The gender binary is a mess, isn’t it? It can get people so worked up that their gender reveal parties burn down forests to the cost of $8million. This everyday binary-fixation can marginalise those living outside of these gendered lines and cause a disconnect in how people inside the binary treat those like me and others who live beyond the binary.
Earlier this year I was invited to perform at a poetry event. Introducing me on stage, the host misgendered me but quickly apologised and corrected himself. I knew he didn’t mean any ill-will, and I had already forgotten about it after my set. However, he approached me afterwards and spent a long time profusely apologizing and turning what had been a small incident into a spectacle. In doing so, it shifted the conversation from accountability to one centred on his guilt. He seemed to seek absolution for his misgendering sins, holding out for enough non-binary Hail Marys to give him comfort. If you misgender someone, simply acknowledge it, correct yourself and move on. Do not make it about your guilt. If someone misgenders your non-binary friend (and is publicly out), correct them - especially when they are not present. It’s okay to make mistakes, but be accountable. What matters is your commitment to doing better.
Conversations about pronouns are often perceived as only relevant to trans and non-binary people, something outside of the interests of cis people – but everyone has a role to play. We should make these discussions so routine that it’s mundane. From publicly including pronouns in meetings, social media bios, or email signatures, cisgender allies can normalise these conversations that can often feel uncomfortable or difficult to bring up naturally. It seems like a starter pack for an ally but pronouns are a fundamental way to support your non-binary friends and foster an environment where they can be safely visible. It may seem like a small gesture but I’m always touched when someone asks me about my pronouns – that it’s a sign of someone reaching out and wanting to recognize my identity. Whilst my very existence is debated in the media, moments like these affirm who I am and it can go a long way in acknowledging an identity that is too often erased.
I think a lot about who is allowed to be non-binary in public spaces. If you run events advertised as aimed at ‘women and non-binary people,’ forensically question your intentions. Women-led spaces are not automatically safe spaces. As a facilitator, you have responsibilities and a duty of care to those participating in your event. If you are going to include non-binary participation in your events, what have you changed or included that would appeal to non-binary people? Is there any support on hand that will ensure non-binary people feel they have someone to talk to in these spaces? If you are trying to open up events to non-binary people, who do you imagine coming? Challenge any assumptions that come with this perception. Is it all non-binary people, or is their inclusion conditional on being a certain type of non-binary person? As an AMAB (assigned male at birth) non-binary person, it’s difficult to know whether I would be welcomed at these events or opportunities – whether or not I’m the right kind of ‘non-binary’ that the organisers have in mind. If something is open to AFAB (assigned female at birth) non-binary folks and did not have AMAB non-binary in mind, think about how this conflates AFAB non-binary people with women and AMAB non-binary with men. Non-binary people should not be included just as an auxiliary to the main event; they should not be used to make your event appear diverse. Non-binary should include all non-binary people or else you’re simply perpetuating the binary.
Since this serves as a short subjective guide from my perspective as one non-binary individual, take this only as a starting step. Have these conversations with your own non-binary friends and people around you, ask them what they need, and how you can best support them. While non-binary gender identity is talked about more and more, this doesn’t necessarily translate into a safer world nor a more understanding society for us. Learn about the long history of non-binary identities, particularly those outside of the West; challenge the assumption that the binary is natural; question how cisnormativity permeates our everyday routines, and particularly its relationship to race. Recognize that being non-binary is not a phase, and is an identity that demands respect.
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Oli Isaac Smith is a writer, poet and theatre-maker. Their latest production, Dead Reckoning, celebrates the everyday lives of transgender and non-binary people
This week HuffPost UK is running Being Non-Binary, a series of first-person perspectives exploring what it means to be non-binary, looking at how non-binary gender identity relates to different people’s personal, professional and romantic lives. If you would like to share your experience, please do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org