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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear