Non-binary: An introduction to another way of thinking about identity

Do not assume you can tell someone’s gender identity just by looking at their gender presentation.

Through all of the public debate this last week arising from some unsavoury journalism, through the progressive blog series on this very website you will notice an absence of one term: non-binary. Can anybody easily tell me what this means? No? I didn’t think so. Don’t worry, that’s ok, I’m here to educate.

I’d like to sit with you and explain with eye contact, anecdotes and genuine sharing what Non-Binary is, but for now I’m going to contend with sharing the facts. They are so unknown I have to use this opportunity to help you understand. Hopefully there will be another time for me to share my own story.

Trans is in fact an umbrella term which incorporates many different identities, including transsexual, transvestites, transgender and non-binary. We are taught that both sex and gender exist within a binary model; male/female or man/woman. When the mainstream media talk about the trans community it is within the confines of these binary identities - “WOMAN BORN A MAN” or something similar.

But, if you start thinking about gender and what it means to move across genders and how we present our gender identity, imagine what it would be like to remove the idea of gender completely – to exist beyond or between the binary.

There is a staggering lack of knowledge amongst the majority of the public on this. I’m not sure if this is because we don’t or can’t allow our minds to wander. Whatever the case, in my role as one of NUS LGBT Officers I spend a lot of time educating and sharing what I know with students. I also do this in the pub, in the shops, in the library, with my friends and even with my family.

Like other trans people, non-binary people sometimes experience a sense of dysphoria (the sense of their body being wrong in terms of sex) but it doesn't necessarily correlate to firm ideas of "male" and "female" in the same way that it does for some trans women and men.

As part of a non-binary identity, gender may be a more fluid concept, so the idea of a "fixed" gender would not be fitting. Because of this fluidity, someone’s identity and how they see themselves in the world might change over time.

If you exist beyond or between the binary of male/female or man/woman, then the use of common pronouns or titles may not feel comfortable for you, (Mr/Miss/he/she). I am a firm believer that while language is sometimes seen as set, it is in fact malleable, and can and should be used to adapt to new identities. In the case of non-binary, it is possible to use Mx or M as a title, and while used sometimes in the plural sense "they" is usually the easiest pronoun to use, while some do choose other pronouns to suit their identity.

As far as I am aware, legally trans people are covered in the sense of existing within the binary or medically transitioning. However the Equality Act doesn’t seem to cover people who are not medically transitioning from one defined gender to another.

We don’t drop bombs, we don’t crash economies, and this education is actually free. But we remain unequal, largely unrecognised, without public debate or widespread recognition. I hope this is one small step to change that, even for a handful of people.

This was a very brief lesson in non-binary and can I just ask you to take the following points home and dare I hope it – share with your friends?

Do not assume you can tell someone’s gender identity just by looking at their gender presentation. In terms of asking an individual about their preferred pronoun, my advice would be to ask everyone within a group their preferred pronoun or ask no one. Choosing an individual whom you read as trans may be isolating and might "out" their trans status without meaning to. If you have questions, try to remember that this isn’t just theory but often someone’s personal life and experience.  Invite someone to come and do training in your workplace, college or university. If you are compiling data or creating a form to collect research try to include identities beyond the binary. Options could include male/female/prefer not to say/other. 

Sky Yarlett, 23, is one of two NUS LGBT Officers. You can follow both on Twitter as @NUS_LGBT

Where can I find out more information?

Each person’s identity is individual to their experiences but there are lots of resources which can help to provide information and a basic understanding.

Often most helpful is to hear personal experiences.

This is a useful link which provides information and guidance on non-binary:

www.nonbinary.org.

This is a website in which peoples’ experiences are documented and individuals’ questions can be asked and answered:

www.liberateyourself.co.uk

This is the "Think Outside The Box" website which provides guidance and examples to including Trans and Non-Binary identities within forms:

www.totb.org.uk

This is the NUS LGBT Trans Students guide which provides a brief introduction to Trans and the issues Trans students may face and how to include Trans people within the LGBT society:

http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/asset/News/6015/LGBT_TransGuide1.pdf

 

 

The majority of the public isn't aware of the issues around moving beyond gender completely. Photograph: Getty Images
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue