September 20, 2013
Non-binary gender identities: how helpful are they for challenging gender rules?
Meg Barker recently wrote an article for the September issue of Diva about “increasing numbers of people [who] are identifying as something other than male or female.” In a rejection of binary gender identities, some regard themselves as (deep breath): bigender, pangender, genderfluid, genderqueer, genderfuck, non-gendered, gender neutral, and transgender. (The fact that Microsoft Word is telling me I have spelled most of these words incorrectly is testament to their embryonic state in mainstream discourse). The problem with these labels is that they have become ridiculous and provide fruit ripe for satire. As soon as a satirist gets a whiff of something so self-consciously anti-establishment, they will not take you seriously. When you are not taken seriously, your two-fingers-up to society falls flat on its face. It backfires and your challenging traditional gender roles imposed on us by society never gets off the ground.
Gender vs. gender rules
Let us first consider what exactly is being objected to: is it the idea of gender as a concept or gender “rules”? Some would argue that these are inextricably connected, but this is not the case; if gender is binary, it does not follow that gender rules are binary.
For example, let’s imagine for a moment that everyone identifies as either “male” or “female”. If there were no “rules” connected to these genders and the concept of “male” and “female” could be interpreted on an individual basis, there would be no need for the explosion of non-binary labels. If gender itself were the problem, people would not be creating new gender labels; they would not identify as any gender at all.
In other words, rigid gender rules are the problem; they are prescriptive when they needn’t be. The problem is beliefs such as “to be male/female, you need to be/behave/dress like this,” rather than gender being inherently pernicious.
I am all for rejecting these rules and broadening the idea of gender to transform it into a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, where people feel they “fit in” and are accepted for the way they interpret gender. However, I think that a new, incredibly niche and convoluted set of gender labels is not the best way of starting a dialogue about gender rules. If anything, it closes down dialogue by introducing terms that are only used and understood by a tiny sub-section of society.
If non-binary people are rejecting gender stereotypes by creating new gender labels, it is only a matter of time before stereotypes emerge for the new labels. Stereotypes emerge spontaneously and it is naïve to think that we can run from them by constantly dividing ourselves off from “the norm” with new labels.
Further, it is important to remember that the conversation about traditional gender roles is an old (and a current) one: women going out to work, women becoming train drivers, men becoming house husbands etc. Women (and men) have been challenging the rules for centuries without these labels.
Preferred pronouns and social situations
Besides this, it is difficult to know how to negotiate the social minefield of non-binary identities. Are we supposed to have these sorts of conversations in order to accommodate all gender-related identities?
“Hello, nice to meet you. Where do you live? Do you mind if I refer to the gender you were assigned at birth or do you define yourself by one of the multitude of non-binary gender labels? Lovely weather, isn’t it?”
Uh, no. There is so much margin for error. Imagine if we did as Barker suggests and “ask for preferred pronouns,” with everyone we meet. It would be laughable if someone asked for my preferred pronoun (as a cis female); sometimes you want people to assume things about you. I would certainly be offended if someone asked whether I wanted to be referred to as he or she (or anything else) because I would consider my appearance such that there is no question.
So do we then only ask for preferred pronouns when we feel that we can’t confidently assume male or female? This doesn’t seem right either because we don’t want non-binary gendered people to feel that they are only being asked for their preferred pronoun simply because they don’t fit in with our idea of “male” and “female”; this serves to exclude them more.
Should we ever assume?
The question is one of balancing assumption with questioning. Some people actively want people to assume something about their gender, others want nothing to be assumed. You can’t please everyone and be treading on eggshells the whole time. When you include one, you exclude another. It is a balancing act, so let’s not be too extreme (in either direction).
I will refer to anyone by whatever pronoun they wish, but don’t expect me to take you seriously if you decide that your gender is “genderfuck”. Just like the Monster raving loony party is defined wholly by its being a protest party, a gender with no other characteristics other than a rejection of the binary is unlikely to cause much of a shift in public consciousness.
To be clear: challenging traditional gender roles is something I wholeheartedly support, however, I don’t believe that this approach will be effective.
Update 21 September 2013
Lesbilicious articles are written by a diverse team of writers from the LGBT community, and we don’t expect, or ask, that all our writers have the same opinions or outlook. Having said that, at Lesbilicious we do have a committment to promoting the values we believe in, and those values include a consciously pro-trans attitude.
A lot of you felt that we didn’t uphold these values in this article, and you’re right. We encourage our writers to talk about their own views and experiences, even when those might be unpopular, but this article made assumptions and generalisations that disrespected the experiences of other people.
We want to encourage healthy, respectful debate and discussion, because the LGBT community is wide and diverse and there will always be things we see differently from one another. But in this instance we got it wrong, and so we apologise. The article will remain unedited, and we encourage you to read the comments from other people at the end of the article.
Milly Shaw, Editor
Can animals be gay?
Lesbilicious were at the Paws with Pride Pet Show at Newcastle Leazes Park in July 2012. We asked pet owners, can animals be gay? The people we interviewed had some interesting anecdotes about their own pets.
August 1, 2012