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  • Writer's pictureChippewa Valley Equality Initiative

Non-Binary Is Not A Third Gender

Written by : Cat Leonardson

Pronouns: they/them

Our entire lives, the gender binary of male and female is presented to us as the only two options, but furthermore, that it isn’t our choice. Our sex and gender is determined before birth or at birth by a glance at our genitalia, and then the deed is done, and we are socialized as that gender from that moment forward. Although we tend to not realize it, gender is a social construct that wouldn’t exist if we didn’t uphold it. Forcing every human to fit into one of two gendered boxes is incredibly restrictive and diminishing of personal difference and human fluidity. Gender is much more expansive than society has led us to believe that it is and recognizing that we have been vastly misled is the first step to healing from our social indoctrination and truly understanding gender.

For many people, the gender that we are assigned does not make sense. For me, I never really understood what that meant until nearing the end of college. Now that I understand gender a lot better, I look back and remember many times where I felt uncomfortable in my own body or with a situation and realize it’s because I was being told to appear feminine or present as a “proper woman”. Being told to wear more makeup, to put some lip gloss on, to smile in public, to not express my feelings or opinions too loudly as to not rock the boat – these were all actions that “women” were expected to do and if I wasn’t performing them, I wasn’t performing my gender correctly. That’s exactly what it ended up feeling like – a performance. Putting on a performance was exhausting. It was confusing. It was uncomfortable and made me self-conscious. The more steps that I’ve taken throughout life to match my outer appearance with how I want to present, the more my confidence grew and the more I considered myself worthy and capable of. For me, that meant presenting myself more masculine, but it’s important to remember that feminine appearance does not mean female, and masculine appearance does not mean male. I am a masculine human who is non-binary but also has some femme characteristics, such as the big earrings I wear every day, the colorful lipstick life that I led pre-COVID, or the six-inch platforms I own. Gender is expansive and so colorful.

Growing up, I was never given the option to think of myself as anything other than female. When certain actions of mine did not match up with typical femininity, I was labeled a tomboy or problematic. If women don’t smile enough, they have resting bitch face. If men don’t smile enough, what are they called? Serious? Tough? Stoic? If women are independent, leaders, free-thinkers, or bold about getting what they want, they are considered bitchy, bossy, abrasive, “ball-busters”. If men are? They are hardworking, confident, go-getters, bosses. The language that we use to refer to people is extremely telling of the boxes that we are forcing them into. Men who are soft-spoken or women who are not are then told that they are not performing their gender correctly. They are punished for acting differently than the way they are “supposed” to. Have we ever stopped to think about who is coming up with these rules and why we are following them?

Understanding non-binary existence is so much more than using their correct pronouns. Using someone’s correct pronouns should be a no-brainer, regardless of if they are transgender or not. Understanding the need for pronouns beyond he/him and she/her is the true struggle and is where each person needs to put in the real leg work to understand. We must challenge the very framework we’ve been taught our entire lives. When we realize how we’ve been socialized since birth based on an assumption, when we see how we have been robbed of so much personal choice, we uncover the ability to harness our truest selves. We can transcend boundaries and imagine an existence for ourselves where we aren’t squished into one of two tiny boxes. A box allows no room for growth. It allows no room for freedom of choice, for individuality, for self-awareness.

The genders are not man, woman, and other. Non-binary people are not a third gender. Non-binary people have not only ripped up the rules but have also said no to playing the game at all. Non-binary people imagine a world where you can be whoever you want to be and whoever makes you feel the most at home and comfortable in your own body. It’s YOUR body, why wouldn’t you want to make sure you’re expressing yourself to the world in a way that makes you feel the most comfortable and affirmed? It’s the only body you’ve got, so making sure that it truly feels like your home and not just a mask or a costume is extremely important.

It’s also critical to think about our language choices here when referring to genders differing from man or woman. The word “other” is problematic and not a category I appreciate putting myself into. It is vastly broad, not to mention dehumanizing, since once you other a group of people, you are considering them abnormal, not like you, inhuman. This reduces trans and gender non-conforming people to objects, not human beings who deserve rights, respect, understanding, and a place to sit at the table. Once you put someone in the category of other, it is extremely easy to view them as mythical beings that don’t truly exist in your world or your community. It makes it very simple to ignore legislation directly harming the lives of transgender and gender non-conforming people if you are not even exposed to their existence or if you do not support them after learning about them. We need to expand our legal definitions of gender to include everyone, but this is a lengthy and convoluted process that will take years. Doing the work in our own homes and personal lives is the most important.

Feeling your entire life like the messages you’re being fed to act upon are foreign or do not fit for your body is the strangest feeling. Putting on a costume to be accepted by others felt dirty, like I was committing an act of fraud or constantly lying. Looking back on my life now that I know I am non-binary is extremely eye opening, as I see all the times where I was having gender dysphoria and did not have words to express it. Not having the knowledge base to expand my definitions of sex and gender until college was mind-blowing to me. I always assumed that I was a woman who hated being a woman until I found out that maybe I wasn’t a woman at all. Maybe everyone had told me I had to be a woman, but maybe they didn’t even know why they were telling me that either. Maybe no one knew.

It took higher education – a huge privilege that many do not have – for me to be able to understand and dissect an enormous part of my existence? This lack of an expansive gender education is an enormous oversight and doing a huge disserve to our children right now, as it did to me and countless others. If the lives of gender non-conforming people are not made public or drawn attention to in positive ways; if they are not represented in media; if they are not in elementary school, middle school, or even high school curriculums; people certainly won’t understand the expanse of gender among those around them, but more importantly, they won’t even understand themselves.

Truly understanding our own gender and why we identify with our gender is a super helpful step in the journey of understanding the vast expanse of genders. Even if you are cisgender, meaning you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, it is important to analyze your own gender and acknowledge that gender is a social construct. You have the agency to choose what feels best for you and your body – mentally and physically – across imagined boundaries and guidelines. The most rigid thing that keeps people set in place within binary gender roles is the societal pressure we are under to uphold those roles. Once more and more people start to acknowledge that gender is a spectrum, we will start to free ourselves from the oppressive nature of the gender binary.

Once I learned about the possibilities of gender, I started the process of dissecting my own existence. It is also important to note that sexuality and gender are two separate things, so lumping transgender and gender non-conforming people into the LGBTQ acronym is kind of confusing for some people who are not part of the LGBTQ community. To clarify, the L, G, B all stand for the sexual orientations of lesbian, gay, and bisexual. These have to do with who you are attracted to, not who you are. The T for transgender has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but with your gender. The Q is where it gets a little more convoluted because the word queer can be used in multiple contexts. For example, I embrace the term queer for myself because it works the best to encapsulate my sexuality AND my gender in one term. Queer simply means different, and that is what I am. I do not identify with the gender I was assigned at birth; I have queered from that. I do not identify with the sexual orientation we are all assumed to be – heterosexual – so I have queered from that as well. Queer can be used to refer to those who are not straight, or it can be used to refer to those who are genderqueer, or gender fluid. I use genderqueer, gender fluid, and non-binary all interchangeably because they all mean the same thing to me. That is not the same for every gender non-conforming person, so simply asking people what terms they would like to have used to refer to them is always the safest bet. No two people in the LGBTQ community are the exact same and the point is not to assume anything, but to ask.

The main thing I hear from those wanting to be allies is that they don’t want to mess it up. They don’t want to call someone by the wrong name, they don’t want to use the wrong pronouns, they don’t want to be vilified or “cancelled” for saying the wrong thing. You aren’t going to be cancelled for using the wrong pronouns for someone if you notice your error and do your best to correct it moving forward. True effort makes a world of difference. Doing your own research instead of relying on gender non-conforming people to explain every little aspect of gender to you shows that you care enough to do the work yourself instead of expecting the labor from them. Talking about our own gender experiences can be traumatic and difficult, not always light conversation that’s easy to bring up to strangers, so showing that you’re wiling to put in the effort on your end goes a long way.

If you have someone in your life who is gender non-conforming, learning their pronouns and doing your best to use them is your best bet. Making sure that you truly picture them as gender non-conforming and not just as a man or a woman with they/them pronouns is crucial. It can be easy to use they/them pronouns for people, yet still place them in our minds in male or female boxes. Retraining your brain to not consider them as a different gender is difficult, I won’t lie. There are times where I even misgender myself. Living for twenty-six years being told that you’re a woman and then realizing you truly are not, takes a lot of retraining of your automatic thought processes. I still remind myself every day that my existence is valid. That transness does not look any one certain way and it can be whatever I need it to be, so I feel healthy, safe, and secure in my own body. Always showing up for trans people, especially when they aren’t around, is the most important. This means using their correct pronouns even if they aren’t in the room. This means correcting people if they mess up their pronouns. This means calling people out if they say transphobic slurs or jokes. This means supporting us, no matter how we present ourselves and regardless of if you understand every aspect of our identity.

Having a child was a lifechanging experience for me and raising him through my own gender journey has been so wholesome. Children’s brains are so willing to listen to new information and take it in. Not only are they like sponges, but they are not hardened by time and society’s expectations and they are more than willing to listen to understand. Explaining to my child that I’m not a boy or a girl but that I’m neither of those things slightly confused him at first, but not as much as I thought it would. He has taken to calling me very cute names like “ma’am sir” and his “nonbinary mommy” and his six-year-old perspective on gender has been heartwarming for me to experience. I love that he was so willing to listen to me and hear me with an open heart. My experience coming out to my own son has been so affirming for me and gives me hope that anyone can open their minds and hearts to understanding.

I found this infographic on Instagram that shows some very helpful reminders. The title reads “Hey, is that a boy or a girl?” with four statements underneath. The first says “I don’t know. Does it matter?” Ask yourself why it matters to you to know if this person is a boy or a girl. Are you wanting to know so that you can treat them a certain way? So that you can act a certain way around them? Why is that? The second statement reminds us that we don’t need to know someone’s gender and pronouns until they tell us. Someone’s gender shouldn’t be relevant to how we relate to them in the world. It shouldn’t matter unless or until they want it to matter.

The third statement tells us that we can’t tell by the way someone looks and that’s okay. Society has told us that men look a certain way and women look a certain way, so what do non-binary people look like? That’s kind of the entire point. Challenging what men and women look like is your first step to understanding that men, women, and non-binary people can look like whatever they want to look like. The final statement says that until they tell us otherwise, we can use “they” to talk about them. This pronoun is a good catch all because it does not make any assumptions.

Challenging how we define gender is the first step to becoming an ally to the gender non-conforming community. Asking questions, doing your research, using the right pronouns, and not making assumptions are a solid base to start from in your journey of acceptance and understanding. Reading this article was an awesome first step!

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