I look at my emails this morning. I am happy and grateful to see a request from an art institution for work – as a freelance artist work can be unpredictable.
The smile soon turns to a familiar sigh as I read something along lines of: “In 2018, where gender conversations is all Around Us! and we are discovering NeW and FuN WayZ To Expl0Re R GenderZ - we would love you to come talk about being Non Binary and other Modern gender expressionz that have Blasted into our 2018 consciousness!”
The sigh doesn’t omit what I know is probably a very well-intentioned email coming from a white, middle class, recent graduate of an arts university just outside of London brought in to ‘help with outreach’, otherwise known as ‘make us relevant again’. But still, the sigh is there.
I want to reply: “This does not feel modern to me, this feels like the most ancient thing I know” but I’m not sure how Meredith would cope with that response and if that will pay my rent.
It’s not just that email though. Switch to TV screens, television like Good Morning Britain, documentary after documentary, thinkpiece after thinkpiece, perfume campaign after fashion campaign, and there is a dangerous undertone of ‘newness’ amongst the conversations around gender and non-binary identities.
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Existing outside of male and female. Gender non-conformity. Gender fluidity. Gender queerness. Whatever we choose to call it, there is certainly a ‘trend’ toward insinuating that these identities (and the people that use them) are just that… a trend. Something new. Something young. Just appearing. And most evidently, with this, something that is white.
Quickly, the word ‘non-binary’ became associated with someone skinny, able-bodied, white, and masculine of centre. This isn’t a critique of people who fit that description; I think you look real cool. I want you to be able to express your gender freely and safely. It is more just an observation of how language and popular perception shifts. The word ‘non-binary’ may have only come into public use more commonly in the last five years, but prior to that many other associated words were used to describe existing outside of binary gender and also expressions. Gender non-conformity has existed since humans have been here.
In 19th Century Italy, many were called femmenielli, and alongside the Hijra community in South Asia, there are countless examples of indigenous ways of being outside the binary, and in many parts of pre-colonial African countries too. Sure, none of these communities were using this exact word, at that exact time, but the conception of being something beyond a man or a woman is certainly not a 21st Century phenomenon. This isn’t to say the dialogue surrounding non-binary identities hasn’t shifted and expanded, in many ways it has, but more to note a specific frustration I have with the framing of these identities as “new”, and the implications that this has on being a Black non-binary person.
I do not think it is a coincidence that things are often seen as “just beginning to exist” when they are placed within frames of the West and/or whiteness. Did we mean to say “non-binary was new”, or did we just mean to say “non-binary is now something I see more white, western, middle class people talking about”. Gender cannot be separated from race, and we cannot ignore the power whiteness has to force defaults onto things, to erase histories, or to homogenise and flatten complex existences. White people, and whiteness, have a vivid history of colonising lands and spaces and taking things over. In some ways I am worried about how whiteness is managing to flatten, erase, and take over conversations around gender non-conformity and non-binary identities. With this, non-binary becomes something that is positioned as “new”, as separate, as existing in certain ways - and places a new host of rules on something that was meant to escape parameters.
Whiteness becomes a default in deciding when something exists, and with that erases the complex, nuanced and rich history of Black and brown people. It feels we focus so much on the word and the language, that we forget how the project of subverting gender binaries has existed before this word. Through association to being ‘new’, it forces an almost colourblind lens onto my gender, something that extracts my Blackness as they aim to squash me back into a third box, the ‘non-binary’ box – that has suddenly been loaded with all these words, expectations, preconceptions and rules.
I say “I am non-binary” so the person can understand me. They ask “how I identify” and I say “non-binary” so I do not need to spend the next 10 minutes explaining my gender. It becomes shorthand for “ah, you’re not this, and maybe not this”. But with that I begin to see how (through association) this word maybe becoming something far from what I first imagined.
I say it to “be understood”, and then I remember that maybe this does not have to be my goal. Can I, and my gender(s), be more complex than a goal of comprehension? Who am I aiming to be understood by? Should I even expect a word or label to hold all of my complexities?
I look at my recent tabs and see a page I had open on the bakla, a name often used to describe the histories of gender non-conformity in the Philippines, somewhere that holds some of my history – and I remember that even if I have so many questions right now, there is one thing I am certain of: we are not new.
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