banner, and then the realisation struck that the NB schism is actually a think and there is a real need to address it.
I confess that as a binary trans woman who simply crossed from assigned male at birth (AMAB) to female the vast hinterland of NB identities was not something that even crossed my mind. Back in 1998–2000 when I was exploring gender identity, there were notions of gender queerness, often occupied by transvestites and drag personas, but the public and internet conversations were hidden from the search engines I used. Indeed, while many non-European cultures have notions of NB identities woven into their cultures, it took me until the mid-2000s for the concept of anything other than a binary gender scale to fully emerge onto my personal radar. Even then, it was more theoretical and abstract.
My first understanding that there was a gender hinterland came through an ex-partner’s exploration of their gender, where gender fluidity was discussed, almost to the point where they considered themselves bi-gendered. I struggled with their journey because my own transition was reaching its medical apex, and when we split it was more over giving them space to be themselves and allow them to explore their identity without my baggage. They helped me see a different side of gender, opening up my perspectives to an until then closed book.
Fast forward to 2012, and for me NB concepts started to flow into my stream of consciousness. Celebrities started publically identifying as NB, and gradually a public discussion over language, pronouns, and non-binary gendered identities overflowed from the underground into the mainstream. Those conversations and identities were always there, it just happened to be publicised and aired to those not in tune with queer politics. As with all marginalised identities who come into the public sphere it was dissected, ridiculed, made the butt of jokes, and often treated as ‘oh, it’s a phase’. I admit that I paid NB identities little to no attention, as at the time my personal interactions and world view of trans identities was still rooted in the binary. I supported the notion of NB identities, but did not really have the lexicon to really express an opinion other than nodding my head.
Over the last four years at university, however, that has changed. When I was elected Equality and Diversity Officer for Gender in 2018/19 I represented all genders, and took the time to really hone in on what NB meant. This is where the notion of the hinterland comes in, that vast expanse beyond the two binary genders that those who feel uncomfortable with male or female can roam and explore at their leisure. As a binary person it was tricky to disassociate my personal understanding of gender, especially having skipped across the gender shores, but I took the time to read and reflect on NB experiences and their own personal perspectives on their genders. While I can never exactly walk in their shoes, I can empathise and walk beside them as an ally.
This process is an on-going one, as I am always learning and refining my perspectives vis-a-vie gender. My own identity is very much fixed in the moment, but as language evolves and changes who knows where I may end up. This is part of the joy of living, of finding new ways to exist, or rediscovering older modes of existence that were squashed by 19th Century sexologists in their desire to pathologies human sexuality.
Thus, I argue, being an NB ally is vital in helping both NB people find their place in the world, and helping the world become a more rounded and accepting place. There is room for as many genders as there are humans, and while gender binary folk may struggle to grasp NB concepts, that does not invalidate those concepts. Yes, this hinterland can appear radical and wild, but that radicalism hints at something richer and more dynamic than simply bottling people up within a rigid binary. When gender is broken down to internal gender identity, biological sex, and gender expression there are so many ways to express even a binary idea of gender that logically being NB should not ever be an issue.
By validating and supporting NB identities we break down a binary notion of gender, enabling us to engage in feminist and intersectional conversations about the performative aspects of gender, gender expectations, and ultimately what role gender plays within our society. Gender should never be chains within which to wrap someone, and it is the ongoing struggle that trans folk are holistically fighting for. This struggle extends to breaking out into the hinterland, and allowing NB folk the room and opportunity to explore their identities on their own terms. That is the dignity they are owed as fellow humans, and it respect we can easily offer.
That you may struggle with NB pronouns is not the non-binary person’s issue, but your own. That you cannot wrap your head around their issues is not their fault. That you feel uncomfortable even contemplating it falls squarely on your shoulders. It is your responsibility to educate yourself about their identity, and there should never be an expectation that a NB person should be responsible for always outing themselves. Both of these ideas are hard, yet equally validate NB identities with respect and dignity. We can be allies in good faith, accepting of what we do not know or cannot walk into that hinterland, because in doing so we afford NB people all the dignity we expect of our own identities. Not understanding is no excuse for being a dick.