Beyond the Binary: Question Three
June 10, 2013 § 14 Comments
First of the five questions this week – panel bios here.
Question Three (okay, so it’s really two questions…)
Do we have a better term that’s broadly equivalent to non-binary? Gender-variant is adequately descriptive, but for the fact that it was coined in paediatrics as a diagnostic cop-out so that a doctor didn’t have to call a trans kid trans. Also “variant” is again quite othering for those who mind such things.
What do you think about the term “non-binary” and why?
Nat: I personally think that nonbinary is the most practical descriptive and ‘politically neutral’ umbrella term for those of us whose gender identities and/or expressions cannot be defined purely in terms of the binary system where one is entirely female or entirely male.
I agree with your take on ‘gender variant’. I think the connotations of ‘gender nonconforming’ as used by WPATH casts too wide a net and ignores the role of identity. It’s a useful umbrella term in its own right (one which doesn’t follow the cis/trans binary), but not equivalent to nonbinary.
While I’m personally happy to use ‘genderqueer’ for myself and have been doing so since the 90s, I know that many nonbinary people are uncomfortable with the history and political/social connotations of ‘queer’ and the subcultural membership It implies. I’ve especially noticed a pattern of agender/neuter/neutral etc identifying people saying they find the term alienating in its implications.
I think nonbinary is useful because it defines the experience we have in common (not fitting into the gender binary) without ascribing an identity, philosophy or expression that individual nonbinary people may not follow. I think a ‘negative term’ may in fact be necessary in this case, as any ‘positive’ label would be very prone to ascribing experiences or motivations that aren’t necessarily there.
On the other hand, ‘nonbinary’ is more likely to alienate people who are happy to identify with their assigned genders or their ‘legal’ genders, while being deeply uncomfortable with the cultural expectations and restrictions placed upon these, but I think this is where wide inclusive terms like trans*, gender nonconforming, gender variant and genderqueer can become useful in uniting people who reject gender or are rejected by societal gender standards.
GrrlAlex: Non-binary has a simplicity to it and is less pathologising than gender variant. Variant has a semantic inference to it that implies divergence/dissonance (variation) from an apparent norm. My personal preference is genderqueer.
Hel: Hmm. I’m not a great fan of “gender-variant”, for the reasons you give, but I feel like both “gender-variant” and “non-binary” are (as you say) “adequately descriptive”.
I feel like the term “non-binary” in particular has become very popular – perhaps because it sounds less overtly political than the other relatively common umbrella term, “genderqueer”. I know CN has written a critique of “non-binary” – with which I broadly agree – but I also feel like this is probably going to be the term that garners more mainstream acceptance than “genderqueer” has. That said, I think that there’s always going to be a push towards new and improved language – so while I currently can’t think of a term that is ‘better’ than “non-binary”, I’m sure that in five or ten years time the linguistic playing-field will have changed. (I’ve heard that five or ten years ago, the more common terms were “intergender” and “androgynous”.)
Another quick point about rephrasing “non-binary”: I find it very frustrating when this is described as an ideological position rather than a gendered identity/experience. I sometimes see it getting rendered as “those who don’t subscribe to the gender binary” – while obviously those who identify/experience themselves as being outside it don’t “subscribe to it”, nor does anyone who accepts that those people exist!
So, in short: I have my issues with the term “non-binary”, but I feel like it is currently one of most useful forms of short-hand for gendered identities/experiences beyond the binary that we have, certainly in terms of staying power and the ability to become visible in wider culture.
Jennie: I have never, on a personal level, been very sensitive about terminology. Whatever people choose for me these days, I’ve been called worse. In wider terms, I think ‘non-binary’ is a useful umbrella term but that it’s important to acknowledge the diversity of identities and experiences that it represents. It’s potentially problematic in that (like the heavily contested ‘non-white’) it positions a particular group of people as Other, and it might be seen as enforcing the notion that there _is_ a binary (rather than a set of different possibilities of equal validity), but ultimately I consider it adequate to be going on with.
CN: I think ‘gender-variant’ is an interesting term – certainly accurate in so far as society does, by and large, subscribe an outward obedience to a very narrow set of gendered behaviour and anyone who challenges that is, indeed, ‘variant’ – but it doesn’t sound to me like a particularly positive term. I think it can be less loaded to talk about gender variance in behaviour, rather than labelling someone (particularly a child) ‘gender variant’. Opening it up even further and talking about gender plurality strikes me as the best option here.
I’ve written before about my problems with the phrase ‘non-binary’, and am currently writing more at length on the subject for my book on gender/sex/trans things – this is my best attempt at whittling my thoughts down! I know that some people will find this a pedantic position, but I don’t believe that this is pedantry for the sake of pedantry – it genuinely feels to me to be an important question of what we want to reform, who we want to reform if for and where we’re aiming on arriving.
If gender and sex are not binaries – and I hope by now that many people will agree that they are not – then to talk of ‘non-binary’ makes no sense to me. Those that do, and say that ‘non-binary’ is a useful counterpoint to the common binary usage of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ seem to be proposing (at least in the interim) an addendum to the current system: ‘binary people’ (men and women) over there, and ‘non-binary’ over here – it reminds me a great deal of the late 19th century psychosexual category of ‘the third sex’. My problem with that, beyond the difficulties of overlap, is that it ignores the idea that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are no more ‘binary’ identities within a world genuinely lacking in binaries than ‘androgynous’ or ‘genderqueer’ are. If we take as our starting point that each person is unique, and that their gender is a unique and constantly transitioning expression and reflection of their path through life, then they cannot be contained within a binary system, or a non-binary system set in opposition to the first. The words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ already contain multitudes, and they grow in meaning with each iteration – ‘woman’ will mean three different things in the mouths of, say, Sheila Jeffreys, Leslie Feinberg and Ann Coulter (and that’s just amongst Western usage by white people in the past 50 years) – and yet we’ll find commonalities not only within supposed categories but across them. To repeat myself – I don’t believe that there is a universal, Platonic Ideal of ‘woman’ or ‘man’ than people are reflecting/moving towards either through their words or behaviour. I can’t, in good conscience, use the word ‘non-binary’ to mean only people who cannot be described at all or in part by the words ‘woman’ or ‘man’ when I believe that each gendered appellation will mean something new and personal to each individual. This isn’t to pretend that people who can’t be described by ‘man’ or ‘woman’ don’t face particular challenges in a world which frequently forces us to pick one side or the other – nor is it to say that people who use the term ‘non-binary’ aren’t invested in changing the system as a whole – but, for me, using the terms ‘binary’ and ‘non-binary’ isn’t how I want to work on exploding the current framework of sex and gender – particularly when I feel that part of that work is to move away from our current system of classification and categorisation all together, and instead to see such words as sign-posts and adjectives, instead of as tools of demarcation and division. I think that the language around this – what words do I use? – can become difficult or ungainly – and that, in itself, is something which forces us to think harder around the barriers surrounding our efforts, and find more creative solutions of breaking kyriarchal systems down.