Earlier this year, I went on a date with Ella, but due to my ignorance about non-binary (non-male, non-female identity) people, we didn’t go on another date. My ignorance is detailed in an opinion piece I wrote for The Spectator Australia early last year (refer to quotes provided at the end of this blog post). Instead of reaching out to a non-binary person, and though I didn’t mean to be malicious, I simply added fuel to the echo chamber fire. My behaviour was regrettable, and should not be emulated.
Ella is a non-binary transgender person, with a male-to-female transition history, who I recently befriended, and agreed to be interviewed about their lived experience. It was not an easy interview for either of us, but we’re happy that we’re helping a bit in building a bridge. The interview started off with them stating that they’re attracted to women-shaped humans, which left me puzzled. They clarified:
“I say women shaped humans because I don’t know who I might meet and how they identify. I don’t want to exclude people who I might be able to have a fulfilling relationship with purely because of how they identify. I know from experience that male bodies and behaviours don’t do it for me though.”
I believe that in general, people can do and say whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t harm others. So by extension, I believe that people can identify however they want, on the basis of freedom of speech and expression. So I wanted to understand as a conservatarian, what harm there would be in me disagreeing with their self-identification:
“The places where two different rights rub up against each other are always exciting! These are places where law and politics happen. In this case I have the right to believe and express my identity, and everyone else has the right to express their disagreement with it. I think in these situations you have to appeal to other criteria. The principle of least harm comes to mind… while we might both be able to express different beliefs about our and others’ identity, without going into the question about whether identity is a belief or something else, we should all act in ways that cause the least harm to ourselves, others and society.
So I think the answer depends on the context. If we’re having a fireplace chat about gender then I don’t think there is any harm in disagreeing with someone’s identification. If we’re in a bathroom maybe there is some harm. If we’re talking about denying someone opportunities or rights because of their identification then I think there is no doubt that it is harmful.”
I must admit, Ella responded to all of my confronting interview questions with surprising grace. I was taken aback by how graceful and intelligent their answers were. So their response to my question about pronouns should come as no surprise:
“My preferred pronouns are mate/mates’… I don’t worry too much about pronouns. People can refer to me however they like. Sometimes people express a desire to refer to me ‘the way I would like’. The problem with this is that I couldn’t tell you what that is… day to day I express myself in different ways, it’s unfair/impossible to expect people to adapt to that day to day so I’ve just learned not to sweat it.
I lived as a full-time female for a few years in the past. It didn’t match how I felt the same way that being male did. A counsellor I had at the time encouraged me to try identifying as ‘fully’ female and I think it was good advice. I’ve experienced the full spectrum and now I have a good idea of the range I want to be in.”
I got anxious when I showed them quotes of my inflammatory opinion piece. Grace knows no bounds it seems:
“So there are some things where we can point to some essential quality which makes it that thing. Water is a good example — anything with the molecular structure H2O is water. We cannot imagine a possible world where something has that molecular structure and is not water.
As you hinted in discussing the ‘biological’, sex is not like that. There is a complex cluster of criteria that determine sex. Not one of those criteria are necessary, but meeting a vague number of them is sufficient to say that some person is that sex.
Realising that sex is not an essential property but one that is negotiated helps make sense of why we tie ourselves in knots trying to deal with someone like Caster Semenya. Sports bodies are looking for some essential criteria to distinguish between male and female athletes. Semenya is undoubtedly female, her chromosomes and her secondary sex characteristics are female. But the IAAF found some hormones are not in the typical range for females. If that is the only criterion for femaleness then of course we would be confused by someone like Caster Semenya.
Another way we betray our conceptual confusion is trying to distinguish between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. We say that gender is socially determined and we’re not surprised that it is a sufficient but vague cluster of properties that make someone male or female gendered. We say that sex is biological because we think this will let us point to some essential quality like chromosomes. But as Caster Semenya shows the reality is that those biological criteria are negotiated as well.
So if sex and gender are both cluster categories why should we even bother keeping the distinction? And then once you accept that there is no distinction it’s natural that different people will satisfy some but not all of those criteria.
Now ‘male’ and ‘female’ are two ends of the spectrum. Most people cluster around one end and most people satisfy a sufficient but vague number of those criteria to ‘pass’ (for want of a better word). But there will also be people who don’t satisfy a sufficient number of criteria. Those people (like myself) get to navigate the alphabet soup of queer culture while trying to figure out which bathroom to use.
I used to feel like when I used the male bathroom I was in the wrong bathroom and when I used the female bathroom I was in the wrong bathroom. Now I realise they’re both the right bathroom.
So to respond to the question of ‘transtrenderism’ I would say that all sex and all gender is political. Trying to grab onto some essential quality that makes us male or female is just one position that some people take in the language game of trying to negotiate what gender means.”
Another intelligent answer, but my brain started to hurt. Before I politically shifted to the Right in 2016, I wouldn’t have been capable of being inflammatory towards non-binary people. But the truth is, I never really understood non-binary people pre-2016. Which makes me wonder: binary people (LGBTI-identifying or not) who claim to be an ally of non-binary people, do they really understand non-binary people, or are they just virtue signalling to make themselves feel good?
I was starting to feel uncomfortable (and I think Ella felt the same way), but I was faced with two options:
1. End the interview and become an ignorant virtue-signaller
2. Continue to ask the hard questions, because if I don’t, who will help build a bridge?
Option 2 was the right option, and so I asked, “If ‘biological’ sex is socio-political because it’s vaguely clustered, not dichotomised, therefore gender is also socio-political because the same principles apply? And if so, does that mean that gender is indeed a manifestation of sex? If so, why?”:
“If you accept that biological sex is no less negotiated than gender then why have two separate concepts at all? I don’t see how biological sex as a separate concept does any work in how we deal with gender, sometimes (and especially with non-binary and intersex people) it just creates more confusion. Now some people like to handwave about non-binary people and intersex people in particular, but the fact is that nearly 2% of the population has an intersex condition. If this ‘biological’ sex criterion only covers 98% of the population then it’s not really a great criterion. If we eliminate the distinction between sex and gender we can deal with more of the population and simplify how we think about gender.”
The idea of eliminating the distinction between sex and gender was not clear to me. But I do acknowledge that non-binary folk have been around for a long time, but we’re only figuring that out now, so to speak. Perhaps words such as butch, dyke, femme, tomboy etc, were a way in decades past for some folk to express their non-binary identity in a way society back then would find more palatable? Ella clarified:
“I’m not making a claim about the ontological status of any of the characteristics of sex or gender. I’m just saying it’s simpler to consider the physical and the psychosocial as criteria in a single cluster concept. Maybe then everyone can chill out a little bit about whether someone is male or female.
Some societies have gone down the route of having a third gender, or having more than two gender identities to deal with people who don’t fulfill the criteria for male or female.
I spent a number of years in Thailand. Despite its reputation as anything goes it is a very conservative society, highly religious, patriarchal and authoritarian. There are a number of genders in Thai including katoey (กะเทย) and tom (ทอม). On the one hand it looks like non-conforming people have a lot more freedom to express themselves, but the reality is that these genders are just as rigidly policed as male and female in Thai society. As someone who wasn’t socialised in any of those identities and who anyway isn’t interested in fitting into them I found it very difficult to navigate social situations.
Some people would decide I was a woman and then assume I was interested in men and makeup. Someone else would think I was a katoey and was disappointed I didn’t camp it up. Then someone else would have me pegged for a tom but actually I have male anatomy or someone else would assume I’m male and then wonder why I spoke like a woman.
So having more than one identity is an option and I think it’s the one that is most common in our region. Laos, the Philippines and Cambodia also have third genders, and in India gender non-conforming people have their own castes. Some other societies in the region like Singapore, China and Indonesia try to suppress it. Other countries like Taiwan and Japan take a more post-structuralist approach similar to Australia.”
My brain started to hurt less. I’m slowly getting it, I’m trying hard to get it. Of course, I had to be a jerk again, this time with the way I brought up preferred pronouns and free speech:
“Personally I don’t give a sh*t about pronouns. I spent the last five years speaking a language which doesn’t even have gendered third-person pronouns. I’m more interesting in trying to figure out whether to tick M or F on forms. There are plenty of domains where we restrict speech for all kinds of reasons. It’s up to the stakeholders in those domains to decide what rules they want to have. In the public sphere we have freedom of expression and therefore if you feel like misgendering someone go for it. But don’t act all butthurt when people call you a jerk for doing it though, cause that’s freedom of expression too.”
It’s easy to forget that there are humans on each side of this argument. It’s easy to just see the ones who yell the loudest (I was trying to be one of them) when the reality is that most people who are non-binary (enby) are just trying to get through the day without being told that they don’t belong, or aren’t valid. In Ella’s words, “The majority of people who are uncomfortable with LGBTIQ have no desire to make other people’s lives more difficult, and are generally gracious and humane. Unfortunately like lots of issues this one is hijacked by people for political reasons and we’re all victims of that”.
I’m still trying to fully understand the non-binary identity, but what I do fully understand now is that I was a hijacker (malicious intent or not), and for that, I am sorry. I am humbled by Ella’s decision to take up my offer to have dinner together again next month. I don’t know if I could ever become a good enby ally, but what I do know is that I must be a good Ella ally, a good human being, which hasn’t always been the case. They’ve provided me with a good foundation to fully understand, maybe…
The interview ended with me asking, “For those who don’t understand non-binary, what would like to say to them?”. They answered, “It’s okay, I don’t understand calculus. I just don’t stress out when people use it to do things”. Even science nerds can joke!
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Here are the relevant quotes from https://www.spectator.com.au/2018/01/transtrending-the-real-transgender-madness/:
“Transtrenderism is a state in which a person identifies as a gender different to their sex (male or female) assigned at birth, and do not experience gender dysphoria like transsexuals do. As a transsexual woman, I was psychiatrically diagnosed with gender dysphoria, followed by starting on female hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and of course, assuming the life of the female sex (note that the transsexual experience may vary but will still be along these lines). In other words, the transsexual’s gender dysphoria is a medical condition, a psychiatric disorder where one is born male but strongly identifies as female, and vice versa. As such, gender dysphoria still recognises there are only two genders, just as there’s only male MRT and female HRT. There is no such thing as non-binary HRT, genderfluid HRT and so on.”
“I don’t necessarily ‘pass’ as a woman, but given how I usually dress, and my (efforts of sorts in) physical appearance and gender presentation in general, there has never been an issue for me and the other women using the female facilities from what I can tell. The explanation for this non-issue is the same explanation for why non-binary pronouns are absurd, and why it’s transtrender madness about, not transgender madness.”
“It is clear that any deliberate attempt by the person concerned to transtrend will more or less fail to prompt the internal thought process on what non-male/non-female pronouns to use to avoid potential ‘offence’. It does not come naturally for one to try to suspend their understanding of reality in this matter, amongst others, and this includes the reality that the most common transtrender pronouns ‘they’/‘them’, are plural pronouns as they always have been, not gender pronouns.”
“Gender describes the manifestations of the two biological sexes male and female, and that allows us to see the differences between male and female. In general, we see biologically driven differences in behaviour between men and women, and that biology comes down to hormones, interactions between genotypes and phenotypes, and brain wiring. It’s an enduring trend we see throughout human history. There are a thousand or more versions to non-binary gender expressions, but there are only the male and female genders in existence. Transtrenderism only exists in politics, not biology and medical science.”