Beyond the Binary

By Anna Sperring

Imagine: You’re on the last page of a 15 page quiz. The prize? A chance to win a trip to Paris. The final question… What is your gender (tick one). And you pause. There are two options. ‘male’ and ‘female’. A simple choice, two boxes. All that stands between you and the Eiffel tower. 

For the vast majority of people this is the easiest question on the quiz. One tick, move on. But for a small number of people, myself included, gender is more difficult than two boxes. And being outside the binary presents a problem. From P.E in primary school to a letter on our passport ,what our gender is defines our life. It’s the first thing most people notice about you; a quick glance and they categorise you in one box or the other. It is important, particularly given that our very speech is coded around the idea of two genders. Non-binary people challenge that idea. We not only change the way that we speak, but the very idea of dividing by gender. 

As a non-binary person in Durham a lot of the discrimination I face is more of a systematic failure to acknowledge we exist rather than hatred of our lifestyle. Whilst there is a core group of online trolls who like to say they identify as a ‘attack helicopter’ (bizarrely specific, I know) the vast majority of people remain pretty clueless to what a non-binary person is.  Many people assume that being non-binary is something that was invented by liberal snowflakes in the last decade, despite the fact that cultures around the world have accepted a third gender for years. Suppressed by colonialist powers, native cultures across the word have fought to recognise members of their communities that are neither male nor female. Historically the way we perceive gender has not always been so binary: historically, for example, Native American groups recognised “two spirit” people, a group only erased after the Puritan settlers took offence at their identity. Nowadays, many states legally recognise a third gender to try to accept these people again. This is one of many examples across the world.

As a non-binary person in Durham a lot of the discrimination I face is more of a systematic failure to acknowledge we exist rather than hatred of our lifestyle

Legally there is no UK law acknowledging the existence of non-binary people, which falls way behind many countries like Canada, Australia and India. This leaves non-binary people in a difficult position; covered only by blanket anti-discrimination laws we are highly vulnerable to exploitation. For example, an employer can’t fire me for being non-binary but they legally don’t have to provide a bathroom I can use, or use my pronouns. Its difficult to define what discrimination consists of against a group that legally doesn’t exist. And with the current government, the mood in Westminster seem to have even further shifted away from improving transgender legislation. Just last week new regressive legislation was tabled pushing back rights for binary trans people; with it diminishes the hope for gender recognition for non-binary trans people as well.

So what can we do? Generally, acceptance of non-binary people is improving. Outside the Durham bubble, in a study on gender identity 47.5% of straight, cisgender people preferred a questionnaire with more than two gender boxes. Progress! While that does mean every time you say your pronouns acceptance is basically based on a coin flip, in my experience most people are not very rude (at least to your face). We can and will change how we are perceived. As an ally you can make your spaces welcoming for non-binary people, checking you have a gender neutral toilet, introducing your pronouns at meetings, and calling out transphobic jokes when you hear them. And as a non-binary person, keep fighting. Its going to get better. 

Image: Kye Rowan via Wikimedia

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