The importance of non-binary language for those who are not

I have a lot of mixed feelings about bringing up this topic but since I brought it up in my very first post I feel like I should clarify what I meant.

Way back when I heard Jordan Peterson’s appearance on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast and felt compelled to sound off publicly, I briefly mentioned my own relationship with non-binary language when I first began coming out.  The more personal and anecdotal stuff was secondary to my main points there, but upon re-reading it I don’t think I was very clear on what I meant.

Right away, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying everybody is non-binary.  A. that just isn’t true and B. it parallels a very fallacious line of thought about bisexuality.  In the past, when people have learned that I am bisexual, they’ve been a little incredulous.  A straight friend of mine from high school seemed to think that I’m interested exclusively in men and, for awhile, was surprised whenever he was reminded that I’m attracted to women as well.  One man, whom I was involved with for a long time, would sometimes say that, on the rare occasions he had sex with women, that they were essentially “the exception that proves the rule” (this person is gay.)  The point of these stories seemed to be that everyone has some degree of flexibility but there is an inevitable average that, for most intents and purposes, designates your orientation.

I don’t think this person knew about Alfred Kinsey, but his beliefs clearly mapped onto the concept of the Kinsey spectrum.  When Kinsey gathered his data for his two books on human sexuality, he surveyed innumerable people and reported that people who are exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual are rare, and that most people are “predominantly gay” or “predominantly straight”.  In essence, everyone is bisexual but everyone has an average that designates their sexual orientation more than the deviations from the average.  Back when my high school friend would be surprised by my attraction to women, he would sometimes express something similar.  I would say something like “you already know I’m bisexual” and he would say something like “yes but don’t you…desire men more than you desire women?”  The high school friend and the ex-partner seemed to be driving at the same thing: the term ‘bisexual’ is fundamentally not relevant.  Either you have a consistent average within more diverse possibilities, or you are simply refusing to “own up” to the fact that you are either gay or straight.

I don’t think people should be afraid of fluidity but I also think embracing fluidity can obfuscate other relevant averages.  On one hand, consider people who have been mostly straight except for one very deep and long lasting same sex attraction.  If that one relationship ends, such a person may simply continue being interested in the opposite sex.  The one break in the pattern does not, in and of itself, compel one to re-evaluate their identity.  Internalized homophobia could also come up in this context: if you think that gay people are foreign “others” who you think of as existing far from you, you might not mentally place yourself in that category.  On the other hand, there are people like me who simply do not have a consistent preference for the sex or gender of their partners.  For myself and other bisexuals, bisexuality itself is the average.

Forgive me if I’m taking a long time getting to the point, but I think this habit of mind bears mentioning.  With sexual orientation and gender, there are categories that are used the most and that people are the most familiar with, i.e. gay, straight, male and female.  The vast majority of people can relate to one of those four categories and their common acceptance can create doubt about people who do not relate to those four groups.  If it is commonly assumed that those four groups are universal and if someone has things in common with more than one of them, a lay person might think that some sort of male \ female straight \ gay identity must be there, even if it’s not obvious.  This has an unintentional consistency with “questioning” people who may feel alienated from commonly accepted groups but eventually come to identify with one of them.  This both alienates people who truly do not identify as gay or straight, male or female, and compels people to re-interpret their lives with previously unclear aspects of their identity re-defined as lucid.

Aaaaaannndd……at long last we’re now close to that “point” thing that seems to be all the rage these days.  In the Waking Up episode with Jordan Peterson, he expresses his anxiety with legal protection extending to non-binary individuals in particular.  In other situations, Peterson has described gender neutral pronouns like ze and hir as words that he “hates” and will never use.  From that point, I started getting anecdotal with my early twenties when I was struggling to come out and how Kate Bornstein’s explanation of being genderqueer was my first really accessible way of making sense of my feelings.

As I said at some length above, I do not want to say that everyone is non-binary in the same way that Alfred Kinsey encouraged people to think that everyone is bisexual, and that once you’ve nailed down your consistent average the wider flexibility ceases to matter.  As someone who used to identify as non-binary, I would never say anything that flippant.  But I’m not at all convinced that my lived experience is unique, or even very different from the average transgender person.

For me, the most basic and obvious reason for the usefulness of non-binary language is that the average transperson has internalized a script from the rest of society interrogating their existence.  Most transwomen, at some point in their lives, have heard something like “it takes more than a dress, heels and surgery to make a woman”.  Queer people in general are also likely to be asked why they are how they are.  I’ve heard some truly odd replies to this question when older transwomen have told me about other conversations that they’ve had.

In my own family, there’s a widely circulated story about a trans individual who said she wanted to be female because men open doors.  I don’t think I need to dwell on how absurd that is.  But if you have been told that you’re mentally ill and have had people demand an explanation from you over and over again, it definitely makes sense that you’d start to think that any answer would be better than no answer, that if you just say something, no matter how transparently false, it will take the heat off of you.  If someone badgers you to answer a question over and over again throughout your life, it makes sense that eventually you’d just want them to shut up and go away, and giving a random answer could be a learned way to do that.

Another surface level reason for why non-binary language is useful for trans people within the binary is their lived experience.  I have not had the childhood that a ciswoman or a cisman has had.  Cismen don’t have their peace of mind ruined by gender dysphoria and ciswoman have female anatomy.  As a bare bones concession to objective reality, I have a set of experiences as a transgender person that cispeople simply do not have and vice versa.  TERFs are infamous for pointing out the absence of wombs, vaginas, menstruation, etc.  Strictly speaking, these remarks are relevant, but not in the way that TERFs maintain that they are.  It doesn’t mean that transwomen are less female or that transmen are less male, but it does mean that there are experiences that trans people have that cispeople do not.

If that seems obvious to the point of being silly, let me break down some stuff about myself.  My body dysphoria compelled me to persistently seek out hormone replacement therapy and voice training.  The stress of my dysphoria compels me to make my body more female.  Regardless of what I believe about gender or consciously assert about myself, my bodily transition is definitely headed in a direction that fits within the binary.  I don’t know why that is and never have, so my dysphoria seems to have subconscious origin.  According to the definitions, this makes me a transsexual woman, since the motivation comes from and relates to my sex.  A big part of my transition is making my body female, which in and of itself is an experience that both cismen and ciswomen do not have.  Although I’m female, only a minority of females need to transition.  It’s absolutely true that I don’t have a uterus and have never menstruated, but the same can be said of many women, and it fits with the larger phenomena of experiences unique to transpeople.  I don’t think owning this uniqueness causes anyone to lose, it certainly doesn’t invalidate anyone.  Only in a world where male and female are the only two gendered categories could that be invalidating.

An intuitive objection to this is that mainstream culture in general only accommodates the categories of male and female and to act like this does not have the power to isolate and harm people is naive.  I totally agree, but the consequences of social censure is not the same question as whether or not something is real.  A lot of us have had conversations with straight people who think that being queer is a “bad idea” because of all the ways that society punishes queerness.  This is also more or less what social conservatives mean when they say that the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.

Asserting that someone disbelieves in something or will attempt to dissuade others from doing something is not evidence against it.  A statement of belief or disbelief is not objective evidence of anything.  So it’s absolutely true that society punishes people who do not conform to the binary, but that’s not the same question as whether or not non-binary experiences and language matter.  I think it even attests to the weakness of the binary that it alienates and oppresses people who identify within the binary, like transsexual women or men, who typically have to deal with a lifetime of reconciling their felt gender with a world that constantly demands an explanation or justification.

There is another objection to this that I really do have mixed feelings about, though; that trans people feeling alienated from the binary is a consequence of internalized transphobia.  That’s true and there’s nothing like the difference between a trans persons’ conscious assessment and beliefs and the persistence of body dysphoria to underscore how true it is.  Body dysphoria can compel someone to transition in the face of a lifetime of internalizing messages that they should not.  At the same time, though, I also believe that part of exorcising bad emotions is to acknowledge that it’s okay to feel them.  If you have felt that being trans has caused society to make you feel unwelcome as either a man or a woman, then the next step could be to acknowledge that it’s okay not to be either.

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