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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad