Identity + Intersectionality / Non-Binary

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“I’ve often found myself asking this question and recently Troye Sivan tweeted about it so I felt like I should ask you guys: If gender is a social construct, then what does being trans actually mean? If one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism is ending gender as we know it (as an imaginary thing), then how can this coexist with transgenderism?”

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Liam Lowery Says:

First, a disclosure: I have thought about your question every spare moment I have had for over a month. It is a good question, one that people (particularly people who have been aware/accepting of trans identities for a while) ask me pretty often, so I want to answer it as thoroughly as possible.

If gender is a social construct, then what does being trans actually mean?

Gender is a social construct. This is a phrase that anyone who’s taken a gender studies class (or looked at the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme) in recent years could parrot back to you. At the same time, trans and gender-nonconforming people have recently become visible in ways we were not before, pushing for equal or sometimes trans-specific rights and resources. When considered together, this presents an obvious question: If gender is constructed, then how can trans be a “real” identity?

Well, there’s a catch. This question assumes that social constructs can’t have deep-reaching effects on the ones who, within the construct, are perceived as “less than” or “other.” Social constructs, more than anything else, govern the way that systems cause violence to marginalized groups. Calling something a social construct doesn’t eliminate its power, or meaningfully address the harms people in the out-group experience.

I don’t feel like gender is only a social construct when I am treated differently because of my gender identity, like when a supervisor advises me to talk less about trans issues to benefit my career, or when a colleague asks me to “explain” Caitlyn Jenner (statements made by well-meaning people who are, for all intents and purposes, allies). Gender itself may be a social construct, but the gender binary has very real consequences—for trans individuals and for cis-women, too. In the patriarchal world we live in, male assigned and identified people experience privilege that female-identified people do not. Transgender people, though, typically experience being outside of and unrecognizable to this gender system—even when we are read as cisgender, we are still subject to harms based on our trans status at any point when we come out or are outed.

But being trans also means digging deep inside yourself and discovering riches beyond telling. It means that, while people may have told you that you were crazy, that this would alienate you from your family, or that you would get yourself killed, you knew yourself, and chose to live as yourself. Being trans means moments of clarity, spiritual awakening, joy, and self-discovery, all in the face of deeply ingrained opposition. It means you led your own uprising, and are now the sovereign of your own nation-state. Being trans is the truest kind of victory, the kind that is won with a great deal of expense. It is indescribable, and these words are clumsy in trying to capture it. My point is, it definitely means something—something very deep, personal, and impossible to explain.

If one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism is ending gender as we know it, then how can this coexist with transgenderism?

Transgender identities are complicated and not uniform. They include all kinds of people with all kinds of goals for how gender should evolve and change. So this question I can only answer for myself.

Gender is a multi-faceted word, but I think what you mean here is that one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism [the valuing of cisgender identities through framing gender discussions around cis identities and making trans identities “other”] is working to end the gender binary. In my experience, transgender identities (and learning to respect them) serve to undermine the gender binary!

While the gender binary is a system of oppression that subjugates women and disenfranchises trans people, gender identity is flexible and highly individualized. Ending the gender binary does not mean eradicating gender identities—far from it. It means making space for more of them. Being able to claim your own gender identity is a valuable part of the human experience, and everyone ought to be able to do so without the fear of violence.

There are some who would say we do not need to end the gender binary, but just complicate it more and create space for non-binary identities to be recognized. While personally I believe we can and deserve to go further, complicating the gender binary is certainly the first step towards creating space for all people to live authentic lives—not in spite of their gender identities but because of them.

Until we agree to listen to each other and allow all people to be the experts on their gender identities, the gender binary will persist. So put your gender pronouns in your email signature, teach trans 101 workshops at your school, and most of all, assume less and listen more.

We also need to address access to gender-affirming healthcare and protect against employment discrimination, not to mention protecting trans people’s rights to use the restroom of their choice.

I eagerly prepare for the day when all of us take ownership of our bodies and cast off the yoke of a binary gender system that harms every person—a  day when we are all trans, determining our identities as we see fit, and moving about a spectrum of gender identities rather than clinging to a socially constructed, harmful binary. I should say, though, that while this might be the endgame, being trans has never been about an endgame for me. My trans identity is the exact place where the personal intersects with the political. This is just who I am, and this work is done in the hopes that you, and only you, can get to be just who you are, too.

Your question about fighting cis-sexism through ending the gender binary is an evolving one. Just as the butch community who nursed our community through the AIDS crisis could never have predicted the current prevalence of trans identities at the time, we can’t assume what the future will hold, or how our conceptions of gender and identity will evolve over time. Gender is a product of place, culture, and the economy—consider, for instance, how third-gender people in the Philippines are more and more claiming binary trans identities because of globalization. I’m sure my answer, my identity, and my point of view will seem outdated even a decade from now.

But today at least, to fight the gender binary, we must keep our heads down and work, and allow ourselves to be surprised by what the future holds. I bet the next crop of rainbow children will have brilliant ideas and move our world forward in ways we never could have imagined.

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“So I’m a nonbinary trans man and I’m starting college next year. At college I want to start going by my preferred name and pronouns, maybe presenting a bit more masculine, etc. BUT. I’m confused on one thing… Should I tell people I’m trans when I meet them? Like, I don’t want to like, have to explain what being trans is or stuff right when I meet people, especially since I have trouble with social anxiety already. But I’m worried they might assume I’m a girl if I don’t explain.”

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Liam Lowery Says:

Hi there, Anonymous. As a non-binary trans man who started going by my preferred name and pronouns in college, I’m glad you reached out with this question. The fact that you’re reaching out at all indicates you have your stuff far more together than I did as an incoming freshman, but I will tell you the top three things I wish I had known when I started undergrad.

The first and most important thing I can tell you is to let people pleasantly surprise you.

When I rolled into my all-girls dorm and met my lady roommate, I stutteringly told her I was trans Actually, I may have said, “I’m a dude, kind of like inside?” I braced for impact, assuming she would ask to change rooms. Instead, she said “cool” and asked me if I wanted to order pizza. Don’t discount that you can get lucky.

What’s more, all the women in my dorm who I feared would shun me were friendly and generally disinterested in my gender identity. That’s because from the first week on, we had papers to write, philosophy texts to read, passages in Russian to translate (maybe that was just me). On top of that, people were hooking up, fighting, and going to Taco Night at the cafeteria. Which is to say that once you are in school and dealing with the day-to-day, it will likely not be as challenging as it seems in the abstract.

My advice is to practice your script for when you meet people initially. Maybe you want to say you’re non-binary, maybe you just want to say your name and preferred pronouns. It will probably change, but the important thing is that you set boundaries for your everyday interactions and introductions that are comfortable for you. Once you do this a few times, you will get used to it and feel out how much you want to say and when.

Now, to the second big thing I wish I’d realized sooner. There is a major pitfall to be wary of, especially as a trans person: you will feel pressure to do the unpaid work of educating people when there are others who are tasked with that responsibility. Try not to fall into this role.

Early in my time in undergrad, when I did happen upon some poor unfortunate soul who had no clue what gender identity was and had never heard the word trans before, I would talk with them at length about gender identity and why it mattered. I had at least thirty of these conversations in my first month of school, I kid you not. It left me feeling burnt out and unsatisfied.

Here is the thing, Anonymous: you are at school to learn, just like everyone else. And hopefully, have a blast and make a lot of friends. But you are not there to be anyone’s personal gender identity educator, even if you happen to be an expert in the subject area.

Looking back, I realize that those people who had burning questions about what gender pronouns are should have just googled it. I mean, give me a break here—gender pronouns are what they sound like!

Asking me those simplistic questions just because they knew I was trans was disrespectful of my time. If nobody is paying you to do that educational work and there are a lot of great resources available to people who want to be allies, you do not need to be that resource. Stepping into that role instills an expectation that trans people exist to educate cis people. If you want to get involved on your campus, advocate for your school to include a transgender 101 training at orientation so that all students will get some info on trans identities—that would reach more people than a one-on-one chat with you.

The other important pitfall to side-step is one I never realized until I was done with school, and it might be even more important than the whole “you are not everyone’s gender professor” thing.

My RA didn’t really get it when I told her it was important that she take the sign with my given name off the door. Instead of complaining to the building manager, I ripped it off and put up on that said Liam in big, honking block letters. I did that, more or less, all through college: I would email professors at the beginning of the semester and ask them to change my name on their class rosters. Usually they would, sometimes they wouldn’t. I would get called by my given name in class, be embarrassed, and stop participating. Or if I felt brave that day, I would clear my throat and say, “Actually, I’m Liam.”

Those moments were far from personal triumphs. What I should have realized is that there were salaried staff members at my university tasked with helping students—including me—deal with administrative issues. By making my problems and myself invisible, I was giving them a free pass not to engage with the issues transgender students often face at colleges.

Look for opportunities to lessen your load so you can take full advantage of being a college student. For instance, contact a dean at your school and ask them to inform professors about your preferred name. Let people do their jobs for you, and by extension you will show them how to do it for other trans students.

There you go, Anonymous—those are the things I wish I knew when I started school that have remained relevant (at times, too relevant) since graduating. Good luck at college, and remember: you’re there to learn and occasionally have fun!

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“I’m genderqueer, and my friend has been super supportive…up until I came out as asexual as well. She keeps asking me if I’m sure I’m really asexual or if it’s just because I’m genderqueer or ‘confused’ about my gender. What do I say to her?”

-Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Kara Kratcha as part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions

Kara Says:

Dear anonymous friend,

How are you? I hope you and your genderqueer ace self are doing well enough and avoiding all of the nonsense that sometimes comes with existing as a genderqueer and/or ace person. I’m sure you’re great and that you’re doing a great job.

Anyway, I have to admit that this kind of reaction to a combination of queer identities in one human frustrates and confuses me. There doesn’t seem to be any reason an ace identity should invalidate a genderqueer (or nonbinary or trans) identity. More broadly, there doesn’t seem to be any reason a sexual identity should invalidate a gender identity or vise versa.

That said, I am a human who has gone to great lengths to educate themselves about queer sexualities and genders and I bet you are too, so maybe your first move should be to explain some terms to your friend. I know you have probably already done some of this. I know you might find this a little more exhausting every time you have to do it (I know I do).

Still, there’s so much confusion in the world about the difference between gender and sexuality that sometimes we have to explain ourselves if we want to be understood. Once I told a coworker that I was doing research about asexuality and narrative. He responded with a monologue about how gender roles are collapsing in the United States and that the difference between men and women is disappearing and isn’t that a shame? I think he thought we were talking about agender people or maybe trans people generally. In any case, we did not share a vocabulary about the topic we were supposedly discussing and therefore could not communicate about it. If you want to be able to talk with your friend about your identity, you may have to establish a common vocabulary.

(You should also remember that you have not failed if you decide that you cannot or do not want to explain yourself until you are understood right now. Both asexuality and genderqueerness are complicated topics, and combining them makes them even more complicated and difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced them. In the situation with my coworker, I decided that making myself understood wasn’t worth it. You may decide differently with your friend, but that’s your call.)

The other reason I am so baffled by your friend’s reaction to your aceness and genderqueerness, dear anon, is because I myself experience my ace identity and my nonbinary identity as intertwined and inseparable. My gender complements and complicates my sexuality in ways I continue to discover. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but I find the gender binary in relation to sexual activity a lot like a fruit fly infestation: always buzzing in the background, sometimes hard to see from a distance, and almost impossible to get rid of. Even the concept of “gay sex” relies on the idea that the people involved conform to the same end of a binary gender system.

Even more frustratingly, sometimes perceptions of gay sex fall into “masculine” and “feminine” roles. I recently told someone that I am into girls and thereby implied that I’m gay or maybe bi (this, by the way, is a strategy I use when being read as a straight girl in gay spaces gets to be too much for me but I don’t feel safe explaining how I actually identify) and their first response was to ask if I’m a top or a bottom. Yuck!

By asking this question, this person presumes that all people who have same-sex interactions take on one binary gender role in sex all the time. As you perhaps perceive, my nonbinary trans identity and my ace identity are interacting here in ways that are difficult for me to pick apart. Does that response to my perceived identity squick me out because I don’t want to have to identify as top (coded masculine) or bottom (coded feminine)? Or because I don’t want to be associated with sex acts I’m not performing? Or because the gendering of sex makes it difficult for me to access it as something I want at all? I don’t know, but I’m definitely sure it makes me uncomfortable. If you have had similar experiences, maybe you would like to share them with your friend so that she can think about how the labels you use make up one whole person who experiences the world from multiple standpoints all at once.

Thinking about my gender identity and my sexual identity together often brings up more questions than answers for me, but that doesn’t mean that I’m confused about one or the other or both. My guess is that you feel similarly at least some of the time. If your friend is really your friend, then you should be able to engage in identity uncertainty and exploration with her and leave feeling that your identity is still valid. Alternately, maybe you feel entirely certain about who you are and what that means, in which case I think you should tell your friend who you are and what that means as clearly as you can and hope she takes you at your word. If she doesn’t, then maybe you should reconsider whether this person is capable of supporting and loving you the way a friend should.

All of the best,

Kara

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“I recently accepted my identity as genderqueer and have asked my closest friends to use they/them pronouns for me. However, I didn’t realize how complicated this could be because so many things are gendered in our world. Am I still a lesbian? Can I still participate in girls’ night? Can I be somebody’s girlfriend? How do I deal with the weird feeling I get from being on a women’s intramural team? Help!”

- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Red Davidson as a part of Everyone is Gay: Second Opinions.

Red Says:

Hi! Congratulations on coming out to some of your friends, that’s a huge step. Gender is really confusing and can be hard to talk about with people, so asking your friends to use they/them pronouns for you is a huge accomplishment.

Gender is complicated, and non-binary people identify in a wide variety of ways. Because of this, figuring out how other aspects of your identity or labeling change—and even how you relate to yourself and others—can indeed be really hard to figure out. Gender is deeply personal, and everyone defines their gender in different ways, which means that everyone will have different responses to how they choose to change how they identify after coming out as trans or non-binary.

Regarding your specific concerns, I think the biggest question to ask yourself is: Is being a woman or girl a part of your gender? Though I usually find it easier to try not to label my own gender, the word that comes closest to fitting for me is “demigirl,” which means I consider being a woman part of my gender, but it is not the only or even always the most important/dominant part of my gender. However else I identify mostly falls within the range of “agender,”—which is to say that “maleness” is not at all an aspect of my gender, even if I sometimes present in a more “masculine” way. All of this is to say that being a woman makes up a significant enough portion of my gender to mean that I still feel directly impacted by misogyny/sexism, and that when people read me as a woman the discomfort I experience is not so much about them being wrong,but that I consider that reading to be incomplete.

If all or most of that resonates with you, then I think it makes more than enough sense for you to still consider yourself a lesbian. If not, then you might need to do some digging for yourself about what feels best to use as a label, if you feel like you need one.  For you “queer” might suffice. “Bi” and “polysexual” also allow you to articulate an attraction to women and non-binary people—or otherwise any formulation of “not men”—if lesbian no longer feels like a good fit for you. (Bi is now commonly defined as “attraction to two or more genders” and there is absolutely no reason why “men” has to be one of them. Polysexual means “attraction to many genders.”) As for whether you can be someone’s “girlfriend,” that is entirely up to you! If I were in a relationship right now I would probably prefer “genderfriend” (though I understand that sounds very informal) or “partner.” I have a friend that uses “datemate.” But you can use literally anything you want that feels comfortable to you. Here’s a list of some gender-neutral titles, relationship titles are featured toward the middle.

As for “girls’ nights” I would imagine that’s something to bring up with friends who are having a girls’ night. Chances are if you’ve had girls’ nights with these same friends for a long time, that whether or not you are in part a woman, they will be used to you joining in on those gatherings.  However, if your friends have more complicated feelings about including someone who isn’t a woman in those activities, you should respect that. You can obviously still hang out with all of those people on other occasions. Also, if you don’t feel comfortable including yourself in that space, then that is obviously something to share with your friends. Both you and your friends’ feelings on this may change—it may constantly change, so for something that is so interpersonal, you might have these sorts of conversations more than once.

Why exactly do you feel uncomfortable on the sports team you are currently on? If you aren’t out to your team, does it feel like you’re lying? Remaining in the closet to keep yourself comfortable or safe is not deception. Do you feel like you’re lying to yourself or that your presence on the team is inherently misgendering to you? If that is the case then that team may just not be the place for you to be. Is there a mixed gender team for the sport? You could consider switching to that team. If not, and if being on a men’s team feels more uncomfortable/unsafe than being on the women’s team, then you might just need to stick that weird feeling out for a bit. Talk to the friends that you are out to about how you’re feeling, and if one of them is on the team—or if there is someone on the team you trust to come out to—talk to them whenever you might feel like you need reaffirmation or reassurance.  I think this question might be the hardest one, because a team both includes many other people, and is also more structured than a friend group. I will admit that I don’t know the best ways to go about addressing this particular problem, but when in doubt, communicating with people tends to be the best choice.

I hope this has helped at least a bit, and please know that your gender is allowed to be complicated. It is allowed to change. You ultimately have more right to self-determination about how you identify than others, because you know yourself and your gender better than anyone else ever can (even if you knowing yourself just means you have a more sophisticated understanding of how confusing everything is—being confused is completely valid as well).

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"I am a feminine-appearing person who recently realized that I am genderqueer. How do I strike a balance between wanting to be open about who I am (pronoun preferences, I don’t like to be referred to as "miss" or "lady", etc) and not wanting to have to explain my admittedly confusing gender identity to every family member, friend, and co-worker?"

- Question asked by Anonymous and answered by Red Davidson as part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions.

Red Says:

I‘m going to be 100% honest with you: these are things I am also currently struggling with, down to finding my own gender confusing. So first I’d just like to say: coming out to yourself is just as hard (if not harder) as coming out to other people. So good job and congratulations.

I’m so glad that you know you don’t have/want to explain everything about your gender to other people. Because you really don’t owe an explanation to anyone (not even yourself, remain confused about your gender for however long you please).  Assuming you are surrounded by nothing but wonderful, accepting people, the way you come out doesn’t have to involve anything beyond saying “I don’t identify as a girl, and I’d prefer you use [your pronouns] to refer to me.” And you can also specify what sort of gendered (or non-gendered) language you’d like people to use for you (here’s a list of gender neutral/queer titles!) As long as people are respecting you, and referring to you using the language you prefer, you really don’t need to worry about whether or not they know the complexities of how you identify.

Of course, not all people are wonderful.  I would brace yourself for invasive and insensitive questions—even if you’re surrounded by well-intending people.  In that case you can direct them to trans 101 resources online (or just tell them to google it themselves). A quick Google search pulled up a “Tips for Trans Allies” article on GLAAD’s website.  I obviously don’t know your family, friends, or co-workers, and I definitely hope that they will at least try to be accepting, but if there is a chance someone will react with outright transphobia and hate, please know how to prepare yourself for that. Is it safe to come out at work (physically, emotionally, and for job security)? Is it safe to come out to all of your friends and family, or will you need to make some difficult decisions about who you come out to and who you don’t?

Also know that you can come out to different people at different times and in different ways. If you know a few people who are likely to respond really well, tell them first so that you have a system of support in place in case coming out to other people goes poorly. If it’s easier to come out to some people via written words, send e-mail or write a letter.  If you want a large group of people to know at once, you can make a Facebook status about it.  Maybe try buying or making a pin with your pronouns on it. I occasionally write my pronouns on my wrist in sharpie, although that’s something I do more for myself than for others. And if you want to give a more detailed explanation to some people, do!

Also know that if the way you identify and think about your own gender might change over time, and that’s okay! It might mean you are asking for different things from people, or that the way you come out may change over time. Gender (and sexuality) can be just as much of a process as coming out is.

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