By Liam Smith, Support Worker
International Non-Binary People’s Day is celebrated each year on July 14, aiming to raise awareness of the issues non-binary people face around the world.
Non-binary is an umbrella term for gender identities that are not solely male or female, existing outside the gender binary where the classification of gender is split into two distinct, opposite forms of masculine and feminine.
Non-binary people are often included under the umbrella term of transgender, a community whose gender identity does not correspond with their assigned sex at birth. But while some transgender people are non-binary, most have a gender identity that is male or female.
Non-binary people, on the other hand, can identify as both male and female, neither male nor female, or do not identify with any gender type at all.
Non-binary people as a group vary significantly in their gender expressions, with some rejecting gender identities altogether. Here, gender is better viewed as a spectrum – with a complex interplay of biological, psychological and social factors placing an individual at a certain point on or outside of the continuum of masculinity and femininity.
This allows for a much wider and more flexible range of gender identities and/or expressions. These include agender or genderless, bigender (having two distinct gender identities and fluctuating between them), trigender (shifting between male, female and a third gender), pangender (having multiple gender identities) and genderfluid.
Some non-binary people use gender neutral pronouns; in English, usage of ‘they‘, ‘their’ and ‘them’ is most common. Non-standard pronouns (or neopronouns) such as ‘xe’, ‘ze’, ‘sie’, ‘co’ and ‘ey’ may also be used. Other non-binary people use gender specific pronouns, such he’ and ‘she, alternatively. Many non-binary people use additional neutral language, such as the title ‘Mx’.
There is no one way to be non-binary. The best way to understand what it’s like to be non-binary is to talk with non-binary people and listen to their stories.
To help educate us this year, a customer who previously resided at our LGBTQ+ ABEN scheme has kindly offered to share their experiences of being non-binary, common misconceptions they face and struggles they have dealt with both inside and outside of the LGBTQ+ community.
My Story by Dawn Ahmed
As a second-generation immigrant of Pakistani parents living in England, I have always found myself searching for a sense of belonging. This is something I continue to face as a queer South Asian who has come to identify myself as non-binary.
I was born into a community of strict Muslim British Pakistanis, with strict and traditionalist views on gender norms, roles and ideals. As a person who was assigned ‘male‘ at birth, I was always expected to act in a stereotypically masculine way. It was unacceptable for me cry, show my emotions or talk openly about personal issues I went through, as people would label these things as feminine.
I was also unable to express my identity through my physical experience (such as dyeing my hair and getting tattoos or piercings) as again people saw this as a sign of femininity.
Even as a preteen, I can recall the criticism I experienced for going against the grain and defying these gender norms. Imagine being ostracised and having the community you were born into turn against you for something as simple as a nose piercing?
The constant battle of ideals between me and the community took a huge toll on my mental health and self-esteem.
After I decided to distance myself from this conflict, it took a while for me to settle into my identity. At first, I thought of myself as a trans women. However, by being supported to experiment with my gender expression in a safe space, consisting of my support workers and newfound queer community, I realised that I am non-binary. I am not one way or the other and lean into whatever I feel serves and suits me.
Looking non-binary isn’t a thing. You don’t have to look male, female or androgynous to be non-binary. The way I present myself has nothing to do with my gender but rather my identity as a person. For example, I express my identity through the colours I dye my hair. Currently it’s green, which is symbolic of nature and the fact I am feeling more down to earth and present lately.
I also express my identity with the tattoos I have that represent my story. I had the word karma tattooed to remind me to keep my energies in check. I also have floral tattoos that represent the personal growth I’ve achieved. This to me is how I present myself as someone who isn’t afraid to go against the grain.
A lot of people don’t feel comfortable coming out as non-binary. Most countries in the world, including the UK, do not recognize non-binary as a legal gender, meaning most non-binary people still have a gendered passport and official identification. Furthermore, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 only allows the gender on a birth certificate to be changed from male to female – it does not allow recognition of any other genders.
Being misgendered on a regular basis can be extremely harmful, especially when misgendered in healthcare or support settings. It can be hard to trust someone to provide you with support you need when that person/organisation misgenders you.
The lack of representation of non-binary figures in media further alienates us, and the awful treatment of non-binary celebrities only shows non-binary people that society isn’t accepting of us.
Furthermore, the fact that many places still use gendered bathrooms and signage meaning accessing public spaces can be anxiety provoking and even dangerous for a non-binary person.
There needs to be more visibility of non-binary people, and education is needed so people reflect on their own prejudices and biases. Even within our own communities, we are still questioned and often fetishized. I’ve heard multiple accounts of non-binary people being preyed upon by gay men as if we’re seen as something different or exotic (doubly so if like me you’re queer and a person of colour).
As much as I’ve talked about the struggles I have experienced as a non-binary person, I feel it’s important I mention the good things as well!
Now that I understand my identity and express myself freely, I am happier and more content with my life. I have a new-found confidence that has helped me make new friends, explore my ambitions and make plans for my future. I feel free to exist and thrive as myself, and finally feel like I belong somewhere.
How can we make a difference?
Dawn’s blog post gives us an insight into what being non-binary means to them and how they express their identity. It is important we continue to amplify the voices of non-binary people to continue to raise awareness on the issues they face and to advocate for their right to identify as who they truly are.
Looking ahead, Dawn identified several barriers that we need to address to make society a better place for non-binary people as well as some suggestions on what you could potentially do to help address them.
We need to stop making assumptions about other people’s gender and pronoun.
Rather, we should respectfully ask others how they would like to be addressed and use their chosen name and pronouns accordingly.
What you can do: Respectfully ask someone their pronouns when you meet them, state your preferred pronouns when you introduce yourself to others and politely correct others when they address someone with the wrong name or pronouns.
We need to normalise sharing our pronouns and make this routine in schools, workplaces and other organisations
This encourages people to be more mindful and creates a safe space for people who are gender non-conforming to be open about their identity.
What you can do: Include your preferred pronouns in your email signature, Zoom or Teams meeting name, and on your website, and encourage this culture in your workplace.
We need to promote education around gender identity, expression and fluidity We should raise awareness that the binary way gender continues to be classified isn’t representative or inclusive of many people in society.
What you can do: Share educational recourses and people’s stories online, promote LGBTQ+ awareness days and events, consciously reflect on your own potential biases and encourage others to do the same.
We need to advocate for gender-neutral signage and bathrooms in the workplace and other public spaces
What you can do: Read this article on gender neutral bathrooms and share it within the organisations you are involved with.
We need to advocate for the legal recognition of non-binary and third genders Most countries in the world do not recognise non-binary as a legal gender, meaning most non-binary people still have a gendered passport and official identification. Earlier this year, the UK government rejected a petition (with over 140,000 signatures) to make non-binary a recognised gender identity.
What you can do: Raise awareness about the legal issues non-binary people face, raise concerns with local politicians, and sign and share petitions advocating for change.