This was the year that the word ‘non-binary’ went mainstream. It has now officially entered the dictionary — lexicographers at Collins have defined the term as ‘a gender or sexual identity that does not belong to the binary categories of male or female, heterosexual or homosexual’.
Non-binary also entered the Liberal Democrat manifesto, though Jo Swinson may now be regretting this decision. Non-binary is easy to announce; it’s rather more challenging to explain to the electorate — or to journalists. In a series of difficult interviews this week, she even denied the fact that every human being is either male or female. I’m a science teacher; if she had been one of my pupils, I think I would have despaired.
I transitioned at the age of 44, having always struggled with my gender. By the age of three, I wanted to be one of the girls — though I had no idea why. I didn’t know whether boys felt the same way as me. I did, however, sense that the subject was one I could not broach: taboos kick in young. In the years leading up to my transition, my gender dysphoria never vanished, but its intensity did wax and wane in line with how busy and happy I was. Finally, when it did overwhelm me, I took the plunge.
As a trans woman who is in the thick of the debate over trans rights, I’m not sure the Collins dictionary definition clarifies much, not least because it conflates sex and gender. George Orwell once wrote: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ As I see it, the rapidly shifting language around transgender issues has corrupted a good deal of thought.
The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ have become increasingly muddled. But they’re distinct concepts. Essentially, sex is about biology while gender is about psychology. Our sex relates to our role — or potential role — in the reproduction of our species. Gender, on the other hand, is a more abstract term that relates to aspects of our psychology: how we express our personality in the context of gendered roles within society.
While some may resent being told they have a sex, they do. It is one of two things: male or female. We cannot change it, and we can’t choose it any more than we can choose the colour of our eyes.
Sex is binary. It takes two people to make a baby — one provides the egg and the other supplies the sperm. Despite what the dictionary says, no one is outside the two sex categories, male and female, and in that sense, nobody is non-binary. Intersex people may have variations of sexual development, but those differences exist within the two sex classes, not between them.
Gender is far less clear. Roles and expected characteristics vary hugely. Who gets to wear make-up and who pulls on the trousers are worked out in a constantly shifting social context. How many gender identities could there be? Until recently, that great authority Facebook offered 71. Every human is unique and we are all a riotous mix of masculine and feminine characteristics. In gender terms, there is no binary to speak of, and everybody is non-binary.
To my mind, the conflation of sex and gender is insidious and is causing major problems. We are discussing enshrining ‘non-binary rights’ in law, for example, including the right to obfuscate sex markers on official documents. Theatres are being pressured by the actors’ union Equity to stop saying ‘ladies and gentlemen’ before a play. Pronouns are no longer descriptive but prescriptive, and the penalties for non–compliance can be severe: expulsion from social media platforms, even visits from the police.
I am worried by the direction things are going. Transsexuals never used to try to control or compel language. We transitioned and got on with it. Indeed one measure of a successful transition was the pronoun that strangers used when they met us.
When people claim that they identify as a woman, a non-binary person or even as a penguin, all they are really saying is that they call themselves a woman, a non-binary person or a penguin. To be a woman isn’t to ‘feel’ like a woman, whatever Shania Twain says. You either are one, or you aren’t.
If we create a category for non-binary, then we by default create a category of ‘not non-binary’ or — more simply — binary. What happens to gender non-conforming men and women who do not want to sign up to being non-binary? The risk is that every-one is forced to choose between two new categories; non-binary and binary (which is in itself a new binary). Surely better to let everyone find their own path in life?
The new generation of LGBTQ+ activists may claim that the rush for transgender and non-binary rights mirrors the gay rights activism of 30 years ago, but those campaigners only ever fought for equal rights. They never campaigned for the right to change how other people think.
Neither did transsexuals used to want to compel thoughts: the aim was to pass unnoticed in society. Seven years on from my own transition, I can report that while I am much happier in life, I have never felt it fair to appropriate women’s rights; I simply live alongside them as a fellow human being.
Amid all the heat and noise in the debate, the backlash against people like me is growing. Every time an activist demands compliance or uncovers screaming evidence of a thought crime, sympathy for trans people is replaced with exasperation, suspicion and exclusion. At a time when populism is on the ascendency around the world, this is a very scary development facing transsexuals.
The victims even include those who identify as non-binary. While Sam Smith and Rose McGowan may both call themselves non-binary, society sees them as members of two different sex classes. We can try to ignore sex, but if we ignore sexism we let down those oppressed by it, something that impacts disproportionately on one sex, and not the sex that Sam Smith is trying to escape from.
Even so, we can never escape from reality and the sexed nature of our bodies. While we should protect everyone’s right to defy gender norms and express their personalities, it is not progressive to force people into new categories with restrictions and expectations of a different kind.
Maybe in 30 years’ time, we will look back at non-binary as another fresh expression of personality, like the mods, punks and goths of previous generations. Like then, the best reaction could well be to say ‘That’s nice, dear’ and get on with life. There is rarely anything new under the sun.