Understanding trans nonbinary gender

CW: medical examinations, surgery, bullying, transphobia.

I started pondering gender on a school playground when I was five. One break time I realised that I wasn’t like the boys; I hated how they were continually physically pushing each other around and so I decided to hang out with girls. I didn’t think I was a girl; I just—in a moment, without a fuss—didn’t feel like one of the boys. I have many fragments of memories like this, who knows how reliable.

There are reliable digital traces of my more recent ruminations (thank you Gmail search). For instance, in 2014 I wrote an email to my then-partner in which I identified in passing as genderqueer. It’s strikingly throwaway. I’m not certain how I arrived at that identity, but I was reading Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things shortly before, which discusses genderqueer people, and I tweeted their article on genderqueer feminism a year later, so their writing surely helped me along.

A gradual process of reading, discussing, oscillating between outing and closeting my gender on social media and dating apps in various cryptic ways culminated on 10 August 2019 (philosopher Jean-François Lyotard‘s birthday) with me changing my first name by deed poll to the gender neutral Andi (witnesses and I scrawling signatures on the paperwork in a warehouse rave in North London, on the floor in a corner). I usually went by Andy so it was a trivial edit, but it significantly marked the occasion of affirming that I am trans nonbinary. I am now classified as nonbinary on work’s HR system, have changed my name with my bank and on my passport, received updated degree certificates, and am slowly working through every other system and record I encounter.

Now that I write this in 2019, after many years of thinking, it’s obvious and anticlimactic that I am nonbinary—I feel a relieved kind of oh, is that it? It feels like a conclusion but also the beginning of a different kind of struggle to work through contradictions and tensions which I am beginning to notice. This blog post is an attempt to write something about where I’ve got to.

What does it mean for me to be trans nonbinary?

The most obvious part of my affirmed gender took the longest to recognise: trans. This just means that my gender is not the same as my sex assigned at birth. I used to think that trans people all had hormone therapy or surgery. Eventually I noticed that I was wrong; there is social as well as medical transition. Stonewall’s glossary entry for transitioning explains:

“The steps a trans person may take to live in the gender with which they identify. Each person’s transition will involve different things. For some this involves medical intervention, such as hormone therapy and surgeries, but not all trans people want or are able to have this.

“Transitioning also might involve things such as telling friends and family, dressing differently and changing official documents.”

(See also Julia Serano‘s glossary.) UK-wide research by Scottish Trans in 2015 found that 65% of non-binary people considered themselves to be trans, 20% were unsure, and 15% did not see themselves as trans.

Nonbinary is defined in opposition to binary gender. Binary means 1 or 0, yes or no—formally, a discrete variable with two levels. Christina Richards, Walter Pierre Bouman, and Meg-John Barker (2017, p. 5) define nonbinary people as

“simply people who are not male or female; but as ever things are more complex than that. In general, non-binary or genderqueer refers to people’s identity, rather than physicality at birth; but it does not exclude people who are intersex or have a diversity/disorder of sexual development who also identify in this way. Whatever their birth physicality, there are non-binary people who identify as a single fixed gender position other than male or female. There are those who have a fluid gender. There are those who have no gender. And there are those who disagree with the very idea of gender.”

The nonbinary pride flag, designed by Kye Rowan (February 2014). Each colour represents a different facet of nonbinary gender.

Explaining sex and gender

You are assigned a sex at birth based on the genitals you possess. The result you get is statistically though imperfectly associated with whether you have XX or XY chromosomes; however, your chromosomes usually aren’t tested at birth. Sex sounds solid, factual, and many societies across the globe like the UK and USA are organised by the female/male binary. A sprinkling of philosophy of science can helpfully disturb this, not by rejecting facts but by complicating what makes facts about sex and gender true and how stable those truths are.

We can assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or intersections thereof. It’s not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

I only recently realised that the philosophy of science applies also to theorising about myself. So we can engage in critical self-reflection using ontological realism, epistemic relativity, aligning with a particular social struggle, etc., to help us navigate. A salient feature of theorising selves is that the underlying reality changes as we understand more—we change. We are treated differently as we change how we identify and express our gender, i.e., gender is an example of a social kind which has a looping effect.

Biological facets of my gender

The female/male binary is challenged by being intersex—what medics pathologise as disorders of sex development (DSDs). You might have XX chromosomes but male genitalia; XY chromosomes but female genitalia; one ovary and one testicle; sperm-producing testicles which are in your abdomen rather than scrotum; and a range of other departures from the binary male/female dogma. The biology of sex and gender is fabulously nonbinary and continuous, even if dominant folk conceptualisations are binary. Anne Fausto-Sterling reviews a number of theories of sex and gender; here is a diagram of one:

I was born with undescended testicles but was assigned male at birth (AMAB) due to the presence of a penis. My testes were left inside my abdomen, contrary to current clinical guidelines (I’m unsure what the guidelines were in the early 1980s), and their location noted in my medical record. Some years later when I was about nine years old, one testicle ventured into my scrotum of its own accord. Suddenly I realised what classmates were referring to when they said the word “balls”. When I reached about 11, a GP visiting school had apparently noticed the official record of my genital geography and, without explaining, asked to examine me. I guessed what she expected. I felt like I’d been found out and hesitated to agree. A month or two later I had surgery and a pair.

When I say I am nonbinary, I am not making a disembodied hyper-voluntarist claim (Judith Butler explains why I couldn’t). There is a biological facet to my gender as part of a biopsychosocial triad. I conjecture that my hormone levels affected how my body developed, including my brain, and how I feel and experience the world. This led both to my aversion to hanging out with boys and my testicles’ aversion to hanging outside me. I don’t know what biopsychosocial processes, probably part-inherited involving hundreds or thousands of genes (polygenic) and part-experiential, led to my hormones and other aspects of my biology being as they are. I was socialised as a boy, though, and there’s a 99.99% chance I have XY chromosomes. The biological, psychological, and social are interwoven in complex ways.

Nonbinary expression

The degree of match between our gender identity, expression, and stereotypes of that gender’s expression part determines how people treat us. I currently express as some genre of man (stubble, relatively deep voice, flat chest, male-fitting t-shirts, etc.). Maybe a nerdy effeminate man (my narrow shoulders, hairless chest, patchiness of stubble, and gestures are a giveaway). A nancy boy. A post-twink (on good days). I’m not the only one theorising my gender; people do it in the blink of an eye when they call me “sir” or utter a “fuck’s sake” under their breath when I ask not to be misgendered. (Often I feel that people gender me as middle class lefty snowflake with a dick.)

Trans nonbinary femme philosopher Rachel Anne Williams argues that

“… there is no single way for nonbinary people to look […]. There is so much diversity in the community and we do ourselves a disservice by focusing only on androgyny and neutrality as the ideals of being nonbinary. There is room for the full spectrum of expression within the nonbinary label.”

This sounds wonderful in trans-friendly queer spaces. “I’m Andi; pronouns them/them” does suffice there. Unfortunately, much of my life is outside those spaces. “How can I help you sir ?” grates. I guess I am aiming for an expression such that people can’t decide whether to address me “sir” or “madam”. A moment’s hesitation will suffice; an instance of the gender panic described by Robin Dembroff when an airport security officer struggled to categorise them pink or blue as demanded by body scanner protocol.

I don’t particularly want to draw too much attention to myself out in cis-land, though, given the prevalence of transphobic harassment and violence. However, maybe how successful I am in transitioning will be indexed by the quantity of harassment I receive. I have had a glimpse of that abuse when I was a teen and most of my classmates subjected me to homophobic bullying for a year—what I now read as at least part-transphobic since it reflected my gender expression. I was failing to pass as a cisgender young man which (with a few decades’ distance) is almost as good as successfully passing nonbinary. It sounds weird to feel that I need to open myself to more harassment to be me, but that is how I feel. Lisa Millbank expresses a similar paradoxical thought as a trans woman:

“Not receiving misogyny is nice, because misogyny is not nice, but it’s also a sign of not being considered a normal woman—i.e., it is a sign of being transgendered as a ‘freak’.”

Attempting to define gender

So far I have avoided saying exactly how I currently understand the concept of gender. I believe that gender is context dependent; as Robin Dembroff articulates:

“gender structures and practices vary across place and time, and are constructed in tandem with race, religion, class, ability, and other social identities.”

For example, being a postgraduate student in Edinburgh for four years meant I met people who were researching gender theory and I had amazing conversations about trans rights a decade before I had an inkling this might be relevant to me. Most importantly, I met trans (binary and nonbinary) people in contexts in which they felt safe and accepted and where being trans was just one facet of their life. Different concepts of gender currently operate in dominant society than do in trans-friendly communities and I have been exposed to both. I’m white, middle class, and have lived in Ireland, the UK, Austria, and Sweden and been exposed to a wide variety of ideas and opportunities relevant to gender. This all influenced how I conceptualise gender and how I identify.

I am drawn to theories which acknowledge that there are many conceptualisations of gender, many of which may be indistinguishable empirically (but recall the comment about critical theory above); that the conceptualisations could have been otherwise (the dominant binary in particular is not a universal fact), and that they will probably change over time (we are seeing this happen; even conservative workplaces allow people to identify as trans).

One approach to defining gender I love is Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account. Their overarching aims were to develop an account that is non-circular, respects first-person authority, and can help progress the aims of the trans rights movement, e.g., by being persuasive to people who don’t currently understand or agree with trans rights. It’s a critical theory.

Jenkins’ idea is that we all carry around an embodied and often tacit map of the gender norms which apply to us in particular situations. That map may include how we should walk, talk, what we should wear, whether we should shave our legs, what toilets we are allowed to use. We don’t have to agree with those norms; rather the idea is that we perceive norms of a particular gender (in a particular society, at a particular time) as relevant to us. Jenkins offers the following formal definition of the nonbinary gender umbrella:

“A subject S has a non-binary gender identity [if and only if] S’s internal ‘map’ is neither formed so as to guide someone classed as a woman through the social or material realities that are, in that context, characteristic of women as a class, nor formed to guide someone classed as a man through the social or material realities that are, in that context, characteristic of men as a class.”

This definition works well in some important contexts, e.g., for understanding the toilets people feel they should use: neither male nor female toilets feel right for someone nonbinary—for some they can feel very unsafe spaces and all-gender toilets are preferred. However, the definition can be read as meaning that no female norms and no male norms apply to nonbinary people, which doesn’t seem to fit people’s experience (see Dembroff, p. 11). More analysis is needed to spell out the definition and I can’t wait to see how this develops.

Passing socialised privilege

It has been drummed into me from childhood that norms for men should apply to me. This socialisation is ongoing and pervasive, even including what colour umbrella I am allowed to carry now as an adult. I don’t feel like a man and I fail to be a man, though I have tried for decades to be one. The pervasive programme of socialisation, carried out by family, friends, bullies, and the media, has been massively distressing at times. However, my socialisation and assigned gender expression means I have benefited from male privilege and how it intersects with being white and middle class. In a system of binaries you are one or the other, and I usually land in the sir, gentleman, male side.

Part of my assigned privilege is what social roles I was excused from performing as a child, for example unpaid family caring roles, which gave me more time to pursue my own interests. This, in turn, led to opportunities that may have been blocked if I were a woman, such as studying computer science, which is still massively biased towards men. I rarely experience street harassment (except when dressing queer, e.g., wearing glitter); women often get harassed daily, irrespective of how they dress. Intimate partner violence is much more common against women than men.

I have biological privilege too: I can have sex with no (rather than merely low) risk of getting pregnant; I don’t have periods; and as yet there is no contraceptive pill for me to take, with all the psychological side effects they can have. But this “biological” privilege is in a social and biotechnological context. If methods for birth control and stopping periods (or stopping undesirable aspects thereof like intense pain) were 100% effective and had zero side effects, the privilege would disappear. (As an aside: I also have a biological vulnerability now my testicles are in my scrotum.)

These privileges, varying in the degree to which they are biological, always operating in the current social context, influence my gender identity and steer my onward journey. (See also Rachel Anne Williams’ article, Giving Up My Male Privilege.)

Tentative steps towards genderqueer identity

Originally I flirted with identifying as genderqueer. This proved to be too difficult for me at the time. Dominant societal structures and practices are relatively better equipped to deal with the more general ideas of trans and, to a lesser extent, nonbinary gender. They sound helpfully, relatively, boring in a way that genderqueer doesn’t. But the idea of genderqueer still resonates with me.

The genderqueer flag, designed by Marilyn Roxie (June 2011).

Robin Dembroff takes a thought-provoking personal, social, and political approach to understanding genderqueer as a kind. Firstly, they analyse the dominant UK/USA gender ideology as built upon three assumptions: someone’s gender is determined by their natal genitals (genital assumption); there are only two genders and they are mutually exclusive (binary assumption); and finally gender confers social roles (social assumption).

The next ingredient is the idea of a critical gender kind (not to be confused with “gender critical” which is a synonym of trans-exclusionary). A critical gender kind is one defined by members who collectively (not necessarily individually) resist a dominant gender ideology. There are two kinds of resistance: principled resistance, which is based on beliefs and moral values, and existential resistance, stemming from an individual’s affectively-laden lived experience of gender. Principled resistance may be carried out by allies whereas existential resistance requires you to be personally affected by the act of opposition. The genderqueer kind is defined as a critical gender kind in which there is collective existential resistance against the binary gender assumption. 

Dembroff gives some ideas for how this resistance can look (pp. 22-23):

  1. Use gender-neutral pronouns like they/them.
  2. Cultivate gender non-conforming aesthetics, for instance by taking elements from both dominant binaries.
  3. Asserting nonbinary identity: “I am nonbinary”.
  4. Queering personal relationships, e.g., by taking on both traditional female and male parenting roles and engaging in gender play in sexual relationships.
  5. Eschewing sexuality binaries, e.g., identifying as pansexual.
  6. Space switching: using both men and women’s toilets, moving between men and women friend groups.

This approach to understanding genderqueer identity leads to an anticipated worry about how political the definition is (p. 24):

“being genderqueer, on my proposal, requires that an individual must—to some extent and in some context—resist the binary assumption.”

To my mind this political dimension—how resistance is built in—is a reassuring guide to life, similar to Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy idea. A critical gender kind gives ideas for how to act and norm-relevancy provides clues for how to decode social structures and feelings. The two seem to complement each other. 

Where next…?

I am trans nonbinary. I don’t ask for much: using my name and pronouns would suffice in most settings. I want to be recognised as nonbinary in all areas of society from passport office to public toilet. I don’t want to be told to “man up”. I don’t want it to raise eyebrows if I choose to wear an item of clothing from a binary I wasn’t assigned or socialised to be. I am aware of the privilege I have of passing as male in many dominant spaces. I also feel a collective responsibility to open myself to harassment as part of an act of genderqueer resistance. It’s scary at times, but I am excited to learn more about other people’s experiences of being nonbinary (X Marks The Spot, curated by Theo Hendrie, was massively helpful) and to experiment with different ways of expressing my identity.


Thanks Galina, Katharine, Meg, and Nine for incredibly helpful discussion on these topics.