Table of Contents
Many cultures used to identify multiple genders other than those of female and male. These two genders constitute the gender binary, the categorisation of gender into two distinct and opposite forms of masculine and feminine. Non-binary people are those that identify neither as female nor as male, but as something out of the binary gender norm, defying the concept of a border between genders or the notion of gender itself. Globalisation eradicated the non-binary genders in most cultures, with only some of them surviving, such as the Burrnesha virgins of Albania.1 Gender studies, originating from women’s studies, have only recently developed a well-organised and presented theory of the existence of multiple genders, promoting the acceptance of those as something common. However, non-binary people still face a lot of judgement and discrimination from society, just like most of the identities that are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. It is in the past decade that more and more non-binary people have started to fight for visibility and their rights by protesting and informing people of their experiences, though little is written about their experiences overcoming or disregarding the borders of gender.
This study opts to contribute in the development of the LGBTIQIA+ literature, concerning how non-binary people actually experience their gender or lack of it and how societal and legislative factors affect their feelings of safety. After discussing with people from different countries we come to realise the significance of the role society has on their decision to reveal their gender identity or hide it and how legislation ignores their rights. The goal of this paper is to raise awareness on the non-binary experience and the struggles they face because of institutional discrimination and ignorance of the society to their experience.
People recognise two different families, the one they are brought up in and the one they choose, which consists of their friends, people they chose to surround them and interact with them; a sort of a “family of choice”. This is even more true for non-binary people, who often struggle to reveal their true identity to their close relatives. Since they do not get to choose the family they will be raised in, they have a choice on whether they will externalise their true identity and to what extent to these people. On the contrary, they present their true selves to their “family of choice”.
LGBTQIA+: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, other queer identities and allies.
Queer: An umbrella term to describe anyone who is not cisgender and/or heterosexual.
Gender Binary: The division of gender into male and female.
Non-Binary: A gender identity where someone does not identify as either male or female
Genderfluid: People who have a gender or genders that change. Genderfluid people move between genders, experiencing their gender as something dynamic and changing, rather than static ~ gender spectrum. 3
Agender: Someone that does not identify with any gender or identifies as gender-neutral .
Transgender: Someone whose gender does not match their assigned at birth sex.
Coming out: Declaring one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
AFAB/AMAB: Assigned female/male at birth.
Dead name: The name a transgender or genderqueer person was given as a baby and does not use upon transitioning.
In her book ‘The Second Sex’ Simone de Beavoir mentions that people are not born with a gender, but rather are raised to become women or men. 4 As Judith Butler explains, with this statement de Beauvoir distinguishes sex from gender. Furthermore, she claims that societies raise people to adopt a certain gender by teaching them how to act, dress and speak. Thus, gender is seen as a “performance”. 5 People act how they have been taught to, in order to fit certain heteronormative standards. The effect of society on people’s gender is already evident.
What is also clear through various surveys and articles is the negative experience non-binary people go through in society. Specifically, they face different kinds of discrimination than that of transgender people. Τhey are excluded from society through bullying and family rejection while they do not even feel safe when using Gender Identity Clinics (GICs). Indicatively, some of these resources are the Scottish Trans Alliance’s survey on non-binary people who use GICs in the UK 6 and one of OHCHR’s (Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights) articles, that showed the different struggles gender-diverse and transgender people face. 7
In the discussed sources the particularity of gender has been introduced. As mentioned above, gender is an act, a performance people are raised and taught how to deliver to an audience, meaning the society. But when these people realise their identities do not match the gender they were brought up with, but neither the opposite, as assigned by the gender binary, they find themselves forced to either face several obstacles, in order to achieve personal freedom, equality and happiness or to hide their true selves forever. Even though there is extensive literature on the struggles they face, what has not been studied enough is how non-binary people experience their gender and how their everyday life is affected by it.
The three AFAB narrators of the paper identify as genderfluid with their gender shifting from agender to female and even though they use different pronouns, they all share they/them pronouns. Hence, to avoid any misunderstandings it was agreed to use they/them pronouns when referring to them and their experiences.
The first interviewee was born in 1999 in Warsaw, Poland and was raised in a pretty, upper-class neighbourhood. They started realising their identity at 15 years old, disregarding these initial thoughts and starting to think of it again after graduating from high school.
“I am very lucky to be in a very queer-safe environment. All my friends can express themselves. Being in this environment gave me the courage to accept myself. Moreover, I have a friend with the same gender identity as me and we share our experiences and thoughts with each other.”
The abovementioned friend is who they first came out to since their friend had already come out to them and they felt that they could share this experience together. However, they have still to come out to their family, since they are afraid that they won’t understand them. On the other hand, when they came out to their boyfriend and a mutual friend, they were met with approval and love, confirming their thoughts that they can trust these people. Marta spent six months in Berlin studying and working. While there, they decided to make a coming-out post on social media. Surprisingly to them, they were sent supportive messages from friends and acquaintances, with a transgender friend of theirs saying “You are very brave and I know how much of a struggle it can be”.
Pin was born in 2001 in Athens, Greece and was traditionally given their grandmother’s name. The realisation of their gender came very swiftly since they knew even from a young age that they disliked being called several nicknames used on girls.
“I did not need to know the words to know that I disliked being called these names.”
Their parents never forbid them to play certain sports or wear certain clothes because they were a girl. Only their mother would sometimes urge them to wear dresses. Pin has not come out to their family, since they believe it will lead to a long conversation and they will not make anything out of it.
“We are at a point where I can wear whatever I want, not shave and not have them comment on anything. I think my mother will be scared off because of the terminology. I am afraid that discussing gender with her will only reduce my liberties. My gender doesn’t really affect anything at this point. My family uses she/her pronouns on me and I’m ok with that and they already call me Pin.”
While discussing the decision and process of coming out, Pin had the following to add:
“There is a great stigma within the community against people who are in the closet. You don’t have to come out of the closet. If you don’t have anything to win from coming out to your parents and just feel you owe it to them, you don’t, you don’t have to come out.”
Thankfully, Pin did not have to face any negative reactions to their coming out as well.
“You know who you come out to. I chose people close to me, that I trust and know are supportive.”
Our last narrator was born and raised in a small town in Germany, surrounded by elderly people and a few kids their age to hang out with. They are now studying in the Netherlands. When they attended the 10th grade they started questioning their sexuality and ended up identifying as a lesbian. However, they quickly began to question their gender because of their sexuality. Through a very interesting journey of self-realisation, they finally found themselves comfortable with using the genderfluid term to describe their gender. It was a non-binary friend of theirs that reassured them that their feelings of gender and their identity were valid.
Even though Pia’s friends reacted very positively to their coming out, they have not yet come out to their family:
“For my family it is already difficult that I am a lesbian, so I haven’t told them yet. It’s more something I want and need to know for myself and less something I am vocal about, like being a lesbian, which is my main identity. I share it with my queer friends and we connect on it. It’s more on how I want to be addressed and less identity-wise. I think my family wouldn’t understand and it would be very complicated for them. Also, because I am a very feminine person, there are no changes in my gender expression, so it isn’t something really relevant to our relationship”
Gender and Experience
The answers to what is gender to them were very diverse. Marta gave two different definitions:
- “I do believe gender is a spectrum where everyone belongs. It isn’t a 0 to 1 spectrum. It’s not a binary thing. When I say that gender is a spectrum I imagine a line between femme and masc and there are things in between.”
- “Gender is a social construct that influences the way people behave. We are socialized in a certain way and taught to act and dress accordingly.”
Pia adopts this second definition as well:
“You try to free your gender from society, but at the end of the day, it’s a social construct. Everyone finds an essence within themselves that they’ll identify as gender or the lack of it.”
Pin on the other hand found it easier to explain what is not gender; clothes, hair, expression. This clearly proves the fact that gender is not something that they are really aware of and does not determine their life. Furthermore, it seems that they separate gender from the way it is expressed and realise it as a sense people feel inside.
Concerning how they experience their gender, Pin described the following process:
“There is a point in the spectrum of gender that is the centre and it’s point 0. Each day I wake up I feel like a +2 or a -1 for example. I can’t feel that I don’t have a gender. Not having a gender it’s a gender for me that is at the centre of the spectrum for me. I’m in between the binary by choice, in order to avoid the binary and siding with a gender. ”
Pia described gender as a space, a point of which is being agender. It is separate from the scale all other genders are on.
“It is like they give you different food options, but you do not like eating.”
Everyday life and revealing their gender
Of course, their gender also affects their everyday life. Furthermore, they find it surprising that when feeling agender they are more confident since not feeling feminine gives them power. This feeling is clearly caused by the fear that comes with being female and in constant danger in patriarchal societies. Furthermore, Pia feels gender dysphoria when faced with gender questions and binary concepts.
Concerning these concepts and combined with the danger female people live with, our AFAB participants when asked about the public restrooms dilemma, all three agreed they prefer using female restrooms, firstly to avoid negative judgements and then because it feels more safe being around women. Pin even expressed a feeling of obligation to use the female restrooms, in contrast to their cisgender female friends who would use the male restrooms if needed.
Finally, when the participants were asked whether they would reveal their gender identity to someone they just met, all three replied that the new acquaintance would have to pass the ‘vibe check’, meaning that they are open-minded and at least seem to be an LGBTQIA+ ally. As to finding a job, the participants agreed that revealing their gender would not make them feel safe and would probably cause them to be denied positions. Only Pia would consider mentioning their pronouns in order to promote inclusivity and acceptance.
Interestingly enough all interviewees remembered a specific event related to the LGBTQIA+ community that affected them. For Marta it was the Małgorzata Szutowicz , also known as Margot, case 8 that made them realise the hardships queer people face in Poland. Pin mentioned the case of Zak Kostopoulos 9, which was until recently on trial and proves the fact that Greece has a lot of ground to cover in regards to LGBTQIA+ rights. Lastly, Pia was greatly moved by the legalisation of gay marriage in the USA and in Germany, since they could finally dream again of getting married in the future. Another event was when several German priests came out as queer in opposition to the Catholic Pope’s refusal to bless same-sex marriage. 10
These events urged them to be active on supporting LGBTQIA+ rights. Specifically, Marta is one of the editors of a magazine about Neurodiversity and is currently conducting a research on how it can affect people’s perception of gender. Pin and Pia attend events and protests, while Pia is also member of an organisation that supports victims of sexual assault, including LGBTQIA+ people. Pin made an interesting remark:
“I don’t feel safe, but I consciously disregard the danger. I do not recommend it to anyone, but I know that I can’t live with myself if I’m hiding and in face of all the women and trans murders, I have thought to myself that I prefer dying and being the reason for a protest to living up to 100 years old. It’s sad because only repressed people have to think about it in this way.”
Legislation and Gender – Affirming Surgery
In regards to the legislation and the constitution of their countries, all three participants stated that non-binary people are excluded or barely even mentioned in it. The process of legally changing your name is extremely difficult, while in Poland you have to sue your parents for giving you your dead name. 11 In that country, the process of getting approval for gender-affirming surgery is a difficult one as well, where you have to be mentally assessed and even share your feelings, thoughts and experiences in court. On this topic, Marta expressed thoughts of considering breast reduction surgery in the future, with Pin also having considered it and Pia preferring more temporary options such as tape.
In conclusion, non-binary people’s identity is something that is yet to be considered common and widely accepted by society. Their fight for visibility has only started. The process of questioning their true identity has led the three participants of this study to accept and embrace their gender or lack of it. However, this process was not an easy one, neither is living as a non-binary person. The fear of judgement, exclusion and assault makes non-binary people extremely cautious of who they interact with and trust. The possibility of being restricted by their family members forbids them to share their true selves with them.
The way each person understands and experiences their gender is different. What everyone seems to agree upon is the restrictions by the authorities to easily change their gender on paper and perhaps go under gender-affirming surgery. Furthermore, society’s close-minded members scare queer people into hiding. On the contrary, acts of violence against LGBTQIA+ people and the legalisation of certain rights of theirs, urge them to continue and fight harder to achieve a better future. Moreover, the support these people have from their “family of choice” gives them the strength to accept and love themselves, as well as to continue their fight for equality.
Lastly, the participants would like to urge non-binary people to be proud and accept themselves, know that their identity is valid and that they will meet amazing people that will love and support them for who they are.
- “Non-binary people’s experiences of using UK gender identity clinics” (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://www.scottishtrans.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Non-binary-GIC-mini-report.pdf.
- Bates, K. (2021). “The transgender daughter of Piotr Jacoń had to … sue her own parents. ‘She started to cry, to howl’.” [online] Available at: https://www.gamingdeputy.com/the-transgender-daughter-of-piotr-jacon-had-to-sue-her-own-parents-she-started-to-cry-to-howl/ [Accessed 8 Jun. 2022].
- Butler, J. (1988). “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” Theatre Journal, 40(4), pp.519–531. doi:10.2307/3207893.
- De Beauvoir, S. (1949). The Second Sex. New Yord. Vintage Classics.
- Deutsche Welle (2022). “German Catholic priests come out as queer, demand reform” Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/german-catholic-priests-come-out-as-queer-demand-reform/a-60531857 [Accessed 25 Apr. 2022].
- Human Rights Watch. (2020). “Poland Punishes LGBT Rights Activist with Pretrial Detention.” [online] Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/12/poland-punishes-lgbt-rights-activist-pretrial-detention [Accessed 28 Apr. 2022].
- Lavelle, M. (2022). “Anger at Greek court verdict over LGBTQ activist killing”. [online] www.aljazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/4/greeces-gay-commuity-they-do-not-consider-our-lives-of-value [Accessed 23 May 2022].
- OHCR. (n.d.). “The struggle of trans and gender-diverse persons.” [online] Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-procedures/ie-sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity/struggle-trans-and-gender-diverse-persons [Accessed 5 Apr. 2022].
- PBS (2015). “Interactive map: Gender-Diverse cultures”. [online] Independent Lens. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/.
- Prismic (n.d.). “Language of Gender.” [online] Available at: https://genderspectrum.org/articles/language-of-gender.
- PBS (2015). Interactive map: Gender-Diverse cultures.
- HANS REMEMBERS- SATURDAY JUNE 27, 1970- 50 YEARS AGO
- Prismic (n.d.). Language of Gender.
- De Beauvoir, S. (1949). The Second Sex. Vintage Classics.
- Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal.
- Non-binary people’s experiences of using UK gender identity clinics. (n.d.).
- OHCR. (n.d.). The struggle of trans and gender-diverse persons.
- Human Rights Watch. (2020). Poland Punishes LGBT Rights Activist with Pretrial Detention.
- Lavelle, M. (n.d.). Anger at Greek court verdict over LGBTQ activist killing.
- Welle (www.dw.com), D. (n.d.). German Catholic priests come out as queer, demand reform | DW | 24.01.2022.
- Bates, K. (2021). The transgender daughter of Piotr Jacoń had to … sue her own parents. ‘She started to cry, to howl’.