Curious and Dangerous — Nonbinary Identities in Participatory Design

By Katta Spiel and Emeline Brulé

Part of Nonbinary Identities and Individuals in Research, Community, and the Academy: A Series Beyond the Gender Binary

Sasha is a curious child, who loves to play video games and to draw doodles and comics day in and day out. These interests make for a perfect collaborator in participatory design research, and so we met every other week for a year, prototyping technologies together.

Participatory design is a field of research focused on involving people in designing technologies. Involving marginalized people is particularly relevant, as hegemonic structures within the research (and technology design) communities mean that the lived experiences between researchers and participants often differ significantly. The processes are different from case to case, spanning from single sessions with initial prototyping to involving participants throughout ideation, conceptualization, prototyping and testing. The cases discussed in this piece stem from collaborations with disabled children over the span of several months each to create technologies that provide meaningful experiences to children, engaging with them holistically instead of focusing only on disability.

Sasha, one of our research participants, was assigned female at birth — but expressed on multiple occasions to us and to other adults in their* lives that they feel stifled by gendered expectations on their behavior and mannerisms. For example, they perceived being interested in video games as strictly associated with boys. Their parents felt they did not know how to support Sasha in fully and freely exploring their interests, and actively sought the counsel of the queer-presenting researcher. Counseling the family on queer issues was not part of our research and professional missions. We, however, have ourselves been children; children who had the painful experience of not having been supported by our parents when breaking gender norms and adopting gender-transgressing behaviors. We decided to provide external resources about gender non-conforming identity development in children to the parents.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Sasha’s example, though, comprises a best-case scenario. More children have experiences like ours, or like Sam, who loved playing with dolls and monsters and, similarly, enjoyed drawing and even communicating through drawings. However, Sam’s immediate family reinforced strictly binary gender boundaries. Breaking these would have meant actively fueling an ongoing conflict in Sam’s life without being able to take up the responsibility to deal with the potential fall-out with their family of said conflict. With Sam, we had to consciously make gender a secondary topic in design workshops, addressing gender if and only Sam brought these topics up very explicitly. Even though within our project guidelines, we had intended to engage the children holistically, we made a choice here that actively ignored part of their experience around gender in the interest of keeping Sam safe.

Not discussing queer experiences is also a mean of keeping ourselves, as nonbinary individuals, safe from professional backlash. We are used to answering questions about our ‘real’ gender, especially in public settings. Children point at us and ask out aloud ‘Look! What is that person?,’ with answers from adults in the vicinity ranging from casual neutrality (‘You have to ask that of themselves’), active ignorance (‘We do not discuss this’) to the all too familiar assumption of monstrosity. Even though our experience in working and engaging with children spans several years across different contexts, within our research, we struggle being taken seriously as non-binary and as researchers. This constant need for repositioning ourselves is all the more complicated by the circumstance that we work with participants in French or German, both heavily gendered languages. Interestingly enough, children tend to be much more flexible and assign us with genders they associate with certain activities or body parts. Regardless, formal and informal caregivers identify us with binary genders, feeling compelled to ‘rectify’ the use of pronouns along their particular, mostly binary, assumptions. To not endanger the rapport and relationship with the adult environments of the children, which was paramount to being able to collaborate with the children at all, we only pushed back mildly on such attempts at gendering us chiefly within a binary.

Being queer researchers places us in a precarious situation, in which our gender performance is continuously dependent on who we engage with. This circumstance creates challenges for building rapport, although being genderqueer creates unexpected opportunities in design: By not conforming to the children’s expectations, we implicitly invite discussions on gender identity and pro-actively trouble children’s representations of what ‘girls’ or ‘boys’ can do. These opportunities, however, are uncharted, as cisgender [non-trans] researchers predominantly fail to discuss how their gender identity affects the roles they have with children and how other adults that come to be involved in participatory research perceive them.

“Being queer researchers places us in a precarious situation, in which our gender performance is continuously dependent on who we engage with.”

Our different approaches to Sasha’s and Sam’s cases were, however, also influenced by our relationships with gender-conforming, cis research peers. While they seemed to have fewer problems with addressing Sasha’s gender identity as the family presented a somewhat unified front, the non-binary researcher within the team received significant push-back when it came to attending to Sam’s interests and transgressions from their expected gender roles. Accusations were made that the focus on gender was only due to an obscure queer agenda, which would impose a trans identity on them; contemporary gender panic.

When non-binary researchers conduct participatory design with potentially genderqueer children, particularly in cases like ours, where gender is not the main focus of the work, we might share some experiences around contextual disclosure along perceived safety around different people. We want to underline that trans researchers, including nonbinary researchers, are under heightened observation from a society structured on binary genders. It expects them to explain their actions and how they understand and interpret research contexts, while at the same time discrediting our embodied experiential knowledge as too personal and, ultimately, invalid. We are particularly pressured to reflect on how our identities impact participatory processes. However, cisgender people bring their own normative identities and shape the process alongside without being expected to reflect much on how their identity affects their research, for example, by assuming participants to be hetero and cis. Such double standards are particularly curious considering that participatory research approaches require researchers to be transparent about their personal selves within the process, given that they shape the interaction with collaborators so fundamentally.

“We want to underline that trans researchers, including nonbinary researchers, are under heightened observation from a society structured on binary genders. It expects them to explain their actions and how they understand and interpret research contexts, while at the same time discrediting our embodied experiential knowledge as too personal and, ultimately, invalid.”

Well, it might be curious for an outside observer. However, for nonbinary researchers, pushing back on cis- and heteronormative tendencies in such research comes with the potential of endangering future opportunities in an ever-so-hostile academic job market.

Given these far reaching consequences, not only within participatory design projects, but ultimately for all nonbinary individuals in academia, reflecting on our gender identities as a formative part of participatory design cannot only be required from researchers (or participants) with marginalized gender identities. The reflection is even more necessary for researchers feeling comfortable with the status quo. Indeed, this is an opportunity to reflect on their individual role and participation in reinforcing gender norms, and othering and excluding those who do not fit into neat normative categories.

*We use they/them pronouns in this case, as we are not entirely sure which pronouns Sasha would choose in English.


Katta Spiel is a postdoctoral researcher within the e-Media Research Lab at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (U Leuven) and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Their research is centered around the critical participatory design and evaluation of playful technologies with a focus on marginalized people. Dr. Spiel is currently researching the attitudes, desires and interests of neurodivergent youth concerning play with digital games.

Emeline Brulé is a lecturer in the School of Engineering and Informatics at the University of Sussex and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Dr. Brulé currently studies design and organizational processes behind digital products, focusing on the areas of education technologies, assistive technologies and technologies for the home.

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