Disjecta Membra

On being non-binary

Hello. I volunteered to contribute to a feature on the non-binary experience for the Business Post (to be included in next week’s edition), and have decided to share my extensive answers to the questions I was sent as part of the feature. They offer a good over-view of my experience as someone who uses he/they pronouns, and offer a few interesting words on the general issue of gender. This important opportunity to discuss something dear to me, and for it to meet a large readership and challenge some received opinions, was very welcome as I am finding it difficult to write at the moment – am suffering from a depressive episode which seems to intensify with each passing day (and which I will soon address). This exercise was, in short, helpful, and is hopefully insightful.

Here are the questions I was asked; each of my answers corresponds to the number of each question.

  1. When did you start to use they/ them pronouns?

  2. How did you come to the realisation that your gender identity doesn’t fit with binary expressions of gender?

  3. What would you like cis people to understand about your pronouns and gender identity? What would you like them to understand about gender more generally?

  4. What, in your experience, do people have the most difficulty understanding about using they/them pronouns?

  5. Do you think more people today understand your pronouns and gender expression than before? 

  6. What advice would you give to somebody whose friend or a family member has come out as non-binary? Or indeed somebody who thinks they may be non-binary?

  7. How do you feel about non-binary representation in media?

  8. Are you in favour of normalising pronouns in, for example, email signatures and social media profiles?

  9. How has your life changed since you came out?

1:  I first started using he/they* (see next answer) pronouns last December, when I began to seriously question my sexuality and scrutinise my assigned gender; to effectively determine whether or not I was suited to playing the role or ‘persona’ that I was naturally supposed to play, as a ‘man’. I had suspected for some-time that my relationship with masculinity was rather tenuous and insincere, as revealed most clearly (though not very clearly at the time, rather than in retrospect) by my experience of secondary school; I had a fair idea that in trying to play the role of a ‘man’ I was deluding myself, but my intellectual temperament and social climate at the time, prior to last autumn, wouldn’t have given much impetus to question my sexuality or gender beyond these peripheral suspicions. I was equipped with the appropriate philosophical vocabulary and historical, political, and social contexts necessary to examine these issues, having studied the ideas of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ as part of my undergraduate degree in history and philosophy.  I knew that ‘sexuality’, as an idea,  was a socio-historical ‘construct’, and that ‘traditional’ gender roles were essentially by-products of this, or products of history. They were not then necessary, nor even stable or unmalleable. I knew this, but never made the connection that I could be one to act upon this malleability in order to suit myself, to the end of reconciling myself to myself as a person, and to resolve the mental-conflict that my incompatibility with ‘masculinity’, as most commonly understood, had set off within me.  My state of mind and social milieu prevented me from doing so. I suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, which has always made socialising and making friends extremely difficult (less so now than before).  Accordingly, I found it difficult to relate to people in college (having to commute a long distance and work on weekends gave me little opportunity to do so), and especially those whom I could have learnt a great deal from, as going through the same process towards recognition as ‘myself’ – though presupposing that I then understood and accepted what ‘myself’ constituted, which I didn’t.  This ensured that my social network was restricted, for a long time, to my old friends from secondary school, most of them pursuing careers in construction, and defining themselves along traditional lines of masculinity and patriarchy (what is often equated to ‘lad culture’); and therefore in resolute opposition to anything ‘queer’, ‘foreign’, or ‘other’, in my experience (influenced, no doubt, by the pervasive resonance of a Catholic moral culture), thus hindering my realisation yet further. I was tolerated by them, given my simultaneous difference and similarity ‘as one of the lads’, but never understood or appreciated on my own terms; something I would only belatedly recognise. My mind was set in an insulting mental caste that I had to escape from and thereafter break, given its frank inadequacy and undoubted harmfulness. I would never discover myself if I maintained such an outlook, and restricted myself, accordingly, in social terms. Things changed when I began to engage more actively with Twitter this time last year, and to connect with people whom I could truly relate to, revealing a whole world which had previously been hidden from me, and with which I gradually found myself to be compatible. It opened-up a queer community to me, based mainly in Dublin; which was vital because I had never had such access before, nor indeed did I feel the urge to seek it out. It was revelatory; the way people frankly spoke about their gender and sexuality was new to me, and inspiring.  I started thinking that perhaps I was like these people: that I was ‘queer’, that I didn’t conform to a traditional gender role and didn’t have to, and that I had been subconsciously hiding myself from myself all this time. They provided an alternative that I quickly realised my compatibility with.  After meeting a few people I had met through Twitter in December, during the temporary lifting of Covid restrictions, I realised the viability of this, and thereafter started referring to myself with he/they pronouns.     

2:  I think I’ve touched on it sufficiently in my first answer, but I’ll see what I can add:  I come from what I would describe as a ‘post-catholic’ family, whereby the influence and presence of the institutionalised church is minor (as a family, we would only go to mass for the administering of the sacraments – communion, confirmation, marriage, etc – like most Irish families), but the inculcated moral culture of catholicism is still very present, at a level that I regard as subconscious.  This does much to determine popular conceptions of masculinity and of femininity, and the manner by which the two are ‘supposed’ to relate to one-another.  I was very influenced by this ideology while growing up, as I knew no alternative, in what was still a provincial setting – before the advent of social media (or before I myself discovered it).  Social media, and internet generally, is subversive in the sense that it can often throw you into a situation wherein your own assumptions are amplified and perpetuated by what the algorithm chooses to show you, based on your internet history.  This is what happened with most of the people I went to school with, I think, as coming from a similar background as myself: their assumptions of what ‘is’ masculinity, and how they are supposed to relate to it and therefore to women, was a product of this climate and perpetuated within it so as to appear ‘truthful’.  The notions of gender duly imparted are artificial and performative; the product of a particular society at a particular time, and to which the individual must actively conform rather than the other way round.  I was unable to conform, despite my continued efforts; but given the nature of this arrangement, and Its basic hostility to difference, this may not be surprising.  From around this time last year, when I began connecting and speaking with ‘queer’ people online, I realised how much I differed from standard ‘masculinity’ as embodied by my former friends and my father: I am, in short, far more feminine than I am masculine, in my own approximation. This, however, is hardly an appropriate resolution to the issue, for ‘femininity’ warrants exactly the same scrutiny as ‘masculinity’, while many females would reject femininity on the same basis as my rejecting most shades of traditional masculinity. Both are essentially artificial, as ‘constructs’, and must be criticised if we are to arrive at a position re sex and gender in Irish society (and western society, generally), from which to exact meaningful change.  A solution to this quandary rests with defining oneself as ‘non-binary,’ as neither ‘man’ nor ‘woman’ but something in-between; as not rejecting gender, for that would be totally impractical, but of finding a compromise, a middle way, between two constraining and unsuitable options.  I soon realised, however, that I was incapable of committing to the identity so as to make it final; I was unable to jettison all aspects of my masculinity, but from a position of accepting that I could not fulfil that role, and could only be true to myself if I defined myself in opposition to it.  I felt I had to swing one way, towards masculinity, as living truly as a non-binary person would be difficult – for me in my socio-cultural context, in any event.  Regardless, I admire some aspects of masculinity, and have sought to use its basic malleability to my advantage: to construct my own authentic identity ‘between’ masculinity and femininity, with a necessary emphasis on the latter, for it constitutes your starting point and is utterly indelible. It must be accommodated rather than discarded and rejected. 

3: The greatest issue for cis people (and I will tie this in with ans. 4, if I may) in Ireland (for I can only talk from my experience) is a basic and understandable naivety when it comes to the general topic of sexuality, then with ‘gender issues’, and thereafter ‘apparent’ efforts to efface gender – as in the case most obviously of non-binary people, but equally transexual people, and those who would transgress ‘established’ (so as to be assumed unconsciously) moral obligations in a community.  Again, I can only speak from my experience of living in Kildare Town, where it would be difficult to live as ‘an out’ non-binary person in the absolute sense of this term, and is difficult for me to explain my identity to people, such that I often choose to refrain from engaging with the issue entirely, to save face; as I expect from precedence that it won’t be treated very seriously. This is obviously the wrong course of action; I should be challenging these harmful assumptions about gender and sexuality rather than falling down before them.  It is nevertheless true, however, that many people lack the appropriate fore-knowledge to engage with these topics considerately; at least in Kildare, but I can’t speak for elsewhere: but all indicators point to it not being much different. The solution lies with education, as a remedy to persisting prejudices and assumptions of the past. This solution is gradualist, and somewhat optimistic; we cannot assume that a majority of people, ‘now’ (when it matters), will avail of it.  For many, I assume, falling back on old certainties, the out-and-out ‘non-binary’ person will remain an oddity to be tolerated as such rather than appreciated in-themselves, while ‘gender issues’ will continue to be regarded as overly tedious and frankly unnecessary; ‘a great fuss over nothing’; critical theory run amok, having escaped from the confines of the academy.   Things would be much easier if people had the appropriate intellectual tools to appreciate ‘gender issues’ for what they are (the same way in which an informed understanding of depression is necessary before one can engage with it; another area where many Irish people need to catch up on) – as internal, mental conflicts arising from an individual’s inability to reconcile themselves to the performative gender role society has set them, beyond their individual will or preference.  The aspect of human consciousness that ‘gender’ purports to organize and solidify is in fact entirely fluid and intractable, though un-obviously so.  The application of a ‘gender-apparatus’ to this fluidity - ‘the sexual mosaic’, in Foucault’s phrasing – in turn fosters the assumption that there is only this ‘gender-apparatus’; nothing beneath it, and if one transgresses its ‘natural’ or ‘standardised’ rules, then they should be ostracised. Any potential thought about ‘gender’, in other words, is in this context restrained to the limits of the gender binary; and anything regarded as transcending this is hard to conceptualise, let alone justify and accept.  In defining oneself as non-binary, one seeks to circumvent this binary – while staying on the same plane as it, while appropriating its language, and in no way in rejection of it. Non-binary is a compromise rather than a rejection; a way of accommodating oneself within a standard discourse, for one can only operate in terms of this discourse.  They/them is a compromise within ‘gendered’ discourse; not an affront to it. the same stands for he/they, or she/they, pronouns; the principle is the same.  It is, however, an imperfect compromise - they/them seems counterintuitive – but it makes sense once one has an appropriate understanding of how the ‘gender-apparatus’ works, and the corresponding realisation that not everyone is able to conform to the dictates of this artificial system. 

5:  I mainly express my pronouns to people I feel comfortable with; those whom I know will appreciate them and relate to my situation.  I have occasionally raised the topic with people with whom I would not be very comfortable, and who would not, in my judgment, be able to appreciate my pronouns, but to little avail. The intellectual basis necessary to appreciate non-binary pronouns – or in my case he/they pronouns – is not as widespread as it should be, so as to enable a general scope for understanding.  This is symptomatic of larger societal issue that still affects members of the LGBT+ community, people suffering from disabilities (like autism), as well as certain women (I would really recommend Kate Manne’s Down Girl: the logic of misogyny – Penguin, 2011 – as probably the best philosophical consideration of this topic).  The general structure of western societies makes them basically hostile to such personal ‘divergences’.  I defined myself as non-binary last year, and since then – mainly in my own social circles – understanding and acceptance has improved, because the topic itself is becoming unavoidable for those on Twitter and other social media (Instagram, primarily), which does much to influence popular debate and opinion. But only for a minority; it will remain a taboo for most people, and be joined by many compatriots in that respect.  

6: my advice would be to listen-to and appreciate what they have to say, and try to understand their situation so that defining themselves as ‘non-binary’ is the best solution available to them. Education is key, and it would be best to familiarise oneself with the topic in general so as to assume a position from which to provide support, as support and understanding are both very necessary. One does not define oneself as they/them, she/them, or he/them, lightly; but as the result of a mental conflict arising from one’s effort to authentically reconcile oneself to society, fully aware that they can-not as entirely male or entirely female. They must strike a compromise, and defining oneself as non-binary is best way of doing so.  As such, there is nothing morally bad about it, or anything to censure. It in-itself is fine, and only beneficial to the individual; but society at large will nevertheless cast a veil of suspicion over it, tainting its image, and making it not what it is.  This perception must be overcome.  One may, perhaps, prefer to follow my route: that of defining oneself as he/they or she/they;  which is perhaps a more practical commitment and solution than they/them; but it depends very much on the individual and their relationship with masculinity or femininity, as it does all rest at the level of the individual. Like ‘man’ or ‘women’, ‘non-binary’ should not be conceptualised as a concrete designation. The central point to keep in mind when considering ‘gender’ is its underlaying (and intangible) fluidity: you should be able to adapt and shape the ‘system’ to yourself in order to accommodate yourself, for we are all different in this respect; the ‘individual’ does not, and cannot, fit comfortably within the static confines of a generalisation. 

7: I haven’t paid much attention to media presentation of the issue. My leading indication, however, would be that mainstream-media coverage of the ‘non-binary issue’ is inadequate.  This is problematic because the heart of the issue rests with misconceptions as to what being non-binary is about, while it is the media’s role to challenge such misconceptions and to raise popular awareness, effectively creating a positive consciousness.  This is the primary route by which people – and especially those unfamiliar with Twitter, or would find it difficult to engage with these topics (through, perhaps, the common assumptions – fuelled by certain politicians and groups), or find them difficult in themselves, as seemingly intractable topics - may attain some grounding in the issue, and therefore be able to appreciate the situation of a friend or family member who come-out as non-binary or suspect themselves as being non-binary.  Non-binary discourse, and queer discourse more generally, most be normalised in popular discourse if it is to lose its unwarranted veil of ‘strangeness’ – ‘otherness’.  We have to be able to speak about this issue in its own terms, defined by queer and non-binary people, rather than by those applied by parties from outside of this group (and alien to their experiences, mode of living). In the end, this will contribute to the same basic goal of raising a popular consciousness in support of this and similar issues of social justice, and make their intricacies clear and pressing relevance apparent; to provide the intellectual framework for people to understand and appreciate these issues, thus laying bare the necessity for reform and solidarity. Media will play an important role in this; but the situation is delicate, for quite obvious ideological reasons, and so media simultaneously possesses the power to make the situation much worse.  

8: This is an issue that could be appropriated very easily as a political weapon with which to berate the ‘liberal’ (or ‘illiberal’, as The Economist recently defined the ‘phenomenon’) Left’; as pronouns being used as a trojan horse for the infiltration of identity politics, and therefore woke culture (however one should choose to define it, for it is mercurial), into popular discourse; which in turn may be held by some as affecting (infecting) and constraining thought itself.  What has now assumed the form of a political debate consequently detracts-from and distorts the original issue at hand: that of a queer and non-binary person trying to accommodate oneself within a world that is fundamentally unaccommodating of them, and structurally set against them. In no way can this not be a radical political act, and in no way will it not be set upon by conservative reactionaries.  I don’t think one should be compelled to ‘declare’ their gender pronouns in email signatures or social media profiles, as this is – properly considered – entirely a matter of personal choice; one should not be forced to ‘divulge’ or ‘confess’ their self-identity if they do not want to, as it can be difficult territory some people.  I, for instance, have been hesitant to put ‘he/they’ pronouns in my Twitter profile, for I do not want people to look upon me with preconceptions and immediately classify me on the basis of my pronouns – as the present political climate, as it is, would compel many if not most people to do implicitly, without thinking about it; and secondly because I am a shy person and would be hesitant about confessing something like this in any case.  One should not be ‘compelled’ to define one’s body, as this arguably replicates the same basic power dynamics (of the politicisation of bodies) that we are trying to overcome.  It should be a matter of choice rather than compulsion.  But the present political situation cannot be ignored; one is compelled – at least from my stand point as a queer, non-binary person (in the same manner that a German citizen working in Britain is ‘compelled’ by fact of duty to be anti-Brexit and pro-European) – to actively define and associate oneself for the purposes of building solidarity and ‘consciousness raising’. And so I have added he/they pronouns to my Twitter profile.  As a friend told me recently: ‘you have to live the change you want to see’.  Resignation and inertia will not lead to change; only action.  Never has this been truer than in our present political moment. 

9: Since defining myself as ‘non-binary’ – well, he/they – I believe I have become more content with myself as a person. It’s an imperfect compromise that works, but one that isn’t easy to actualise and ‘live’ at this time; for myself, in any case.  The situation for queer and non-binary people is nevertheless improving; sustained efforts to raise awareness through faithful media  representations will only sustain this positive trajectory.