TCS Voices: Reflections on Being Non-Binary (Part 2 of 4)

Luke Hallam 4 January 2019

This is the second part of a series exploring the experiences of transgender and non-binary students. TCS conducted interviews with four volunteers, and these articles aim to faithfully portray their thoughts and worries about a number of topics: life at university, the Gender Recognition Act consultation, the meaning of their identity, and what they wish other people knew. Volunteers for these articles were naturally diverse – one transgender male, one transgender female, and two non-binary students – and their experiences and world-views reflect this. Although a select few questions were asked to all participants, the conversation took a natural direction in each interview, and the aim is not to compare what different individuals say. Rather, it is to provide an unfiltered account of the experience of non-cisgendered individuals in their own words.


B is a non-binary student. The previous article in this series included a discussion about the difficulty of empathising with identities that are radically different from your own, and for most people this is doubly the case with regards to non-binary individuals. It seems that many people have an opinion about trans and non-binary issues, yet very rarely try and come to an informed understanding by talking with people about their experiences. I begin by feeling hopeful that conversations such as this can shed some light on an issue which, my feeling tells me, is overly politicised.

They begin by explaining – “I’ve known that I had some sort of trans identity for quite a long time, back in school. But until coming to Cambridge there wasn’t a lot I could do about it, for various reasons. Being here is nice because you have a lot more freedom to be yourself and do your own thing, and without constant parental surveillance or any of that sort of thing.”

I am curious about the nature of a non-binary identity – a good place to begin seems to be by asking about society’s biggest misconceptions about NB individuals. “One thing is that there is a huge focus on certain aspects of presentation. So, the idea that if you are non-binary you have to dress a certain way. There’s a lot of stereotypes that we have brightly coloured hair or dress androgynously in button-up shirts or something, whatever the silly stereotype is. It’s not about that; it can be about how you look, but most importantly it’s about how you feel. It’s about how you interact with people.” This is not an easy issue to explain, and B later clarifies: “Presentation is important but it’s not the same for everyone. The misconception comes from the fact that lots of trans & NB people do have to consider how we look a lot more than others, because it’s more difficult for us to be seen as we want. For me, there are items of clothing I can’t wear because seeing myself in them or even the feel of them on my skin makes me dysphoric. There are also things I choose to wear or not to wear because I’m trying to cue other people’s reactions to me, and there are things I wear because I just like them. But it doesn’t define my identity, it’s just that appearance is an additional obstacle that we have to find our way around. And it’s worse when you know that cis people are judging the validity of your identity based on superficialities.”

From this, it seems likely to me that the prejudice sometimes directed at people who have non-cis identities, apart from a lack of empathy, derives from the misconception that the choices people make reflect politics rather than ontology. As B makes clear, to many people “it’s like you’re saying: ‘I think the world should be this way.’ And I’d like a world that had fewer gendered expectations of people, but that’s not why I identify this way. It’s not just a political statement, it’s not just a sort of intellectual ideas thing, it’s about how you feel in yourself, in your own skin.” And dysphoria is something very much felt. “It’s really horrible and unpleasant, so it’s not just some political rejection of gender at all. But we are in a world that’s very keen to force gender roles on us, and I think it doesn’t help having shops with everything split into men’s and women’s clothes […] the social context certainly doesn’t help.”

Of course, “the thing about belonging to any minority group is that you have to be political if you want things to change. So, I think you were going to ask me about the GRA consultation – the onus for campaigning on that was basically with trans and NB people. And there’s [CUSU’s] ‘Why Gender-Neutral’ campaign at the moment, and some people [think it should be left] to LGBT officers in colleges, rather than realising that this is a gender equalities issue for everyone. So, if you belong to one of those groups then you are kind of forced to be political. If you want to see any kind of change to make the world accommodate you better, you have to be one of the people pushing for that.”

Raising basic awareness seems to be one of the biggest challenges for the NB community, even in a place like Cambridge. As it is put to me, the city is “probably the best place that I could be, but that’s not necessarily a high bar.” And how aware or responsive is the University in general about non-binary identities? “Well, Cambridge as an institution, not very good. There’s some awareness in some places, but you just don’t know who is going to be fine with it, and who isn’t, really. And it’s not very obvious who to talk to. I think it’s probably a bit of an older generation thing as well, sort of stuffy Cambridge colleges, so I’m always quite wary about talking to staff about things.” Despite this, “CUSU LGBT is good”, but “it can always be a bit daunting.”

Perhaps most interesting are B’s experiences with groups outside the University bureaucracy or CUSU. “There’s a lot of events that will say, for example, ‘open to women and non-binary people’, but then when you go along to them there’s not really that much effort to include [NB] people. I’ve been to events that are supposed to be for women and non-binary people to talk about issues that affect them, and they just end up talking about women. And it can make you feel like by choosing to be in that space you’re invalidating something about yourself, which is not ideal. So, I’ve just decided that I have to avoid that, which is sad, because there’s lots of things that I’d like to be involved discussing or campaigning about, but I’m not willing to make myself feel uncomfortable by being there.” Clearly, while on the surface the city offers an array of NB and trans inclusive spaces, a welcoming slogan is no substitute for active inclusion.

B is wary about approaching anyone about this problem. “It’s never fun to call people out, and when you do, generally people are fine with it but they forget, so they’ll change something once but then not remember it for the next time. I think one of the things that’s quite interesting, particularly about being NB rather than binary trans, is that I think if I told people that I was binary trans they’d at least remember it.” That is, “I have a few, fairly close friends that I’ve had the “coming-out” conversation with two or three times and each time they look at me as if it’s completely new and unexpected.” They stress: “I don’t want to suggest that binary trans people have it easier for this reason.” The point is that: “I will come out to the same people repeatedly but they won’t remember the things that I want them to take away from that, or they won’t remember that I’d rather that they didn’t use gendered terms to talk about me, for example.”

To make matters worse, it seems that people who do try and engage with the non-cis identity of others do so in a way that perpetuates a certain narrative. “I think there’s definitely an idea that trans and NB people should be sharing the emotional side of their experiences in order to gain people’s sympathy, which is horribly unfair and you wouldn’t expect that from anyone else. And I think it can come from people who are well-intentioned as well, I suppose, just because they think that in order to understand us they need to understand the psychology of it or something.” Again, in B’s experience at least, it seems there is still work to do in some quarters to recognise NB and trans people as individuals, rather than ‘emotions’ or political activists. “Really, in order to be a good ally, you just need to understand practical things like – ‘this is the kind of language I’d like you to use if you refer to me’, ‘these are ways that you can incorporate me into events or social occasions that will make me feel less dysphoric’. […] It would be nice if people focused on the practical a bit more – the ‘Why Gender-Neutral’ campaign has been really good because lots of people are seeing that there are practical things they can do to help.”

I raise the fact that the accusation of attention-seeking is often directed at the non-cis community. “Yeah, the attention-seeking thing is a really horrible stereotype because for myself and most trans people I know, it’s not something they want to talk about at every opportunity, it’s not something they necessarily even enjoy talking about, and even if they do want to talk about it, it can mean some unpleasant conversations. It’s not about having an audience, it’s about yourself. And, as for a lot of us, it’s not something I often talk about very openly with people at all. I don’t think I’m at all attention-seeking. I think, if anything, a lot of us are constantly apologising when we shouldn’t be, because sometimes you do have to ask someone to make some small compromise, and that’s not actually a pleasant thing to do, or to have to explain. In Cambridge in particular, things like sports or singing, it’s just so gendered and people don’t even think about that. If you’re in a choir, people don’t even think about saying – ‘boys sing this’, ‘women sing that’. And, you don’t want to cut yourself off from doing things that you’re interested in just for that reason.” They end this with a sentence that sums up a common theme from people in these interviews: “A lot of us will put up with a lot before we complain because we still want to be involved.”

I move to the topic of the government’s recently concluded consultation into the Gender Recognition Act. Stonewall hopes that the result will be an up-to-date Act that recognises non-binary identities. “When it was first published, I was really excited about it, and was like ‘the government is taking some of these issues seriously, and they want to hear what we have to say about it’, and I was very optimistic. It was open for a very long time, and the actual period of – I don’t want to use the word ‘debate’ – the discussion about it was really very unpleasant. I felt the media were very irresponsible around it. And trying to use it to start a fight, and looking for any voices that wanted to oppose it.” Equally, again, B makes clear that the prevailing narrative emphasising emotions above all else warps such discussions. In the eyes of some, “it was all about emotions rather than about the facts, and if you go and research what the GRA pertains to, it’s actually a very small limited number of things. The changes wouldn’t be that extremely different from how it is now. It would just mean that, well firstly, the part that would affect me is that we wanted non-binary people to be recognised, which would be fantastic. But for the most part the changes would be making it more user-friendly and less of a horrible, invasive, traumatic process for people applying, and less long and drawn out. And some of the risks that were being talked about were just non-existent, because there’s already legal safeguards, but because it was blown into this emotional debate instead it was very exhausting I think for a lot of us, especially if you were involved with any kind of campaigning towards it. And there’s this idea that trans people want to attack other people’s free speech, which is just completely untrue, and I don’t know where it comes from. For some reason that was what everyone was talking about.”

Finally, I had raised a question about the nature of gender (as opposed to physical sex characteristics), especially the issue of whether it is a social or biological phenomenon. However, neither of us are specialists in this matter. As B explains: “I’m not entirely comfortable making pronouncements on this – I feel like if I were asked a dozen times I’d answer in a dozen different ways. And I’m also aware that I would contradict myself. Gender is really important to me (because I’m very aware of it most of the time), but also unimportant (I want rid of it), and so on.” They raise a point that people engaging with gender issues seldom recognise when talking with NB individuals. “Trans and non-binary people are expected to explain themselves more than anyone else is. For example, a cis woman who doesn’t know lots of feminist theory is still accepted as a woman. But we are all expected to be experts in gender theory, when for a lot of us we’re trying to give words to something un-placeable.”

This is certainly hard to refute, and frames it in a way I had not considered. In the light of this and other conversations, it is seriously worth reflecting upon. The expectation of self-justification we have of trans and non-binary people seems to derive from the false framing of the issue in the realm of politics, what someone like Jordan Peterson would dismiss as “ideology”. While NB identities clearly exist alongside a conscious rejection of the gendered nature of society, something feminists have advocated for years, it is far more accurate to understand them in the terms that we understand race or sexuality – that is, as an undeniable part of someone’s being, which they are not beholden to go out of their way to understand scientifically. Most of us can’t academically justify our race or our sexual preferences – because who asks? And who feels the need to?