On being non-binary in feminist spaces

I “came out” as non-binary close to a year ago now, and navigating the way that has changed how I feel about and interact with women’s and feminist spaces has been one of the hardest things to navigate.

I’m always conflicted about contributing my experiences being treated as a woman. On the one hand, shared experience of oppression is really powerful and uplifting, not to mention vital to connection. However, that means I orient myself as a woman, and that feels like I am erasing who I am. There is also the concern that if I am invited to share my experiences, it is because people are still seeing me as a woman, not as a non binary person.

That last part is obviously something I can’t be sure of, but when women’s groups invited non binary people to share their experiences, they’re often asking for experiences of womanhood, and that is not inclusive of all non binary people. If you’re inviting non binary people to share their experiences of womanhood, the truth is that you likely still see AFAB non binary people as women.

I’m often asked by my friends how they can change their behaviours or language to be more inclusive of non binary people, and in all honesty it fucking bugs me. I don’t want to be doing that work for them. While there is not as much of a wealth of writing out there that there is about other oppressed groups, like women, there are definitely plenty of non binary writers who have written about inclusiveness in women’s spaces. You can Google it, just like what women say men should do when they asked to be taught about feminism.

There’s also the fact that non binary people are extremely diverse. What might be fine for some people is not fine for others. Just like women are not all the same and don’t find the same things inclusive or supportive, so the same goes with non binary people. It may sound extremely obvious, but it’s vital to remember if you genuinely want to involve non binary people.

The biggest thing I’ve seen that frustrates the hell out of me are women’s groups and events only having “women” or “female” in the title, with all the language being about women, then adding into the description “non binary people welcome.” This is not inclusive. I’m aware that much of the language and knowledge around non binary people is new and that people are still learning, but in all honesty this one is probably the most frustrating to deal with. As soon as I bring this up with people, they insist that non binary people are obviously welcome because of that one little acknowledgement.

If all the language you are using is about women and women’s experiences, adding in one little line that’s meant to include non binary people is not enough to actually be inclusive. It just reiterates the fact that you’re only interested in including AFAB non binary people because you still see them as women, which is absolutely not good enough.

I had an experience in a women’s group where when I asked people if they could acknowledge that there are non binary group members and that opening their posts with “hey ladies” or similar can feel pretty erasing, the level of backlash I got was astounding. I was genuinely shocked that all of these women were so threatened by me asking for them to acknowledge its non binary members. I had genuinely thought that this was a space in which I could feel safe and included. This post also led me to discover that while the group description mentioned that it included non binary people, there was in fact nothing about it in the group’s constitution. I promptly left the group.

The history of the feminist movement has been about women’s rights, and rightly so. We cannot, however, remain attached to the idea that it is only women who need feminism, and that the sisterhood is more important than providing support and a safe space to everyone oppressed by the patriarchy. It’s scary that people I love cannot see that when they engage with this kind of erasure that it really, deeply hurts me.

Something I’ve spoken about with a couple of friends is the idea of saying “Not Men” instead of “Women”. From these discussions we’ve noticed that there are a couple of issues that are present around that idea that prevent it from happening: the first is that the focus is on men, and the second is that people seem to still be concerned about upsetting men. Let’s be honest, if you really did want to include the gender non conforming, saying “Not Men” is an easy way to do that. It again just makes it seem like people won’t put in the work necessary to be genuinely inclusive.

Often the truth is that when I tell people how to be more inclusive, they don’t make the effort and make the changes. When I point out the erasure they engage in they are more often defensive than they are willing to listen. And it honestly is the saddest thing to realise how difficult it really can be for people to actually acknowledge when they engage in shitty behaviour and then work to change it, especially when they know precisely what that frustration feels like. It’s only something feminists have been doing with men for decades.

I want to share my experiences as a non binary person. There may be similarities with those of women, but they are not the same thing. If you won’t make space for me and other non binary people, if you cannot move past the fear and defensiveness, then you absolutely cannot call yourself inclusive, and certainly and most especially not intersectional.