What does it really mean to be non-binary?

Editor-at-large Tre’vell Anderson interrogates the growing use of the term by non-trans folk

Da’Shaun Harrison’s relationship to their gender is both infinite and finite. Infinite because the Atlanta-based writer and activist sees being non-binary as “an imagined future,” something they’re always aspiring to, something that is so far beyond the man-woman binary that it delegitimizes gender altogether. Finite because non-binary people exist “in a world that gives us language that’s always already gendered,” they say, one that requires us to mark certain boxes in a limited number of ways. 

“‘Non-binary’ is the best way for me to name that I am nothing and everything at the same time,” Harrison—who is the author of the forthcoming Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness—tells me during a recent Zoom conversation. “If I could, I would just be Da’Shaun, that n***a, that bitch.”

Harrison is also trans. They’re actually more likely to identify as a “fat trans n***a” (per their Twitter bio) than just “non-binary,” out of an intense desire to challenge “binaristic language and understandings [people have] of gender.” But over the last few years, they’ve observed the growing popularity of a non-binary identity that is divorced from a trans experience. Unlike Harrison, who says they are “very much so trans and very much so non-binary at the same time,” some non-binary people declare: “I’m not trans. I’m just non-binary.” 

I, too, have witnessed this growing formation of a non-binary collective who aren’t trans—non-binary women, men and people who articulate their identities and/or expressions outside of cisness and transness. Perhaps it’s a sign of how the status quo of gender is evolving, especially as there are more non-binary people (those who aren’t trans and those who are) in public consciousness than ever before. From folks like Indya Moore, Elliott Page and the recently-elected Mauree Turner to TV characters including P-Valley’s Uncle Clifford and Star Trek: Discovery’s Adira, the likelihood of someone not being able to reference a non-binary person is becoming increasingly difficult. Not to mention how our aesthetics are ripe fodder for social media trends and magazine covers

And yet, everytime I witness someone describe their non-binary identity as a not-trans experience, or I read that a TV character (created by a cis person) is non-binary and not trans, I want to scream: “Make it make sense!” There’s often a twisted feeling in my gut, a deeply rooted unsettlement that both marvels at the various ways being non-binary is defined and begs for clarity and understanding. As someone who is a non-binary person of trans experience, I find myself thinking: What does it really mean to be non-binary? 

I began my journey to non-binary bad bitchery in undergraduate school at Morehouse College in Atlanta. While I had always felt a slight dissonance between how the world referred to me and my internal truths, I chose the path of least resistance, settling as a gay Black man—until I couldn’t any longer. My junior year, I stopped wearing suits; that was my way of breaking beyond what was expected of me. As I prepared for grad school at Stanford, I waffled, outwardly and inwardly, in deciding on the language within which I found comfort. To be clear, I knew I wasn’t a man or a woman (as they’re typically defined); I just didn’t know what to call my gender. I started using “gender nonconforming” as a label to acknowledge my own growing understanding of self. I’d often say: “I exist not in the standard pink or blue, but in the lavender recesses of life.” This approach helped placate the subtle and less subtle inquiries of family, colleagues and peers, but it still didn’t feel wholly right. 


“I’d often say: ‘I exist not in the standard pink or blue, but in the lavender recesses of life.’” 

In 2016, I interviewed my Morehouse sister Fatima Jamal for the Los Angeles Times about her in-progress documentary, No Fats, No Femmes. Throughout our conversation, she used “gender deviant” to describe her identity. This rang in my ear like a cowbell at dinner time. A year later, Asia Kate Dillon burst onto the seen in Showtime’s Billions as television’s first major non-binary character. Watching how Dillon navigated press as a non-binary person taught me about the expansiveness of a non-binary experience. Shortly thereafter, I began mixing “non-binary” with “gender deviant” and “gender nonconforming,” articulating my gender as the pot of gumbo it is. Slowly, the other descriptors faded as I grew more comfortable in my non-binaryness and a gender that is both specific and not, tangible and imaginative.

Still, when I think back on my journey, I’m forced to take stock of the host of words I tried on to describe my gender, and those I didn’t. One word that I avoided like the ongoing novel coronavirus was “transgender.” At the time, my understanding of the term was rooted in a trans essentialist, sensational and dehumanizing preoccupation with medical interventions that the media and broader world force-fed me. I thought I couldn’t be trans because I wasn’t interested in engaging with the medical establishment.

Then, in 2018, I was contacted about participating in Sam Feder’s documentary Disclosure, about the history of trans representation on screen. I was told about his personal mandate that every talking head be a trans person, and how they thought I could add something to the conversation because of my reportage. This was the first time folks in the trans community clocked my gender as trans. Though I initially intended to decline the invite, it jump-started my internal work to unlearn everything I’d been taught about transness, and to divorce transness from the life-affirming surgeries and hormones some need. It was a catalyst for me to not only seriously process what my gender is and is not, but to find a community that could support that work.

This process of labelling ourselves is always personal and complex. Though most LGBTQ2S+ people recognize that any label can have as many meanings as the number of people who use it—and that all those meanings are valid—for those whose gender identity (one’s internal sense of their own gender) and/or presentation and expression (how one’s gender identity manifests externally) is incongruent with the sex we were assigned at birth, language can be life-saving.

Various words have been used by folks like me to describe how we move through the world, from “genderqueer” to “gender fluid, “gender nonconforming” to “gender variant.” This context is important because expansive identities have existed across history and across cultures, according to Archie Crowley, chair of the Linguistic Society of America’s Committee on LGBTQ+ Issues in Linguistics. “It’s just that the language that has been used to name it has changed.”

My journey of self-discovery mirrors a similar process that all “not cis” people experience. Ultimately, Crowley says, this process is about “what feels good and resonates for the individual.” To that end, a single identity label, like non-binary, can mean one thing for me and a totally different thing for another person. 

I ask Crowley, who is non-binary and trans, to explain why someone might call themselves non-binary but deny being trans. They note that trans might not be someone’s word because it’s a prefix (as in words like “transaction,” “translation” and “transportation”) that conveys movement across something. 

“They might say, ‘I’m not moving from one thing to something else. I’m just non-binary,’” explains Crowley, who’s currently working on their linguistics PhD at the University of South Carolina, specializing in the relationship between language, gender and identity. Such an explanation, which they note is “super valid,” has often popped up in their research.  

I can’t help but think, though, how this reasoning is invariably connected to the historical medicalization of transness that I once rebuffed, a connection that wrongly asserts a trans person must access hormones or gender-affirming surgeries. We have the cis imagination of transness, in the form of transantagonistic storylines on TV and sensational segments on talk shows of yesteryear, to thank for this. (Disclosure, now available on Netflix, chronicles this beautifully.) The result is a tension between the overly simplistic social and cultural expectations often forced upon trans bodies and our lived experiences as those who desire and require medical transition and those who do not. And likely anyone embracing, consciously or otherwise, such cishet presuppositions of transess reinforce the sociopolitical and emotional violences trans people face. 

Ultimately, gender is a cell into which all people, cis, trans and otherwise, are imprisoned by the prevailing binary beliefs about what it means to be a man or woman. It’s a test every human being fails, consistently and gloriously; and yet our society is supremely invested in its maintenance. 

“Ultimately, gender is a cell into which all people, cis, trans and otherwise, are imprisoned.”

To that end, Dr. Shay-Akil McLean, a Black trans educator, organizer and sociologist, says our conversations about gender autonomy and self-determination must be situated within a decolonial, historical context. By this he means it’s important to note that trans folks were only ever called trans because cis people needed a way to differentiate, and further marginalize, our lived experiences—harkening to James Baldwin’s infamous “I’m only Black because you think you’re white” refrain. Generations later, then, a rebuke of transness might be tied to a further othering of trans folks.  

Though McLean holds space for anyone defining themselves as non-binary, whether or not they’re also trans, he contends that “while each individual has autonomy and agency to classify themselves (or not) how they see fit, we can’t act like, for example, patriarchy isn’t still standing there with a belt and a switch and a gun in his hand.” The personal ways we identify are influenced, consciously and unconsciously, by the broader, oppressive systems at play. Therefore, as long as we live in a transphobic society where being transphobic has material benefits, McLean argues that an individual’s not-trans non-binary identity formation can often be rooted in transphobia.

“When a lot of people who are just trying to distance themselves from the antagonism of being a cis person start to adopt language that a lot of us [trans folk] have used, fleshed out and been targeted for, it’s like: What do you mean? Because that’s not how this really works,” Harrison says. “What’s the cognitive dissonance that’s happening there for you to want to run away from transness, but want to live under non-cisness?” 

Considering the ways trans people over-index in poverty, houselessness, joblessness, violence and beyond, non-trans non-binary folk—especially those with various privileges based on how they’re read in public—can circumvent these ills. Moreover, as non-binary identities and aesthetics are increasingly considered fashionable, entertaining and edgy (when embraced by specific bodies), this growing cohort gets all the newfound potential benefits of not being seen as cis while evading the struggles of trans people.

Though I want for no one, trans, cis or otherwise, to experience these types of violence, we must grapple with the ways in which the articulation of some identities might further marginalize others. 

“This is a difficult conversation to have because it’s a discussion, ultimately, about people struggling to be free, and if it’s a possibility to ever be free from the domination of someone else’s definition of who you are, or limited by that,” McLean admits. And though there may be concerns about the motivations of non-trans non-binary people, “we don’t live in a safe society for them to be trans in the first place. That’s something we also cannot deny.”

When I set out to write this story some months ago, I wanted to make sense of what I saw in the world. After a host of interviews (some that didn’t make it into the final version of this story), I’m not sure I have any greater clarity. What I know for sure is that language is an ever-evolving constellation and it truly can be used in countless ways to describe, define and articulate our relationships, or lack thereof, to our genders, whether self-determined or those foisted upon us. And at the same time, language fails us; it’s unable to fully capture our brilliance. Maybe our never-ending attempt to fit ourselves into its confines is the gag of it all. But just because this potential multiplicity exists doesn’t mean our words and identities operate in a vacuum.

And yet, we must hold the inherent power non-binary non-trans people may feel in naming and claiming their identities in the ways that make most sense for them. We must recognize each individual’s right to do so, even when the meanings they give to terms might be different than ours. 

Because in their own way, they, too, are bucking up against a rigged and rigid system. They, too, are extending an invitation to others, one that says, in the words of poet Lucille Clifton, “Won’t you celebrate with me what I have shaped into a kind of life?”

After all, gender is a scam.

Tre'vell Anderson

Tre'vell Anderson, Xtra's former editor-at-large, is a Los Angeles-based culture and entertainment journalist, social curator and world changer who always comes to slay!

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