Non-Binary & Female Personhood

“Render me more equal” says Milton’s Eve, before coming out as non-binary.

Years ago, feminists would argue that women were multifaceted, complex and capable. Qualities previously reserved for men, it was crucial to women’s liberation from the stifling gender role in which they were thought to be so intrinsically bound that the emphasis was placed on their ability, as women, to be able to openly exist as such. It is something most of us would take for granted now — after all, we can be journalists, CEOs or even presidential candidates. Society, we are told, has rid itself of sex-based limitations; instead, oppression manifests in our denial of gender plurality and an individual’s right to live as their ‘authentic self’. The ever growing popularity of ‘non-binary’, however, raises serious questions about how limitless sexed bodies really are and what it means to inhabit (or escape) them.

Recently, the Guardian published statistics that reveal gender identity clinics have had a 100% increase in referrals in the last year. Female referrals now outnumber males’ at 913 to 485, despite only 10–30% of trans men going on to have bottom surgery compared to 60% of trans women. Arguably, the disparity between these statistics indicate a different dynamic involved in the experience of having gender dysphoria and being female — one that points towards a discomfort first and foremost with an external eye and social pressure. Surgery, it is worth noting, is not even a necessary step to qualify as trans, which brings me to non-binary and the issues it presents.

For both trans men and non-binary people, womanhood is a burden that cannot be reconciled with. This being said, for trans men, body dysphoria — whether you agree medical transition is the best treatment or not — is arguably more deserving of our sympathy than the pronoun requests of gender agnostics. For a non-binary person, their identity is largely referential, an act of conversational manipulation rather than any overwhelming desire for social camouflage. This is not to create a hierarchy of legitimate trans identities, but to look at the way in which non-binary claims inadvertently illuminate the very problem itself. There is an extension of “I don’t want to be a woman” to “I don’t want to be a man”, to which they conclude: I want to be a person.

This a step backwards from the goals of second wave feminists, who sought to establish women as people. Gender, it was recognised, prevents this from coming into fruition by way of denying the multiplicity of experiences capable for each biological sex — the axis of women’s oppression. For non-binary females, the desire for personhood via rejecting womanhood, undermines the feminist goal of female liberation, as Rebecca Reilly-Cooper summarises: “the solution is not to try to slip through the bars of the cage while leaving the rest of the cage intact”.

“I want to be treated as a person” is not critical paraphrasing, but their own words, as stated by Jack Monroe in a recent Guardian interview. Back in April, student Maria Munir teared up declaring the same to Obama. The ‘affirmative’ approach to gender identity dismisses (quite conveniently) the role society plays in shaping these outcomes. These influencing factors are not difficult to spot — Munir acknowledges the “cultural implications” of being female from a muslim background, while Monroe goes into great detail about the personal context that has shaped her identity:

“School was “very hard”, she says, and as a troubled and unhappy teenager, she developed anorexia, which kept her body in a prepubescent state. It was when she started getting better and put on weight that “I got these massive tits out of nowhere: 38E, which is quite a burden if you don’t really want them”.”

This is a familiar experience for many women and girls, who experience distress upon entering into puberty, in part, as a response to the fact that the changes in their bodies coincide with negative changes in how they are treated. Presumably, this treatment is what Munir is describing when she speaks of “cultural implications” and her desire to escape that social category.

Women are being failed in that they are being held to account for their oppression. In this respect, non-binary is along the lines of victim blaming, proposing a individualised way of fixing systemic issues beyond our control. It’s not women’s obligation to rectify themselves in accordance with patriarchy or to ditch womanhood if they’d rather not. We need to have a discussion in which dissatisfaction with the implications of inhabiting a visibly sexed body is not seen a testament to the wrongness of that body, but a call for social scrutiny and ultimately change. Susan Cox writes in Feminist Current “a woman coming out as “non-binary” is a non-statement that declares nothing but common loathing of the female class.” Not only do those who lay claim to having escaped the female class leave behind the ‘cisgender’ majority to deal with its implications, but it suggests tacit agreement with it on our behalf. “Woman” is not a dirty word, it is not an identity to opt in and out of — it is simply the adult form of the coincidence of XX chromosomes. Being female in patriarchy hurts, but it will never get better if we leave “woman” behind. We must make no compromises in our demand for personhood.

Edited version of a post originally published on my personal blog on 26/08/16.

Artist and writer based in Edinburgh. To support my writing:

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