Semantics, semiotics and the use of the term ‘nonbinary’
November 4, 2011 § 15 Comments
Finding the right words to describe those, like myself, who don’t fit comfortably into traditional male/female genders and bodies is a bit of a tricky business. How do you contain a multiplicity in a single word? How do you indicate an infinite number of divisions?
Increasingly, the term ‘nonbinary’ is used as a catch-all term. I’ve been known to use it myself. I have every sympathy with those who use it – it can be useful, and is certainly a step forward in this gradual evolution of discourse surrounding gender and sexes and being. But the niggling semantic/semiotic worries I’ve been having – well, they’ve stepped up. And I don’t think that I can countenance using this term anymore, not with this attachment.
As many more accomplished writers could tell you, language not only reflects our realities but, through providing shape, containment, categorisation, begins to change them. What exists before observation and labelling is not the same as what emerges after. And my problem with the term ‘nonbinary’ is three-fold: its shaping of the overall field of gender, its part in the creation of a new dyad, and its lack of flexibility in accounting for the development/privacy of personalities.
A binary gender or sex system can only ever contain two options. We either allow (as ample evidence shows) that there are more than two sexes, and more than two genders, or there are not. To that end, all people that acknowledge that there are more than two sexes and two genders will be positioning their own sex and gender within a nonbinary system. Which doesn’t mean that they can’t be men or women – but they are men and women who understand that men and women aren’t the only flavours available. And, most likely, understand that man is not a single being, cut off from and opposing that single being of woman. If I call myself a nonbinary person I am, in effect, implying that there will be binary people – if there are binary people, there is no nonbinary, because a binary allows for nothing more than two.
And, to follow on from that – if my goal is the dissolution of binary categorisation, how can I, in good conscience, use the terms ‘binary’ and ‘nonbinary’ as personal descriptions, creating yet another dyadic system? I wouldn’t use dyadic systems in any other form of critical thought or social philosophy, so why in the realm of gender and sex?
Finally and, perhaps of greater interest – I’m uneasy with a system that makes assumptions about internal realities based on external signals. Certainly not every ‘nonbinary’ activist does this, but I have seen it done, frequently: that people who look traditionally androgynous as given an easier ride, and people who look more traditionally ‘male’ or ‘female’ are assumed to be so, without question, and without listening. I know many people who live socially as men or women, or who are read as men or women, who feel that those terms are constrictive and inaccurate. People who know that they will sometimes feel more androgynous, sometimes more genderqueer, sometimes more traditionally feminine or masculine – but who are not often included in this term ‘nonbinary’ because they accept elements of social gender norms for expediency’s sake. Which, if we’re being honest, many of us will do, at least occasionally, when the need is great. Or people who have lived a multiplicity of genders before arriving at ‘man’ or ‘woman’ – but who carry with them the people they were, and understand that they may well continue to change and grow as they, well, change and grow.
So, there it is. I’m not entirely sure what word I would put in its place. In all honesty I probably wouldn’t put a word in its place. And, to reiterate – I do understand why the term is useful, and I sympathise with those who use it. But not for me, please.