Why we’re all non-binary…

April 14, 2014 § 24 Comments

…and that doesn’t stop people from being women and men.

A rewind, and a few words of explanation. I’d just finished writing an article on gender plurality for a feminist website, and was browsing my twitter feed, simultaneously talking to a friend about people labelling their genders ‘binary’ and ‘non-binary’. Twitter was full of people debating the differences between ‘binary’ and ‘non-binary’ and that, and the article, and the personal conversation – left me feeling somewhat sad – and also angry and in fear of misrepresentation.

Increasingly, I’m seeing an oppositional standpoint develop between people who call themselves ‘non-binary’ and people who call themselves’ binary’. Sometimes with an awareness of the problems of dichotomy – sometimes nearly indistinguishable from the ‘women are like this/men are like that’ sophistry. And, as I have said before, and will say again – if my gender, my self, has no name in a binary system – if a binary system does not allow for my existence, and the existence of people like me, then either I cannot exist or that system cannot exist. And, as much as any human can be sure of it, I’m fairly sure that I exist.

That is why I would say that all genders are ‘non-binary’ – not in the slightest because that means that all people should or could describe themselves as ‘NB’ in the way it’s used as a gender marker and identity label – but because, to allow for people with genders other than male or female, we cannot have only two options. In this plural model, all genders are ‘non-binary’ in the same way that a rainbow is ‘non-binary’ – because it is more than red and blue, not because red and blue are not valid colours within it.

A non-binary universe means that there is space for everyone – and that everyone is equally valid within that space. When a binary system is set up with ‘allowances’ for people like me, for ‘exceptions’, then I am denied the universality that comes through our common humanity. My gender is not an optional extra. How my body and my mind and my words travel through this world is not something to be tacked on at the side because it couldn’t be slotted neatly into an available system.

And, yet, it is more than this. Because I don’t want to dismantle the binary gender system for my sole benefit, or only for the benefit of those nominally like me – it needs to be dismantled for all of us. I am not more unique in who I am and how I could be described than a woman or a man. I am no more deserving of the freedom to define myself to the world, and back to myself, and explore what I mean. How can a system with only two options capture the infinite variety expressed by the words ‘men’ and ‘women’? Let alone a binary, each of the those words is constantly exploding with new categories, new definitions. I don’t know how to respond when someone calls themselves as ‘binary’ man or woman – because what are they referring to? Which period of human history, which culture, has such a categorical definition of womanhood or manhood – and nothing else – that we could use that term in that way?

My mother is a woman, and I am androgynous – and yet our genders are just as rich and complex, and dynamic, as each others’. We share similarities, we share differences – we are both constantly growing and changing, and the language we use can only ever signpost the richness of who we are. I don’t want to be set in opposition to her, or anyone else I love – I want to exist in a framework that allows us all the space we need for difference and the connections we maintain in sharing, empathy, likeness of spirit.

If we allow for a system in which we are all valid, all equals, then you don’t need to use the word ‘binary’ to defend yourself again me. My refusal of the words ‘men’ and ‘women’ is not an insult directed at your usage of them – but I will not reify your centrality with my supposed outsider status. And I will not take one man’s definition of manhood’s over another’s as ‘more real’, ‘more manly’ – or vice versa.  Each person’s usage is precious to them, as mine is to me – and it can genuinely be as simple as that, if we want it to be.

So, I suppose, more accurately – it’s not so much ‘we’re all non-binary’ as ‘we all exist in a non-binary universe’ – the possibilities are endless, increasing exponentially which each new person in the world. I don’t want to deny or police or suppress anyone within that – I want to dismantle our current enforced binary system until we reach the starting point of everything and nothing. And then the rest is up to us.

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§ 24 Responses to Why we’re all non-binary…

  • moof06 says:

    When someone identifies in the ‘binary’, (to me) it doesn’t tell me anything about who they are. It tells me about HOW THEY FEEL about who they are.

    it tells me that they personally feel comfortable and included in the definition of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (however the culture and time they happen to live in broadly defines those terms, which yes, are inadequate, but I believe, still necessary, in some ways.) To me, a binary man or woman feels that their actions and look and how other people react to their presentation ‘fits’ (or that they have read all the fine print of how a particular gender is broadly perceived and they will do everything they can to fit as many characteristics as possible, because fitting is important to them.)

    It’s a really tricky balance to figure out how to dismantle the system and let people who are happy with those definitions exist along with people who are not….

    Thanks for a great article!

    • ColdHeart322 says:

      What is the difference between binary-male and non-binary-male? They still have the same value. It is purely perception that they are different. But by allowing or encouraging the use of “binary-male/female” in discussion of gender, you are enforcing the idea that gender is binary, or that their gender is somehow different to someone who identifies as non-binary.

      Gender is more of a multi-dimensional non-binary system. While you can be Male in this system, you can also be genetically mostly female, with body modification to have a more male body, and identify as agender.

      Maybe we need new terminology to allow someone to express themselves as “pure” Male (mind and body match) and “mixed” Male (mind and body do not match or fit the social idea of Male). Ideally without making one sound superior to the other.

      • moof06 says:

        You said: But by allowing or encouraging the use of “binary-male/female” in discussion of gender, you are enforcing the idea that gender is binary, or that their gender is somehow different to someone who identifies as non-binary.

        Gender is not binary, but what all this gender crap is based upon IS binary: our sex. (Yes, I am aware of intersex people/ genital differences etc and how much of sex is also socially constructed… however, disregarding outliers, most people DO fit roughly into a ‘potential to impregnate’ / ‘potential to be impregnated’ category, regardless of whether they will ever have kids or identify as this potential category in a social context–

        Because those two categories are what gender differences are based on (can you impregnate/can you be impregnated) ie, it is anchored in something biologically tangible, I believe that for many people, trans and cis, being in the binary will always be important.

        Which is why I feel ‘closer’ to a non-binary person who does not identify as trans than a trans person who wants to blend into their target gender completely (ie, be cis). To me, being non-binary IS different–it means: I can’t see myself in this system. It doesn’t make sense to me and I find it to be hurtful.

        A binary person (trans or cis), is okay with the system and sees themselves in it (maybe they see it as hurtful, but a necessary evil, I don’t know. It depends on the individual, I suppose.)

        • cnlester says:

          Just wanted to add a caveat here that I wouldn’t agree with that definition of ‘biological’ sex, and nor would many researchers in human biology I know – I don’t want to erase debate here, but I don’t think it’s fair the claim that ‘sex is binary’ is a fact – it’s an interpretation.

          • moof06 says:

            Eek, I knew I was going to get in trouble for saying that >___> No, I totally agree that we have made our definitions as to what is sex (as well as gender). But our minds are obviously tied to a body… And its easiest for society to go along with what fits MOST bodies. (I’m not saying that is right, only easiest.)

            Allowing for individual differences, (and yes, intersex people) and chromosomal differences–we look out and see that for mammals, there are males, and there are females–we defined in our society what a ‘male’ and ‘female’ is, (a mammal too, for that matter) but we did this because we noted differences in appearance, size, etc.–that mammals were covered in fur etc.

            If it’s not too much trouble, could you give me your definition of biological sex? I always have trouble, because obviously, you can’t reduce a sex down to potential (not even ability) to reproduce. But it must be reduced… to something?

          • cnlester says:

            Quick answer would be: sex = cultural meanings placed on potential for sexual reproduction

            Those cultural meanings change as much through history, from place to place, as cultural meanings around gender do – and variations within categories are so large that using binary sex as a marker makes very little sense to me

            Sorry, running out the front door – there’s an amazing blogger on sex and gender from an intersex perspective who has tonnes of resources – completely forgotten the name, but will ask a friend and update later!

          • moof06 says:

            Oh hey, thank you for your answer and please attach the link to that blog you mentioned!
            I always struggle with that definition :__<

            I try to imagine a world where the doctor doesn't mark m / f, and kids are just raised…

          • cnlester says:

            I really, really want that world to exist.

            Here’s the link – amazing blog, and amazing list of resources: http://intersexroadshow.blogspot.co.uk/

          • moof06 says:

            Me too, I wish for that world ^___^
            Thanks so much for the link; I have to go now but I’ll check it out tonight and fill in some gaps. And thank you for your blog–I am always reassured when I read it and it makes me feel safe =)

          • moof06 says:

            Oh and one last thing!! I thought about it and I think what i meant by the ‘fact” that ‘sex is binary’ is that only by combining sperm with an egg can humans reproduce. Those two elements must combine if you want new humans.
            [I am talking strictly from a bio standpoint; not all people can, will or want to or need to reproduce...]
            To perpetuate humans, this makes two distinct groups:
            ‘persons who hold the sperm element’ and ‘persons who hold the egg element’.(regardless of whether we call these people ‘male’ ‘men’ ‘women’ or ‘people who produce sperm’ or a new word entirely. Until humans want to keep reproducing, who holds which of those elements will be considered important and that, I believe, will continue to reinforce the binary (even if we move past certain blocks, like, “hey look, this man had a baby, men can have babies–womb does not have to equal man”- etc.) I am really curious as to what you think about this?? Because whenever I fantasize about a non-binary world where we’ve managed to cut all ties between physical things and gender roles, that’s the one thing that seems not negotiable…. I’m like.. oh no… people will always want to have kids and that involves … … … (I really apologize if this is a simplistic and stupid argument, but I’ve never been able to debate it away myself when someone else brings it up…)

          • cnlester says:

            Hmmmm….I see your point, but I don’t think that makes sex binary? Lots of people are unable to reproduce for a variety of reasons, some intersex people are fertile, lots of people combine different sexed characteristics – all of which is much more complicated than two discrete categories and two discrete categories only – and that’s all a binary is. We already live in a non-binary world because sex is more complicated than 1 and 0, and only ever 1 and 0 – what we need is a widespread respect for that fact: an end to non-consensual surgery on intersex babies, an end to stigma around variations in development of sexual characteristics of all kind (really quite common, which considered across the board), an end to stigma surrounding consensual alterations to sexual characteristics – and so all round compassion and kindness. Not too much to ask, right? ;)

          • moof06 says:

            I appreciate you taking the time to answer.
            You said: We already live in a non-binary world
            because sex is more complicated than 1 and 0,
            and only ever 1 and 0 –
            what we need is a widespread respect for that fact.
            Yes!! And as you say, more compassion, awareness, and recognition of complexities.
            I agree with that 100%. When I say sex (reproduction, is probably what I really mean?)
            is binary, I don’t mean that there are not many valid exceptions, only that for successful reproduction, two elements (sperm and egg) are required. (And I believe it is onto this simple and undeniable requirement for perpetuating human life forms that the big binary edifice was cobbled onto.)

            If I bring up non-binary (and/or intersex) people in real life arguments (my friends are forced to talk about this stuff with me more than they probably want)—I often get some variation of this argument:
            ‘A man smokes three packs a day and lives to be 105—. Should the medical community now say ‘cigarettes can’t be proven to be harmful’ because a few individuals don’t seem harmed even when the majority is? Even science is not an absolute. Outliers will always exist…”

            I never know what to say :< Your title is ‘why we’re all non-binary…’ I believe that there is no ‘binary,’ only people who identify in it. I wonder what they see in it… and how many deviations must occur before something passes from an exception into the norm…

            I will check out the other blog tomorrow—thanks so much for posting it. And thank you and ColdHeart for talking to me =)

        • Alex Pilcher says:

          At some point in the 70s or 80s – certainly before I began struggling to read books about critical theory – ‘binary opposition’ became code for ‘reactionary, conservative, dull-headed way of thinking’. Who would want to be accused of being ‘binary’?

          I often find it ironic that ‘non-binary’ has come to be set up in opposition to ‘binary’, thereby creating a brand new binary division in our view of the world. And, just as with the more traditional binaries (such as female/male), the ‘binary’/’non-binary’ split encourages people to set up stereotypes about what exists on either side of the supposed divide. I’m seeing hints of this when moof06 writes that ‘A binary person is okay with the system’, or that such people ‘have read all the fine print of how a particular gender is broadly perceived and they will do everything they can to fit as many characteristics as possible, because fitting is important to them.’

          I’ve never seen the fine print that defines the so-called ‘binary’ genders. And I’m not exactly sure which ‘system’ I’m supposed to be endorsing if consider myself to be a woman. Some of the choices I make in life, for example about what clothes I wear, can feel like choices that I make to affirm an identity that is understood by others (as ‘woman’, ‘dyke’ or ‘feminist’). You might say that these choices were about ‘fitting in’ with a peer group, but you should at least allow that I am not striving to fit the same model of gender as every other woman in the world, or even on my south London street. Besides, I would argue that ‘fitting’ is not an endeavour that’s exclusive to those with ‘binary’ genders. We all engage in ‘fitting’ to some degree in order to function in a society alongside other human beings. And living up to peer-group expectations of what it means to be ‘non-binary’ can itself be a process of ‘fitting in’.

          I have found people’s assumptions about who I am based simply on how my body looks to be hurtful for as long as I can remember. If that’s the ‘system’ moof06 is talking about then this woman is certainly not okay with it. But that hurtfulness is not due solely to those who project traditional sexist stereotypes onto me (whichever gender they are ascribing to me), but also to those who would assume they know how I think or feel about gender simply because I tend to describe myself these days as a trans woman. On the one hand, there are the old-school feminists, who seem pretty invested in a female/male binary and who are quite happy to assume that I probably wear make-up and high heels because, in their book, all trans women are walking ‘caricatures’ of ‘femininity’. On the other hand, some people who reject the female/male binary seem equally confident in assuming that I must be invested in that binary, or at the very least really comfortable with it, because I don’t define myself as ‘non-binary’.

          Here’s a suggested project: There are around 7 billion individual people in the world today. Try dividing them into the categories of ‘binary man’, ‘binary woman’ and ‘non-binary’. Then interview every one of them about their own gender identity and their conceptual model of the range of possible gender positions. Use this data to derive a general definition of what essentially defines each of those three categories. OK, obviously this isn’t a very practical proposal but I hope that just imagining its evident absurdity will help to undermine some of the distinctions that people tend to assert between ‘binary’ people and ‘non-binary’ people.

          I don’t write this as a challenge to those who identify as anything other than ‘man’ or ‘woman'; I have total respect for all those who do (I used to be one such myself, and I don’t rule out being one again in future). This is really just a plea that people don’t create new patronising stereotypes around what being ‘binary’ means, assuming that it must entail intellectual or political limitations by virtue of being opposed to a more radical ‘non-binary’ position.

          (I think I’m basically agreeing with CN here, but perhaps from a different angle.)

          • moof06 says:

            Dear Alex—

            >____<

            That was my first reaction to reading your reply– My next:

            I’m so sorry– I did not express myself well and I came off a condescending asshat.

            What I wanted to say (and totally bungled) is—

            I feel that all people who seek to live in the binary must suffer to fulfill this expectation, this fine gender print (that you so aptly pointed out) nobody's ever read. (Because it doesn’t exist.) The binary to me is kind of this 'imaginary' (archetypal?) social/cultural/historical/ideal.idea/stereotype of a man and woman that SEEMS so simple and stereotypical–and just gets more elusive as you try to define it or pin it down…

            So yeah, it’s impossible to ‘pick out’ who is binary or not. It’s abstract and largely up to the individual. Two people dress and act the same and are read by society at large as women: one could call herself binary… and one not.

            I can't say who IS binary or not. Only who CLAIMS 'I am binary.' or not. (that is a very important difference.)

            Why do people suffer over this? Why do they feel inadequate if it’s largely personal to feel/identify as binary or not? Or if (as the post is titled) if we're all actually non-binary?

            I don’t identify as binary, but I do have a ‘target gender’ (aspiring gender presentation of ONE gender.)—Obviously, on some level, I place myself in this system of men and women. But if someone offered to wave a magic wand tomorrow and make me into a 100% cis female (or cis male, cis ANYONE), I would say: no thanks.

            I'd like to keep being non-binary trans.

            But I know trans people who might say to the magic wand: YES. God yes. If I could be a cis (target gender) tomorrow—I would do it in a heartbeat. In fact, I would give ANYTHING for that. (And the last thing they want is to be visually different from other men and women.)

            Not saying it’s wrong/weak/conformist… nothing like that. Just that there IS this 'system' (what I called it in my first comment) of 'men' and 'women" and some people, for whatever personal/cultural/physical/religious any other reason, regardless of whatever personal critique they have of any aspect of it, feel that they more more or less fit/want to fit into it. (I call these people binary AFTER THEY CALL THEMSELVES BINARY. (I do not assume anybody is anything if they do not tell me, or try hard to make no assumptions, I'm sure i inadvertently do…)

            [And trans(feminine?) people I think socially are made to suffer much more, so that may make more trans women more reluctant to be visually non-binary because it's harder? I can't speak for that….
            I do have days/stretches where I feel more 'binary' /wish I could pass more as SOMEONE etc.—however . I think this is a fundamental difference between certain people (do you desire consistent 100% passability/ assimilation into one gender or not? Would you BE cis if you could ….or not?*
            *Note: I dislike divisions/ definitions trans/cis/ binary/non etc, but online especially, I NEED to use them so people know what I mean??
            ***I know this need might not be static, and changes depending on all sorts of trans identities, etc. I am talking broadly though….

            And yeah, I tend not to be able to relate to people who so firmly 'believe' the binary that they say "Yes. Once nobody can 'tell' I cease to be/ no longer identify or consider myself a trans person." I'm not saying they don't have a right (or personal reason(s) ) or intelligent reasons for doing that.. Obviously, it is each one's own decision. Only that I find myself generally unable to relate to that.

            I really really hope you don't think I am being argumentative or trolling–since I imagine you don't want to spend time responding to novels about trans stuff strangers wrote you on the internet, I will make this my last response (on this whole general thread hah)–but your response really made me think about my first comment, and what I had phrased very poorly.

        • Pip says:

          You’ve already got taken apart (gently) a bit for your definitions of biological sex, but I’m afraid I’m going to do it a bit more: defining male as “ability to impregnate” and female as “ability to be impregnated” is very loaded with implications of being active/passive respectively (implying an attitude as well as literally grammatically) which I take issue with because it imposes cultural symbols of gender upon a supposedly neutral definition.

          • ryszberry says:

            Hey there–
            Okay, I will try then to unload the language and say–that in human mammals, an organism provides an egg and one provides sperm–and that when these two elements combine (a sperm and an egg) a new organism is created. I write this in completely neutral words if someone does not care to think of it as ‘giving’ or ‘receiving’ We can simply say the two elements are provided. This has to be described somehow in human language (which is not to take the further leap that you are not female /male/ other if you choose not to have children/can’t/are active/passive/your genitals are not present/ or anything). But this phenomenon (reproduction) EXISTS, is my point–and it must be, however imperfectly, be spoken of/written of in our societies. We can discard words like ‘male’ and ‘female’ ‘active/passive’ …but that will not change that an egg and a sperm combining forms a new organism, or that the person in which the kid is grown has to devote a significant physical contribution / is in a more vulnerable physical state.
            than the party who does not grow the organism in them.
            Until this phenomena (reproduction) exists… as much as I am distrustful of gender/sex/expectations/interpretations–I am not sure we as humans can move away entirely from these definitions, is what I mean–poorly expressed, but I tried!! =)

  • Reblogged this on The Girl with the Mousy Hair and commented:
    Thank you! This summarizes exactly what I was trying to convey in my post the other day, only much much more effectively!

  • Jamie Ray says:

    American culture is binary about everything. You are either black or white, gay or straight, Christian or not, Democrat or Republican. It is as if everyone who hated nuance fled their original country and settled here in order to assimilate.
    Some institutions will give lip service to “diversity” but only if it upholds the status quo. They have no idea how to deal with gender non-conformity or gender spectrum.

  • […] started to read the replies to this and then got frustrated and ranty so I decided I’d rather do this […]

  • abigailbuccaneer says:

    > if a binary system does not allow for my existence, and the existence of people like me, then either I cannot exist or that system cannot exist.

    The system exists insofar as it’s a social construct that actively erases the existence of non-binary people. While the system shouldn’t exist and we should all do our best to overthrow it, I think it’s important to recognise that the system does exist and that “binary” and “non-binary” are important terms to talk about positions of privilege in this system of binarism.

  • Pip says:

    I jotted this down today: “Everyone has contained within them every quality, including all that are ascribed “masculine” or “feminine”, e.g. gentleness, aggression, receptivity, the urge to control, etc. All souls androgynous, all experience ambivalence towards their own sex and envy for the other (at whatever level of consciousness – seeking wholeness of the person in being both male and female in a world divided by sex). Intersex envied/reviled/destroyed because of this? (unconsious motive: for being closer to “God” and the “whole self”)”

    That’s a muddle of thought outpoured, but I was struck by the fact that I was thinking thoughts like yours just before reading this. Though I think I may draw different conclusions: because I think that male and female are not so different that they do not contain each other, I do not personally see the advantage of a proliferation of genders, because e.g. if you are male you are already, fully understood, both male and female. I worry that creating too many genders to go “in between” may push the two “poles” of male and female too far apart to seem reconcilable within people who only consider themselves to be one or the other, perhaps strengthening the perceived opposition between the two (male/female – i.e. strengthen the “binary” in reaction to being placed in opposition to the “non-binary”).

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