Understanding the non-binary transgender experience

I recently wrote about the misunderstood non-binary transgender experience on this blog, and received feedback from readers, some of which I’d like to respond to. A reminder that non-binary refers to being neither male nor female in gender identity. I would suggest reading The misunderstood non-binary transgender experience interview story first before reading the below. Quotes from the readers are italicised below:

I think understanding comes easier for people when they dispense with the illusion that other people should be like them. If instead, we totally expect other people to be different from us, then we are better equipped to see them for who they really are…

Though it’s not offensive to me personally, the term “transtrender” is very offensive for four reasons:

  1. It is imposed upon a person by someone else.
  2. It is designed to invalidate and erase someone else’s identity.
  3. It is intended to denigrate another human being.
  4. It implies that non-binary people have it easier than trans men and trans women, or that non-binary people don’t really experience gender dysphoria, and propagates the myth that their non-binary identity is a “choice”.”

No, other people should not be like me, otherwise the world would be a boring place. I’ve been known to misgender cisgender transphobes in the past out of spite, knowing that it would be offensive to them for the same first three reasons.

It also recently occurred to me that one can be depressed without having clinical depression, just as (clinical) gender dysphoria is only one type of the transgender/non-binary experience. Both the depressed and the clinically depressed, irrespective of the fact that they sit apart on the depression spectrum, deserve respect and dignity. In applying the same principle, reason 4 above makes sense. It makes even more sense, in that there are different types of dysphoria. For example, I’ve experienced strong facial and social dysphoria, whereas other trans people’s genital and upper-body dysphoria is much stronger than mine.

The above should serve as a cautionary tale as to why the pathologisation of the transgender experience should be avoided. I was brought up to think that the medical profession were right in pathologising the transgender experience. Now I’m not sure about that. I still think that it’s a good idea to retain gender dysphoria in DSM-VI (the next edition of the psychiatric bible), without shadowing other types of transgender experience.

“There are many kinds of erasure in this world, and as far as I can tell, they are all social evils:

  1. Erasure of a rape victim’s experiences.
  2. Erasure of suicidal thoughts and feelings, as “attention seeking”.
  3. Erasure of those suffering depression, as “lazy”.
  4. Erasure of those with weight troubles, as “weak willed”.
  5. Erasure of systemic racism, “all lives matter”.
  6. Erasure of bisexual or pansexual attraction, “just pick a side!”
  7. Erasure of trans men or trans women, as “delusional” or “mentally ill”, not “real men” or “real women”.
  8. Erasure of non-binary people, “there’s only two genders”.

In some cases, erasure is the emotional justification for violence.”

I agree with point 1, so long as those falsely accused of rape also have access to justly recourse, which I’m not convinced is possible in today’s climate. I agree with points 2–3, but I’m not entirely convinced by points 4–5: they sound like enabling victimhood and discouraging personal responsibility. I agree with points 6–7, and I’m close to agreeing with point 8.

“I am non-binary, and I am a trans woman, having completed MtF medical transition. Being a trans woman who endured a male puberty, and now on estrogen HRT for the last four years, my biological sex is a curious mixture of masculine and feminine traits.

However, four years ago, my biological sex was completely male. Four decades ago, as a young child, my gender identity was already female and non-binary… I just didn’t have the words to describe it. Four years VS four decades, is one way to think about biological sex VS gender, within the context of my life. A similar principle often applies in the lives of many transgender people, whether binary or non-binary.”

Perhaps saying “there are only two genders” is too simplistic, but it’s not surprising that many people find that easier to understand, since our brains are more wired for categorisation, not seeming complexity. Of course, intersex conditions are straight-forward to comprehend, at least for me. Still, the categorising brain should not be used as an excuse to die on the hill for simplistic axioms.

The world we live in is complex. People are complex. Be careful in thinking you understand our world and people. There is much to learn, and whilst I have had difficulty in empathising with non-binary people, I am trying to learn. We all should try to learn. For a more detailed explanation on the complexity of sex and gender, go to:

https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-intersex-and-third-gender/answer/Naomi-Lauren

https://twitter.com/ScienceVet2/status/1035246030500061184?s=09&fbclid=IwAR0QpKZuhIKt5DUNCABCshzhBGzXff6J9WgPsK4LTj0wjCWNTAa5qApXAFk.

They can be difficult to read, but I promise, they’re really good explanations of sex and gender. Contrast the above constructive feedback to the below:

“It’s not hard to understand, though… gender is a spectrum, and not determined by your anatomy. You can be between or beyond the gender spectrum (non-binary trans), binary trans (a trans man or trans woman), or a cisgender man or woman. Those of us who are non-binary trans don’t see ourselves as fully “men” or fully “women”, and usually want to be addressed as such (with they/them pronouns or neopronouns and gender neutral language). Just as “physical sex” isn’t binary, gender isn’t either. I just don’t understand what’s so confusing about that! Orientation is a spectrum too. There’s gay people, straight people, bi people, pansexual people, etc. Everything in our lives is on a spectrum. It’s all shades of the rainbow — not black or white, “this or that”.

I can see why it may seem not hard to understand. However, I can also see why it may seem difficult to understand. This contradictory situation would occur especially if both sides aren’t reaching out to each other to understand each other. Again, the world we live in is complex, and the people who live in it are complex. Be careful in thinking you understand our world and the people who live in it, because the moral foundations theory is only the tip of the polarisation iceberg. Here’s the rest of the same feedback:

“I know we’ve been taught otherwise, for hundreds or thousands of years in Western societies, but that’s not reality. Western society has led everyone to believe that, so it’s “easier” to categorise people, and judge them. Biracial and multiracial folks are also pressured to pick one side of themselves to identify with, and that’s not fair. It’s not representative of reality. Our existences (non-binary trans folks and trans people in general) is not a religion. It’s not something to “believe in”. We simply are, and we’re asking for just an ounce of acceptance, respect, and the same rights that every cis straight person has.”

I like the comparison with bi/multiracial folk’s situation. Still, I do find the last sentence of the feedback to be irritatingly polarising. I get the point, but I can also see how social conservatives can be turned off by it, rather than feel encouraged to try to understand non-binary folk. I would also like to point out that drawing non-binary examples from other (non-Western) cultures is not necessarily helpful, eg katoey/tom (Thai), hijra (Indian), two-spirit (Native American), and sistergirl/brotherboy (ATSI). Building Western non-binary knowledge on non-Western foundations is disconnecting. The building of non-binary knowledge in the West needs to be able to stand on its own two feet, as these other cultures have done for themselves.

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TransCatholic ⚧️✝️ | Liberal Arts student @notredamesyd | Thomistic Personalist | CPTSD survivor | all opinions expressed here to move the needle are my own

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Dana Pham

Dana Pham

TransCatholic ⚧️✝️ | Liberal Arts student @notredamesyd | Thomistic Personalist | CPTSD survivor | all opinions expressed here to move the needle are my own

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