Nonbinary Trans Identities
Nonbinary Trans Identities
- B. Lee AultmanB. Lee AultmanDepartment of Political Science, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Nonbinary trans identities have historically referred to a range of gender non-normative embodiments and self-making practices that stand on the outside of, or sometimes in direct opposition to, the Western binary classifications of sex/gender (i.e., man or woman, male or female). These identities include but are not limited to androgyny, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender nonconforming, and genderf*ck. Increasingly, nonbinary has become its own free-standing identity, without many of the historical connotations that genderqueer, for instance, might invoke. Nonbinary people identify themselves with gender-neutral pronouns or a fluid mixture of gendered pronouns in social practices. Some transition and take on embodiments that have a particular gendered aesthetic. This may or may not include sexual reassignment surgeries and other procedures that are body confirming. In short, nonbinary people have varied and robust social lives.
The umbrella category of “trans” helps to situate some of the meaning and history of gender-non-normative identities. On the one hand, it can be a productive political vehicle that mobilizes communities of similarly felt histories toward collective action. On the other hand, it can limit the range of recognized embodiments and practices that have participated in the historically pertinent conventions that trans describes. The history of nonbinary identities is then a complex prospect. Such identities alter the categorical assumptions that underscore transsexual and transgender identities within binary terms. The complex narratives and histories of nonbinary trans identities raise some timely questions about the conventions of sex/gender in contemporary life. What constitutes one’s enduring sense of gender now that the binary itself has come under dispute? Should the gender binary be protected and for whom? In what varied ways do nonbinary identities alter a commonly shared imaginary of the bodily aesthetic? What role does desire play in the ongoing social changes in this long revolution of the body? The politics that emerge from these questions are becoming increasingly pressing as technology can now link otherwise isolated people across global boundaries. And finally, the reception of nonbinary identities offers important spaces of dialogue about the proliferation of identity politics, political movements, and the social divisions of labor these forces demand.
- Contentious Politics and Political Violence
- Governance/Political Change
- Groups and Identities
- History and Politics
- Post Modern/Critical Politics
- Qualitative Political Methodology
Nonbinary Identities in a Binary Culture
Nonbinary trans identities have an intimate history within the breadth and scope of the “trans umbrella.” Writer and critic Gordene O. MacKenzie observed that trans is a veritable “gender galaxy” (quoted in Currah, 2006, p. 5). Where might the constellation called nonbinary be located? Does that name alone do justice to the kinds of social activities and ordinary life experiences behind the label? Consider that the self-described resource guide for the transgender community, Trans Bodies/Trans Selves, was published in 2014 and contains perhaps the first clear and popularly published definition of nonbinary gender as “a gender that is neither strictly male nor strictly female. (See gender binary)” (Erickson-Schroth, 2014, p. 617). The fact that one must “see” the entry on “gender binary” is suggestive. It hints at the fact that gender is embedded in a complex duality of already existing gendered social relations. Indeed, the operating assumption for many in the field of gender and sexuality studies is that there already is, as a matter of course, a normalized sex/gender system underscored by an equally present and normalized gender binary.
One of the first feminist writers to identify and name this sex/gender system was Gayle Rubin (1975). “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” is among the first texts to utilize the heuristic “sex/gender system” as a means of both theorizing and illustrating the material effects of the gender binary. The system is a historically specific one. That is to say, Rubin is dealing with a value system linked to Anglo-European (or Western) colonial histories. For Rubin, the Western sex/gender system is fundamentally genital-obsessed. When and where it can, biology is utilized to justify social stratification along the binary of male/female, man/woman. This biological preoccupation has multiple and overlapping effects. It organizes and eventually naturalizes certain procreative sexualities and practices between men and women. This “compulsory heterosexuality” becomes the normative social formation that governs everything from courtship to friendship. Masculinity and femininity are also extensions of these normalized desires that have been affixed to certain bodies along binary lines. This enduring social formation, or heteronormativity, codes “male” as strong/assertive/subject and “female” as weak/passive/object.
This kind of system has had material ramifications for non-normative forms of sexuality and gender. Systemic norms for a variety of reasons and in a variety of social situations have justified devaluing and marginalizing many non-normative expressions of individuality. Because nonbinary identities are rooted in social practices that are fundamentally related to the sex/gender system Rubin had identified, investigating its historical processes and tracking how non-normative life may have formed from within is a necessary but complicated task.
A Material History of Sex and Gender
Nonbinary trans identities are not easily tracked through this history, however. Doing so means untangling everyday social practices from systemic ones, tracking the historical shifts of cultural patterns and the socially shared conditions that “humanize” people, and bringing the political projects that have shaped common social imaginaries about sex/gender into sharper distinction. It is a matter of political interpretation and assembling the historical archive that has clustered around non-normative sex/gender experiences. The cultural theorist Fredric Jameson (1981) once remarked that “the political perspective [is] . . . the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation” (p. 17). The archive of nonbinary gender—one that ranges from high queer theory to community resource guides, popular activist blogs to material culture and artifacts of the liberation movements of the 20th century—is a web of already politicized texts and meanings. It is a history of the body inflected by race and sex/gender, the narratives of which illustrate how nonbinary trans identities may have taken their contemporary shape.
The Body as Historical Object
Another way of thinking about the body is that it has been a kind of map with noticeable traces of differing social relations of power affecting it. Thinkers from Karl Marx in the 19th century to Michel Foucault in the 20th century have taken this notion in generative directions. Even the human sensorium has been indelibly changed over the long course of history. For Marx, the human sensorium has been objectified by the object-world around it. “The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians” (1978, p. 87; italics in text). In a sense, although humans in a sense are socioeconomic forces, over history these forces have altered the biology of humanity. Foucault argued a similar point in a grander, if somewhat totalizing, vision. The concept of the human was itself a constructed notion. “Man” was an historical being who, aware of their own mortality, sought to transcend their own physical boundaries. And yet, before doing so, “man” had to determine what those physical boundaries were. “Man” became a dual subject/object, or an “empirico-transcendental” doublet (Foucault, 1994, p. 303). Such insights—that humans construct history, that they are constructed by it and have rendered themselves as an object of study as a result—influenced scholarship and popular thinking on precisely what “sex” and “gender” presently means.
In Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, historian Thomas Laqueur (1990) argued that as far back as the second century, the body was sexually classified into two representational visions of sexual unicity. They were primordially of the same flesh. Males were, from Greek anatomist Galen’s point of view however, the central and defining embodiment. Women were complementary in form function. Gender roles coincided often unconsciously as social practices given sexual difference. Laqueur’s admonition about naturalizing such roles should still have a timely relevance: “there [was] no effort [at that time] to ground social roles in nature; social categories themselves are natural and on the same explanatory level as what we would take to be physical or biological facts. Nature is not therefore to culture what sex is to gender, as in modern discussions” (Laqueur, 1990, p. 29). Such views held that all things were participants in the great order of Nature of which the human body, too, was a part. This epistemology, or theory of knowledge, carried through into theological traditions of the Middle Ages. What dramatically shifted the social imaginary away from representations of nature and the divine, as Foucault had earlier pointed out, was modernity itself. In other words, scientific values and industrial modes of production fundamentally altered the structure of sexual and social life at a global scale. Enlightenment rationalism and science during the 17th and 18th centuries expanded exponentially through colonial empire.
Under this new culture of science, two sexes were understood to be biologically distinct, which laid the groundwork for an empirical justification for the sexual division of labor that was to become “gender” roles. Feminist philosopher of science Genevieve Lloyd (2004) has illustrated the irony of such “enlightened” times. In an era supposedly contemptuous of superstition, men who were at the forefront of such a cultural revolution also uncritically smuggled in the Greek representations of feminine and masculine. Whatever the case, Laqueur points toward the fact that “social and political changes are not, in themselves, explanations for the reinterpretation of bodies” such that “the remaking of the body is itself intrinsic to each of these developments” (Laqueur, 1990, p. 11). The material realities for men and women were rapidly changing. Cross-dressing would endure as a popular form of lowbrow entertainment throughout Europe and the Americas. However, play with gender roles was intelligible only as leisure—it was still too soon for it to be grounds for a minoritized identity. The common imaginary was changing in response to rapid economic pressures. Sexuality had yet to be “normalized” in its current form. Gender as specified object of desire was a given. The rise of certain gendered practices did sediment into a modern form of normativity with time.
Conflicts of gender-inflected sexuality would fall under further social and scientific inquiry toward the end of the 19th century. It was Sigmund Freud, according to Laqueur, whose methods offered the means of making what was merely there (sexuality and gender) knowable and thus available to popular discussion. For Freud, social forces frame individual experiences and inscribe norms. The individual is taught that certain desires and drives, once “natural” and otherwise freely explored, are pathologically deviant, abnormal, or criminal. Repressing these desires resulted in the unconscious, a structural element of everyday life that made desire opaque. Only normative desires (sexuality) could be rationalized. Likewise, only normative expressions of the body (gender) were socially acceptable. Rather than merely leisure, the chronic cross-dresser, the perpetually gender-variant, or the androgynous were considered in pathological light. The nonbinary identity had been freighted with that lot.
A Matter of Diagnosis
Culture in the early and mid-20th century was now open to a certain proliferation of scientific and medical norms that imposed limitations on social life. Although it was during this period that the use of the term “transsexual” opened an avenue to new forms of social identity, science did not “create” the basis of transsexual (and later transgender) personhood. Early interest in individuals (often “diagnosed” as transsexual) coming forward and seeking sexual reassignment surgeries (SRS) often contested meanings. For some it meant that the human body was mutable and thus sexed identity was not a given. Reproductive organs were not, in themselves, an essential quality of any sexed identity. For many others sexed identity was still essentially binary. All SRS was confirming was one’s identity through specific bodily modifications (see Sullivan, 2006, pp. 552–553). The medical community was far from homogeneous on this subject. Dr. John Money, for example, argued that sex, gender, and gender identity referred to separate but still embodied phenomena (Jordan-Young, 2010, p. 12). For Money, gender (roles) amounted to the social cultivation of a public self in relation to others. Gender identity, on the other hand, was the inward, or psychic reality of experience and ongoing persistence of one’s gender. With the growth of gender identity clinics, many transsexual women sought SRS, which was for the first time available to a larger audience. Historian Joanne Meyerowitz (2002) points out that there were vast networks of transsexual women who enabled each other to learn “the script” for accessing treatment at these clinics. The confirming narrative enabled many to seek methods of embodying what they knew to be their truth.
Other thinkers in other fields of the social sciences had already reached, more or less, similar conclusions. A certain phenomenological perspective held that sex and gender variance were socially symbolic acts of management. Simone de Beauvoir’s now canonical The Second Sex, published in 1949, directly challenged the prevailing notions that “woman” existed at all. “Everyone agrees there are females in the species,” she writes. “‘Be women, stay women, become women,’ we are urged.” According to such logic, she suggests, “not every female human being is necessarily a woman” (de Beauvoir, 2011, p. 3). Femininity does not seem to have a biological basis and, if anything, stands in a directly negative relationship to the presence of masculinity. This seemed to suggest women are “Other,” born into a system of (male) domination. Thus de Beauvoir came to a polemical conclusion that “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (p. xviii). The power of this sentiment would constitute the basis of many forms of critique across natural and social sciences. Sociologist Harold Garfinkel (1967) adopted this rising “constructionist” and phenomenological view while documenting the transition of a transwoman named Agnes. Garfinkel argued that Agnes’s sense of womanhood, anchored to being female, consisted of so many strategies learned over the course of social experience. The point was missed, of course, that she was a woman.
The binary trans person was caught somewhere between theory and life itself. But the nonbinary trans person was freighted and invisible. Theory would have important consequences for how the lives of nonbinary people were to enter the social imaginary.
The Trouble With Theory
The cultural conversation about sex/gender shifted in the 1970s. Gender, in particular, was perpetually subject to an ongoing set of socially critical practices. And this would put trans communities in a new, however uncomfortable, position. The climate shaping political identities between the 1970s and 1990s embroiled non-normative genders in contentious relations. Just a few years before, the gay liberation movements after the Compton Cafeteria Riots in 1966 and Stonewall Riots of 1969 signaled a rise in queer radicalism which was openly anti-normative and avowedly anti-statist. Gays and queers wanted different things. Lesbian radicals split from mainstream feminism, and trans communities (binary and nonbinary alike) were caught within these rising polemics, waiting to settle within spaces of their own. Emmett Harsin Drager (Chu & Drager, 2019) argues that much of the internal and emergent discourses created a space of problematic dualities that haunt contemporary trans discourses. Some of these include “authenticity versus inauthenticity, medical identities versus vernacular identities, and the transsexual versus the posttranssexual” and have the misfortune of placing trans narratives always and already within medicalization (p. 106). A possible antidote to this is a return to the scenes of contest and theory.
The rise of a radical queer political left opened the possibility for certain identities to become representations of the movement. A tableau emerged in the social aesthetics between the 1980s and 1990s. Nonbinary trans experiences were slowly being incorporated as radical embodiments of a gender revolution. This bestowed a kind of object-like status on nonbinary trans people. It could be said that, given the rise of both queer theory and activist practices in the 1980s scholars could identify the particularity of nonbinary trans embodiments. Nonbinary people had a unique purchase for various feminist theories of patriarchal domination. Radical feminists like Janice Raymond represented a faction of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) who maintained that transsexual women were not women at all. Gender was biologically binary. Any attempts made by transsexual women to engage with woman’s-only spaces were perceived, for Raymond and others, as an encroachment on women’s only spaces. Their emphasis on bio-normativity had been obvious replicas of medical models. How was feminism to account for the diversity of gendered expressions across binary and nonbinary embodiments of transness? Feminism had been founded on the elimination of women’s oppression but a working definition of womanhood soon felt unsolid and led to ruptures. Ruptures are generative. Ruptures consist of messy confrontations and frenzied attempts to maintain cohesion across gender non-normative communities. Such ruptures and anxieties led Rocko Bulldagger, reflecting back on the state of queer politics in Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, to admit that writing and speaking about queerness carried the historical baggage of rupture and definition. Nonbinary trans activists then risk “launching into the jargon-heavy, divisive monologue . . . [producing] yet another queer writing sample that spends time debating the minute details that distinguish one subidentity from another” (Bulldagger, 2006, p. 137). This “jargon-heavy, divisive” discourse had emerged as an emancipatory one. It directly contested Raymond and other TERFs at the level of discourse and ideas. Womanhood and gender were not static. The growth in visibility of drag balls, female impersonators, and other gender nonconforming communities signaled an anxious moment for theorizing gender.
This socially complex milieu prompted feminist Judith Butler to write Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Butler, 2008). The text set the stage for much of the debate around the centrality and “realness” of binary sex/gender in academia. Her political investments were less clear but involved nonbinary identities in the contest over embodied truths. Butler argued that sex and gender were coterminous—signifying what amounted to the same thing. In this sense, gender and sex were part of a continuity of socially agreed upon (or constructed) acts that, through time, accrued the meaning of something like “truth.” In other words, norms governing gender, as well as masculinity and femininity, were not technically “real.” They were constituted in a social reality through reiteration—acts based on already known scripts of durable significance. She called this a theory of gender performativity. “Discrete genders,” she argued, “are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right” (Butler, 2008, p. 190). Butler’s radical political claim was that gender has no original. It is so deeply embedded in the patterns of social practices that it is therefore “a construction that regularly conceals its genesis” (p. 190). Butler’s empirical data for such arguments had been the drag queens and female impersonators who used satire for work—not necessarily identity. She had effectively used the scenes of drag to render the possibility of a binary or nonbinary trans identity an effect of play.
Butler failed to comment on how these identities have racialized histories. Queer people of color (QPOC) were also persisting in spaces outside those of theorists, and white queer radicals. QPOC established their own traditions of gender materiality and embodiment. The ballroom culture itself preceded the 1970s (when “queer” as a social term was being popularized). Scholar Marlon M. Bailey (2013) illustrated the complex internal dynamics of the ballroom. Underscoring these scenes were “flamboyant competitive ball rituals and houses, and the anchoring family-like structures that produce these rituals of performance” (p. 633). Ballrooms conceive of three sexes: woman, man, intersex. They also conceive of six gender/sexual identities: butch queens, femme queens, butch queens up in drag, butches, women, men (p. 634). (Beyond Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning , ballroom culture has been represented in other contemporary films such as Kiki [Jordeno, 2016] and the streaming TV series Pose [Canals, Falchuk, & Murphy, 2018].) Material divisions here illustrate the class and racial lines that crosshatch an otherwise shared cultural history.
This covers a lot of ground in a short space. However, Butler’s effects on theorizing the reality of binary and nonbinary genders should not be understated. If there is no truth to binary gender because it is merely an effect of power (of a norm), then how can one live and feel, sense and narrate oneself within even a nonbinary body? Butler invited readers to rupture gender through political acts of subversion and parody. If nonbinary gender reflects, in some distorted sense, the outcome of binary gender subversion, then its runs the risk of drawing an equivalence between the practices of any nonbinary person in any ordinary context with gender-subversive politics generally. That equivalence trivializes nonbinary people in their everyday life-making practices.
Toward More Trans Phenomenologies
Methods that seek to move beyond the implications of performativity and constructionism, particularly among trans scholars, have been few but substantive. And an emphasis on material connections between the body and surrounding world has been particularly robust. Trans phenomenology in particular has been a pioneering effort in making embodied experiences more concrete (Chu, 2017; Prosser, 1998; Salamon, 2010). Recent phenomenologies of sex/gender entails, at least in part, a thick description of what it means to experience the body in its phenomenality, or its givenness (Chu, 2017). This might not seem immediately intuitive. It is far too easy, for example, for theorists say that phenomenality is “givenness as experiencing experience qua experience.” What they meant was that “consciousness and unconscious activity count for something, and that is singularly experienced.” The risk of odd phrasing is worth the richness of analysis. It brings the body back into focus, memory into analysis, and experience as important.
Most contemporary trans phenomenologists hold that the body is a given: the primordial site by and through which experience is registered, mediated, and lived. This is what is meant by embodiment. Sex/gender is one attribute among others that “orientates” the embodied experience toward certain social patterns of activity (see Ahmed, 2006, p. 1). History matters, clearly. Given the complexities of sex/gender expressions in social life, detailing a static and unchanging model of it will only ever be a snapshot for analytic utility; recalling Foucault’s insistence that the study of the human body as an object led to certain contingent changes in social organization. But social selves mediate such norms however much they regulate life (Foucault, 1994, pp. 335–342; see also Williams, 1977, p. 112). In many respects, it is more accurate to use the term “social identity” to capture the essentially shared and interpretative horizons that constitute a person’s identity (see also Ortega, 2016, p. 151). But the nonbinary person is, more than likely, not contemplating these theoretical designs. Most want to make a life, an ordinary life in all its unanticipated drama.
Entering the Everyday and Ordinary
For a number of now obvious reasons, the archive of texts about nonbinary trans identities tends to be only recent. Nonbinary trans identities had gone through many name changes in the last half-century as the shifts in politics and socioeconomic terrains altered the meaning of identity politics. Three important edited volumes emerged in 2006, however, that helped to crystallize what this archive was and how nonbinary identities fit into a larger scope of trans studies: Transgender Rights (Currah, Juang, & Minter, 2006); The Transgender Studies Reader (Stryker & Whittle, 2006); and Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (Sycamore, 2006). Currah (2006) in particular speculated on “the extraordinary diversity of cross-gender practices, identities, and beliefs about gender within gender nonconforming communities in the United States” (p. 5). Gender nonconforming and cross-gender practices refer to otherwise nonbinary identities. The fact is that none of these texts directly reference “nonbinary” as a form of identification. The landmark Transgender History (Stryker, 2008) expands upon general notions of gender neutrality and androgyny, restating their robust political beginnings out of lesbian and queer reactions to mainstream feminism (p. 100). “Genderqueer” is the closest term with a direct if not subtle genealogy to nonbinary. Genderqueer emerged in the 1990s, however, and represented “a vocal minority [who] insisted on the importance of transgender and gender-variant practices for queer politics” (p. 20). Identity and belonging to a community is an intimately political act. One can see the complex histories that underscore nonconforming notions of gender identity when trans scholar Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore (2006) responded to a question about her gender identity: “I identify as a genderqueer faggot and a queen, meaning that I’m somewhere on the trans continuum, in the genderblur [sic], gender-bending section. I use female pronouns and identify as femme, but I’m not necessarily invested in people seeing me as either ‘male’ or ‘female’” (p. 10). Genderblur is itself a nonbinary sense of identity. Mattilda’s response means having a gender identity that is not immediately intelligible can be as frustrating to locate as it is complex to communicate to others.
Nonbinary identities have had a rich persistence in the trans archive in spite of certain erasures and theoretical embellishments. Recalling the influential resource Trans Bodies/Trans Selves: its glossary usually employed the use of inter-referential “see” toward other identities when nonbinary ones were being defined. Many kinds of nonbinary identities have mutually constitutive relationships that spring from lived tensions with accepted norms about the gender binary itself. Consider the nonexhaustive list of otherwise nonbinary identities and expressions from the glossary: androgyne, cross-dresser, genderbender, genderf*cking, gender neutral, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, gender-variant, masculine of center, neutrois, pangender, queer, translatin@, and Two-Spirit (culturally specific) (Erickson-Schroth, 2014, pp. 611–620). There are many forces in play within these terms. It is, in that sense, important to consider the intersectional implications of how additional marginalization affects an already marginalized group. At its heart, intersectionality speaks to the overlapping sensations that are felt as one lives out an identity in historical contexts. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) used the term to describe and deconstruct notions of Black femininity and womanhood in the law. It is also used to describe overlapping oppressions that inscribe Black women’s experiences under anti-Black racism. Scholar Patricia J. Williams (1991) described this experience as a sense of “invisibility” while at law school, “wandering in a murk of unreality” as one of the only Black women on campus (p. 55). The point is that marginal identity persists in overlaps of oppressive structures. An intersectional analysis of non-binary trans identities would consistently push against and illustrate the racialized and gendered norms at one and the same time. This is a conferral of analytic rigor upon sites of usual erasure. Such commitments should be more common. Cultural theorist Raymond Williams once wrote that “the living will not be reduced” and that life is “experienced tensions, shifts, and uncertainties, the intricate forms of unevenness and confusion” (Williams, 1977, p. 129). In other words everyday feeling gets expressed in the social contexts that are constantly being lived, altered, and/or sustained.
Knowing Oneself as Nonbinary
Realizing that one is different, although common for any marked (or non-normative) group, occurs differently for everyone. It is a knowledge rooted first in distinction. This distinction discloses itself as knowing that one’s desires and feelings are perhaps dramatically different from what is perceived as normal. This distinction then becomes a feeling of difference. Many nonbinary trans people experience this kind of sense of being different in their youth. A Trans Youth Survey (2001) illustrated how regularly respondents knew their feelings differed, possibly to the extent of fearing exposure, at relatively young ages. It is not always the case that youth always knew. Some make that declaration.
Most respondents simply knew as a matter of learning to piece together personal facts and judge them against the external order of things. In other words, the process of knowing one’s difference is a matter of context and temporality, or cultural time. As one respondent put it: “When I was six, I remember thinking that when I grew up, I wanted to be a boy. Then I found out that wouldn’t happen and I couldn’t wait to die and go to heaven ’cause I could be a boy then. Before then I was masculine, but gender wasn’t that structured” (p. 5). Obviously this memory is attached to a powerful realization that carried into the response. The sense of damnation has its secular equivalent in the theoretical treatment of shame. “I remember standing in front of a mirror and reciting, ‘God made you a woman, you’ll die a woman’ over and over as punishment for sinfull [sic] thoughts. :-\ I was a fucked up little kid” (p. 7). In another sense, there is no one point at which knowledge just happened. One response asserted, “since I could remember” (p. 5). Given the fact that social being implies being around others, knowing difference emerged from the very contexts of communicative interaction. “At about age 7,” another respondent added, “a friend and I discussed ‘sex-change operations’ after seeing a talk show on TV” (p. 6). Knowing is social. And school is a kind of social crucible in that regard, whereby conflicting desires and internalized policing produce flashes of self-clarity. One respondent argued they began to situate themselves in the order of things “once I started to learn the difference [about gender], I knew I was different”(p. 8).
In a certain sense, the knowledge of difference is more generally captured within a non-binary narrative. Feelings that one is not strictly a boy or not strictly a girl, a sense of an in-between, might resituate the cultural and community conversation. Because nonbinary identities do not, strictly speaking, rebel against the gender binary, the capaciousness of nonbinary as a descriptor might help redefine what counts as the limits of visibility. As there is no one emplotment into which any given story can be situated, knowing one’s gender non-normativity is not a static event captured in time. It is a consciousness that exists within a practical social activity.
Knowing When to Tell
Experiences of coming out vary. “Coming out” is shorthand for the traditional conception of “coming out of the closet.” In that phrasing, the “closet” is both a personally lived and culturally pervasive space. Many associate the closet with shame or fear. The most popular narrative concerning one’s coming-out story is revelation, as though the living secret has been abolished. Some narratives view coming out as a kind of queer rite of passage. Critical theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (2008) quite literally wrote the book on the subject. In Epistemology of the Closet, for Sedgwick the closet is the space saturated with the “long crisis of modern sexual definition” that has shaped the epistemological framework of most everyday worlds (p. 1). The closet has consisted of closing off even the possibility of certain social modes of appearance. Because it is felt and physically embodied, the closet works as a kind of closed circuit. The person coming out has invested such a great wealth of emotional energy in the prospect of negative, possibly catastrophic reactions that they would rather live an open secret (everybody “knows”) than manifest the non-normative identity with words. Sociologist Lori Girshick (2008) suggests that coming out as gender non-normative operates in the context of completely different social expectations. She argues that the hurdles faced by those with “a different sexual orientation [do] not challenge people in the same ways as gender variance” (p. 99). This distinction rests on the fact that coming out to others by sharing one’s sexuality does not generally coincide with radical modifications in bodily appearance and shifting practices (such as gender roles). In many cases, however, “a genderqueer [person] may vigorously confront others’ ideas of what a man or a woman looks like or acts like” (Girshick, 2008, p. 99). It is safe to assume that most will more than likely avoid confrontation.
Nonbinary people may transition and do so in various ways. Transition describes a variety of processes that include social and physical changes or a combination of the two. Such processes can be, but are not limited to, hormone therapy, vaginoplasty, phalloplasty, mastectomies, full hysterectomies, cheek/chin/forehead shaving and other facial alterations, chest binding, shirt and pants “stuffing,” standing-to-pee devices, complete wardrobe change, makeup, or a new wardrobe that extends a person’s gender expression into the public. Transition fundamentally changes how one relates to the world. It is, as Holiday Simmons and Fresh! White (2014) put it, “to physically alter our behaviors to align our gender identity with our gender presentation. Some of us take hormones or have surgeries. Some of us wish we could afford surgeries. Others of us do not want to take hormones or have surgeries, but we dress and act in ways that affirm our gender identity” (p. 7). Altering appearances, especially physical appearances, is sometimes a matter of economic access. Not all nonbinary people who decide to surgically modify their bodies can afford to do so. Compounding this problem is that many insurance companies define many body-confirming practices as merely cosmetic. Still, many nonbinary people do not have such surgeries.
Social transition is composed of an equally diverse set of practices as well. These can include changes including changing one’s legal name or how one chooses to be named in social contexts. Name changes can, or tend to, reflect gender neutrality. Some might shorten their given names to the first letter, for example. Pronoun changes are also part of this social transition. These include hey/them/their but can also include ze/zie (“zee”) or hir (“here”). There can be a combination. A persistent problem that many nonbinary people face is an unwillingness among peers and authority figures to address them by a chosen name or pronoun (Beemyn & Rankin, 2011, pp. 151–154).
Before, during, or after transition, nonbinary people often deal with “passing.” Passing can be defined as the state of being recognized by others as a gender one consciously presents in social interactions. Simmons and White (2014) have described passing as “gender presentation correctly read by others around us” (p. 8). In many instances, people who cannot pass might “[choose] to live stealth. This means that few, if any, of those around us know that we are transgender” (p. 8). Passing is a reflection of any number of ordinary desires: of belonging, of affection, of sexual interest. But it is also a product of everyday considerations about the proximate environment. Thus what for many is a simple matter of shopping for clothes can become a situation that invites scrutiny and the possibility of shame. Writer Juliet Jacques (2015) recalls in her memoir. “I tried the charity shops [looking for women’s clothes], [having to ignore] the woman at the counter who told me that ‘the men’s clothes are over there’” (p. 23). Passing is more than a matter of a look or aesthetic, but an ordinary tactic of making do.
Those who do not pass can face imminent physical harm. Terre Thaemlitz makes the case that “the majority of transgendered [sic] people travel incognito. When traveling, dressing for the occasion means downplaying our gender-bending by dressing to match our documented genders” (Thaemlitz, 2006, p. 173). Gender comportment is even enforced from within trans communities themselves. Toi Scott describes in a testimonial contribution to Trans Bodies/Trans Selves that the experience of transmasculinity as “skating the ice between the two genders” is itself already a “struggle” but exacerbated by the fact that other “trans men want to know why I still have breasts and why I don’t take hormones” (quoted in Erickson-Schroth, 2014, p. 33). Echoing the political fragmentation of the past, Scott writes that it is not only other trans people but “feminists [who] want to know why I pack and bind, why I consider myself transmasculine” (p. 33). Answering those interrogations, of course, exhausts its own form of energy. The inescapable fact of a shared social existence complicates the possibilities of certain kinds of expression for nonbinary people. In that sense, they must improvise.
Exploring Intimate Relations
Sexuality and intimacy are not one and the same. Sexuality often refers to the physical and emotional desires to engage in pleasurable genital acts with oneself or others. Intimacy refers to the close relationships that people share with one another that may or may not be sexual in nature. As Dean Hill-Meyer and Dean Scarborough (2014) argue, sexuality and sexual desire for intimate partners means that for many nonbinary people, describing their bodies in normative terms is uncomfortable, potentially triggering, or impossible. “Many of us create our own names for our body parts. For example, some of us born with a vagina may prefer to call it a ‘front hole’ because the term is less gendered” (p. 355). Other parts of the body are then de-gendered. As with all practices of that involve the consensual activities of others, the sexual body must be thought of in terms of living definitions. Too often the desire to assign or name a sexuality to someone who is gender non-normative erases their autonomy. Other important components of sexual life are sometimes dramatically affected by nonbinary identities. These include redefining the orgasm to adjust to the lived needs of nonbinary sexual partners. Questions concerning how medical transitions (e.g., hormone replacement) affect arousal and orgasm are often absent from general discourse. The fact is, nonbinary trans people engage in sexual acts. Their preferences and orientations, attractions and desires, are not alien.
Many gender non-normative people feel a particular kind of scrutiny on their sexual practices through a form of social, but also relational, policing. In short, their bodies are subject to a heightened expectation of disclosure because, as normative conventions of sexuality go, a person’s gender expression is expected to match their genitalia. In that sense there is a generally possibly pervasive absence of feeling private. For nonbinary people, gendered appearances can (and often do) fluctuate. One’s everyday aesthetic is an attachment to a certain kind of fixed relationship to femininity, masculinity, or neutrality. As far as normativity is concerned, gender expression has been a scene of bargaining for public acceptance for the nonbinary person.
Expressing confusion is, perhaps, more honest to the task of conveying everyday life than the impulse to find an arc or narrative plot. In their landmark survey of trans lives, researchers Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin (2011, p. 26) documented a number of nonbinary narratives. At issue was the structure of feeling for the respondents. Many responded that they felt as though existing “between two genders.” Gender-neutral pronouns are not exclusively selected. Respondents suggested a fluid movement among them depending on the context (particularly around safety). Others reject what could be considered normative sex/gender aesthetics, preferring androgyny. But even then, the conflation of the male/female aesthetic may not easily fall into mere androgynous appearance. Many responded that “trans” felt like a larger imagined community. This is for any number of reasons. A response to a Trans Youth Survey taken in 2001 can help illustrate the idea: “I came into being genderqueer in the last year I think, but I still identify as trans too because of the umbrella term thing. Trans is the umbrella and genderqueer is the specific piece of it I identify with” (p. 9).
Of course, this sentiment is not universally shared. Some respondents in Beemyn and Rankin’s study did not identify as trans because that term suggested a movement between genders, genders from which they felt distant. Some believed gender to be nonexistent anyway. Interestingly, some choose nonidentification because trans implied a social movement to which they had no ties. Nonbinary identities are often self-described as existing as though being in-between. The experience is as though a liminal or gray area of something like gender exists. Other descriptions included a sense of being “somewhere in the middle.” Importantly, for any respondent, it is the outward or social perception that constitutes a source of anxiety. Most expressed that everyday people tend to assign a gender based on whatever clothes they are wearing on a given day. This helps to explain why some suggested that they felt and embodied “different aspects assigned to different genders” in their everyday lives (Beemyn and Rankin 2011, p. 9). It might seem to be the case that such considerations are arbitrary. Determining one’s dress and comportment is closely related to considerations that can only be contextualized in an ordinary encounter.
Feeling one’s identity is enmeshed in the complex histories that inform the given moment. From an intersectional point of view, feeling nonbinary (and expressing an aesthetic in the world) get differentially spread owing to race as well as class divides. Trans activist Alok Menon-Vaid (2016) shares on their blog: “I struggle with how society is obsessed with the idea of having one self/identity. I struggle with how the only way we talk about gender is as an identity. I think gender just like our ‘selves’ is relational. I think we have been and will become many selves for many different people.” The very notion of nonbinary conjures more than its constitutive opposite, the binary, but also a colonial past. Many indigenous, especially Native American, cultures already shared in social practices that privileged the sense of not quite being what, for a given culture, was a man or a woman. Activist Cassidy Anne Medicine Horse shares and illustrates the social importance of a Two-Spirit identity. Such a person is conceived as “[a] gender-crossing individual [and] serves as a critical link in the balance of nature” (quoted in Erickson-Schroth, 2014, p. 70).
In an American context, the color line has demarcated racial relations for centuries. Thus Black and nonwhite communities have adjusted their conceptions of gender in relative ways. Activist Toi Scott shares that “the concept of gender is entrenched in the black community, if not the pillar of it. As I’ve come out as genderqueer, I have found it difficult to imagine disassociating myself from black womanhood” (quoted in Erickson-Schroth, 2014, p. 33). This has constitutes its own struggle for self-definition. But Scott’s testimony also underscores how nonbinary people do not simply distance themselves from cultural contexts. In many ways, Scott speaks to the fact that in ordinary life what is constitutive are the social bonds and historical linkages placed on merely theoretical categories.
Violence and Everyday Threat
Violence has in some sense been folded into any discussion of non-normative expressions of gender. Adaptations in the face of violence should not suggest that nonbinary, or all non-normative forms of life for that matter, are products of tragedy and defeat. They are, rather, the composite of experiences and improvisations that persist in the face of social policing. As such, violence takes many manifestations. Physical violence is perhaps the most visible. Others include emotional violence. There is also epistemic violence: that feeling of erasure, of being noncredible, of having one’s sense of assertion removed. The affects associated with any of these forms are produced from the surrounding environment and contexts. In that sense, even the potential for violence feels traumatic. In educational spaces and especially from peers, violence can be a sensed or intuitively felt. Juliet Jacques shares in her memoir that “I’d never dared talk to anyone about my gender identity, or my sexuality. At school, I got told that I sat ‘like a queer’ just for crossing my legs, so I felt that being open about who I was would end badly” (2015, p. 31). In this way Jacques learned to keep to herself. “There was nothing to help me in Horley Library either, so everything I learned about the subjects came from films and TV programmes—the ones I’d chosen to see by myself” (p. 31). That things might “end badly” constitutes the threat that violence poses for non-normative ways of life.
Violence and its many shapes can occur in the most banal places and is a regularly shared experience. In Beemyn and Rankin’s (2011) survey, over a quarter of respondents suggested that they had experienced some form of harassment within a year of the actual study, and nearly a quarter of all respondents identified verbal harassment as the major component (pp. 94–95). In all cases, whether harassment was reported, respondents indicated a shift in their everyday practices. Jacques had illustrated this herself. She felt the threat of others as a policing of her body. A simple matter of crossing her legs became a scene of tension because she behaved “like a queer.”
In terms of violence, queer and trans people of color face disproportionately higher rates of harassment, abuse, employment discrimination, and other manifestations of transphobia in other realms of everyday life—and are sometimes as much as 66% more likely to experience potentially violent incident than their white peers (Beemyn & Rankin, 2011, pp. 96–97; 99; 105–106). The co-implication of racialized hate and internalized phobias is difficult to suss out in purely analytical studies. According to Kortney Ryan Ziegler and Naim Rasul (2014), these experiences do consist of feeling “demonized” as a cultural Other. Many report playing the part of a social scapegoat and internalizing that disavowal of personhood. The manifestations of racism and phobic sexism (related to gender non-normativity) involve higher rates of police brutality. There is an historically persistent theme of housing segregation that is very much an active practice in parts of contemporary America. There is also a sense of a considerable lack of access to certain jobs and gainful employment (Ziegler & Rasul, 2014, p. 34).
Many of these racial problematics are captured in major empirical and theoretical works outside a specifically trans archive. Michelle Alexander (2012) has traced the persistence of mass incarceration of black men as an effect of a history of slavery, institutionalized segregation, and the cultural patterns and social forms that organized as a result. Incarceration is very much a live issue for QPOC. Many have reported higher risks of sexual abuse by inmates and prison guards. Others have reported being placed in the wrong gender population. This only increases the likelihood of violence. There is also the proactive segregation of non-normative inmates to a single cell (see Broadus & Minter, 2014, pp. 174–210). Such higher rates of experienced violence have led some trans scholars to conclude, as C. Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn (2013) do, that such conditions underscore a politics, or rather a “trans necropolitics.” In this instance, gender non-normative people experience a waking or living death in that their lives seemingly matter only as a statistic or as an ideological tool for political gain.
Nonbinary Politics and the Desire to Be Political
The closest text to a manifesto for nonbinary politics in the trans archive is the anthology Nobody Passes (Sycamore, 2006). The contributions have a range of compositional styles and reflections. Some are written by and for the transsexual. Others are poetic works of prose and short stories that aim to illustrate a common theme around genderqueer (nonbinary) life. Rocko Bulldagger outlined a more or less straightforward way of making a practical nonbinary politics work. The chapter title, “The End of Genderqueer,” can be interpreted in one of two ways. The first, and perhaps more capacious sense of the piece, is that the end, or final purpose, of a political movement is to overcome the internal propensity for bickering pedantry (mostly owing to a fascination with queer theory). The second, less capacious interpretation is perhaps more powerful in its political intentions. That is the abolition of the name, the end of the label, because it has reached the limits of its meaning.
Bulldagger describes a genderqueer person as inherently, from the door, political. Genderqueer people are “painfully deliberate and consciously political in their gender expression; [identify] with efforts to subvert oppressive power dynamics by undermining gender expectations; [have a] gender presentation [that] is overdetermined by traditionally gendered signs—somebody who displays excessive femininity or masculinity” (2006, p. 139). There are any number of problems with this description of political desires. Bulldagger’s first of three intersecting descriptions actually forces a potentially universalized experience of pain. Certainly non-normative expressions of human being persist. But Bulldagger is asserting a fundamentally political dimension to the experience. It is the suggestion that in order to be truly genderqueer or nonbinary, one must also accept this new affective orientation. The second and third guidelines serve as declarations of solidarity and elaborate the albeit hypergeneralized but necessary aesthetic conventions to to achieve such solidarity. There is a pervasive yet underdescribed attribution of nonbinary experience that would fulfill a revolutionary political end. These notions are arguably connected with a particular nonbinary historical narrative inflected by performative theory. It is a narrative of total subversion and complete identitarian breakdown. And yet many would, and perhaps should, consider this to be precisely the problem with explicitly defining nonbinary experiences alongside political desires and affects. Such a narrative eases the conflation of desiring political intervention with an ethical obligation to act as a political agent. This kind of narrative does not consider how opportunities for political activity are themselves codetermined by a number of intersecting factors.
But actually existing politics for gender non-normative communities end up varying dramatically. Trans people have already made several successful social and legal claims before courts (of law and of public opinion) and legislatures. But the politics of everyday life, of how one gets to be present in public, is treated as so banal a topic that it justifies its forgettability. Some nonbinary trans people do perfectly fine coordinating their lives within a dynamic social structure. They, as a point in fact, find many other forms of violence to be more unjust than the always-elusive but ever-present sex/gender system. However, recognition as a social and legal ballast for everyday justice does not address how living an ordinary non-normative identity involves a bargain one makes for survival across multiple dimensions of everyday social life. And within that existence, mired by more than one’s own consciousness of gender, political analysis might fail to see how trans people just want to make ends meet. That is, trans people are living in the same social and economic systems as are their cisgender peers. The gender in transgender is, after all, what makes being trans rather ordinary, local, and familiar. If gender indeed “humanizes,” then gender relations are not so much exceptional as they are everyday, and thus a politics should express everyday concerns.
The nonbinary trans archive has been illustrated to contain the banality of living as much as it does the exceptional eruptions of politics along contingent historical conjunctures. Considering the implications of ordinary life enables understanding how the multiple forms of nonbinary trans identities improvise with conventionality. It means nonbinary people can possess an intelligible politics without an overemphasis on anti-normativity, as Chu and Drager (2019) have stressed. It would also distance medical narratives and their constraining terms from statements of identity’s truth. Trans, as a generic form, clusters all kinds of normative conventions together: masculinity and femininity, manhood and womanhood, public and private. Theorizing such clusters would also enable thinking away from reducing everyday life and its politics to a merely vigilant struggle for recognition. Conventions serve as a means of framing more than literary strategies. Aesthetics are active and present in ordinary politics. Aesthetic conventions can serve as ballasts for new and still-ordinary connections. They produce a route through which one can reach out into the world, finding “something to talk about” when that something is not the gender revolution.
Attention to normative conventions that govern binary gender might impact the political consciousness of nonbinary communities (or not). Care should be taken while paying attention to conventions of liberal political institutions and their benefits for trans communities more broadly. Privileged fantasies equality and justice can mask ordinary violence and de-mobilize everyday actors. Trans legal scholar and activist Dead Spade (2006a, 2006b, 2011, 2014) has relentlessly tackled these issues as they pertain to binary and nonbinary trans people. For Spade, the “normal life” is one bound up in administrative labyrinths and gendered compliances (to welfare, the workforce, and legal protections) that force normativity on trans communities—those who struggle just to keep up in everyday life in the first place. This kind of hidden violence leads to what Lauren Berlant (2008) has described as one that occults the pervasive and ongoing inequalities of privatized life. Emphasizing liberal fantasies by publicizing the fantasy that living a good life is founded upon them reduces the power of analysis to capture the ordinary spirit of non-binary politics. Nonbinary life exists in complex relations to heteronormative patriarchy. Appealing to affect without transforming does not address factors like work, school and education, healthcare, and police violence. Free markets, part-time labor, and liberal individualism are themselves constitutive of the effects that persistently privilege a style of gendered expression and force nonbinary trans people to adopt binary appearances out of considerations of safety. These oppressive forces and categories of everyday economic life weigh more heavily upon those whose embodiments are strained by already gendered and racialized social logics.
In response, mainstream trans movements have often imagined a world as “an affective space where people ought to be legitimate because they have feelings and because there is an intelligence in what they feel that knows something about the world that, if it were listened to, could make things better” (Berlant, 2008, p. 2). The world listens and things change. A middle ground must be struck critiquing the conventions of gender and sex that makes a world livable in the first place. Nonbinary people want a boring life, a conventional life, an undisturbed life. Nonbinary trans people consistently bargain with their belonging in the world for the sake of making do. In this sense, the conventions of liberal recognition and progressive political change do not address the poetics of survival. Political analysis should then consider how conventions make something generic feel like something political (Berlant 2008; Rancière, 1999). Attachments to these conventions become exceedingly important and trace the nature of how nonbinary trans peoples’ affective lives are clustered around certain forms of everyday scenes that both empower and disempower them. That is the product of being optimistic. The history of nonbinary identities has included the power of inclusion and the promise of recognition. Holding out for change is often an index of the capacities at one’s disposal to feel free within otherwise structurally oppressive conditions. In the broadest sense, then, non-normative life is a matter of living in the face of domination without being defeated by it.
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