Bodies beyond the binary

Bodies beyond the binary

In January, docent Laurens Buijs published an opinion piece in Folia, a university related magazine, in which he calls non-binarity an empty hype. He has since then repeatedly used his platform as a social scientist to publish hateful comments against non-binary people. The non-binary community of the university of Amsterdam decided to speak out and advocate to make the University of Amsterdam a safer space for non-binary people. However, current debates at the university center around discussions on academic freedom. Despite the importance of that topic, it sometimes overshadows the lived reality of those affected by transphobia. As a non-binary student at UvA, Lu addresses this by recentering the embodied experiences of non-binary people in this article.

Non-binary and genderqueer people are transgender people who do not identify exclusively as male or female. We do not want to travel from one side of the binary to the other, we identify as somewhere in between, around, across, beside or all over the dichotomy. Non-binary and genderqueer are two umbrella terms that caption many different identities such as genderfluid, bigender, agender or gender neutral identities. Those are only a few examples of labels which try to capture gender experiences, however, these terms often do not fully account for who we are. As we push to break the binaries, the only tools we have to do so were produced in a world structured by the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. 

there is no blueprint of what a non-binary or genderqueer person should look and feel like

In that sense, there is no blueprint of what a non-binary or genderqueer person should look and feel like, we have to fight our own way through the complex mess of gender identity. What being non-binary means is different for everyone who identifies with this label; a label which only describes what we are not, but not what we are. Where language fails to account for us we have to find our own voices to express who and how we are. In terms of appearance, some non-binary and genderqueer people decide to go through a physical transition to adapt their gender expressions to their inwardly felt identity, some do not. This can mean that a person might take testosterone hormones, but not go through gender affirming surgery. It can also mean to get top surgery, without ever planning on getting bottom surgery. Or it can mean to decide each day which clothes fit best to how one feels. As our felt experience might change over time, we change our labels and pronouns, struggling to fit into neatly labeled boxes while simultaneously fighting against the constraints of words and definitions.

Realizing that we are not what people see in us or what we learned to think of ourselves is difficult

Often, none of the possible options to adapt our bodies and appearances to our inwardly felt gender identity seem adequate. It is challenging to be non-binary in a world which is highly structured by the gender binary. The gender we get assigned at birth and the physicality of our bodies define how people see us – that our gender identity, our internal sense of our gender, often does not match our own perception of ourselves or the way others perceive or treat us can cause gender dysphoria. We are born into a body that we do not want to have and at the same time attached to that body are societal expectations and roles that we are pressed in, but in which we might not fit. Realizing that we are not what people see in us or what we learned to think of ourselves is difficult. While we struggle to understand and express ourselves, others often meet us with hostility and denial. As our existence shakes the pillars of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ on which large parts of the western world are built, some people do not want to make space for us. Their words echo throughout the internet, across university campuses and into our minds : “what are you then, if not men and not women?” 

But when we find our voice, there is freedom in breaking the binary. Infinite possibilities of genders open up when we glimpse beyond the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. As Christopher Soto said: “can gender be a narrative instead of a word?“ Our individual experiences are diverse, they are intersectional, they are complex and gender binaries mask our complexity. Stepping beyond the constraints of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ creates moments of gender euphoria: I watch my genderfluid friend put on pink glittery makeup without feeling like it defines any part of them as solely female. I see them three hours later, dancing to FKA Twigs, their painted face lit up by flashing club lights. Maybe I will see them again in a year, with a flat chest from top surgery, wearing the same blue sparkly strokes around their eyes. Non-binarity sparks queer joy when you realize that there are other people like you, who struggle to fit in the binary and who break it, at least for some moments, and radiate their gender joy in your direction.

As part of a broader struggle for social justice, I ask you to embrace our complex identities as they are, fighting against the urge to put us into boxes.

Importantly, there is a politics to being non-binary and genderqueer, as we challenge the hegemonic structures of gender as an identity characteristic that predominately defines this world. As part of a broader struggle for social justice, I ask you to embrace our complex identities as they are, fighting against the urge to put us into boxes. Accepting non-binary and genderqueer people is not your next theoretical exercise, it means to account for our embodied experiences. It means to educate yourself and others on gender identity and its intersections. It means to reflect upon how your assumptions of gender define how you navigate the world. It means to realize that male bathrooms need bins for transmasc people‘s tampons, and it means that those bins must be located conveniently so that a disabled transmasc person can access them. It means to install gender neutral bathrooms so that people are not forced to categorize themselves in categories they do not belong to. It means to normalize stating your pronouns in class, in an introduction round at work, or on your Instagram or Twitter. It means to kindly call people out if they misgender someone. It means to implement an easily accessible option for a name change in your administrative system. It means to accept us with our complexities and contradictions. It means to acknowledge that people with variations of a ‘third gender’ have existed and lived in different cultures and societies for many generations before us, – that non-binarity is not some type of postmodern trend. In short, accepting non-binary and genderqueer people is not ‘woke‘ culture, it validates and saves lives.

If you want to read more on the topic:

Good scientific introductory articles: 

On non-binary people and their existence across time and space: : 

  • Herdt, G. (1996). Third sex third gender. New York: Zone.

Accounts of different non-binary people, accessible read, would really recommend: 

Rajunov, M., & Duane, A. S. (Eds.). (2018). Nonbinary: Memoirs of gender and identity. Columbia University Press.