Living Beyond the Binary
By Shane Whalley (The University of Texas at Austin)
“Is your baby a boy or a girl?” That’s often the first question we ask someone when we see them with a baby. We live in a culture that finds it very important to know the gender of a person. Once we know the gender, we then make a lot of assumptions about them based on implicit gender roles and expectations. This includes assumptions about their personality, what they like to wear, with what and with whom they like to play, and the gender of the person they will marry. The list is ENDLESS!
What happens if we can’t tell someone’s gender? Or what if someone lives between or outside the binary? That’s the space that I’ve lived in for over 20 years. I identify as genderqueer. I have an “F” (for female…not for failing gender). My gender identity is neither male nor female, and 99% of the time my gender expression is more masculine. I wear men’s clothes (I look spiffy in a bowtie) and shoes, and my hair is short.
This complicates my life because people often “can’t tell” my gender. It means that when I walk up to the counter to buy coffee the barista says “Sir, how can I help you,” and then when they hand me my coffee one minute later they say, “here is your coffee ma’am.” What did they see that made them change their mind? It means that when I go into a women’s bathroom I get stares and have awkward conversations.
I use ze/hir/hirs as my pronouns. They were the first pronouns I heard from folks who identified as non-binary. If people don’t ask me what pronouns I use, I have to figure out how to tell them. I often must draw a pronoun chart and give people examples, so they can use them properly. It usually takes people a couple of months to sort them out.
Why is all this important? Because the number of people living authentically beyond the binary is growing and our culture is slow to catch up. We are often only given two choices for bathrooms and gender boxes. We are often asked how it’s possible to be us, and we’re expected to explain and make others comfortable. We have to tell people our pronouns and take care of them when they make mistakes. We are made to feel like we don’t belong or that we are the “hot new thing.”
The lives of folks who live beyond the binary would be easier if we had fewer gender rules and expectation, and if there were more gender options than two.
Here are a few ideas for what people can do to be more considerate in their actions and intentions toward those of us who don’t fit neatly into M or F:
Trust that people are using the bathroom that is right for them and be friendly and kind when you see them.
Use non-gendered words and language when speaking such as “parents,” “children,” “folks/people,” “spouses,” and so on.
Ask people what pronouns they use...ask everyone! Don't assume that you know or can tell what someone's gender identity is. If you aren't comfortable using ze/hir/hirs or they/them/their pronouns, practice before meeting someone who uses them. Honor and use people's names and pronouns.
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