Building a world beyond binaries
This July 14th marks the ninth annual International Non-Binary People’s day, and it serves as a salient reminder of the need to celebrate the non-binary people in our lives and continue working to build a world beyond binaries. Gender is a core part of our identities and it impacts the way we move through the world, how we’re perceived and treated, our access, our opportunities and our power. Understandings of the nuances that exist within gender identity and expression are growing, and thanks to the tireless work of advocates, some government agencies are taking steps toward inclusive change.
For example, in early July, the State Department announced that it will be adding another gender option on passports for those who are non-binary, intersex and/or non-conforming. There are about 1.2 million non-binary LGBTQ adults in the U.S., 26% of LGBTQ youth identify as non-binary and 35% of Gen Z report knowing someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. However, the U.S. and its many institutions are still largely organized under binary notions of gender in ways that impact the well-being and prosperity of the non-binary community.
According to research conducted by Human Rights Campaign and Gender Spectrum with genderqueer, non-binary, gender-fluid, gender nonconforming and transgender-identifying young people in 2014, the binary gender-specific language and terminology non-binary young people encounter in their communities “...serves to keep them, at best, invisible and ignored and, at worst, excluded and isolated.” For my graduate school capstone, I conducted focus groups with young non-binary people involved in gender justice and found that the feeling of erasure and displacement described in Human Rights Campaign and Gender Spectrum’s research was amplified and exacerbated when experienced within organizations doing progressive work. As one participant said: “In social and gender justice organizations, you want it to be a space where people are more understanding of [gender identity and expression] because that is their thing. So when you’re in a space like that and they aren’t receptive to it, it kind of hurts a little bit more.”
“In social and gender justice organizations, you want it to be a space where people are more understanding of [gender identity and expression] because that is their thing. So when you’re in a space like that and they aren’t receptive to it, it kind of hurts a little bit more.”
We still have a lot of learning and unlearning to do as a society to create a world that is truly inclusive of non-binary people—a world where the U.S. Census counts non-binary people, and transgender and non-binary people are safe and celebrated. Here are a few ways advocates, allies and organizations can work to ensure non-binary people feel welcome, respected and valued, in their organizations and in their communities.
1. Strive for gender-neutrality
People who participated in my focus group indicated that the use of gender-binary language is hurtful, makes them feel left out or even erased in some cases and raises concerns about their safety in a given space or context. Reframing communications outside of a gender-binary is the best way to ensure you are not creating an immediate barrier to participation for non-binary people. This includes not gendering people (using they/them pronouns unless you know their pronouns), including modifiers like cis/trans to avoid setting cisgenders as the norm, including pronouns in staff bios and introductions and using gender-neutral greetings and salutations like folks, y’all, people or friends.
While individuals can and should have the agency to frame and express their gender and pronouns in whatever way they choose, organizations should not frame pronouns as a preference. They are an aspect of a person’s identity and should be treated with respect.
2. Make space for all the ways gender can show up
Many focus group participants shared feeling like their inclusion in different organizations was an afterthought rather than an intentional part of their work. For instance, one non-binary transgender participant described being left out of a “femme” work event because their appearance did not match their co-workers expectations of what it means to be “femme.” Not all transgender people are non-binary and being non-binary does not proclude someone from expressing in a “feminine” way. Gender shows up in many different ways, and we should try to find ways of processing people fully instead of creating language barriers that sometimes only serve to safeguard us from people and experiences that feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar to us.
3. Be open and intentional
Inclusion should be intentional—which means that gender-based organizations should clearly articulate why they are including people with diverse gender identities and expressions so that it isn’t perceived as lip service or an afterthought. The Women’s Foundation of California and Young Women’s Freedom Center are great examples of intentional use of language. Intentionality also means showing up for non-binary people in their own spaces as an ally and doing our homework so we are not constantly asking our non-binary peers to explain their gender to us. Focus group participants said they understand that people will make mistakes along the way, and it’s important that individuals and organizations dedicated to creating inclusive environments recognize and acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers.
4. Keep learning
As we continue to work towards a more just and equitable world for all, the ways in which we conceive of and understand gender will continue to transform and evolve. Continuing to learn is integral to the collective success of our movements for justice. I will leave you with this quote from one of my focus group participants: “In order to get the same thing, we’ve gotta work together. And sometimes that means just overcoming some hurdles and also just understanding that nothing is new under the sun. Just the very concept of people who aren’t a part of that binary, and that binary way, has always existed, so it’s wanting to invoke that remembrance so that everyone can live their best lives. We’ve already had enough pain, so there’s no point in adding to it on each other. So that’s why I think it’s so important to get through those hurdles because when you work together it’s easier.”
“The very concept of people who aren’t a part of that binary, and that binary way, has always existed, so it’s wanting to invoke that remembrance so that everyone can live their best lives.”
This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 at 09:22 am and is filed under Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.