Thinking Non-Binary is the Future
by Maggie Lynch
June 7, 2022
As we begin Pride month, it’s a good time to talk about the importance of including LGBTQi characters in stories to reflect the diversity of people in our country, our city, our world. If you read my post on diversity a week or two ago, you may remember that I shared the diversity of gender identity within my own extended family. I have several cousins and their partners who identify as gay, gender fluid, queer, and/or transgender. That alone is a good reason for me to include those characters in my books. However, coming to a place where I could begin to think in a non-binary way was not easy. Today, I’m going to share my own journey to understanding gender identities and particularly non-binary identities.
I hope that those who have struggled with understanding this new concept of gender identity might identify with what I had to learn to embrace this concept. And in that be a little more open on their own journey. If you feel lost in all the new pronouns and the advocacy that teens and young adults have taken up, I hope this provides more awareness to why and how this happened. The process of changing one’s thinking can feel confusing and difficult. But it is equally confusing and difficult for those people who have never felt comfortable accepting they are either a man or a woman and all that means in our society. Even though I’ve come a long way it is still a struggle and I’m still learning. I do believe that young people who have embraced the non-binary way of thinking, de-coupling gender and sexuality, have it right. I wish I could have started from that understanding when I was their age.
It’s only over the past decade that I’ve grown to believe that non-binary gender identity is the norm if only we can open our minds and examine the true nature of relationships separate from sexuality. History and culture has strangled both men and women with expectations of how they should act, what kind of work they can do, and what rights they have based on gender. Tying the responsibility of procreation to gender identity further complicates sexuality and rights.
Changing Times and Awareness About Sexuality and Gender Identity (1960s to 1980s)
Like most people born prior to the 21st century, I grew up during the reign of the binary paradigm of gender and sexuality. You were a boy or a girl, gay or straight. If you were straight you could have children. If you were gay you could not. There were no in-betweens. I grew up in the 1960s, graduated high school in 1972. In hindsight, I know there transgender people then but it was not part of my consciousness or my world. In fact, in high school I could not have named a single gay person. Later in life, I realized I’d missed signs and opportunities to be there for friends who were struggling. It simply wasn’t a part of my awareness.
I have a few vague memories of questioning gender over the years, but for the most part I grew up and easily identified as female and straight. Like many people my age, I simply accepted that there was no choice in this designation. I grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. So I knew there were differences in the way people looked, spoke, thought about relationships within families and to the community at large. But I never thought about diversity in gender identity.
My introduction to the concept of gay happened when I was ten years old. Our family visited Griffith Park in Los Angeles. We walked trails, visited the observatory, and then had a nice picnic in the picnic area. I was on a path returning to the picnic area and noticed two very tall people–taller than my parents–in front of me holding hands. Their backs were to me. They were both slender and wearing bell bottom jeans and t-shirts. Both had hair beyond their shoulders. My assumption was that any adults walking and holding hands were romantically together. Thus, in my mind that meant they had to be a woman and a man. But their height and gait did not suggest that. In fact, except for the long hair, I was sure they were men.
As I was never afraid of asking a question, I ran around in front of them and asked, “Are you boys or girls?”
The pair laughed, and one responded in what I considered to be a man’s voice, “Does it matter?”
What a crazy response, I thought. Of course it mattered. Was this a game? “Are you women or men. I need to know.” Knowing me I probably stomped my foot as well, demanding an answer.
“Why do you need to know?” the other asked. “We are people. We love each other. Isn’t that enough?” Then they walked around me and continued on their way hand-in-hand chuckling at my questions or my impertinence.
I couldn’t argue with that reasoning, but I still had a need to know. I had a need to categorize. People were either male or female, that was the rule. Why wouldn’t they tell me? What were they hiding? I ran back to our picnic table and described the event to my parents. I remember my father chuckled a bit before talking. “Some men like men and some women like women. If they love each other that is what matters.”
“But do they get married and kiss and stuff? Or do they make a friend-family?” With my grandparents having many foster children in their home, I had a good idea of how families were often constituted of unrelated strangers. “Can two girls or two boys get married?”
“They can’t get married right now,” Dad said. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other in the same way.”
“Can they make babies?”
That was a question too far, my father decided. Any talk of sex was not something that happened in our family–ever. He guided me to the swings where two of my sisters were playing and left me. I’m sure he hoped I’d forget the whole thing. Which I did, of course.
A few months later during a visit to my aunt and uncle, I was playing with Barbies along with two of my boy cousins. It was their Barbie dolls and they loved playing with them as much as I did. (Yes, I was still playing with Barbie’s at age ten). I overheard my uncle say to my aunt, “They are too old to still be playing with Barbie’s. If you let them continue to do that they will turn out gay.”
I didn’t know what gay was, but it was evidently not good by the anger in his voice. And whatever it was it could come from boys playing with Barbie dolls. Though those incidents were a part of my memory, the thought of being gay wasn’t made bad at my house. On the other hand, it wasn’t something I thought about at all until high school. Again, visiting the same cousins, I overheard my aunt talking with my mother about a disagreement she and my uncle had. She asked if my mom believed she’d made the wrong decision by allowing my cousin to take ballet lessons since he was in 1st grade. Now a freshman in high school he was a very good dancer, always the lead male dancer in recitals. He also loved being in musical theater at the school. The problem was he was now “acting gay” all the time. Knowing he was gay was evidenced by the clothes he wore, the fact he never dated or wanted to go to prom, and his interest in making costumes for the ballet.
My other cousin, who had also played with Barbies had somehow not turned out gay because he was interested in sports. My uncle believed my aunt’s actions had made my first cousin gay. He believed he would not have turned out that way if she’d insisted on him doing other things. My mother told her that it wasn’t her fault. It was probably just a phase, and he’d outgrow it eventually. When I asked my father later, he had a different take. He explained that some people were just born that way and there was nothing wrong with my cousin. He’d probably be that way all of his life and that was okay. It just meant he liked boys instead of girls. The most important thing is to still love my cousin like I always had because he’s the same person whether gay or not.
After high school my cousin went on to be an excellent ballet dancer in his youth. He danced many principal parts. After his career, he ran a ballet studio in California. His relationship with my uncle was always difficult. My uncle would find excuses not to go to his performances. He still loved his son, but he felt responsible for him being gay. He believed if he had been more forceful early in his life he would have been “normal.” It wasn’t until the late 1990s that my uncle, a house builder by trade, finally made the decision that my cousin wasn’t somehow deficient because he was gay. In fact, for the first time, he spent several months living with my cousin and his partner helping to build them a home in Arizona. I’m glad they found a relationship later in life, because it wasn’t long after that my uncle was diagnosed with cancer and died.
Surprisingly, in college (early 1970s) I didn’t know any gay people. If they were, they didn’t come out to me. I didn’t really think about it. In my psychology class I did learn about people who had gender reassignment surgery. The evaluation process to be approved required that patients undergo hormone treatment and live for a set period of time as the gender to which they intended to transition. This period of time was a minimum of two years but often extended up to five years depending on the clinic. Today, I can’t imagine what a burden that was on patients as they waited for their operation. To understand where this fell in my curriculum, it was in the study of “abnormal” psychology. How things have changed today.
Awareness and Advocacy is in the Daily News
It wasn’t until the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS became such a devastating disease, that I became aware there were more than a few people in the world who were gay. Hearing the death toll day-after-day. Seeing protests, memorials, and millions of people asking for legislative relief opened my eyes to the fact that not being heterosexual meant living in fear of violence, stigmatism, hateful things shouted at you all the time. It was no wonder people kept their private lives secret, including denying they were gay. I remember that many people believed you could catch AIDS from using the same toilet as a gay person. I remember being afraid for my cousin. It was when I heard people say the virus was God’s punishment for their gay lifestyle, that I decided to become an advocate for education. The God I knew would never do that. The God I knew was filled with love, forgiveness, and the energy was always supportive.
I was living in Washington D.C. then and it was the awakening of my political and social activism. I manned tables with information, I tried to gently talk sense to people who were angry, scared, wanted all gay people run out of the country. I shared my early memories of my own cousin and other people I’d met when I lived in Utah and participated in summer stock theater. A few of my friends did contract AIDs and later died. None of them were people to fear. They were loving, caring, beautiful people.
I remember the 1990s as being a time of two steps forward and one step back for gay rights. State by state bans on gay marriage occurred, then congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to prevent the federal government from granting federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples. At the same time a new anti-hate-crime law was passed at the federal level, allowing judges to impose harsher sentences if a crime was motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation. Yet, there were many laws in states around the country that criminalized homosexual relations. In other words you were allowed to be gay, but you weren’t allowed to have sex.
It wasn’t until 2003, that the U.S. Supreme Court effectively decriminalized homosexual relations nationwide. It is only in the past decade that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, allowing people to serve in the military without having to hide their sexuality. It was only seven years ago that the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage, making gay marriage legal throughout the country.
I had moved to Oregon in 2001 working at a large university. By the time same-sex marriage was legalized. I knew two couples who were a part of the group of plaintiffs in the federal suit. They were first in line at the court to finally get married. Many of them had been together for twenty years or more. They were raising children or had already raised them. They were fortunate in that they had jobs where, despite being unable to legally marry, their employers recognized their “domestic partners” in providing insurance benefits. Not all states were so forward thinking.
It was not lost on me that it had been more than 40 years since I asked my father if homosexuals could marry. Finally, it happened–long after many western countries had approved same-sex marriage.
Embracing A Different Understanding of Gender and Sexuality, an understanding of Non-Binary
You might think at this point that I would easily embrace all the new ways of defining gender and sexuality. You might think that it is easy for me to accept different pronouns–she/her, he/him/, they/them, ze/hir and to understand this non-binary approach to gender. It hasn’t been easy. What I’ve realized is that in spite of my activism and all I’ve learned about gays and lesbians, I was still a gender binary thinker, and I still coupled gender with sexuality.
When I returned to college to earn my doctorate in education in the late 1990s, I was in my mid 40s. One of my best friends in that cohort was a man who was a little older than me, married, and had two children. We bonded over the difficulty of returning to a graduate program late in life, and balancing being full time professors and going to school far away. We were in a cohort that was online but also required three intensive two-week, full-time sessions each year. I lived in Oregon and he lived in Massachusetts. Our university was in Florida. About three five years after graduation he sent me a letter letting me know that he had gone through gender reassignment surgery and was now a woman. Also she was still attracted to women.
Even with all my advocacy around gay rights and my acceptance of different ways of loving others, this threw me for a loop. I was not as knowledgeable as I thought. I had a very binary view of sexuality. One was either heterosexual or homosexual. You couldn’t be both. If someone had reassignment surgery (as my friend did) that meant he/she was to also change their sexual preference. Partly because I didn’t see her in person after the surgery, and partly because I was struggling with understanding it, I didn’t think of her as a woman. I would use the pronouns when sending a card or writing a letter. I would call her by her new name, but in my mind I still pictured the man I knew. It wasn’t until her brother was in Oregon for business and we went to dinner that I was able to change the picture in my mind. He showed me pictures of his sister, now ten years later. He talked about how much happier she was after the transition. He told me that transition had likely saved her life because she was so unhappy before. Though my heart had accepted my friends change long ago, my mind was finally able to accept it, too.
Once again my lack of non-binary thinking was called to question when three of my cousins (2nd cousins, about ten years younger than the age of my children) started posting on FB about being queer, non-binary and trying to educate all their out-of-touch family. They were frustrated and angry when people just didn’t get it. It was all a surprise to me. I saw none of this when they were growing up or teens. They were all just out of high school. Why now? As with my first cousin, it was another aunt who didn’t accept what they were saying. She never shared their changes because she didn’t agree with it. My aunt thought it was all about rebellion or going to college where they were “corrupted” by these non-religious beliefs. My cousins’ mother was trying to be supportive, but she also had a lot of questions and thought it might be a phase. They’d been through some tough times recently when she’d divorced their father when they were early teens. She thought perhaps this was all about the divorce. It wasn’t.
The oldest expressed she was non-binary, in that she did not see herself as either male or female as defined by our society. As a child, she was what I would have called a “tomboy” when I was growing up. She was tough, athletic, and competitive. But she could also be very kind and had no problem wearing camos one day and work on tearing a truck apart, then the next day wearing heels, a dress, and putting on makeup. My binary thinking said she should choose which she was–a tomboy or a girly girl. Of course, I didn’t say this to her, but I thought it. I didn’t understand.
When she got married, she married a military man she met in the National Guard. They had a traditional wedding. They divorced two years later because he didn’t understand her gender-fluid identity. She took on a new name and insisted her pronouns were they, them. Though they continues to identify as non-binary, they again married a man. My binary way of thinking is that she married men twice, therefore she is female, straight. They assures me that is not the case, and their new partner accepts them as non-binary. As the marriage is now going on the fourth year, it must be working out.
The second person was always very feminine. She’d never been one to speak out about those things. Though she has stood up for her sister’s gender-fluid identity. She is a carer, a person who is always supportive. She is strong and confident, but sees her role in life to be the caregiver. She also married a man and they had a child together. After the child was born, her husband revealed he was really female and went through reassignment surgery. I was sure they would get divorced. No. They haven’t. My cousin doesn’t identify as a lesbian and yet they remain married. Once again, my mind fails to understand. How can a straight, female remain married to someone who is now a female? My binary thinking stops my understanding. I still have trouble decoupling gender and sexuality in a binary world.
The third cousin was a 6’3″ man who I was certain was gay from his elementary school years. Again, he never said so. However, his best friend from grade school has always been the person he loved most. After high school, they lived together. Neither one came out, but everyone assumed they were a gay couple as neither dated anyone–male or female. Again binary thinking–male, gay.
Over the past several years, he seemed to grow more quiet at family get togethers. Not really engaging as he had in the past. I figured it was because my aunt (his grandmother) didn’t approve. Then he disappeared for the last two years. I hadn’t seen him at family get togethers, but that’s not surprising with COVID. He stopped posting on Facebook, too. Last Thanksgiving, Elise came to the larger family dinner with her long time partner. Elise was smiling, filled with energy and happy to talk to anyone who asked. She embraced me with vigor and talked about plans for the future, even finally getting married. Had she not been the same height and build of the cousin I remembered, I would not have known it was the same person. For once my binary thought process worked. Elise identifies as female and her partner is male. As I really don’t get all of this, I suspect it is much more complex than I make it out to be. Given my experience with my other two cousins I suspect they are non-binary.
How I Came to Embrace Non-Binary Identities
Perhaps I’m a slow learner. I share all this because I had to learn that loving family or friends who identify as non-binary is not enough to gain understanding. I still can’t wrap my head around that internal journey. I can’t because sexuality and gender is 100% intertwined in my own life experience. I still harbor over sixty years of training and stories and messages around what is normal and what is not when it comes to gender and sexuality.
The understanding I’ve come to embrace is that the whole purpose of non-binary is that sexual preference and gender are not tied together for many people. The rate with which teens and young adults understand this now, I’m beginning to think I’m the outlier. If I were coming-of-age in the current environment would I choose to be non-binary? I will never know. But I know my heart believes it shouldn’t matter. I am envious of young people now who are able to have a better understanding of gender and sexuality, and to move into relationships that are truly best for them. I’ve also grown comfortable with not having to completely understand what non-binary means or how it feels. I don’t have to know everything (that’s hard for me to admit). Accepting, being respectful, and considering to love my friends and family is enough.
Still Have Questions About What Non-Binary Means?
In asking my cousins to explain this, in their own words here is what the eldest said. “The most important thing to know is that the idea there is only two genders is B.S. Gender identity is my own internal experience and perception of myself. And it’s completely separate from sex, not that it’s anyone’s business who I have sex with. A non-binary person is someone who does not identify as exclusively a man or a woman. Someone who is non-binary might feel like a mix of genders, or like they have no gender at all. I’m gender-fluid. That means I’m not a boy or girl at all. Sometimes I identify as a girl and sometimes I’m genderless. There are so many different ways to be non-binary, and we’re all still valid and real and still the same person you knew before.”
“One more thing. Sometimes when a person comes out as non-binary, they choose a new name that doesn’t reflect a gender. Like Bob feels like a man name and Rachel feels like a woman name. But Taylor or Xen could be either. Not everyone chooses a new name. But, it’s important when someone changes their name that you use it. That you don’t use the name I was born with. That’s respect. That’s love.”
Here are Some Answers about non-binary people from the transequality.org
Non-binary people are nothing new. Non-binary people aren’t confused about their gender identity or following a new fad – non-binary identities have been recognized for millennia by cultures and societies around the world.
Not all non-binary people need surgery. Some, but not all, non-binary people undergo medical procedures to make their bodies more congruent with their gender identity. While not all non-binary people need medical care to live a fulfilling life, it’s critical and even life-saving for many.
Most transgender people are not non-binary. While some transgender people are non-binary, most transgender people have a gender identity that is either male or female, and should be treated like any other man or woman.
You don’t have to understand what it means for someone to be non-binary to respect them. Some people haven’t heard a lot about non-binary genders or have trouble understanding them, and that’s okay. But identities that some people don’t understand still deserve respect.
Use the name a person asks you to use. This is one of the most critical aspects of being respectful of a non-binary person, as the name you may have been using may not reflect their gender identity. Don’t ask someone what their old name was.
Try not to make any assumptions about people’s gender. You can’t tell if someone is non-binary simply by looking at them, just like how you can’t tell if someone is transgender just by how they look.
If you’re not sure what pronouns someone uses, ask. Different non-binary people may use different pronouns. Many non-binary people use “they” while others use “he” or “she,” and still others use other pronouns. Asking whether someone should be referred to as “he,” “she,” “they,” or another pronoun may feel awkward at first, but is one of the simplest and most important ways to show respect for someone’s identity.
Talk to non-binary people to learn more about who they are. There’s no one way to be non-binary. The best way to understand what it’s like to be non-binary is to talk with non-binary people and listen to their stories.
Maggie Lynch is the author of 26 published books. Her fiction tells stories of people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. Her novels span women’s fiction, SF & Fantasy, suspense, and romance. She is currently working on a Contemporary Upper Middle Grade children’s series. Her current nonfiction provides authors with information and tools for self-publishing from the basics of creating a professional package to getting books distributed around the world, and finally marketing options. You can check out her personal website at maggielynch.com