Some Thoughts on Being Nonbinary

400px-Nonbinary_flag.svgThis post was originally meant to be posted a few weeks ago, during International Nonbinary Awareness Week. That would have been an auspicious time to spread some awareness of something I’ve been thinking about for a bit, but have felt unsure of and reluctant to state publicly. But then the tinkering took a bit too long, as it always does, and so the post is appearing now.

So I think I’m nonbinary. This is a thought I’ve played with for a few years, and which has slowly solidified and settled for me over this past year or so. But I’ve so far shied away from expressing it explicitly to others, except to Katlyn, who is as always incomparably supportive, and an expert at gohelping me think things through on my own terms. I’ve been trying out saying ‘he/they’ when asked my pronouns, and I sort of liked it, but that’s not a very explicit way to claim an identity. So this post, I suppose, will be my effort to more directly articulate and explain this facet of myself.

Section 1

Maybe the best place to start is with why I’ve felt so reluctant to self-identify as nonbinary before now. In part, I worried that it would seem like the sort of declaration that people might expect to come with major and sweeping consequences: that everyone has to change what they call me and how they talk about me, that I’m going to change how I act or how I present, or change my body or my name, that there has to be some big shift. In fact, none of that is the case. I am largely very happy in my body, I like my name, I have no objection to masculine nouns and pronouns. I’m not coming out as nonbinary because I’ve been struggling against any kind of suffocating straightjacket of masculinity, or suffering from gender dysphoria: on the contrary, the version of myself I’m already living is one that is comfortable for me, and I’ve been lucky enough that the people around me have never made me feel like being a ‘man’ is incompatible with being that version of myself. I’m coming out as nonbinary not to initiate a big transition, but just to be open about my current existence: the version of me I’m already comfortably living is a nonbinary one. This (*gestures at the everything about me*) is what an enby looks like.

(But, just to be scrupulously clear, it could also be what a regular-degular binary man looks like. And there isn’t one way to look nonbinary: however a nonbinary person looks, that’s what an enby looks like. Presentation is one thing, identity another, and their relationship is complicated.)

The thing is, that can make it rather obscure what it means for me to say ‘I am nonbinary.’ What am I doing with these words? And I hate the idea of saying something whose meaning I can’t clearly articulate, especially if doing so might lead people to take meanings from it that aren’t what I intend. I’m worried, as I said, about people taking it to be a bigger deal than it is, and I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable or hesitant when referring to me.

So just to be clear; I know I read as a man to others, and I have no problem occupying that role, being described as a man, being referred to with ‘he’ pronouns, and so on. There are a few terms that I gather are used to convey this, such as ‘demiguy’, ‘man-aligned nonbinary’, ‘man-adjacent’, or ‘nonbinary man’ but their exact meanings are somewhat contested. The point is that I wear the label ‘man’ out of convenience, not as a reflection of genuine identity. There are lots of contexts where people address each other using gendered terms that don’t match their identities as a stylistic flourish or just for ease of expression – consider how readily many men accept being called ‘boys’, and women ‘girls’, in certain contexts. I’m just extending that sort of non-literalness to all descriptions of me as a man.

(Obviously other nonbinary people may feel very differently, both in having strong preferences around pronouns, and in not feeling this compulsion I have to make oneself intelligible; some might enjoy being inscrutable, defying society’s expectation that we make ourselves easy to categorise. All power to them!)

But with all that said, what does it mean, this utterance ‘I am nonbinary’? There’s a long answer and a short answer, and it may surprise nobody that the long answer is quite long, and probably mostly of interests to philosophers or gender theorists. So for readers who aren’t into that, I suggest skipping over section 2 to get to the summary and personal reflections in section 3.

Section 2

Here’s my attempt to spell things out theoretically:

Conveniently, I made sure to have a series of posts up on the theoretical underpinnings of my approach to gender before posting this, so that I have the tools to answer this question. In line with the views developed in those post, I would analyse the utterance ‘I am nonbinary’ as primarily expressive (it expresses a certain mental state of the speaker), secondarily inviting (it invites the audience to regard the speaker a certain way), and tertiarily informative (it indirectly conveys factual information to the audience). In this section I’m going to talk about these three functions – expressing, inviting, and informing – in sequence.

(I want to say off the bat that I speak only for myself; other nonbinary people may disagree, or may accept that the analysis I give here applies to me, but consider their own nonbinariness to be something different. I’d love to hear from them about that; this is a topic on which my thoughts and feelings are still evolving.)

2.a – Expressing

So first, what is the mental state that this utterance ‘I am nonbinary’ expresses? I think we can say fairly uncontroversially that it is a ‘gender identity’, but then what is that?

On the best analysis I have so far, a gender identity is a relatively inflexible disposition to ‘see oneself as’ a certain gender, i.e. a self-directed instance of the broader phenomenon of gender-perceiving. To have the gender identity ‘woman’, for instance, means that you can’t help but ‘see yourself’ in a certain manner, which is also the manner in which you see the other people you see as ‘women’.

Ok, but what is this distinctive gendered sort of seeing-as I’ve just mentioned? I think to some extent it’s something that we have to recognise prior to having a definition (defined more ostensively than analytically, we might say): indeed, I argue that it’s the centre and starting point of the whole phenomenon of gender. So whatever I say here will fall short of a full theory.

I think we can at least say that a gender identity is a ‘dispositional’ state, in the sense that it manifests consciously in different ways under different circumstances, rather than being introspectible all at once. Most obviously, it manifests as feelings of gender dysphoria and gender euphoria, and more broadly as feelings of ‘fit’ and ‘not-fit’, ‘comfort’ and ‘discomfort’, ‘feeling like oneself’ and ‘dissociation’, with various sorts of self-application of various sorts of things associated with gender. Things associated with gender can include body parts, clothes, words, feelings and ideas, activities, bodily processes, and more; ‘self-application’ can mean wearing a garment, having or imagining oneself having a body part, hearing oneself described with certain words, applying certain words to oneself, etc.

(Note: I’m including gender-terms themselves in here right alongside concrete signifiers like dresses and long hair – the concept itself is one piece of the costume. More precisely, the word plays a major role in the thing it is a word for, introducing a sort of circularity or ‘looping effect’. Some people find the verbal and mental application of the concept important but couldn’t care less about the clothes; other people the reverse.)

I think gender identities are sometimes described as a sort of self-image, a depiction of how one feels one is or should be. What seems clearly true is that we can usually construct such an ideal image from consideration of the pattern of feelings – take the things that make a person feel most themselves, and put them together, while removing anything that makes them feel dysphoric, and there you have an image of what they would feel most themselves if they looked like (and sounded like, and were referred to as, and so on, since it’s not all visual things). But that’s not really an explanation of where the feelings come from. It is a live possibility that the underlying source is some kind of image represented in the brain, but I don’t think we have clear evidence for or against that hypothesis at this point.

So we might say for now: a gender identity is a psychological ‘something’ that gives rise to a pattern of feelings of ‘comfort running up to euphoria’ and ‘discomfort running up to dysphoria’ in response to the self-application of different gendered things. Note a few things about this definition:

  • First, expressing a gender identity doesn’t mean claiming any overall psychological resemblance or similarity with all people of that gender. If someone says ‘I feel like a woman’, that’s probably not best interpreted as meaning ‘the way I feel matches the way that women feel’, just ‘I feel a sense of fittingness with the trappings of womanhood and/or dysphoria with the trappings of manhood’. That’s good, because there’s no probably no such thing as a universal ‘the way that women feel’, and if there was it would probably be impossible to identify what it is and compare it with your own feelings.
  • Second, this analysis is compatible with pluralism about what gender identities actually are – maybe different people experience euphoria/dysphoria for different reasons, with different underlying mechanisms giving rise to those feelings.
  • Third, it’s compatible with a radically social constructionist view, on which there’s no objective need for us to have any particular number of genders, or associate the things we do with them.
  • Fourth, although I defined it by reference to ‘things associated with gender’, this isn’t really a well-defined set. Virtually anything can be associated with gender by someone. And hey, if someone finds that they get this weird secret feeling from something that is seemingly gender-unrelated, that they also get from certain highly gendered things, then one likely result is going to be that they start associating that thing with gender. So really ‘things associated with gender’ could cover anything (another reason this is only an ostensive definition, not an analytical one).
  • Fifth, and most importantly for this post, this way of characterising gender identity imposes no logical requirement that gender identities match up neatly to the binary genders.

So here’s the key observation: some people’s gender identities seem to match up closely to the genders in our society. That is, some people feel dysphoria about pretty much every thing associated with one gender, and comfort or euphoria about pretty much every thing associated with the other gender, and so it makes sense to speak of those gender identities as ‘man’ or ‘woman’.

But there’s also a huge space for someone’s pattern of gender-feelings to diverge from that. Someone might feel dysphoria or euphoria about some of the things associated with one gender, and some of those associated with the other, either at different times or at the same time. They might feel dysphoria or euphoria about key things associated with both, or simply fail to feel any such feelings. They might feel strongly about something not usually associated with either gender. In particular, they might feel comfort or euphoria around concepts or labels defined in contradistinction to the binary gender labels – such as the word ‘nonbinary’.

I take it that ‘nonbinary’ is an umbrella term for people with gender identities that significantly diverge from the standard ‘man’ and ‘woman’ sets. This implies, for a start, that there are many different ways to be nonbinary, because there are many ways to diverge from a particular distribution of feelings. Two nonbinary people might have gender identities as different from one another as the most binaristic ‘man’ and ‘woman’ identities: it’s a category defined negatively, though infused with positivity through taking pride in embracing difference.

Not only are there many different ways to diverge from the binary-gender-identities, there are also different degrees of divergence. After all, even people with a strong binary identity still usually don’t feel an attachment to all the things associated with their gender (for one thing, there are often contradictory things associated with the same gender). And lots of binary people feel pleasantly and comfortably ‘more themselves’ with one or two specific things associated with the opposite gender.

There’s a spectrum here, likely without any way to draw a precise boundary on it (just like with most things in nature). This probably implies that there’s no objective set of people who are ‘divergent enough’ to count as ‘really’ nonbinary. There are lots of people who could ’round themselves off’ to one gender or the other, or alternatively to ‘nonbinary’. I don’t see this as a problem: those people get to decide how they get categorised. I’m one of those people: it wouldn’t have been a determinate mis-classification for me to go through life as a man if I had chosen to, but I’ve come to think that ‘nonbinary’ is better fit.

I think the lack of either an objective boundary around the category, or any universally shared positive traits, partly explains the profusion of labels under the ‘nonbinary’ umbrella – ‘genderfluid’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘agender’, ‘bigender’, and others – trying to pick out the same, or overlapping, or more specific, regions and sub-regions within ‘identity space’. This is, one might say, an area of reality on which words must struggle especially hard to get firm purchase. As applied to myself, ‘genderqueer’ feels like a synonym for ‘nonbinary’, and I prefer the latter for the slightly more neutral tone it gets from not including a reclaimed slur. Also because I like ‘enby’ as a short form. ‘Genderfluid’ doesn’t resonate for me (I don’t think I change day to day); ‘agender’ and ‘bigender’ both sound right in some respects, but wrong in others. So ‘nonbinary’ is the term I would favour, though fundamentally I think these are all terms meant to be defined in usage by those who self-apply them.

Part of why we should let people choose which labels to self-apply is the ‘looping effect’ noted above: gender labels are themselves among the things that one can feel dysphoric or euphoric about: the trappings of gender include our terms for gender alongside garments, body parts, etc. My choice of the label ‘nonbinary’ is in part a product of socialisation – namely, the socialisation involved in seeing other people use the term. It’s not really a neutral descriptor to be applied based on some set of objective criteria; it’s a tool for self-understanding and communication (a ‘hermeneutic resource’, as it’s sometimes put) that gets its value from how it’s shaped in use.

2.b – Inviting

Second, I’ve said that the statement ‘I am nonbinary’ invites something from audiences: it’s the sort of utterance whose aim is to initiate a pattern of social interaction, rather like ‘my name is ___’ is as much an instruction about how to refer to me as it is the statement of a fact.

Most simply, ‘I am nonbinary’ invites audiences to ‘say the same thing back’, i.e. to describe the speaker as nonbinary when they talk about them, and more broadly to describe them in non-gendered ways. A big part of this is pronouns, though different nonbinary people have different pronoun preferences, so the invitation made by the word is not a fully specified one – it’s an invitation to follow those preferences, whatever they are.

(In my case, as I said above, I am happy with ‘they’ and also with ‘he’ if it’s easier. I also won’t object to ‘she’, or neutral singulars like ‘ze’, but they are unfamiliar to me and might prompt confusion.)

But there’s something a bit more psychological involved as well. Saying ‘I am a woman’ is a request to be seen as a woman, and saying ‘I am a man’ is a request to be seen as a man. Gender has a social and psychological weight that goes far beyond language, after all. Acceding to such a request is not always straightforwardly up to us (how I see someone may resist my intentions), but is open to indirect voluntary control (as I argued about two-thirds of the way down this post). In this sense, then, we might think of ‘I am nonbinary’ as a request not to be seen simply as a man, or simply as a woman, and instead to be seen … well, how, exactly?

What’s difficult here is that what makes sense for binary genders can’t be straightforwardly extended to enbies. I’ve said that a binary gender identity is a disposition to feel comfort/affirmation/euphoria at the self-application of some, most, or all of the things socially associated with one gender, and to feel discomfort/dissociation/dysphoria for those associated with the other gender. Precisely because they’re socially reinforced, one person’s binary gender identity can match up with other people’s binary gender-perception of them.

Here we can think of gender-perception as a matter of seeing the things associated with one gender as ‘fitting’ the person in question, and the things associated with the other as ‘out of place’ on them. To be seen as a man is to have any feature that’s socially defined as ‘womanly’ seen as incongruous, while having any feature socially defined as ‘manly’ seen as normal. This allows for a sort of ‘match’ between someone’s gender identity (the set of things they feel comfortable with) and how others see them (the set of things that are seen as normal on them), as long as their gender identity is a binary one (i.e. the set of things they feel comfortable with roughly matches the set of things socially associated with a certain gender).

But could there be a mode of perception that ‘matched’ someone’s nonbinary gender identity in this way? It would have to be one that saw all those things which they felt comfort about as ‘fitting’ for them. But this seems impractical for two reasons: first that nonbinary gender-identities are so diverse that this would mean each observer needs to learn a whole new perceptual category for each nonbinary person they meet, and second that the necessary information about each person’s feelings is often kept private, and so can’t actually be accessed for the learning of that perceptual category.

So what could ‘seeing as nonbinary’ mean, if it can’t match nonbinary identities in the way that binary gender-perceptions match binary gender-identities? I don’t have a good settled answer: at the end of this post I offer a few suggestions, but they’re all in different ways a little unstable, all going against the grain, though in this context I think that’s a good thing – it’s part of what makes nonbinary a fertile and productive identity.

2.c – Informing

I said that the speech act “I am nonbinary” is primarily expressive, and secondarily invites the audience to describe and see the speaker a certain (hard to pin down) way. But I also said that it serves to convey information. So let me end by saying a bit about that.

Terms that express a mental state generally also convey information about it to listeners, but often relatively little. When I say ‘ouch’, the pain I’m expressing may have a fairly rich structure (location, intensity, quality, etc.) but all that’s conveyed is ‘something hurts’. This uninformativeness is reinforced when the state expressed is associated with different criteria by different people. As I noted in my series of posts on gender, saying ‘X is a woman’ (which I analyse as primary expressing a mental state: ‘seeing X as a woman’) can often convey a lot of factual information, but what it conveys depends on the audience knowing what criterion the speaker follows in how they gender people – it might convey that X identifies as a woman, or that in the speaker’s estimation X is AFAB, or whatever that speaker considers relevant to womanhood.

(Indeed, who the utterance conveys information about can vary: if I know what criterion the speaker uses, ‘X is a woman’ tells me about X, but if instead I know all the relevant facts about X, ‘X is a woman’ may instead tell me something about the speaker, namely what criterion they use. If I know X is AFAB but identifies as a man, the person who tells me ‘X is a woman’ is primarily telling me something about themselves, namely that they’re a transphobe.)

So ‘I am nonbinary’ doesn’t convey anything like all the information there is about the mental state it expresses. It only conveys that my gender identity diverges in some significant respects from both binarily-’man’ and binarily-’woman’. Moreover, what counts as ‘some significant respects’ is somewhat a matter of interpretation, so the utterance by itself only conveys anything about how much divergence there is if the audience knows what I count as ‘some significant respects’. And I probably can’t easily convey that. So the information conveyed is quite limited.

Indeed, ‘I am nonbinary’ is noteworthy in part because it typically conveys substantially less information than the utterances ‘I am a woman’ and ‘I am a man’: it doesn’t allow the audience to form even probabilistic expectations about the speaker’s body, appearance, social experiences, or reproductive biology. Indeed, that’s part of the point: it withholds information, and perhaps (one might hope) by changing which information is conveyed, it can also contribute to a shift in what seems important. If people can get used to not knowing those things about someone as soon as that person is referred to, perhaps that will help those facts seem less important.

Section 3

Welcome back, everyone who skipped over the philosophy bit. Here’s the bullet-point version:

  • People have feelings in reaction to the various things (body parts, garments, words, activities, etc.) socially associated with gender, independently of their general beliefs about gender.
  • These feelings range from the very negative (‘gender dysphoria’ – feeling agonisingly wrong in some inarticulable way), through the mildly negative (discomfort, feeling not like oneself), and the mildly positive (comfort, feeling more oneself), to the very positive (‘gender euphoria’ – feeling suddenly, powerfully, at home in oneself and the word).
  • We can refer to whatever it is in a person’s psyche that generates this pattern of feelings as their ‘gender identity’. That doesn’t require us to know where it comes from or how it works.
  • For many people, this gender identity ‘matches’ one or the other of society’s genders: either they feel comfort/euphoria with all or most things deemed ‘masculine’, and discomfort/dysphoria with all or most things deemed ‘feminine’, or vice versa. We can call these ‘binary’ gender identities – either ‘man’ or ‘woman’.
  • Trans people are people whose gender identity doesn’t match the gender society tells them they should belong to. Many of them take steps (social, legal, medical, sartorial, etc.) to bring the way that they are perceived, both by themselves and others, into harmony with their gender identity.
  • The appropriate way to use gender terms like ‘man’ and ‘woman’, I believe, is in accord with someone’s gender identity, though we are unfortunately surrounded by assholes who loudly refuse to do so.
  • For other people, their gender identity diverges substantially from both genders in some way. Maybe they strongly identify with some things from both sides, or react against things on both sides, or don’t have any strong gender-feelings, or have them in some other pattern that can’t be neatly categorised. The label ‘nonbinary’ is a way for these people to describe themselves.
  • The label ‘nonbinary’ (along with similar terms like ‘genderqueer’) aims to give nonbinary people what binary men and women have: social and linguistic recognition of their gender identity. Some nonbinary people also take physical steps to change their body to better match their gender identity, though many do not.

So that’s how I understand the meaning of ‘nonbinary’ in the abstract. I haven’t said much about what it means for me in particular. I’ve conveyed that my pattern of gender-related feelings – my ‘gender identity’ – doesn’t fit neatly either to ‘man’ or to ‘woman’, but I haven’t said exactly what it’s like. For the record, I think it’s important to be clear that I don’t have to: people don’t need to lay bare their soul in order to have their identity respected. But I am happy to say a bit about the personal feelings that, for me, seem like indications of nonbinariness.

  • I’ve always liked the idea of being mistaken for a woman (mostly a thing that happened when I was younger and had long hair, and was seen from behind), or of producing uncertainty about my gender in observers. I feel a twinge of wistfulness about the fact that for various reasons (most notably voice, nose, chin, and now thinning hair) this is probably not likely to happen much any more.
  • Periodically throughout my life, and more often in the last year or so, I’ve tentatively tried adopting small aspects of femininity into my self-presentation, like by shaving my legs, growing my hair long, wearing pretty earrings, and so on. The aim was never to look unambiguously ‘like a woman’, just to get some sort of blend or balance.
  • I feel, sometimes, a sort of affinity or a kinship with people inhabiting masculinity from outside cis manhood, like butch lesbians, drag kings, masc presentations of various sorts. Although I feel like my ideal image, of how I would like to look and be perceived, is somewhat ‘masc-of-centre’, it feels more like something actively performed, not like something with the feel of being ‘natural’ and ‘innate’ that so many images of cis masculinity have.
  • I feel a certain fondness for those aspects of my body that are most ‘feminine’, like my general inability to grow substantial facial or body hair, the fact that everyone remarks on how soft my skin is. To some extent the ‘waifish’ quality of my build. Sometimes people worry that I feel insecure about these features: on the contrary, they are precious to me. But I also feel a great fondness for some other aspects of my body that I know are standardly associated with masculinity.
  • People sometimes suggest that a good tool for getting a sense of one’s gender identity is to imagine that one wakes up one morning with an ‘opposite-sexed’ body: is this a source of horror, longing, or curiosity? For me it would be mostly curiosity. I somewhat like the idea of having a body such that this magical transformation was undetectable, at least with my clothes on. I suppose my ideal body would be my own, with the proportions of my skeleton tweaked enough to produce uncertainty in observers, at least when combined with an ambiguous-enough presentation.
  • Together with all these feelings I do have, I feel like I don’t find in myself a lot of the gender-related feelings that, I gather, lots of men have: a positive attachment to, and joy in, unambiguous manhood; a feeling that masculinity expresses their true self; a discomfort with anything feminine enough to complicate or subvert that sense of solid manhood.

Of course there are some contexts where it matters for people to know the sort of the information about me that ‘I am nonbinary’ actively declines to convey – that I have the sort of body typical of AMAB people, that I’ve lived my life being perceived as a man, and so on. Most obviously, this information is relevant to certain forms of medical care, so obviously I want to centre that information in communication with those medical professionals. But I think the specificity of that context brings out how little need there is, in most other contexts, to convey that information.

(As someone on the academic job market, the most common occasion when I’m asked to explicitly affirm a gender is when filling out ‘diversity monitoring forms’ for job applications, and I think that for those purposes my social history as a man is probably relevant. It’s very likely that I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of gender biases that make it easier for people to perceive ‘philosophical talent’ in people whom they see as men (especially, perhaps, awkward young white men). That makes me feel as though in efforts to statistically measure the demographics in philosophy, I should register my man-adjacent-ness: hiring me is not a way to improve the discipline’s gender balance. But perhaps in a few years I’ll feel differently; how nonbinariness affects someone’s social position is complex and hard to generalise about, so this seems to me the sort of question on which enbies should make their own judgements.)

As well as the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’, I’ve argued (in previous posts) that there are distinctive psychological styles of ‘seeing-as’ associated with gender: categorising someone as a man or a woman makes a subtle but important difference to how one’s brain represents them. I think perhaps part of what makes nonbinary identities puzzling to many people is that it’s not clear what the nonbinary equivalent to this is: what does it mean, psychologically, to ‘see someone as nonbinary’? As I noted back in the philosophy bit of this post, I don’t think there’s a simple, settled answer, but I have a few ideas that might at least be productive or fertile directions to explore in.

3a. – Seeing-as-neither

One possibility is this: think of me the way you would if you didn’t know my gender – just as ‘a person’. Hold onto that style of perception even when you know lots of things about me. But I sort of suspect that purely negative attitudes like this can’t be very psychologically robust – that you can’t train your brain to not think something, except by training it to think something instead.

3b. – Seeing-as-both

Another possibility is to try out both: see me as a man sometimes, a woman other times, just to see how the two styles feel. How would you see me if you ‘found out’ that I had been ‘really’ a woman all along, maybe doing some sort of Norah-Vincent-style investigation? Can you identify the gestalt shift that idea brings, the subtle shift in how each aspect of me seems (Vincent writes of mannerisms that were unremarkable or even ‘butch’ as a woman being seen as effeminate when she was seen as a man). Can you initiate that gestalt shift by itself, like someone deliberately shifting their perception of a Necker cube?

3c. – Seeing-as-a-third-category

Here’s a third possibility, prompted by the thought that gender categories are probably formed in large part by seeing lots of people categorised together and learning to see new individuals as ‘like them’. Seeing me as nonbinary is seeing me as the same sort of human as other nonbinary people. That is: mentally group me with famous nonbinary people like Laurie Penny, Jonathan Van Ness, Robin Dembroff, Alok Menon, Eddie Izzard, Sasha Velour, Rain Dove, Angel Haze, or Rebecca Sugar, and let your brain form a perceptual category based on us. Look at my body and presentation against the baseline provided by them.

There’s a possible pitfall to this approach that I think some nonbinary people worry about, which is that it has the potential to end up codifying a definite image of ‘what nonbinary people look like’. In practice, I think the fear is, this image is often something like: ‘slender hairless person with short hair and a flat chest.’ And that’s bullshit: nonbinary can look like anything – beards, breasts, beards and breasts, from hyper ‘feminine’ to hyper ‘masculine’ and anything in between or beyond. But then of course it’s unlikely that a perceptual category formed by looking at them will have much actual content: there’s no determinate way to ‘look nonbinary’.

(This is why it’s important to emphasise that ‘nonbinary’ is not a third gender – not a third category with associated norms of how to look, dress, act, etc. Many cultures do have third genders, in the sense of gender categories distinct from both ‘man’ and ‘woman’, with their own associated roles and norms: I think the analysis I’ve given so far allows us to see these as ‘nonbinary genders’, relative to the standard binary two, though whether their members fall under the umbrella of ‘nonbinary people’ is something I’d want to leave to them to decide.)

3d. – Seeing-as-one’s-own-category

So maybe, fourthly, ‘seeing as nonbinary’ is best thought of as a sort of ‘open-minded’ perception: rather than seeing someone against the baseline expectations set by their gender, see them against baseline expectations set simply by themselves. Rather than person X’s nose, for instance, being either ‘a big nose for a woman’ or ‘a small nose for a man’, it’s just ‘a normal-sized nose for person X’. Rather than their given outfit being ‘men’s clothes’ or ‘women’s clothes’, it’s just ‘person-X’s clothes’. This kind of radical normalisation – seeing literally any combination of ways for a person to present as an impeccably paradigmatic instance of their personal style – is, I think, sometimes easier said than done, but you might think it’s probably a good mental strategy to have available anyway, whether or not the person in question is nonbinary. (What’s the worst that can happen: you become able to see unexpected sorts of beauty?)

Anyway, that’s four different answers to my original question ‘what does it mean, psychologically, to see someone as nonbinary?’ I think the four answers go together fairly well – there’s no particular barrier to combining them, doing a bit of one or a bit of another. The fact that there’s no easy-to-follow standard procedure here is, I think, part of the point: being nonbinary goes against the grain of how we’re used to experiencing gender, and so any attempt to incorporate it will be unstable. I like to think that’s a good thing!

I recognise that shifting gender-perception is not always someone one can do just by willing it, and I’m obviously not going to police how anyone thinks of me. But if you feel like you’d like to align your perception of me more closely to my self-perception, these might be ways to do so.


TL:DR I am nonbinary, i.e. have a gender-identity that diverges substantially from both ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Over the last 6000 or so words I’ve tried to articulate what I take that to mean. Different nonbinary people differ a lot, including in how they analyse the term and the psychology it aims to describe, so nothing I say here is the last word.

My name is still Luke; my preferred pronouns are ‘they/them/themself’ and ‘he/him/himself’. As I said at the outset, I don’t see this as initiating a marked transition, so much as recognising explicitly something about my life that has long been true. I’m still the same person, just a bit more myself.

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5 Responses to Some Thoughts on Being Nonbinary

  1. Siobhan O'Leary says:

    “If people can get used to not knowing those things [the information contained in ‘gender’] about someone as soon as that person is referred to, perhaps that will help those facts seem less important.”

    This sentence struck me. I suspect it may sometimes describe the motives of the people so resistant to strains of gender philosophy that permit the existence of gender variance–it seems probable that they believe the information contained in gender is important enough such that it warrants a legal or ethical compulsion to protect it. They rarely argue this explicitly, but it seems to explain a lot of their behaviour, and provides a point of solidarity for all people of non-normative gender. Which, as you say, could include a heckin lot of people depending on how you slice it.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Yeah I think that’s right! In some sense of ‘believe’, at least: it seems like a lot of people are uncomfortable not getting that information, which might be more positively valenced as curiosity or more negatively valenced as anxiety. And they can get very defensive if they’re told, even implicitly, not to expect or ask for that information. I suspect that the reason they often claim, implausibly, that they ‘can always tell’, is related: it’s a psychological defence against not knowing by insisting that they do.

  2. Ricardo Aguilera says:

    Woah. I’d been questioning my gender for a while but wasn’t sure what to make of it; when I read about the experiences of trans women they didn’t really resonate with what I had been feeling. This, however, is spot-on.

    Thank you very much for writing this! (Also thank you for writing your article on TERFs, it’s my favorite essay on the topic).

  3. Pingback: Identifying as NonBinary - Elise Carlson Author

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