Non-Binary People’s Day: Non-binary people aren’t “new” or “trendy”

Non-Binary People’s Day: Non-binary people aren’t “new” or “trendy”

July 14th is Non-Binary People’s Day – a day to celebrate and raise awareness of people who identify outside of the man/woman gender binary. While many people talk about non-binary gender as though it’s something “new” that young people are just doing “for attention”, the fact is that cultures around the world have had traditions of non-binary gender for thousands of years, of which Two-Spirit Indigenous Canadians are just one example.

Non-binary people are often accused of “cramming” our “made-up” genders down “people’s throats”. But our society’s strict gender binary makes it extremely hard for non-binary people to live our lives without constantly having to teach impromptu Gender 101 classes to everyone we encounter.

As a non-binary person who came out as transgender at the start of the pandemic, here are just some of the situations that I have encountered in past year that have forced me to teach strangers about my gender in order to conduct my daily business.

  • Getting misgendered by official documents like school and employment records
  • Being unable to get medical care without being misgendered because Ontario Health Cards do not have a non-binary option
  • Having to misgender myself while job searching because of lack of a non-binary option
  • Nearly always being misgendered by service workers, even while wearing a face mask featuring they/them pronouns
  • Having to choose between remaining silent or correcting a coworker in public when they don’t respect my pronouns
  • Getting left out of Mother’s and Father’s Day activities at my kid’s school
  • Being intentionally misgendered by a childcare worker at my kid’s school
  • Being unable to find therapists qualified to treat non-binary people
  • Having to pay out of pocket for transition-related care because my doctor didn’t know anything about transgender or non-binary medical needs
  • Having to opt out of extended family gatherings because virulently anti-trans family members would be at an event

That’s only a small number of examples. Unfortunately, non-binary people don’t so much “come out” as they become unpaid Gender Studies and Queer Theory professors for everyone around them.

So, what can cisgender (people who are not trans and/or non-binary) do to make it less exhausting to be a non-binary person in our community, you might ask?

  1. You can’t know someone’s gender based on their appearance, so don’t assume you know someone’s gender because of how they look. Being misgendered is painful, but fear of provoking emotional or physical violence keeps many non-binary people from correcting people who misgender them. So instead, avoid gendered greetings like “sir” or “ma’am”, and avoid making references to someone’s gender (IE. “can you help this lady” or “this man is waiting”).
  2. Don’t stare at people you think may be transgender, non-binary, or otherwise gender non-conforming. You don’t need to know the gender of everyone around you. Also, it’s often impossible to tell the difference between someone who is staring because they’re curious and someone who is staring because they’re about to yell at you.
  3. Use Google to educate yourself. There are a wealth of resources online that you can use to educate yourself about the basics of gender and issues faced by transgender and/or non-binary people. Avail yourself of those resources.
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Gender versus sexuality: the important difference

One of the issues that often comes up when discussing stories concerning the LGBTQ2+ community is confusion between gender identity and sexuality – two terms which refer to very different things but are commonly used interchangeably. In the last ten years, there has been growing awareness of the problems faced by transgender people. But the prevalence of negative responses to things like the coming out of Elliot Page highlight how far we still have to go.

What, then, is the difference? Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of self and the gender they feel like inside, which may or may not align with the gender they were assigned at birth. Sexuality, on the other hand, refers to the types of people someone is attracted to.

Doctors commonly assign infants one of two binary genders – male or female. But this overlooks the existence of intersex people (people whose biology is ambiguous) and erases the existence of people with genders outside the binary. Cultures around the world have included traditions of non-binary gender for thousands of years, of which Two-Spirit Indigenous Canadians are just one example.

For most people, the gender they identify as aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth and they experience attraction to members of the “opposite” binary gender. Because of the stigma against LGBTQ2+ in our society, this presumption of binary gender assigned at birth and heterosexuality is seen as the norm in our culture, while anyone who deviates from those norms of gender and sexuality is seen as deviant. The physical and emotional violence experienced by people with stigmatized genders and sexualities has long kept them silent, which only contributes to the illusion that such experiences are uncommon and abnormal.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible refute these assumptions with data. Governments are only just now beginning to consider the existence of LGBTQ2+ people in their data-gathering efforts. Statistics Canada recently concluded a consultation on the wording of a new question about gender identity and sexuality for the 2021 census, which would mark the very first time a Canadian census has gathered information about transgender, 2-Spirit, and non-binary people. But looking at smaller and more regional surveys of our region and Ontario as a whole shows that LGBTQ2+ people make up between 7% and 13% of the population.

And yet, many schools do not teach the difference between gender and sexuality until grade 8, well after the age in which most people have formed a firm sense of their gender identity and sexuality. And even then, parents have the ability to opt their children out of this curriculum, further contributing to the idea that even talking frankly about the existence of LGBTQ2+ is dangerous and an inappropriate conversation to have with children.

Sadly, the violence experienced by LGBTQ2+ people can never change as long as we continue to enforce ignorance of their experiences in our schools and community.

Basic resources to learn more about gender and sexuality:
Gender: More than just Pink and Blue
SPECTRUM’s LGBTQ2+ 101 Terminology and Reference Guide

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