International Non-Binary People’s Day fell on Tuesday 14th July this year, and much like all days and weeks and months for the queer community, social media sites were flooded with colourful illustrations and impactful personal reflections relating to the non-binary experience. It wasn’t my initial plan to write about this day, but as I realised it was impossible for me to reflect on my own non-binary relationship with gender without considering the wider political context of such reflection, the need for a more radical narrative on non-binary liberation is clear.
In the Anglosphere it is becoming more and more apparent that we are moving beyond the ‘gender binary’ and more towards a gender tertiary, with three distinct gender categories rather than two. Woman, man, and the new and nebulous ‘non-binary’ gender identity. And with this comes the push to reshape our legal and social landscape to accommodate this – standardising Mx as a gender neutral title, campaigning to get the gender neutral marker X on our passports, to name a few examples. The goal for much of the non-binary community is to be formally recognised and accepted into our society. This goal of assimilation is acceptable for those who find the current state of society acceptable, but that is not the case for a significant number of non-binary people, for various reasons.
I am Black and that will be the first thing many people will notice about me. But beyond that – I am African, Nigerian, Yoruba, and none of these can be divorced from my gender identity. Black women in our society are routinely viewed as aggressive and unfeminine, which results in typical Western womanhood being denied to us, a phenomenon which is amplified for dark skin, queer, and/or trans Black women. Simultaneously however, many Black women have been gendered by society through colonisation. Many pre-colonial cultures in sub-Saharan Africa had differing concepts around gender compared to Europe, with the Yoruba tribe being one of them. Social status and legal rights were not assigned by gender or sex, the language has no gendered pronouns, and there are multiple stories about our pantheon (the orisha) having genderqueer and genderfluid characteristics.
Through colonisation, our rich histories of gender variance have been erased and replaced with the European gender binary, and with it the gender based oppression as well as systematic transphobia that it allows – both of which are exasperated by racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. Because of this I argue that decolonisation is a necessity for the full liberation of non-binary folks, and vice versa that the liberation of non-binary folks is a necessity for decolonisation, as the imposition of the gender binary on colonised societies helped aid colonial control of colonised people, as well as facilitated gender based oppression.
To decolonise the non-binary liberatory movement, we must abandon the respectability politics that are prevalent in our community. The cost of assimilation, aside from arguably justifying an unjust society, is the further marginalisation of non-binary people who do not assimilate.
When you oppose things like microlabels and neopronouns you are doing the work of transphobia, and transphobic cis people for them, trying to make us more palatable to wider cis society who already despise us and punish us for existing no matter how “respectable” we try to be for them. The benefits of social transition must be enjoyed by all members of our community, including those who do not use (or just use) she/he/they pronouns. Non-binary communities also need to embrace body positivity and fat liberatory politics in order to free our population from the idea that to be androgynous you must be skinny In fact the idea that you have to be androgynous in order to be non-binary needs to be deconstructed as it is based on the medicalisation of our gender identities – that to be a specific gender you must have a particular body shape, and to be trans, you must change your body shape to match the ideal body shape for your gender.
Freeing our communities from respectability politics rooted in cisnormativity includes rejecting the medicalisation of trans/non-binary identities. The assumption that non-binary people do not experience physical dysphoria needs to be rejected, this is a myth constructed in order to exclude non-binary people from the concept of transness, when many non-binary people (myself included!) experience physical dysphoria to the same degree as binary trans people. Having said that, the assumption that being trans necessitates medical transition is a reactionary, cisnormative, colonial mindset that also needs to be rejected, you do not need to be seeking hormones and/or surgery to be trans, you do not need to experience physical dysphoria in order to be trans.
Finally, the idea that non-binary people who don’t physically transition are non-dysphoric needs to be rejected, not everyone has access to the material resources and support needed to physically transition, which isn’t just a matter of finances but also emotional capacity as well as decisions around personal safety. There conversations around National Coming Out Day are becoming increasingly nuanced, where we recognise that there are many material circumstances that prevent many from coming out as queer, and similarly, we must recognise the similar material circumstances that prevent non-binary people from physically and socially transitioning.
These material circumstances are numerous and complex. The housing crisis forcing people to live with transphobic family and partners or risk homelessness, stagnant wages and increasing amounts of impoverishment for those able to work leading to less income that can be dedicated to accessing private trans related healthcare where publicly funded services are non-existent or severely underfunded, and a lack of institutional and community support in navigating the bureaucratic systems and processes meant to help us access trans healthcare/other types of healthcare/welfare and benefits, are just a few examples that can be mentioned. Most of these reasons are the result of living under late stage capitalism, modern colonisation, systemic misogyny and ableism, and of course transphobia and binarism, all propped up by a carceral police state. The lack of a culture of collectivism and material justice in the forms of mutual aid, community support, and reparations, are also partially to blame.
The goal of assimilation, to make the non-binary community acceptable to wider society through forming a gender tertiary, and the spectacles of non-binary acceptance by liberal institutions serves to justify the current oppressive systems that drive our society. To combat this, the liberal push to turn the gender binary into the gender tertiary needs to be halted in its tracks. The end goal of non-binary liberation is not being understood by medical gatekeepers but having no medical gatekeepers, not by having X on our passports but having no passports and no borders, not by outlawing job discrimination but removing the need to work in order to survive and have a fulfilling life, absolutely not by considering non-binary prisons but by abolishing police, prisons, and all forms of carceral and punitive “justice”.
Not by being recognised by our neo-liberal society but by deconstructing cis neo-liberal and neo-colonial society and building a society where gender based oppression is impossible.
Instead of detailing an endpoint of this struggle, its preferable to develop the processes that will bring us closer to our goal, of a better world for all non-binary people. Firstly, non-binary spaces need to work more in acknowledgement and actively dismantling hierarchies in our spaces, including but not limited to: racism and anti-Blackness, fatphobia, ableism, and transmisogyny, and uplift and centre the needs of the members of our community who are further marginalised by these oppressions.
This can be done through the methods of mutual aid and reparations, the redistribution of wealth and other material resources (or access to material resources) from those able to give to those more need. This is not just to address material needs in our communities but to develop a collectivist culture of mutual support and community wide self-reliance. To further aid in community building we need to adopt principles of transformative justice to disrupt and prevent violence, building off the work of (often Black feminist survivor led) abolitionist movements, which will help allow for community wide healing from violence.
Finally, we, as non-binary individuals and as spaces, groups, and organisations, must strive to embed ourselves in wider decolonist, anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-ableist and anti-authoritarian struggles for collective and intersectional liberation. Non-binary groups marching for #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName under Black non-binary leadership, supporting survivor led domestic violence services who are combatting austerity, disrupting fascist organising in any spaces that they present themselves, are all examples of directions our activism can take, alongside the smaller but still extremely impactful actions such as reminding a stranger that your coworker is referred to with the title, ‘Mx.’
The non-binary community has come incredibly far since I first came out, but I know that we deserve so much better and we can do so much better, together. Thank you for reading and I wish you a happy belated International Non-binary People’s Day.
Ayotomi is a Black, queer Anarkata based in the UK, they can be found on twitter at @tomiyeyugo.
Photo description: a group of people at the Black Trans Lives Matter demonstration in London, some holding flowers, while the others hold placards with slogans: “Black Trans Lives Matter: I stand with you” and “Forever grateful for Black Trans women”. Photo credit: Guy Smallman.