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Non-binary people are people who do not identify as male or female. They may be somewhere on the spectrum in-between, have a fluid identity, or not have a gender at all. In fact, non-binary doesn’t describe a single gender identity so much as a vast range of identities that don’t fit into a binary gender structure of male or female.
Recent studies have found that non-binary people make up as much as 11% of all LGBTQ+ people – in the USA alone that’s around 1.2 million people. Despite this, recognition of non-binary people and their rights has been sluggish worldwide. While some countries like Uruguay, Nepal, Iceland, Argentina and Australia legally recognise non-binary identities, and others recognise traditional genders (like the kinnar and khawaja sira of India and Pakistan), many do not. In the UK, for instance, non-binary people cannot have the correct gender marker on their legal documents or IDs.
This isn’t just upsetting to non-binary people, it comes with real dangers. Without proper legal recognition, non-binary people are at risk of falling through the gaps in anti-discrimination protections. For instance, the UK’s Equality Act 2010 names gender identity as one of its protected characteristics, but it took until September 2020 and the ruling of Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover for it to be clarified that this includes non-binary people.
The lack of visibility can also make it difficult to access care and support services, with non-binary people having higher occurrence of depression and suicidality and lower uptake of mental health services than transgender people in general.
One of the reasons for this lack of recognition is the perception that non-binary people are a new phenomenon. Over the past ten years, the number of people identifying as gender-incongruent (their gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth) has doubled. Non-binary people are more visible than ever in arts and media, like musician Janelle Monae, showrunner Noelle Stevenson and actor Asia Kate Dillon. But this isn’t something new – rather, it’s the consequence of better knowledge and improved visibility.
Non-binary people have always existed. Many Indigenous peoples, for instance, have traditional gender roles that exist outside the binary. Two-spirit is an umbrella term used by some Native American and First Nations people to describe identities that exist beyond male and female, and do not correspond to non-Native structures of gender. In Hawaii, māhū are non-binary people with a rich history of important spiritual and social roles.
Recent research has found that many people throughout history expressed some kind of non-binary gender identity. In the Byzantine Empire some people who were assigned female at birth went on to join all-male orders of monks, using male and female pronouns interchangeably. The famous French warrior Joan of Arc used female pronouns, but when she was called by God, took up exclusively masculine clothing and social roles. In more recent history we can find people like Vita Sackville-West, who had relationships with both men and women, sometimes presenting as a woman and sometimes as a man.
We don’t have to look hard to find non-binary people throughout history, and all around the world. The problem isn’t that they are new, but that governments – particularly now, in the 21st century – have failed to recognise them.
The fight for legal recognition for non-binary people may be ongoing, but there are a few easy things we can do to help improve the situation. For instance, it is already becoming commonplace to include gender pronouns in social media profiles, work emails, and similar. While this shouldn’t be mandatory, it can help non-binary people who use neither masculine nor feminine pronouns to be open about how they want to be addressed.
In public services, like shelters and outreach programs, we should consider whether enough is being done to ensure non-binary people are included. In women’s services, for instance, even trans-inclusive organisations run the risk of excluding non-binary people if they exclusively use terminology like ‘female’ or ‘women’.
Likewise, in healthcare it’s important to understand how gender binaries can prevent people from accessing vital services. Non-binary people are more likely to miss cervical screenings, for example, because the associated information and procedures are so heavily gendered. This can even extend to transgender healthcare, where some services only consider transition options for trans women and trans men. At GenderGP we understand that not all gender journeys fit into a binary structure, and endeavour to provide non-binary people with a pathway tailored to their identity and their needs.
The first step to better recognition of non-binary people is to see them and to hear them. That means listening to them now, and recognising their stories throughout history. If we can do this, then we can bring about a cultural shift that will lead us to better protections, better understanding, and better rights for all.