What Do Non-Binary People Want?
By: Elliott Jensen
Student Writer for The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, Volume 18
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re the only man or woman in a sea of women or men. All day, every day, you interact with people of a different gender from yourself. Additionally, this other gender has filled every magazine, news station, book, movie, TV show, advertisement, and even pornography with images only of themselves. You wake up every morning knowing that you will be different from everyone you come across in your day, barring an unlikely fluke.
While this scenario might be more familiar to women than to men, even women (aside from a rather unusual circumstance) will at least see other women every day in relatively large numbers, even if they do not work with you or you do not interact with them.
But for non-binary people, this is life. (Non-binary is the “[p]referred umbrella term for all genders other than female/male or woman/man, used as an adjective. . . . Many nonbinary people identify as trans but not all trans people identify as nonbinary.”) The analogy ends here because women and men, unlike non-binary people, are genders that are universally recognized to exist. Being the only woman or man in a room can be an isolating experience, a daunting challenge, but your gender exists to the other people you share space with. Even if you must come out to them as a man or as a woman, this pronouncement is not met with the question of, “what is that?”
A significant number of things and spaces are gendered. There are men’s and women’s bathrooms, schools, clothing departments, hygiene products, clubs, sports, gyms, toys, locker rooms, and spas. Media is typically engineered to appeal to men or women, almost every product (even food!) is packaged in ways that are meant to appeal to men or women, many religious and/or cultural practices are based on the assumption that you are either a man or a woman, certain hospital departments are assumed to be for only one binary gender, and even your “legal sex” can only be listed as male or female. The English language is structured in a way that knowing a person’s gender is important to being able to talk about them at all , and although singular-they pronouns are grammatically correct and have been used for centuries , only in the last few decades have additional pronouns been added to allow for clarity and diversity amongst non-binary people. Additionally, words such as honorifics and family/relational titles are almost all gendered as well.
This system works to disadvantage cis women by constantly differentiating them from cis men, and it has severe and violent effects on trans men and trans women (with the most severe effects being faced by trans women and/or trans people of color) as well. But the unique challenge of non-binary people isn’t fitting in to this dichotomy or making both sides relatively equal, but rather attempting to make space for non-binary genders to exist at all.
Non-binary activism has been, in large part, about creating new things from the ground up, and asserting non-binary people’s existence and right to exist. These communities have created a plethora of new terms to describe non-binary genders, a slew of new pronouns and honorifics, and proposed several options for trickier words, such as familial/relational terms. Many non-binary people are invested in fashion and styles because working within the confines of the binary system that already exists while attempting to create outside of it is no easy task. Non-binary people have also written stories and non-fiction works and made art in order to fill the dearth of non-binary representation.
But what these efforts cannot fix – not without society taking a good, hard look at its gender structures, anyhow – is access to vital resources that are hopelessly gendered. Access to public bathrooms is a constant frustration, gendered locker rooms and gyms can make improving one’s health and fitness a near-impossibility, and having a legal sex designation that cannot and never will reflect one’s identity can be a source of confusion for others at best and a source of dysphoria or systemic violence toward the non-binary person at worst. These are common, everyday problems that non-binary people find ways of navigating. But what happens in a crisis? If non-binary people need a shelter from homelessness or domestic violence or rape crisis counseling, where do they go? If they have breast cancer or prostate cancer, will there be a support group they can attend? If they need pregnancy, breastfeeding, or abortion services, will they have unqualified access to the “women’s” clinics that usually provide these services? If they are arrested, where will they be housed? Where do you turn when you don’t, in the eyes of others, exist?
Title IX was recently declared to apply to transgender people.    However, this does not address the issue of what happens when gender-neutral options are either unavailable or end up providing significantly different experiences or access. For example, in the Student v. Arcadia Unified School District case described in source #4 above, the student was male-identified and was being subjected to gender-neutral requirements which were substandard. Allowing him to participate like any other boy was a natural solution. However, what options does a genderqueer student facing similar substandard gender-neutral treatment have, if ze cannot be easily integrated into the existing structures for one binary gender or the other?
The greatest challenge that non-binary people face is not just in gaining minimal acceptance for genders outside the binary, but rather that respecting non-binary identities asks for nothing less than for the restructuring of gender in society as it currently exists.