Welcome to this small segment of our diverse and inclusive world. This column has the intention of musing on, reporting about and considering diversity initiatives and various threads of our society’s tapestry of identities and interactions.Contributor: Tabin Brooks (Charles Sturt University)
As knowledge of the natural, scientific and social world has steadily filled in the spaces within which the “G-d of the gaps” may be found (Larmer, 2002), the technique of attempting to elicit the entirety of the nature of a phenomenon by examining what is missing from a complete explanation of it has been used to great effect within the work of Dr Helana Darwin. By exploring those identities that exist in a multitude of forms between the binary categories of sex and gender, a fuller picture of the interplay between binary and non-binary genders is elicited, using a grounded methods approach backgrounded by theoretical perspectives from sociology.
Participants are introduced within the book in a manner that humanises them: Each one is is named, identified and described before identifying their particular relationship with their own non-binary identity. For those who approach case study literature from a more statistical viewpoint, this may be jarring initially, but its function provides a context of relatability through descriptions of explorations of trans- and non-binary life experiences that those who identify as cis often find limited common ground with. This places each individual as not only representative of their own identity, but creates a sense of interaction with the reader within each directly quoted experience, a technique that mirrors the conversational and accessible tone the author uses to elaborate on her own positionality, noting that this section of the literature is in the process of expanding. At the same time, for some sociologists, non-binary perceptions of self are worthy of debate as to whether they can truly be defined as identities or whether they are merely gendered constructions brought forth through the prolific dissemination of the gender binary (p20-21, Darwin, 2022).
Darwin’s work questions and elucidates upon the “born this way” narrative of transgender and non-binary identities, documenting in the their own words both those who took few detours to their stated identity, and those who took more winding routes. In this, there is discussion of concepts of gendered accountability within the binary system of gender expression, as well as the navigation and emotional labour associated with stepping outside of these structured binary goal-posts. Those Darwin interviewed highlighted varying levels of ambivalence towards the label of “transgender”, noting that in some cases terminology can be seen as appropriative, though there is some crossover between the transgender and non-binary communities. “Ashton” states “I’m trying to watch where I walk” (p. 73) regarding the use of specific identity terminology. The use of non-binary as an umbrella term contrasts with the stated consensus among the interviewees that there is no clear consensus as to the meaning of any specific gender identity under this umbrella, though the labels “genderqueer” and “non-binary” were identified as the most common reported identity labels, with an associated self-directed claiming (or disavowing) of particular gender-based communities within these overarching labels. For example, within the discussions between Darwin and “Justice” (a Native American individual who identifies as “Two Spirit”), the resurgence of Two-Spirit communities in response to the transcription of Eurocentric, binary gender identities by colonisers onto Native American cultures was highlighted as an important intersection between gender and native identity, and an important part of the identity work of reclaiming heritage for Justice.
Misgendering – or Misrecognition, as Darwin refers to it often – that is, the erroneous identification of gender by the receiver, is the subject of significant discussion throughout the book, highlighting not only its potential negative effects, but also the various responses of those subjected to this. Some recognised it as a sign that they were “failing at conveying their non-binary gender to others” (p.84), like “Jesse”, while others tolerated binary pronouns assigned at birth due to a lack of faith in public willingness to either understand their identities or respect their preferred terminology, often in the name of “manners” – that is, the dominant gender ideology and associated discourses of politeness surrounding binary gender. To avoid this misgendering, “considerable thought and time” was invested by all members of Darwin’s pool of interviewees into cultivating (non/neither) gendered verbal, physical or fashion cues to assist in the correct identification at first impression levels of interactions, and to reduce the corrective labour associated with asking for respect of their non-binary identities, often with frustrating non-success on the part of those around the interviewees, with “Dakota” stating in their interview that they had begun after some time to become more assertive about their identity space: “I’ve been asking you this for years, you can do it, I believe in you.” (p. 94). Common arguments brought forth by these experiences to justify what was identified as “near constant invalidation” were that those who identified as cis would often state in a defensive manner that remembering pronouns was “too hard” or “not grammatically correct” (Note: the singular they is commonly used within English, and thus the grammatical correctness of similar non-binary pronouns can be extended by this example).
To avoid experiencing this microaggression, those who identify as non-binary or transgender change the choices they make in outer accoutrements associated with gendered wardrobes and hairstyles. A particularly important part of Darwin’s discussion addresses the limited semiotic power this outward expression makes available to those who wish to walk between the binary under a binary representative system in contrast to the very personal associations where the adoption, rejection or modification of socially mandated gendered (feminine in particular) rituals are associated with senses of gender actualisation. These personal reinterpretations of the feminine or masculine create a “blurry intersection” between sex, gender and sexuality, as often these behaviours are additionally interpreted from the outside observer as a signifier of queerness in sexuality as well as gender. The involvement in gender norm discourse of the various queer communities surrounding the individual is highlighted as a contributing factor to this expression of androgyny.
“Jordan”, actively states a choice to not align their visual identity cues with that of lesbians in their community of Denmark due to ideological differences surrounding interpretation of gender. This discomfort with surrounding communities was more vividly expressed by those with AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth) identities than those Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB), a phenomenon Darwin associates with the patriarchal belief that masculinity is superior to femininity, creating an implicit justification for harassment for those seen to be othering themselves – whether this be through gender expression or sexuality. The cost – financial and social – of “doing femininity” is higher, while the experiences of financial hardship and non-conformance to cultural standards of non-binary gender stereotypes (along with the physical experiences of climate and weather) can further complicate this risk-benefit calculation.
Getting the calculation wrong in terms of decisions around visual presentation can lead to significant negative consequences. Darwin elaborates on the role of threat within the non-binary community, highlighting experiences such as “Peyton’s”, where gender binary accountability is raised (and in some cases, actioned through physical shepherding) by strangers towards them no matter which restroom they choose to use. Many respondents, in response to this behaviour from others, stated that they often chose to avoid using public restrooms at all. Outside of the public sphere, when identifying parental relationship scripts, further risks can appear – the threat of unfounded child protective service reports, or the forced eviction of a non-binary child from their parental home. For those navigating their gender within established or establishing relationships, an added layer of complexity can appear in the interaction between non-binary identities and any form of sexuality – many interviewees identified that for their relationship partners, a transition of sexuality identification occured in conjunction with their own (or in some cases, did not – often leading to the disestablishment of the relationship).
The continuing interactions that non-binary individuals have with their community, media representations, and politics are characterised through collective uniqueness. Many reported feeling as though the progressiveness of media representation was not mirrored within their physical communities, and expressed fears of rejection and ostracisation: “I won’t be believed” (p.184) stated “Cleo”. A number of interviewees expressed the perception that ‘Identity Politics’ are low on the priority list, though the experience of the non-binary ‘coming out career’ (defined by Darwin as the continuous coming out process necessitated by a non-binary existence within a binary system) places non binary identities at the front lines of the ‘Gender Revolution’. This often ambivalent interaction with the gender binary is described by Darwin as one that, far from challenging the notion heralded by Darwin’s call back to West and Zimmerman’s (1987) “Doing Gender”, in fact supports the notion that gendered roles, expectations and dress are socially constructed and influenced. What results from this exploration into the worlds of those who walk between the binaries is that each individual, whether cis, or trans, binary gendered or non-binary navigates and negotiates these constructions and accountabilities. For those with non-binary identities, this navigation is often simply more explicit and more actively questioned, both by the individual in question, and those around them.
Concluding Remarks: Darwin’s work includes and centres the voices of those individuals who self-identify as non-binary, providing not only a model for the understanding of gender, but also an effective method for the intersectional researcher wishing to engage with a community they are not themselves part of. It’s an easy read, and one I would recommend for those wishing to engage with the non-binary community, as well as for more traditional gender scholars of the binary categories. In particular, the non-binary deconstruction of gender cues and its relation to patriarchal norms may provide a more complete picture of the construction of Masculinity as counterpart to ‘otherness’.
Darwin, H. (2022) Redoing Gender: How Nonbinary Gender Contributes Toward Social Change. Springer International Publishing.
Larmer, R. (2002). Is There Anything Wrong with “God of the Gaps” Reasoning? International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 52(3), 129–142. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40036574
West, C. and Zimmerman, D. H. (1987) ‘Doing Gender’, Gender & society. Newbury Park, Calif: Sage Publications, 1(2), pp. 125–151. doi: 10.1177/0891243287001002002.