This is a series of posts designed to help people approach diversity and inclusion. These are questions and scenarios we’ve actually heard or seen in the wild. This is part of our corporate programming for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For more information, click here.
So many kids today seem to be identifying as “nonbinary” and I just don’t get it. I consider myself an ally of the lgbtq community, but it feels to me like denying you have a gender (or in many cases, even a sexuality) sounds more like self-loathing than self-empowerment. Help?
Kids today are fortunate to live in a time when there is more readily available language for experiences that are as old as humans. Nonbinary identities have shown up in written history for more than 2,000 years and perhaps longer than that. From Egypt to Indonesia to Mexico, nonbinary people have lived in all corners of the globe.
The concept only feels to new to so many because there are now more ways to share information about minority populations. Knowledge that was once available only to people in a specific culture or to experts in gender studies can now be found easily on the web and shared widely. Kids are growing up with access to a broader array of terms for non-majority identities but plenty of real-life examples. They see nonbinary lives illuminated in social media outlets and, increasingly, in their own classrooms and communities. That means many young people are ahead of you in terms of exposure and comfort level.
You equate claiming nonbinary identity with denying gender and sexuality. (We need to separate those things out, as sexuality is not in any way dependent on gender; anyone can identify as asexual.) Your claim is premised on the belief that gender is a strict binary, meaning that someone who identifies neither as male nor female thus has no gender identity. But they do—it’s just not one that sits at either end of a fixed spectrum. They simply identify more closely with one of the other gender options that already exist (as discussed above), even if you are less familiar with them.
It may be that you are confusing gender with sex. Biological sex, determined at birth by chromosomes and genitals, is something people don’t define for themselves. Gender is not biological; it refers, instead, to one’s experience and expression of their identity. Because children are most often raised gendered to their birth sex, they begin life with no say in whether their presentation matches their lived experience of gender.
Nonbinary people (along with transgender, genderqueer, and other gender nonconforming people) are those who eventually say that outwardly binary gender expressions don’t reflect their internal experience. For them to claim power over their gender expression in a way that feels most truthful is indeed empowering, just as it is empowering to make any kind of self-determination about how one will live.
When you question whether it is actually self-loathing to identify as non-binary, you’re attributing that loathing to the wrong thing. These kids aren’t showing disgust at themselves; they’re showing dismay for the gender limits thrust upon them by society. What they loathe is the uncomfortable constrictions of gender norms and the prospect that they might live so constrained for the rest of their lives.
As an ally, ask yourself what it costs you when a young person decides that they do not feel wed to a masculine or feminine identity. How does it impact you if a kid presents or identifies as less stereotypically gendered than you expect? Sure, it might give you momentary pause as you try to bring the visuals of their expression into some kind of alignment with your own traditional sense of gender. Or it might make you nervous about pronoun use. But that’s about you, not about them. By reconsidering your dependence on the norms, instead of wondering why others can’t conform to them, you do the hard work of allyship.
Here’s the other thing to consider: just at the binary only serves those who hew closely to it, so too does the idea that gender identity remains fixed for a lifetime. One might remain nonbinary forever or they might not; it simply doesn’t concern you. What matters is that the person in question gets to determine how they life their live across the whole journey.
That’s why whenever I hear someone say “it’s a phase,” I roll my eyes. Anything not written into your genetic code can be a phase–but so what? I’ve been so many people in my life: a devout fundamentalist and then a cynical atheist and now a spiritual humanist; I had a grunge era where I was clad in flannel and boots, but now I’m a gay dad in cute shoes and florals. The phases of my life have been intense, distinct, and real—I was never pretending to be anything but who I wanted to be. Being accepted for who I was (or am) has always been important.
So start there: when you meet someone who is nonbinary, accept that they know best who they are and what they need. If you feel discomfort, acknowledge this as your own issue, and work on you, not on them. Don’t waste your mental energy trying to imagine who they once were or who they might someday be. Get to know the person before you at this moment.
And be grateful that young people today see so much potential for self-expression and self-discovery. Your openness will help keep that true.
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This post is republished on Medium.