The Trouble with Nonbinary
The transgender umbrella, according to a popular photo on Facebook, is made up of two subcategories: binary, which includes trans women and trans men, and nonbinary, which includes a myriad of genders such as genderqueer, genderfluid, demigender, bigender, agender, neutrois, “and more!” Further commentary on what makes someone nonbinary is not given, nor is there any elaboration on the history of these words. After all, why should a simple introduction to trans topics go any more in-depth than that?
I looked at this picture for a while. According to it, I’m both binary and nonbinary as someone who identifies as a genderqueer female-to-male transsexual (FTM for short, or otherwise known as a trans man). How is that possible? I wondered. Doesn’t one necessarily exist at the exclusion of the other?
This problem has been addressed within the community before. I’m simply a nonbinary man as some would explain, someone who is more aligned with men than women in dress and behavior, but doesn’t identify as a man entirely. But what meaningfully makes a nonbinary man nonbinary, and what meaningfully makes a binary man binary? Is it my discomfort with being called a man or a woman? Is it the way I’d like to present as gender nonconforming once I start my medical transition from female to male? Is there any material difference between us all?
Tracking the history of the word “nonbinary” is difficult, to say the least. It’s such a new term that scholarly sources on it are understandably absent. A quick search for the etymology of “nonbinary” lands you on a page from The Nonbinary Wiki, which claims that the word originated sometime during the 2000s, although the first recorded use of it is still unknown. Prior to this, there was “genderqueer,” which Them states arose from a political identifier — that is, a queer person who was passionate about gender politics. “Genderqueer” carried with it a connotation of deliberate gender nonconformity as a rebellion against patriarchal concepts of sex, sexuality, and gender. In the spring 1995 issue of In Your Face newsletter, Riki Anne Wilchins, one of the co-founders of Transexual Menace, writes:
The fight against gender oppression has been joined for centuries, perhaps millennia. What’s new today, is that it’s moving into the arena of open political activism. And nope, this is not just one more civil rights struggle for one more narrowly-defined minority. It’s about all of us who are genderqueer: diesel dykes and stone butches, leatherqueens and radical fairies, nelly fags, crossdressers, intersexed, transexuals, transvestites, transgendered, transgressively gendered, intersexed, and those of us whose gender expressions are so complex they haven’t even been named yet. More than that, it’s about the gender oppression which affects everyone: the college sweetheart who develops life-threatening anorexia nervosa trying to look “feminine,” the Joe Sixpack dead at 45 from cirrhosis of the liver because “real men” are hard drinkers. But maybe we genderqueers feel it most keenly, because it hits us each time we walk out the front door openly and proudly….
So get out. Get active. Picket someone’s transphobic ass. Get in someone’s genderphobic face. And while you’re at it, pass the word: the gendeRevolution has begun, and we’re going to win.
This sentiment echoes what Leslie Feinberg wrote three years earlier in hir pamphlet Transgender Liberation: A movement whose time has come, which is arguably the first time “transgender” was ever defined. According to Feinberg, the transgender community was a community of “gender outlaws” which included “transvestites, transsexuals, drag queens and drag kings, cross-dressers, bulldaggers, stone butches, diesel dykes, [and] berdache,” the last of which is known as two-spirit nowadays. In a sense, then, “transgender” and “genderqueer” were interchangeable, although the latter was more political than the former. However, they both covered the same group of people: any and all gender nonconforming individuals, from people who sought cross-sex hormones and surgeries (known in medical institutions as transsexuals) to gay men and women who blurred the lines of gender by being effeminate or butch.
However, the terminology with which we use to describe ourselves has changed enormously over the course of 30 years. Firstly, there is the rise of nonbinary just a decade or so after Wilchins’ impassioned spiel about the political might of the genderqueers. By 2014, nonbinary had its own pride flag, with the creator, Kye Rowan, stating that “[n]ot all nonbinary people identify as genderqueer, and them using a flag that has largely become synonymous with ‘genderqueer’ is uncomfortable and forces them under a label they do not want.”
While the reason for this discomfort is never elaborated upon, it had enormous implications. Its astronomical rise in popularity meant the tables had turned: where genderqueer had been the umbrella term before for nonbinary, nonbinary was now the umbrella term for genderqueer. And although some people will still consider the terms interchangeable, this transfership of terminology has turned genderqueer into a gender of its own, as opposed to a descriptor of radical gender nonconformity.
Already, we run into a problem. If “genderqueer” was meant to be a political statement, then what happens when it’s a unique gender identity as opposed to an umbrella term? Even if some people do still consider it to be an umbrella term, that doesn’t change the fact that when I began identifying as trans almost a decade ago, I was introduced to genderqueer as anything but that. It wasn’t until I began exploring the term and its history within the last year that I discovered it was the original “nonbinary.”
Of course, nonbinary can be political, but with no documented instance of its first usage, it’s hard to say what intentions were behind its creation. And again, there’s no explanation for why some nonbinary people rejected genderqueer. Was it because of the reclaimed slur in its name, or because of its broader ramifications?
Lesbian politics have always been tense. While not attracted to women myself, the facts that firstly, most of my friends are lesbians and bisexual women and that secondly, I feel a deep kinship with gender nonconforming lesbians who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) have resulted in me being particularly attuned to updates in lesbian discourse. Similarly, I’ve talked to numerous trans men — straight, gay, bi, pan, and asexual — who got their start in the LGBT community as lesbians, and therefore maintain a deep connection with the lesbians they have met throughout their lives and remain invested in their politics.
This is not to discount the experiences of trans lesbians or to promote the idea of some exclusive club of AFABs that nobody else could possibly understand. Rather, it’s to address a particularly pertinent point of debate: that is, that trans men can’t date lesbians, because trans men are men and lesbians aren’t, nor are they attracted to men. The pure concept of a trans man dating a lesbian invalidates the identities of both, according to dissenters.
Missing from this conversation is any input from either lesbians who date trans men or trans men who date lesbians. Couples made up of lesbians and trans men are quickly dismissed, ridiculed, and labeled as “lesbophobic” or “transphobic.” Never mind the fact that some of the most important trans masculine activists in history, like Leslie Feinberg or Marcelle Cook-Daniels, continued to be in relationships with lesbians after transition. In fact, the history of trans masculinity is frequently blurred by the presence of people that many will argue are butch lesbians. This is highlighted by the existence of groups like Genderqueer Boyzzz in the 90s, which advertised itself for “butches, hermaphrodykes, FTMs, transmen, transboys, transbutches, transfags, transfagdrags, boychicks girlfags, drag kings, two-spirits, metamorphs, shape-shifters, leatherdyke daddies, [and] leatherdyke boys”.
The strict line between “lesbian” and “straight trans man” is a new development. From talking with my trans masc friends who have dated women, almost all of them have noted how their attraction to women still feels gay to them, as they grew up identifying themselves as gay girls, and that the societal illusion of them as straight men is shattered the moment someone finds out they’re trans.
This tendency to date someone of the opposite gender and think of it is gay is not exclusive to trans men. Straight and bi trans women frequently date gay men, and for good reason, considering that the most common perpetrators of anti-trans violence are cisgender (non-transgender) straight men. Entering into a world of heterosexuality as someone who has always been marginalized for their same-sex attraction is nowhere near the same experience as someone who has always been the acceptable kind of heterosexual.
So what happened? Although multiple factors are at play here, the main culprit, at least to me, is a shift in how we view sexuality and its relationship to gender. While there definitely was disagreement among LGBT spaces about every issue that ever pertained to us 30 years ago, mainstream trans rhetoric was dominated by the belief that our queer genders were intrinsically linked to a queer sexuality and vice versa. Nowadays, there’s a neater division between the two, to a point where I’ve seen self-identified “radical” and “pro-trans” activists arguing for separating the T from LGB, because we, allegedly, have nothing in common.
Despite the fact that gender roles are a consequence of societal expectations of sex and the submission of women, gender is now viewed as a quality that exists independently of any other variables. While some argue that nonbinary people can overlap with gay communities — for instance, there’s a popular notion that nonbinary lesbians are indeed lesbians despite not identifying as women, although that’s not without debate — many have made efforts to come up with nonbinary-specific labels for sexuality to avoid all connotations of male or female, or, in some cases, even of the masculine and the feminine.
But if nonbinary lesbians can exist and even take testosterone, then we are once again forced to ask what the meaningful difference is between that lesbian and a straight trans man. More importantly, what does it mean to be nonbinary? In this paradigm of gender, gender nonconformity is eschewed as a requirement, as indicated by a recent wave of support for the notion that androgyny is not required of nonbinary people. Rather, to be nonbinary, all one needs to do is to say they are nonbinary, and in some cases, that’s all they can be. The moment one stops identifying as a nonbinary lesbian and uses “trans man” to define themself instead, they are kicked from the lesbian community.
No longer are the days of uniting all gender nonconforming individuals under genderqueer. Instead of the nonbinary umbrella referring to a broad set of gender expressions, it refers explicitly to a certain group of gender identities. Butches and drag queens need not apply.
The downfall of a unified trans and genderqueer community came from a dozen different reasons. One of these is that transsexual became a bad word, as noted by every source on acceptable language to use when discussing the LGBT community. In its place is simply “transgender,” which further associates it with transsexuality and limits who’s included underneath it. Specifically, it now refers to the phenomenon of identifying as a gender outside of your assigned sex at birth (ASAB), rather than foregoing gender conformity in general.
While a drastic change from what it meant before, it’s not all bad. After all, there’s been a long history of cis individuals within the LGBT community who discriminate against trans and gender nonconforming people. I myself have run into many of them over my nearly decade long experience of identifying as trans. The sentiment is wide-spread, with notable drag queens like Rupaul being criticized for their transmisogyny (a form of discrimination against trans women specifically). In fact, the rift between those who identify as trans women and those who identify as drag queens, transvestites, and crossdressers is pronounced enough at this point that Them has a write-up on the history of their breakup.
Perhaps, then, the transition from genderqueer to nonbinary was one of necessity. Genderqueer, while noble in its efforts, was now riddled with glaring issues, mostly between transsexuals and their non-transsexual counterparts. This particular point of contention spills into discourse nowadays, although it manifests in different forms, like the arguments between “truscum” (people who believe dysphoria is necessary to be trans, frequently associated with transsexuals) and “tucutes” (people who believe dysphoria isn’t necessary, frequently associated with nonbinary individuals). The debate over who is really trans is heated enough that people in nonbinary spaces have taken to metagender as a way to describe themselves as neither cis nor transsexual (and for more information about the surprisingly complex history of metagender, I like The Nonbinary Wiki’s article on this topic).
Whether it was a necessary change or not, however, is ultimately irrelevant. The invention of nonbinary has unintentionally created new binaries: trans vs gender nonconforming for one, binary vs nonbinary for another. Whereas genderqueer sought to unite us despite our differences, nonbinary did the opposite, and only further compartmentalized us through the community’s support of endless new self-descriptors. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having fun with coining new ways to put personal experiences into words (Lily Alexandre made an interesting video on this exact occurrence), but the fun of it goes away quickly when people start arguing for clear delineations between these micro-labels with their unique experiences. Just like a man does not know what it’s like to be a woman, an agender person can not speak over the experiences of a genderfluid person and vice versa. And of course, “binary” trans people — often implied to be interchangeable with transsexuals — have no right to speak over nonbinary people, to the point where people have written out lists describing binary privilege.
But what do you do when you are both?
I have met trans people, both trans men and trans women, who have said that they are 100% their gender, and embrace the word “binary.” But I have met dozens more of us who feel stuck in between genders. We’re transsexuals, not transgender, because we have the desire to medically alter our bodies on top of putting ourselves into complicated legal and social situations. And even before I knew the history of the word genderqueer, I was drawn to it as a descriptor of the fact that I want to go on testosterone and get top surgery but leave everything else alone, putting me squarely in the realm of being simultaneously male and female.
The way that modern trans and nonbinary rhetoric plays out leaves me feeling isolated as a result. When people talk about trans men, I can’t relate; when people talk about nonbinary people, I can’t relate either, all because “trans man” and “nonbinary” have formed their own dichotomy. And while many people will argue that you can be both nonbinary and a man or woman (whether that be cis, trans, or meta), this nuance is often dropped in favor of simple and politically vapid mantras like, “Trans women are women!” or “Trans men are men!” or “Nonbinary people are nonbinary!”
I understand that it’s hard to be nuanced in a society that discounts any form of gendered expression outside of cis, gender conforming womanhood or manhood. For that reason, I do not necessarily hold any of us in the trans umbrella to blame for this. But it does not change the fact that popular conceptions of our respective subcommunities are often seen as opposites, in the way that cis men and cis women are seen as opposites. The truth is — and always has been — that I have much more in common with trans women than I ever would with cis men. I have more in common with anyone who willfully defies gendered expectations placed upon them than people who conform to the dress and behaviors correlated with their ASAB. And while it’s perfectly fine for people to be cis, or to be gender conforming, the trans community formed out of a necessity to protect ourselves against outside forces that work against our existences.
How plausible is it, then, to be a “binary” man or woman when you’re also trans? A binary cis woman does not have to worry about having her womanhood and humanity stripped from her as soon as her ASAB is revealed to the world. A binary cis man does not have to worry about where his gender fits into broader conversations about healthcare, particularly reproductive health. We, as trans people, are constantly relegated into a third gender by merit of being trans. It doesn’t matter what we have to say about the technicalities of our gender; our gendered existences will always be determined by cis society.
And so because I am a trans man, I am inherently nonbinary. I will always inhabit an in-between, a gendered purgatory that can quickly throw me from Heaven to Hell and back depending on how other people view me. And because I am nonbinary, I don’t fully identify as a man, at least not in the way that a cis man might view his maleness. My body will never be the same as that cis man’s body; I will always want to retain my ability to reproduce on my own terms in a society that goes lengths to deny trans people the right to dictate anything about our lives, especially our control over our reproductive power.
Thus, my nonbinary-ness doesn’t derive from any innate feeling of being nonbinary, but rather from my own material existence — that is, my own transness. And when discourse draws hard lines between “binary” transsexuals and “nonbinary” others, it isolates those of us who feel our transsexuality — or perhaps some kind of non-medical transness, if that’s what you prefer — is innately incompatible with cisnormativity and heteronormativity, and therefore renders us impossible to be “binary” ourselves.
Of course, it’s up to the individual to decide how to describe themself. Nothing is innately wrong with “nonbinary,” and I understand various reasons behind using it. But genderqueer will always be the more accurate reflection of myself and my reality.