In late June I reviewed the anthology, Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, for the Times Literary Supplement. For reasons of space, I had to cut much of what I wanted to say about the collection, so I thought I would post the extended review here to give a fuller sense of why I believe it is such an important resource not just for gender-non-conforming people, but for anyone seeking to understand gender more fully.
If you’re interested in the topic and want to learn more, I’ve also included some useful links relating to non-binary identities and trans issues more broadly at the end of the piece.
Few fields of identity are as widely misrepresented or wilfully misunderstood as those gathered under the label ‘transgender’ – the umbrella term for individuals who socially, legally, or medically transition away from the gender they were assigned at birth.
Of these, few are as under-represented in popular culture and public discourse as those termed ‘non-binary’ – the label for those of us who do not view or experience gender as an assignment to one of two fixed roles, but as a rich and varied spectrum.
Rajunov and Duane’s engaging, accessible, and readable anthology aims to change this. Bringing together thirty pieces of testimony by non-binary artists, activists, and academics, the anthology highlights the challenges faced by gender-non-conforming people and celebrates the fullness of life beyond the binary.
The anthology format lends itself to the articulation of an identity category predicated on flux, and the editors are to be commended for allowing the varied experiences gathered in the collection to speak for themselves rather than aggregating them into a falsely homogenous unity.
As might be expected in a collection of texts obliged to articulate a fluid and malleable set of experiences in a language ill-equipped to accommodate flux, metaphors abound. Life in a cis-normative society feels like living ‘under a metaphorical microscope’, navigating an ‘unforgiving maze’, and corralling ‘wild horses’. Self-realisation, coming out, and embracing gender fluidity are likened to drawing breath for the first time, being ‘immersed in a pile of soft blankets and pillows’, and discovering ‘wide-open space’ where once there was only a narrow path. Non-binary identity is variously described as ‘a buffet’, a backpack containing ‘an enigmatic smile’, ‘a very short skirt’, and a ‘toy action figure of a knight’, and a ‘proverbial passport like no other’.
Some of the metaphors are inconsistent or contradictory, but, as many of the contributors note, that is precisely the point: ‘there is as much comfort in fluidity as there is instability’ and ‘as much reason to smile as to sigh’. This willingness to showcase not only the pain and confusion of discrimination and dysphoria, but the elation of recognition and change is one of the collection’s great strengths.
Another benefit of the anthology structure is the intersectional approach it facilitates. Sand C. Chang, a Chinese American non-binary psychologist, educator, and advocate, writes powerfully on gender and race and their exhausting experiences of tokenism in both domains: ‘it’s hard not to feel owned by a system that continually pats itself on the back […] for hiring you while simultaneously putting you in your place.’
Kameron Ackerman, a transmasculine radio DJ and janitor from Upstate New York, offers an affecting account of the interplay of gender non-conformity and mental illness, noting how gender dysphoria (the painful sensation of inhabiting a body whose gendered morphology doesn’t reflect one’s felt identity) can pile ‘layers and layers of scrap metal’ on to the ‘pins and needles of anxiety’.
Aubri Drake’s discussion of gender and abuse is quietly devastating. In the face of violent, emotionally manipulative, conservative Christian parents for whom a gender-non-conforming child was ‘unsatisfactory property’, thrift stores became both a refuge and a space of exploration and affirmation.
In one disarmingly honest contribution, ‘Abby’, the mother of a non-binary individual, records her sense of disorientation at learning that her child identified with an identity category with which she had been completely unfamiliar. In an unsparing piece of self-interrogation, ‘Abby’ records how, as her gender literacy increased, so did her anxiety that she and her husband had ‘wilfully avoided connecting the dots’ concerning their child’s identity. ‘Abby’s refusal to downplay such feelings of worry, regret, and exhaustion makes the note of acceptance and support on which her essay ends all the more galvanising: ‘Nothing else about this journey is as important as loving our child and seeing them through it’, whatever the destination may be.
While this emphasis on personal testimony lends the anthology immediacy and emotional impact, it has the disadvantage of sometimes limiting its scope. Notwithstanding the introduction’s insistence that ‘across cultures and millennia, people have blurred the bounds of gender’, the version of gender-non-conforming experience offered here is largely Anglo-American and twenty-first-century in focus. A greater sensitivity to traditions of third-gender and two-spirit identity in Native American and other First Nation cultures might have increased the collection’s analytical range and strengthened its thesis about the cultural and historical contingency of binary gender.
Nevertheless, as an out and proud genderqueer person, it is hard to overstate how exciting, restorative, and affirming it is to read this anthology. The sense of vibrant community it provides is precious for a group so often erased or marginalised in mainstream society and queer culture alike. Its unpretentious tone and willingness to gloss technical terminology also make it a valuable resource for friends, relatives, and allies.
In the midst of the present artificially generated and increasingly vicious ‘trans debate’, this is a book that will start conversations, change minds, and make lives more liveable. Indeed, given the disproportionate rates of mental illness and suicide experienced by gender-non-conforming people, it is a book that may very well save lives.
Mermaids UK – a charity which provides support to gender-non-conforming young people and their families.
The Beaumont Society – an association for the transgender community to facilitate mutual support and communication in order to improve the health, emotional well-being and confidence of transgender people.
Chrysalis: Gender Identity Matters – a charity supporting transgender and question people, their families and close friends.
Sparkle: The National Transgender Charity – a charity aiming to promote a positive public image of the Trans community.
TransgenderNI – a newly formed not-for-profit organisation focusing on supporting and campaigning for the human and civil rights of trans people in Northern Ireland.
Trans Media Watch – a charity dedicated to improving media coverage of trans and intersex issues.
G(end)er Swap: LGBTIQ+ Clothing Outreach Initiative – a London (UK) based LGBTIQ+ clothing outreach initiative that supports gender non-conforming individuals to access clothes and community.
Resources and Media
‘NB: My non-binary life‘ (BBC Sounds) – a fantastic and wide-ranging BBC podcast series exploring aspects of non-binary identity and experience, featuring the likes of Caitlin Benedict, Amrou Al-Kadhi, and CN Lester.
‘Things Not to Say to a Non-Binary Person’ (BBC Three) – a tongue-in-cheek video featuring a range of NB individuals venting about cis-normative society.
Suzannah Weiss, ‘9 Things People Get Wrong About Being Non-Binary’ (Teen Vogue) – a fun and informative piece by a young NB writer.
CN Lester, ‘Trans Like Me’ (Virago) – a moving, insightful, and informative account of trans identity and experience, and a searing interrogation of popular and public discourse surrounding trans issues by NB academic, musician, and icon, CN Lester.
Susan Stryker, ‘Transgender History, 2nd ed.’ (Seal Press) – a thorough and engaging account of the history of transgender individuals and movements, largely centred on the United States.
‘Keywords’, from ‘TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly’, Volume 1, Numbers 1–2 – an encyclopaedic resource on terminology, concepts, and debates in transgender studies.
‘Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive’ – a handy guide for allies from the National Center for Transgender Equality.
‘Understanding Non-Binary People: A Guide for the Media’ – a Trans Media Watch resource for those writing about or discussing NB people in the media.