Why be nonbinary?



A world segregated into male and female categories feels suffocating. Nonbinary identity is a radical escape hatch

Recently, I found myself at London Stansted Airport, travelling back to the United States. I’m a frequent flyer, so I’m familiar with the airport ritual: shoes, laptop, body scanner. But for myself and many others, the final instalment of this liturgy tends to become a social test. As usual, I braced myself and stepped into the scanner.

‘Arms like this… Anything in your pockets? Stand still.’ As the security agent stepped back to the controller, she looked up. Gender panic rose in her face. Her eyes desperately tried to undress me: female or male? Pink or blue button? (Yes, pink or blue.) ‘Female,’ I sighed, but the Plexiglas muffled my voice. ‘Female!’ I yelled. ‘The pink button!’ Other travellers froze, expecting a scene, but the agent’s face lit up. ‘I thought you were a woman!’ she announced triumphantly. She jabbed the button featuring a pink stick figure: vagina; female; woman.

As someone who is gender nonbinary, I’ve gathered hundreds of these stories. Some are funny, others vicious. Despite a widespread assumption that everyone fits into neat gender categories, I’ve always been treated as a gender question mark. My social interactions since childhood have been filled with wildly vacillating gender expectations. These days, though, I identify as nonbinary not because I am androgynous. Rather, I do so because experiencing life as an androgynous person has made me acutely aware of how gendered expectations and assumptions saturate our lives.

Unreflective critics like to accuse people like me of being ‘obsessed’ with gender. But far from being obsessed, many of us are just plain tired of it. I am tired of living in a society where everyone forces each other into a blue or a pink box. The ferocity with which these gender boxes are maintained – and the Hail Mary attempts to justify them with science – is truly staggering. Anyone who dares to challenge these boxes is met with distortion and ridicule. I don’t want to put up with it any longer: my identity is a petition for an escape hatch.

Most people assume that gender is tied to biological sex. For the majority, this means that gender is identical to sex, where sex is taken to be determined by one’s reproductive features. Call this the ‘identity’ view of gender. For others, following Simone de Beauvoir, gender is the social meaning of sex. Call this the ‘social position’ view of gender.

On either the identity or the social-position view, your gender is constrained by whether your body is sexed as male or as female. According to the identity view, your gender just is your sexed body. And, according to the social view, your gender is unavoidably indexed to your sexed body, because society imposes social roles onto you on the basis of your biology. On either view, then, it would seem that nonbinary genders do not – cannot – exist. But this is mistaken.

Consider first those who hold to a strict identity relation between gender and sex. On this view, nonbinary gender cannot exist because – it is assumed – everyone has either a male or a female body. This view proliferates on countless blogs, forums and news sources, where one finds wildly distorted discussions of what it means to be nonbinary. Nearly all conclude that nonbinary gender is a biological impossibility. The more vitriolic commenters add to this that anyone who says they are nonbinary is deranged.

It seems, then, that when I say: ‘I am nonbinary’, a staggering number of people take this to mean: ‘I don’t have female or male reproductive features’, and so dismiss my claim as absurd. But this is a conversational failure. Maybe even a bald-faced lie. We are nowhere near the end of militant insistence that nonbinary genders are a ‘biological’ impossibility. But the insistence is a façade hiding a bad argument. Let’s take the reasoning at face value:

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