At my birth, my mother asked “What is it?” immediately after I left her body, as if I was not human until I was sexed, gendered and categorized into the sex and gender binary. The doctor curiously responded, “It’s a girl. No … it’s a boy!”
And so my life as non-binary began. I am neither a girl/woman nor a boy/man, regardless of the sex category assigned to my body.
The transgender metanarrative in our society is often focused on the lives of binary trans people – trans men and trans women. So, even when we think about the possibility of someone being trans, we assume that they are either a trans man or a trans woman. This elevates the lives of binary trans people while excluding non-binary trans people from social and legal recognition.
Trans people are diverse, but we are not all the same. Non-binary trans people have been largely excluded from the discussion about trans people, and this erasure delegitimizes our identity. This erasure is increasingly important for non-binary trans people of colour who are already at an increased risk of discrimination, violence, police surveillance and incarceration.
What troubles me is that some people are acting out dangerous forms of transphobia to erase non-binary trans people.
In the West, we take gender to be a static given. Non-binary trans identities and expressions disrupt the gender binary of man/woman. To recognize non-binary trans identity, people must also recognize that, for some, gender is fluid and diverse. Consistency and intelligibility are aspects of legal recognition of personhood and if you cannot contain us in a category then the current mechanisms of the state do not know how to recognize us.
Recently, a University of Toronto tenured professor named Jordan Peterson proclaimed on YouTube and in the news that he would not recognize the existence of non-binary trans people. Professor Peterson claims that a rampant form of “political correctness” is the cause of identities he claims are void of evidence. He refuses to recognize my human right to be respected as a non-binary trans person.
What is Peterson scared of?
Our lives as non-binary trans people should be evidence enough of our existence. An effort to use the ‘political correctness’ angle is an attempt to disguise transphobia as something else. Professor Peterson claims he is not transphobic, but only considers binary trans people to be real. This form of transphobia refuses to recognize that trans people, beyond the binary, exist. We do exist and reductive sociomedical perspectives will not erode our existence.
CBC’s The National took up this viral form of transphobia by holding a panel on their weekly The Sunday Talk show moderated by Wendy Mesley. The segment, Has Political Correctness Been Taken Too Far?, in part, discussed trans lives and pronouns related to professor Peterson’s public statement, but this panel did not include a trans person. It is problematic to discuss our lives, pronouns and identities without including us in these discussions.
In the segment, Walrus magazine editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay referred to non-binary trans people and they/them pronouns as a “political project.” It must be empowering to speak from such a privileged position to name a marginalized and oppressed group a “political project.”
Fortunately, the tides are turning against these dangerous forms of transphobia meant to erase non-binary trans people. Non-binary gender (or at least a third gender space) now exists, in some form, in Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Denmark, Germany, India, Nepal and New Zealand.
The year 2016 has come with important legal precedents in both Canada and the United States. The United States has legally recognized non-binary gender in two states, Oregon (Jamie Shupe) and California (Sara Kelly Keenan), which have the potential to change federal policy. Shupe is struggling to get their identification to state non-binary gender classification, due to outdated binary-based DMV and State Department policies, but these governmental agencies will need to catch up with the law.
This past summer in Canada, the Province of Ontario implemented changes to health cards in removing sex altogether and to driver’s licenses by adding an X for gender-neutral identification. I advocate for non-binary classification instead of X, but an X also acts as a form of recognition for non-binary people who do not identify with M or F offered as the only choices on health cards, driver’s licenses, passports and other forms of identification.
Nine provinces have explicit protection for gender identity under the Human Rights Code and six of these also protect gender expression. Canada’s Federal government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has proposed legislation in the form of Bill C-16, that will introduce explicit protection for both gender identity and gender expression in the federal Human Rights Code, which includes protection against hate speech. Therefore, the dangerous forms of transphobia discussed will likely be challenged by federal law in the near future in Canada.
The erasure and exclusion of non-binary trans people also takes place because some people do not want to acknowledge they/them/their as a singular pronoun. And, some non-binary people, myself included, also appreciate the plural significations of ‘they’ as some of us identify with more than one gender. Why would some people choose not to respect our right to be identified with this pronoun, especially considering the growing evidence of its legitimacy?
NPR notes that the use of ‘they’ has existed longer than most think it has, particularly in the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. Universities are adopting new policies to introduce this pronoun into administration. And, the Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition of ‘they’: “singular noun or pronoun of undetermined gender: he or she” that dates back to the 16th Century.
I have had countless discussions with people who ask about my pronouns. These discussions are a mind/mine-field of danger zones because people are paralyzed with the fear of getting it wrong. Both non-trans and trans people panic about pronouns because we operate under a powerful linguistic framework that constrains the way we speak about one another. The two available pronouns that we were conditioned into learning at a very young age – he/she – are dominant aspects of the English language. So, now ‘they’ is being returned to the vernacular. Pronouns are of vital importance to trans people because they are one of the primary agents of autonomy that trans people have.
I am not offended when people make unintentional mistakes when they slip and use the wrong pronouns. In fact, I welcome these mistakes because they can trigger a conversation about the power of language and about the importance of using the correct pronouns for trans people, because to fail to address someone correctly can misgender and out them. We need to recode and rethink our language in order to take into account trans people, but this does not happen by pushing away people who are not meaning to do harm by making a mistake. It happens by being empathetic and having understanding, because it takes time for people to catch up with shifts in language. However, to actively refuse to use they/them/pronouns is not an unintentional mistake; rather, this refusal is illustrative of the systemic violence we face in our daily lives.
Do not refuse to use my pronouns, which is a transphobic action. Try to use my pronouns by showing compassion and respect, and if you make a mistake, then I will correct you with the same compassion that I expect of you.
Even professor Peterson, who said he refuses to use ‘they’ for non-binary trans people, actually uses it in interviews with VICE and with CBC Radio Canada. It is likely professor Peterson refutes the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun here, but one has to admit that the language already exists to respect us as we are.
It is time to recognize and respect non-binary trans people. Our erasure puts our lives at risk and challenges our right to humanity.
Joshua M. Ferguson, BA’09 (Film Studies), originally penned this piece for Huffington Post.