We’re in the midst of a social and cultural transition — shedding our old skin and discovering a far more intricate one beneath. People are awakening to the realisation that gender does not simply consist of male and female, like we may have been taught. Gender and gender expression are far more complex and nuanced than they may have seemed in the past, and we’re now starting to unpack those layers of complexity. We’ve even created this word ‘woke’ to describe those looking deeper into previously accepted social norms instead of unconsciously accepting the status quo. But just because some of us are becoming cognizant of this non-binary spectrum, it does not give us the right to shame others who are still living in a binary world, because they do so through no fault of their own.
Evolution takes time.
Shedding this old skin and seeking to understand these complexities may involve a combination of conditions including exposure to new ideas; access to information; time to consume and process that information; or patient advocates who are willing to explain. Not everyone has that privilege. Berating others who aren’t woke yet or who are just starting the journey does not help us evolve as a species. What will help is patience, advocacy, courage and kindness.
If you’re just catching up with what terms like non-binary, transgender and gender-fluid mean, or if you’re trying to wrap your mind around the gender spectrum, come grab a seat.
As someone who identifies as non-binary and has a fair amount of privilege, I’ve come to appreciate my responsibility to be an advocate for those still finding their voices — who aren’t ready or able to stand up and be visible. One way I can do so is to unpack my experiences and to shine some light on areas that may seem confusing for those of you new to the concept of alternative gender identities. For anyone who believes that gender is binary, my job is simply to smile and proudly let you know I exist.
What is non-binary?
Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. We’re not following a new trend — non-binary identities have been recognized for millennia by cultures and societies around the world (see two-spirit people and Fa’afafine to name a couple). I was assigned female at birth (AFAB). So my sex is female. (Sex being comprised of things like genitals, chromosomes, hormones and more. Not gender — the range of characteristics, roles, behaviours, activities and attributes often associated with masculinity and femininity). I grew up doing traditionally boyish things (playing with cars and guns) and looking more like a boy (short hair, ripped jeans, no top). When it dawned on me eventually that I wasn’t going to grow up to be a man, I accepted the ‘female’ label I’d been given, even though it didn’t really feel like it fit. After all, there were only two options, right? And ‘male’ didn’t really fit me either.
I learnt quickly that other people felt uncomfortable, even threatened, when they didn’t know which box to put me in. From when I was about 7, kids would approach me in the playground and say “Eww. Are you a boy or a girl?” As an adult, I’d get comments in public bathrooms like, “Excuse me! This is the women’s!” In fact, just last week as I walked into the women’s toilets at a museum, a guy behind me called out, “Mate, wrong door! Hey brother, wrong bathroom!”
Experiences like these are why folks in the non-binary and transgender communities feel so supported by the presence of unisex bathrooms. No men telling you you’re walking through the wrong door, and no women on the other side saying the same — or vice versa, depending on your gender expression.
I’m very fortunate that I was never shamed or verbally or physically abused for who I was. In this, however, I’m in the minority! I was and am blessed to have a family who never suggested I look or act any differently than felt right to me. They simply loved me and gave me the space to find out who I was, without judgment. In fact, the only time I was asked to dress any differently was when my dad sat me down and told me my grandmother had died. In the next breath — as though it might produce equal pain — he told me I’d have to wear a dress to the funeral (the first dress I’d have worn in years). As it happens I wore blizzard-wash jeans to that funeral! I wasn’t willing to face the dysphoria (the profound sense of unease or distress associated with the conflict between the way someone feels and thinks of themselves and their physical or assigned gender) and I guess my parents — with other things on their minds — realised it really didn’t matter.
We’re all trying to express who we are on the inside by what we show on the outside, whether that’s in our clothes or hairstyle or in the way we talk, walk and move through the world. Most people would probably say I have a masculine gender expression — meaning the way I present gender through my clothes, actions, demeanour and more. This is how others interpret me, based on social gender norms. I’ve never set out to confuse anyone or to gain attention. I’m simply doing what we all are — expressing who I am on the inside. Trying to feel free. Trying to feel like me.
Then related to but not the same as my gender expression is my gender identity — my psychological sense of self. This concept pertains to who I know myself to be, in my head and heart, based on how much I align (or don’t align) with what I understand to be the options for gender available to me in my culture. The question of gender identity, how I labelled myself, was always a little confusing for me, as I didn’t feel like I aligned with either of the two options I had at my disposal.
So when terms like non-binary and gender-queer started surfacing, I breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s me!” I thought.
Imprinted at birth and then moulded through our early experiences, we can’t change this inner self. Our identity — who we are inside — just is! We can, of course, choose to perform something different on the outside, which is where the ideas of gender identity and gender expression inform each other. If a person has an internal gender identity that doesn’t neatly fit into social expectations, that person may conform to someone else’s idea of what is normal or accepted. Because the need to belong is hardwired into us, it’s not unusual to present something different on the outside in order to avoid ostracism, shame or abuse.
In the children’s book The Bunyip of Berkeley Creek, the creature from the creek thinks he’s a Bunyip, but no one agrees because Bunyips simply don’t exist. The Bunyip keeps asking “What am I?…What am I?”. Throughout my life, my own understanding of my identity has evolved, along with social constructs, new terms and popular culture. Whilst I am the same person inside, my acceptance of who I am has fundamentally changed. I’m no longer wondering “What am I?” Knowing there are others out there who also don’t fit the binary has given me a sense of belonging and allowed me to move with more confidence through the world.
Some non-binary people undergo medical procedures to help make their bodies more congruent with their gender identity. While not all non-binary people choose to do this to live fulfilling lives, it’s critical and even life-saving for some.
For forty years, every shirt I ever put on looked wrong. Every time I looked in the mirror I expected to see a flat masculine chest. I was disappointed at what I saw and confused as to how I was supposed to feel like me with the embodied reality of having a woman’s chest. Last year I chose (and am grateful to have had the privilege) to have top surgery (a double mastectomy) and it’s been incredibly life-enhancing for me. After a lifetime of feeling ashamed and awkward about having breasts, I feel free in a way I never have. Confident in my skin. Delighted at my reflection.
Have you ever stepped out on the town in a beautiful new jacket that makes you feel like a rock star? You catch your reflection in a shop window and it puts an extra spring in your step. You feel like a million bucks! That’s how I feel now after top surgery. However, unlike the novelty of a new jacket, that feeling isn’t wearing off. I feel awesome and free every day because my body reflects more of how I feel on the inside.
As society makes progress awakening to a wide range of gender identities and gender expressions, more celebrities like Sam Smith, Ruby Rose, Harry Styles and Jonathan Van Ness are coming out as non-binary or gender-fluid. Back in the 80s and 90s Boy George, KD Lang, Prince and David Bowie stepped outside of those rigid gender boxes, although we didn’t then have words like ‘non-binary’ or ‘gender-fluid’. The public dialogue inspired by celebrities “coming out” as non-binary is raising broader awareness about these issues, and the younger generation is benefiting from the world waking up to the beautiful variations of gender. Audrey Mason-Hyde, a young non-binary teen in Australia, says what non-binary and trans kids need most is representation! “We need to see other people like us in the media. On TV, in magazines, on billboards”.
In just a few short years, public perception about gender and gender expression has shifted significantly. Today, 2 in 3 Australians believe more genders than just man and woman exist and 4 in 5 believe brands should not reinforce gender stereotypes. Recently a video for PC Specialist in the UK featuring 3 men with a male voice-over received enough complaints for perpetuating gender stereotypes that the Advertising Standard Authority in the UK banned the ad. Things are changing.
In Tasmania, reforms to make gender optional on birth certificates passed its last parliamentary hurdle. The legislation makes gender on birth certificates optional and removes the requirement for transgender people to have surgery in order to have their gender recognised. It also clarifies laws that protect the right of an individual to express their gender without discrimination.
The social fabric is changing. Emerging beneath that shedding skin are advocates, role-models, laws, inclusive practices and opportunities for everyone to take part in creating a society where everyone feels valued and included, no matter their gender identity or expression. Part of this social change is the growing use of the pronouns they/them.
Personal pronouns are the short word we use as a substitute for the proper name of a person, e.g. I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, and them. These cause a few problems for those of us in the non-binary community who don’t feel that ‘he’ or ‘she’ describes us. More recently, they has been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions.
In 2019, searches on Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary website for they had increased by 313% over the previous year prompting them to choose it as the 2019 word of the year. Merriam-Webster Dictionary added this usage to its official definition in September 2019.
Even though this usage may seem new, we already use they/them in our everyday language. “Someone left their hat in the foyer. Maybe they will come back for it? I’ll leave it here for them.” Initially, though, it can take a bit of getting used to. When your non-binary friend is leaving a bar with you and you tell a third person ‘they’re coming with me’, it can at first sound like you’re referring to more than one person. Using these pronouns is not always a seamless transition, but it’s an important one.
I use they/them pronouns for myself, and to be honest, it still feels a little odd. I made that decision as I felt it was important to advocate for those that come after me, who don’t have as much privilege or support as I had. For some folks, using their chosen pronouns deeply supports their sense of belonging. Using someone’s preferred pronouns is a way to say “I see you” or “I validate you”. Or just “You’re okay!”.
Young people who are struggling with where — or if — they fit into the world need validation — and they need representation. They need advocates and role models. And they need people who are making the effort to understand how gender and pronouns relate to each other in raising visibility and acceptance for gender diversity.
To grasp why this visibility and acceptance is so important, here are a few statistics from New Zealand.
- 71% of non-binary people aged 15 and over reported high or very high psychological distress with 56% having seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months.
- 67% of people with alternative gender identities have experienced discrimination at some point, 44% in the last 12 months
- 57% did not disclose being trans or non-binary at work for fear of discrimination. And those who had experienced discrimination for being trans or non-binary were twice as likely to have attempted suicide in the past year.
- 57% reported that most or all of their family or whānau supported them, and those respondents were almost half as likely (9%) to have attempted suicide in the last 12 months.
If we are going to shift the dial on these sobering statistics, we need to do better.
What can you do?
There are many ways to be a part of the societal evolution that’s taking place right now, and none of them requires much effort. It could be how you speak to your child or your work colleague. Most kids I know have someone at school that is trans, non-binary or gender questioning. How might you advocate for these vulnerable kids by using inclusive and compassionate language with those around you? It might be your organisation’s hiring process or how you represent gender stereotypes in your marketing material. Small acts like replacing ‘ladies and gentlemen’ with ‘folks’ or ‘friends’, offering unisex bathrooms or updating your website form to include a ‘non-binary’ gender option can begin to shift the dial on those sobering statistics.
Understanding the complexities of the gender spectrum can take time, compassionate curiosity and patience. By celebrating the diversity of our human species instead of being afraid of difference, we can support everyone to thrive.
If you need help in New Zealand, Call 0800 LIFELINE (0800 543 354) or text HELP (4357) for free, 24/7, confidential support — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Glossary of terms:
Gender: the range of characteristics, roles, behaviours, activities and attributes often associated with masculinity and femininity.
Non-binary (Enby): Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine.
Gender-queer: See non-binary
Gender-fluid: a nonbinary gender identity that’s not fixed and is capable of changing over time
Gender dysphoria: a profound sense of unease or distress and/or problems functioning associated with the conflict between the way someone feels and thinks of themselves and their physical or assigned gender.
Sex: comprised of things like genitals, chromosomes, hormones and more. Not gender.
Gender Identity: your psychological sense of self. Who you, in your head, know yourself to be, based on how much you align (or don’t align) with what you understand to be the options for gender.
Gender Expression: the ways you present gender through your actions, clothing, demeanour and more. Your outward-facing self, and how that’s interpreted by others based on gender norms.