People who do not strictly identify as a man or a woman and do not want to be a part of the gender binary are commonly referred to as nonbinary people. These people identify as nonbinary, that is, not catering to either of the two binaries. Some of them may identify as trans as well. Some intersex people also identify themselves as nonbinary people.
What are some of the struggles faced by non-binary people?
i. In India, for nonbinary people, coming out to a family is often a scary thought. Even after coming out, they are often misgendered. They are often called by their dead names which lead to triggers, gender dysphoria, and trauma.
ii. Many people think being nonbinary is a phase or a trend. It is something that people “do” or “become” to seek attention or because they are confused about their gender identity. This is extremely problematic and may lead to crimes against non-binary people, such as conversion therapy.
iii. They are often discriminated against by queerphobic people at all levels – schools, colleges, public transportation, offices, and even at home.
iv. They face queerphobia and violence in medical and legal systems as well. They may be denied treatment because of their gender identity and people may often harass them with their legal paperwork and documents.
v. They are often told, “Nonbinary is not a real thing, it doesn’t exist.” In a hetero-normative patriarchal society such as ours, people still think that a person can be either a man or a woman only. They must fit into gender binaries and perform gender roles. This leads to the erasure of nonbinary people and is one of the main struggles faced by them.
Ways to create a safe space for nonbinary people
Here are some ways in which you can help to create a safe space for nonbinary people and end the discrimination meted out to them:
1. Do your research: There are multiple articles written on the internet about nonbinary people. There are many books written by nonbinary writers about gender dysphoria, queerphobia, equality, trans joy, and so on. Read these articles and books. Use your resources and amplify the voices of nonbinary people. How will you amplify their voices? Start with something simple, such as Instagram. If you come across a post written by a nonbinary person which is informative and helpful, engage with their work and share it on your story! You never know how many people may be educated and sensitized through this simple act of yours.
2. Understand that gender is a social construct: To understand nonbinary people, we must first understand gender binaries. We must know that gender is a social construct. Judith Butler, the renowned gender theorist, and feminist, has argued that gender does not exist as an objective natural thing. According to her, “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is only real only to the extent that it is performed.” Her theory focuses on how gender is by no means tied to material bodily facts but is solely and completely a social construction which is open to change and contestation. Keeping this in mind, we must understand that it is normal for a person to be nonbinary. There is nothing strange, confusing, wrong, or abnormal about it. We must respect how people identify themselves.
3. Use the right pronouns: What pronouns should we use for nonbinary people? Some nonbinary people use the pronouns they/them. So should we use these pronouns for all nonbinary people we come across? Some nonbinary people use the pronouns she/they. So should we refer to them as ‘she’ all the time? The answer to these questions is, no! The first thing that we must remember is, when we refer to a person, we must never assume their pronouns. For example, if that person has a beard, we instantly assume they are a man and call them he/him. If a person wears a frock, we say, “She is wearing a frock.” Instead of this, we should use gender-neutral pronouns like they/them. We should introduce ourselves with our pronouns and then wait for them to tell us their pronouns.
Imagine you are at a party and you meet a person whose pronouns you do not know. You may say, “Hi, I am Riya and my pronouns are she/her.” This person you have met may say, “Hi, I am Naina and my pronouns are they/them.” Now you know their pronouns! If they do not feel comfortable enough to share their pronouns, we should not force them to do so and make them uncomfortable. We may use gender-neutral pronouns in that case.
4. Refrain from asking uneasy personal questions: Do not simply go to them and ask, “Are you nonbinary? Tell me about it.” It may make them uncomfortable and it is also exhausting to provide this free labour to everyone. Do not ask personal questions out of curiosity. Many nonbinary people say that they are asked about their body parts and clothes by random people at social gatherings and it is very triggering for them.
5. Helpline numbers and support groups: If you want to help nonbinary people when they are bullied, attacked, or trolled, lend your support to them. Show them that you care, that they matter, and that they deserve to live with safety and respect. There are many helpline numbers and support groups available online as well as offline to provide them with free and affordable therapy sessions, legal aid, and cyberspace security. Inform them about these groups. Donate to the fundraisers that support them.
6. Discuss works by nonbinary artists: Alok Vaid Menon, an Indian-American and gender non-conforming artist, poet, and activist, says, “When I was younger, I was convinced that when I shared myself with the world I would lose everyone. But what I didn’t know was what I would also discover alongside the loss. I found love. In meeting my trans sisters and siblings I found love. As trans people, we have long found ways to build families with one another. Our chosen families are often more resonant and unshakable than our families of origin. Finally, we are seen for who we are, not what we should be. Yes, there is incredible grief, tragedy, pain navigating a world that does not yet accept your radiant beauty. But that’s why we have to find each other. Our sisterhood, our siblinghood is about survival. Every time I’m feeling impossible, I reach out to my trans family. And we inhabit that pain together. It doesn’t make it go away, but it certainly makes it more bearable. So I would say: your sisters, your brothers, and your siblings are waiting. Find them.”
Recently, a Netflix web series called ‘Feel Good’ has gained a lot of popularity, especially among young people. It tells the story of Mae Martin, a nonbinary stand up comedian. It is semi-autobiographical and talks about gender dysphoria, queer love, intimacy, joy, and so on. Martin wrote on an Instagram post, “The way I feel about my gender identity is ongoing and evolving, and it’s personal, but I thought it might be good to say for clarity and in case anyone finds it helpful – I’m non-binary, my pronouns are they/them and she/her (I love it when people say ‘they’ and I really don’t mind ‘she’ at ALL, truly).” They added, “This aspect of my identity is just one part of me and not the main part at ALL, but I get asked about it a lot in interviews/by online people and am often inaccurately referred to as a female comedian or a lesbian comedian, so I thought I’d just clarify.”
7. Buy from small businesses owned by nonbinary people: Many nonbinary people have started their businesses, especially on Instagram. You may buy books, handmade jewellery, candles, and a lot of other items from them. Through this, many of them are also raising funds for their gender-affirming surgeries, medical care, and living costs. Therefore, you not only support a small business but also shop for an important cause.
8. Do not crack insensitive jokes: Queerphobic jokes are not a rare event in mainstream media. Humour has often been used as a tool of oppression by the privileged to trivialize, mock at and normalize that oppression. This is done by a perpetrator with an attempt to suck out the “oppression” and laugh at the expense of marginalized groups or individuals with the hope of receiving acceptance, approval, and being applauded. Barbara Plester writes, “According to Freud, joking brings forth our unconscious desires and unsayable thoughts while saving us from hostile reactions through using the joke-form. Humour can be a powerful way of expressing taboo feelings and impulses, and this is true both in social and work contexts.” Therefore, think about whether your jokes are discriminatory towards non-binary people or may hurt their sentiments in any way.
9. Make schools an inclusive space: Remember the morning assembly when the principal used to say, “Boys and girls, I have an important announcement to make,” and so would the other teachers when they addressed the class? There are non-binary children in schools and they must not be excluded or misgendered when the class is being addressed to. So, use the right pronouns and also address them as, “Dear students/ friends/ children.” Most importantly, speak to them about gender equality and queerphobia. Let them know that it is absolutely okay for them to be who they are and that it is a safe space for them to be their own selves unapologetically.