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Beyond the binary

What is gender? That’s a big question, and it’s tempting to answer that for many people, it’s how you behave as a man or a woman, based on the gender you were assigned at birth. By Lou.

A baby is born in a Melbourne hospital and has a penis and testes so is ‘assigned male at birth’ (AMAB), given a ‘boy’s name’ and bundled out of the hospital in a blue muslin.

Most babies grow up and never have cause to question the little ‘m’ or ‘f’ on their birth certificate. Sure, some women prefer not to wear dresses and some men like to sew, but essentially, the rules governing manhood and womanhood fit them comfortably enough.

However, for those who experience misalignment with their assigned gender, it is very different.

Our little AMAB baby, who was bundled up in a blue swaddle, is now a toddler. They feel very uncomfortable when people insist on calling them “he”, their name is wrong and when they play make believe, they’re always a girl,
a princess,
a mummy.

For many children who share these experiences, they aren’t boys, as their parents were told in the hospital; they are girls.

Similarly, there are also children ‘assigned female at birth’ (AFAB) who are boys. That’s a pretty straightforward story these days — we know this transgender story, and it still fits (reasonably) neatly into the gender binary, the idea that there are two genders, two neat boxes, labelled ‘boy’ and ‘girl’.

More than two

Then there are others, like me, who spend their childhoods (consciously or unconsciously) railing against gender all together. Combining boys’ and girls’ clothes, happily playing with both dolls and trucks. For me, none of the rules about gender made sense, until I discovered people whose gender is outside of the male/female binary. For people like me, there are many ways to express our sense of gender. I, personally, prefer non-binary (or enby for short). My gender doesn’t fit into any boxes, it simply ‘is’. For some, they might have a sense that their gender shifts along a spectrum. Perhaps from female to non-binary, or from male all the way to female. These people might describe themselves as gender fluid.

For others still, the understanding of their gender becomes clear later in life, maybe at the start of puberty, during adolescence or after having children of their own. Some children are born with intersex variations, and these children have a wide variety of experiences of gender (one place to learn more about these experiences is the website for Intersex Human Rights Australia).

There are many names for different gender expressions and identities, and sometimes the people who identify with a label have different definitions for that label, or will use different pronouns than you might expect. This can be really tough to wrap your head around at first, and is probably made harder by the fact that, while some cultures and languages have words, phrasing and understandings around different ways to experience gender, the dominant ‘western’ culture (colonial, white, hetero-patriarchy) has, for hundreds for years, enforced strict gender roles. These gender roles have been enforced for so long that we have almost entirely lost the language and cultural place for people who do not fit neatly into ‘male’ or ‘female’.

This might not matter to you too much if you don’t have any trans, gender-diverse or non-binary (TGDNB) folk in your life. However if you do (or more accurately, when they make their gender known to you) it is one thing to know that they’re valid and worthy of respect. It is another thing to know how to show them that respect.

The thing about having a TGDNB person in your life is that you can make a difference to whether that person feels isolated, invisible and sad or whether they feel included, loved and worthy.

You can start when someone tells you “Hey, I actually use ze/they/he/she pronouns.” It’s important to realise that this takes a huge amount of courage. If people inform you of their gender, it is an incredible privilege and acknowledging this is important. Something as simple as, “Wow, thanks for sharing that with me,” can show that you value and appreciate the person and what they have shared with you.

While I wish everyone understood and embraced the full diversity of gender, I know that it isn’t the case in our world. If you don’t accept a person’s gender, be honest but kind. Your decision will have consequences, knowing helps me and other TGDNB folk to make more informed choices about our safety.

Life-long lessons

If you want to be more accepting but don’t understand yet, that’s different. If you want to learn more, there are some crucial points to remember.

For TGDNB folk, we are often working really hard to educate people; we have to, otherwise an important part of our selfhood gets ignored. This work is tiring and requires a LOT of emotional labour. A key way to support a TGDNB person is by respecting their boundaries around educating others. Some people may be educating constantly, others might rarely do it; my experience is that my capacity fluctuates. Whatever the case, there are lots of ways to learn. A great way to start is by asking “Is there anything in particular you want me to know?” or “Are there any resources that you recommend?”

Whenever a TGDNB person offers to educate you about their experience of gender, in whatever way, you should always be grateful. It’s a huge privilege to receive education from a TGDNB person and no one is entitled to education and emotional labour at the expense of another person.

Other ways to learn can include following TGDNB people on social media or reading books and articles. You might like to start by googling key phrases you have heard (such as non-binary, transgender, or gender diverse), looking up peer-led organisations such as Transgender Victoria or Y-Gender, calling an information line like Switchboard or searching out LGBTQI resources from queer book stores like Hares and Hyenas.

Of course, even the most educated person will make mistakes. It’s ok to stuff up pronouns accidentally. If you do, a quick correction “…excuse me, they…” is all you need. If, when you make a mistake, you find that your emotions are getting the better of you, you need to find a way to manage those feelings. It is not the responsibility of the TGDNB person to help you here, so it is vital that you work through your questions, confusions, struggles and conflicts yourself. Unpacking gender and learning to support TGDNB people is something to do in the company of other supporters or allies. It could be a professional, some friends or colleagues or an online community. If you don’t have these people, it is up to you to search them out. The challenge of finding a community of peers to learn from is a small taste of the work that TGDNB people have to do in order to build safe, loving and supportive peer spaces. The intention of asking that you rely on your peers, rather than TGDNB folk, is not to encourage division. Rather, it is to allow cisgender (people whose gender is aligned with the gender they were assigned at birth) and TGDNB folk to come together in ways that are safer, lower in stress and bring everyone more joy.

At the beginning of this piece, I posed the question “What is gender?” and offered one way that it is defined. I hope I have shown gender to be far more complex than the mainstream definition, and that far more important questions are,

“What does gender mean to me?”

“What can gender mean?”

and

How can I honour and embrace gender in all of its wonderful variation?

Further information

If you want to learn more, you might like to look at the following resources.

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