Before I even start, let me tell you this: I’m not about to go on a sarcastic rant about how “non-binary” doesn’t mean anything.
I am going to explain to you the thoughts spinning around in my head that are a result of people telling me that.
So please, while I know this is a touchy subject, bear with me as best you can. I’m not sure how I feel about the whole thing, to be honest. This is pretty much me working through my thought process, so some of it may seem unclear or kind of weird… but I really don’t mean to be rude or to offend anyone. I don’t know much about the topic, and I’m trying to read and learn now. This is what I’ve learned so far and what my thoughts are so far.
Besides: once you’re done reading it, you can always leave a comment and share your thoughts!
Cool? All righty. Let’s begin.
(UPDATE Oct 31 2016: Since writing this post, I’ve thought lots about it and wrote another one — I still don’t really know much about the “theories” but I learned a lot. Check it out if you want to see where I’m at now.)
This whole confusion started because of my recent post entitled “What You Can Do About Binary Gendering.”
I posted a link to it in a feminist Facebook group, and very quickly discovered that I was clueless about how apparently controversial the concepts of non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, and basically just gender really are among feminists.
I had no idea that many feminists consider the “non-binary” label as misogynistic, anti-feminist, even something MRAs (Men’s Right’s Activists) would love.
Yup, you can imagine how great I felt after that.
So in case you need a reminder, I’m very new to feminism.
But according to the people in that Facebook group, if I’m okay with the label “non-binary,” it means I’m a liberal feminist, and that means radical feminists will definitely disagree with me. (It appears that most of the people in that group are radical feminists.)
For radical feminists, identifying as “non-binary” accepts that women must be feminine or meet female gender expectation in order to be a woman. (The same goes for men needing to be masculine in order to really be a man.) Of course, this is not true. Pretty much no one fully meets gender expectations.
But most of the people I’ve read and talked to believe that gender is how we feel, and sex is our biological body. Seemed pretty simple.
Yet radical feminists say you cannot “feel” like a woman, because what does that even mean? I’m no less of a woman if I choose to dress in stereotypical men’s clothing, or if I rejected stereotypical interests of women. This is because the biological reality is that I am a woman, whether or not I meet gender norms, and no matter what I do or how I dress.
Before this I never stopped to think about what it means to say you “feel” like a woman or man.
So when the women in the group explained that to me, it made sense.
As I understand their argument, the label “non-binary” is meant to express that the person who identifies as such does not identify with the gender expectations for one gender or the other. Someone who is non-binary might say that they were assigned male at birth, but they feel like a woman, or vice versa.
But radical feminists say if you don’t “feel” like a woman (or a man) it’s because of the gender expectations assigned to that sex.
Gender expectations tell you that you must be one or the other, not neither or both. Therefore, gender itself is the oppressor.
It took my brain a little work to understand what they were trying to say, but it did click at one point.
However, I still wasn’t sure I agreed.
Ever since I heard of the concept of “non-binary” I accepted it.
I didn’t find it weird that people identified with neither male nor female. People identify how they identify; their identity is really none of my business.
I had heard stories before about trans people and how they learned about themselves, and I didn’t find that hard to understand either. I knew someone in high school who is trans; I learned about his story from when he was a young girl, to when he began to transition. Even as someone who isn’t trans, I could imagine the idea of being in a woman’s body, and literally feeling that body shouldn’t be mine, that I’m not comfortable in it, and that I’m supposed to be in a man’s body.
But that’s not non-binary. That’s “trans.” (At least, from what I understand.) I’m sure that gender expectations play a role in that, but it seems like for trans people it’s the body that is the focus, based on what the radical feminists I chatted with were saying.
So with all the comments in the Facebook group, people telling me non-binary is a misogynistic concept, that “cis” is a slur, and that gender is oppressive, I tried to think about what non-binary really meant.
And suddenly I realized I didn’t really know.
I always understood non-binary as a label for people who don’t feel they are either male or female, or people who feel they are both.
But again, what does it mean to “feel” like a woman, or “feel like a man?
I have no idea what it is like to feel confused about being a woman or a man, or what variations there are, so I don’t feel like it’s my place to tell people what they are and what they aren’t.
But I do know what it’s like to feel confused about sexuality, or even ethnic identity.
I identify as Canadian, but also as Indian, as in South Asian.
Yet, many would tell me I’m not Indian because I wasn’t born there. I’m not really Indian. I’ve always been kind of between identities. When with my non-Indian friends, I’m the Indian one of the group. When I’m with other Indian people. I’m not Indian enough. Clearly the way I act is more Canadian that traditionally Indian.
But I feel South Indian, and it’s my identity.
How can anyone tell me I’m not?
But then… I could meet a Japanese person who tells me they’re Indian because they have grown up in an Indian household, and I would consider that factually incorrect. They can say they identify as such, but they still aren’t. It doesn’t change that they aren’t, no matter how they identify.
Is this what these radical feminists where trying to say?
Boiled down, they were telling me that being male or female, man or woman, is only about the body.
Biologically, then, a non-binary person is biologically still either a man or woman. (I know intersex exists, but since I’m already in hot water about the whole non-binary thing, I’m going to stay away from that for now.)
So according to radical feminism, any man or woman can say they “feel” more like the opposite sex, but that does not change what they are biologically. Indeed, feeling like the other is a result of society’s expectations, not the body itself — and if it is about the body, then you are trans, not non-binary.
It’s the expectations, the concept of gender — which isn’t biological — that is causing the problem.
If non-binary exists, then everyone is non-binary, because no one really fits gender expectations. Gender is not really legitimate.
This seems to be what the main point is.
Makes sense right?
Well, I’m still confused.
I still feel that there is more to it than just the body.
Radical feminists say that women are oppressed based on their biology. This is something I don’t really understand at this point, so I’m aware that I need to read more about it.
However, I think that the confusion I’m feeling is about the idea of identity.
I understand the idea that you can’t “feel” like a woman, because being a woman is literally being a person that is female, and the expectations assigned don’t make sense for anyone.
But similarly to my identifying as South Asian, I feel wrong telling someone they aren’t something they identify as.
In our society, gender is a concept that does exist. It’s become a huge part of our culture. The fact that it is part of people’s identity makes sense!
I mean, race is a social construct as well. People who notice it aren’t necessarily racist. And ignoring it, or being “colour blind” isn’t the solution— it ignores that part of people’s identity. But that doesn’t mean people who say they’re colour blind are racist, either.
Similarly, sure gender might be problematic. Maybe “non-binary” isn’t the best solution, since it might reinforce gender norms. But to say that people who claim the non-binary label are anti-feminist and misogynistic seems a little extreme to me. It’s an effort to reject the gender norms presented to us, after all.
So what did I conclude?
The one thing I did come up with is a little contradictory: maybe “non-binary” reinforces gender norms and rejects it, at the same time.
But besides that, pretty much nothing — just that maybe I should read a whole lot more about gender theory before writing about it again. I don’t know how I feel about the idea that oppression of women is based on our biological body, because I don’t really understand what that means.
What do you think about gender and the “non-binary” label? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below!
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