It turns out that today is International Non-Binary Persons Day. I really have no idea what that means or how it helps, but hey, I’ll take it.
As you probably know, I am non-binary. I have been all my life, but I didn’t have the terminology or understanding to “come out” until I was twenty-five. Being non-binary to me (and I am only one singular example of being non-binary) has to do with 1) not feeling comfortable being a “woman” or a “man” 2) feeling that my identity extends beyond those understandings of gender 3) feeling most authentic in some sort of liminal space between the boundaries of masculine or feminine.
I know that people have struggled to understand what this means. And that through some level of fear they have either avoided engaging with me on it or simply continued to misgender me as a woman.
For people who have never met a non-binary person before, it can be confusing.
So here’s a pretty easy way for you to think about it: think about gender the same way you think about someone’s name.
Example 1: You can’t tell a person’s name just by looking at them (unless they are wearing a name-tag). Sure, you can guess. You might even guess correctly every once in a while, but it doesn’t really make sense as a practice to go around “guessing” people’s names.
In the same way, you can’t tell a person’s gender by looking at them. We’ve all been trained to associate certain traits with certain genders, but this is just a part of creating and maintaining a sociological construct. It doesn’t represent or reflect people as they actually are. So don’t try to “guess” a person’s gender. Just ask their pronouns.
Example 2: Some people change their names over time. Since people don’t have much of a choice as babies as to what their names will be, sometimes as they grow older they will find a better name that is more accurate and representative. In the same way, as people age they might come to a better understanding of their gender and come out as a gender other than what they were assigned. While coming out is a choice, the internal feeling, the authentic way of being is not.
Some people change their names early in life, some people take longer. Some people will change their names multiple times. It’s pretty easy to learn a new name. It’s pretty easy to learn new pronouns. The important thing is to NOT put the work of re-learning on the other person. If you make a mistake, correct yourself and move on. I have yet to meet a single trans person who enjoys having people apologize to them over and over and over and over again. Just correct yourself and move on.
Example 3: Names are both a huge part of a person’s identity and also not everything about a person. In the same way, a person’s gender is both very important to their identity and also only a single facet. It’s an interesting balance being born into a society. We are labeled with so much at birth, and learning how to navigate these labels can occupy so much of our time. Sometimes, as a non-binary person, I don’t want to spend time navigating other people’s responses to me. Sometimes I just want to exist. (Honestly you could probably make that most to all of the time…)
So, yes, I’m sure I’m not the first person to make this analogy. I’m sure there are important nuances that will come up to you later. That’s great. I’m happy if you’re thinking about it. Just thought I’d share a pretty easy way for those who are confused.
Think of it as a name. Don’t assume their gender. Ask for pronouns.