International Non-Binary People’s Day: Personal Reflections on Queerness and Identity

So I’ve missed International Non-Binary People’s Day (14th July), but I still wanted to write about it. I had forgotten when it was, and was surprised but really happy to see that when I logged on to social media last Tuesday, there were so many people posting and celebrating it. Non-Binary people get so little representation, are often forgotten, and misunderstood. Having a day of complete visibility and acceptance is so needed for many. 

For many years, I have felt out of place in my assigned gender. I hated how obviously a ‘woman’ I was. Like so many women, I got sexualised and objectified from a young age because of my figure, and I hated it. My tits became a normal thing for people to mention and point out. I hated my body for so many years, would wear nothing but binders, sports bras, and baggy clothes in order to hide my feminine body. I didn’t like being perceived as belonging to a gender. During sixth form, I began to like myself and accept my queerness, thanks to the amazing friends I made who became my queer family. We embraced each other’s queerness. During this time, I began to learn more about how gender is a construct, and became aware of the words ‘gender fluid’, ‘non-binary’, ‘genderqueer’, and felt like I had figured out what I was. 

Non-Binary isn’t really a gender, its a lack of it, and I felt like I didn’t belong to any gender. When I went to uni, I thought this would be a great time to fully be open to everyone about my relationship with gender. But then I got placed in an ‘all girls’ flat, despite stating on my application that I did not want that. In addition, my flat mates were, on a whole, very Straight™ and I did not fit in with them well. I remember attempting to open up to them on the first night there, and they just didn’t understand what I was saying, so I stopped pushing it. 

I did a module in first year about gender and sexuality. We were put into small groups every week, and would talk about how LGBTQ+ relates to every discipline. In the first week, we were given a task to introduce the person next to us to the group. We had to find out the persons name, pronouns and subject. I thought this was a great opportunity for me to assert my identity and explore what pronouns I wanted. This seemed like a safe space for me to be openly not gendered. So I told the person introducing me: “Hi, I’m Jen, my pronouns are they/them, and I do Art History”. She then introduced me to the group: “This is Jen, her pronouns are they/them, and she does Art History”. No one, not even the seminar leader, corrected her. I felt so incredibly awkward and embarrassed. 

In second year, I attended an evening with Travis Alabanza, an amazing queer artist. Their poetry and art explores their gender and identity so openly and honestly. I was so moved. I felt so inspired by their words. They said that their gender was never-ending, limitless, evolving, not static. They had chosen the perfect words to express how they felt. It was also how I felt, but I hadn’t figured out how to express it yet. I was honoured to be in the presence of such strong and incredible queerness. Go buy Alabanza’s book, read their poetry and their articles, watch their performances, follow them on social media. 

I continued to suppress and ignore my gender though. That was until my final year. For my dissertation, I studied a work by Claude Cahun, who is a gender-fluid, non-binary icon. Writing about Cahun and exploring zir work gave me the opportunity to explore my own relationship with gender. I love academic research and writing, and this gave me an amazing medium to further learn about living genderless. I had finally found the right way to express myself. Claude Cahun is an incredible artist. Ze understood how performative gender is 75+ years before Judith Butler ever wrote about it. Ze lived outside of masculine and feminine, purposefully creating a visual language in zir art to express zir relationship with gender and sexuality. I felt connected to Cahun in many ways, in part because despite zir constant assertions of lack of gender, almost every single article I read about zir used she/her pronouns and identified zir as a woman. I was shocked and saddened to see how writers actively pursue the erasure of Cahun’s identity through problematic framing and language. It felt similar to how I had said my pronouns were they/them, and that was ignored by everyone. 

During lockdown, I read the book ‘She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy’ by Joey Soloway, given to me by my amazing sister. I related to so much of what they wrote about. In particular, their coming out story. I hate the idea of coming out. I never came out as queer, I just lived it openly and everyone knew it. But I knew that that wouldn’t work with my gender. Everyone would see me as woman till I told them otherwise, and I didn’t want to make it a big deal. I didn’t want people to think I was weird or to not understand. Soloway put what I was feeling into words:

I’m going to say it. I’m not going to say it. I’m going to say it. I’m not going to say it. Jesus Christ, isn’t there already enough attention on you? Isn’t this just another attention-getting ploy? […] “So, this is hard for me, and really weird for me,” I started. “But I’ve been wanting to tell you guys that I don’t really identify with the word ‘“female,” or “woman,” and I never have; I mean, I have occasionally, but mostly have found it confusing. So…” I started to cry a little. Then wiped the tears away. Gathered myself. “I am starting to think of myself as non-binary. And you don’t have to get my pronouns right. I don’t even get them right. If you do, that’s great. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you all.”

This is why International Non-Binary People’s day is so important. Non-Binary identities are so consistently erased and actively ignored. So many people just aren’t aware of them, and so fail to treat Non-Binary people with respect, and don’t understand the proper language and terminology. It is so incredibly relevant and important now. It is important that as more and more people are being educated in anti-racism, we recognise that the binary of man and woman is a White Western, colonial construct that forcibly erased the hundreds of other recognised genders outside of White Europe. The gender binary is a form of white supremacy. To be anti-racist is also to be pro-trans and pro-non-binary. (List of resources linked down below)

As of now, my pronouns are she and they*. If you’re not fully aware of Non-Binary identity and terminology, that may seem confusing, but I promise you, it’s really not. I’m comfortable being surrounded by woman and am at place with that, but also want it acknowledged that my relationship to gender is different, and I want people to recognise that I don’t belong fully in the binary. There’s little things, like I don’t like being a ‘girlfriend’, but I’m proud to be a sister. My gender is expressed in the different relationships I have with people. My gender is me, it’s personal, it’s not anyones business.  But also, know that I am proud to be under the umbrella of Non-Binary. 

*2021 update: my pronouns are they/them

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