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What does it mean to be non-binary?

This article is over 2 years, 8 months old
The Tories’ determination not to recognise people who are non-binary helps spread fear and prejudice. Isabel Ringrose spoke to people at the sharp end of this pernicious form of discrimination
Issue 2757
A protester at Toronto pride
A protester at Toronto pride (Pic: Eric Rainer (flickr))

While transgender and non-binary ­people are more visible today than before, they are also facing more attacks.

Worldwide the numbers of murders and assaults of trans and non-binary people are rising annually, as are restrictions on access to services such as ­medical treatment.

Some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of “man” or “woman.” For example, some people have a gender that blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female. Some people don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s gender changes over time.

Non-binary is a way such people ­commonly describe themselves.

But the Tories reaffirmed last week that non-binary will not be allowed as a legally recognised gender identity.

A consultation in 2018 looked into proposed reforms for the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). It found that 65percent of respondents thought changes needed to be made to allow non-binary identification.

Yet in their analysis, the Tories said the consultation “did not bring ­forward any proposals to extend the GRA to provide legal recognition to a third, or non-binary, gender”. The Tories scrapped plans to reform the GRA last year.

A new petition to the government has called for non-binary legal recognition. The Cabinet Office recently responded that there are “complex practical consequences” if non-binary was recognised.

Non-binary people at the receiving end of the Tories’ hostility spoke to Socialist Worker about how the lack of recognition affects their lives.

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Bee identifies as trans non-binary and gender fluid. “There is a misconception that non-binary means not having a gender or being genderless. It’s not feeling you fit into the existing binary gender categories of man or woman,” Bee explained.

The biggest problems they face because of their gender are “constantly being misgendered, and a lack of any recognition that gender could be ­anything other than man or woman”.

They say these difficulties “stem from a lack of understanding and general recognition of non-binary as a concept and gender.”

Moss is non-binary. “This means I don’t fit into the pre-set genders,” they said. They said the Tories’ decision “means you aren’t covered legally for discrimination laws”. Moss added, “It’s a lot easier for people to say non-binary doesn’t exist.”

Lake is also non-binary and explained the effects of limited recognition and education. “I have to figure out how someone feels about gender before coming out,” they said.

“If someone doesn’t know, I have to make a connection—for example if they’ve talked about having trans friends,” Lake said. “Outing yourself is a big thing and it’s always on your mind.”

There is a misconception that non-binary means not having a gender or being genderless. It’s not feeling you fit into the existing binary gender categories of man or woman,”

Moss added, “It’s exhausting—it feels really demoralising not really being seen or understood by society.

“Trans people and gender ­non‑conforming people are still the butt of jokes. How we’re represented in the media is then how people view things.”

Different non-binary people may use different pronouns. Many non‑binary people use “they” while others use “he” or “she”, and others use other pronouns. These should be respected.

Bee explained, “If people use the wrong pronoun, then I’m locked into the ‘woman’ I’m perceived as. I have to make a split decision to let it go and feel crass about myself, or name the problem and risk becoming the problem,” they said.

“It would be really helpful if people could not feel excluded from discussions and spaces. But any system I have to engage in I get put into a box. I can’t have my gender recognised and be seen as who I am to access medical care.”


Lake added that “there needs to be less stigma” for trans and non-binary people.

“People who say we don’t need to worry about pronouns are the ones who get concerned when pronouns are used in a way they don’t like,” they said.

Bee also thinks that misgendering matters. “It’s about having basic respect for people,” they said. They explained that there’s also a perception of non‑binary as a “new thing, and a fad”.

“That misconception comes from people not being able to exist outside the binary way of thinking about gender,” they said.

“We need to start from much ­further back and explore how gender was constructed.”

Lake said, “We live in a society that doesn’t put people’s needs first—there’s boxes you have to fit into and if you don’t, you’re demonised.”

Moss said that narrow ideas of gender don’t benefit anyone.

“Think about attitudes towards mental health,” they said. “The idea that men shouldn’t talk about ­feelings, to man up and be a manly man is damaging.”

Challenging gender means moving beyond the binary

Con identifies as bi-gender. Rather than being outside the binary genders, they “flick between genders”. Con says they would prefer to not have to pick between man or woman when formally identifying.

This isn’t because they care what the Tories think, but because they “should be referred to correctly on paperwork.”

“It’s also about validation,” Con said.

Lake agreed. “Non-binary people aren’t confused—and being non-binary can look different on everyone. There’s not one way to live.”


And Bee thinks, “The only way people reject the boxes we’re put in is to erode the boundaries.

“The more genders we have then everybody can describe their own experience in a way that suits them.”

Con added that in a liberated world, “We’re going to have people expressing how they want in lots of different genders, or no gender whatsoever.

The only way people reject the boxes we’re put in is to erode the boundaries.

“But we won’t have the association with gender stereotypes.

“A society without gender stereotypes also won’t be based on physical characteristics.

“We live with specific gender stereotypes invented by class society and capitalism. The key is what we do now—and that is to build struggle and solidarity.”

Why does capitalism rely on gender stereotypes?

The ruling class dismiss gender identity because it poses an alternative to some of the oppressive ideals their system relies on.

Transphobia isn’t random prejudices. Oppression is used by the ruling class under capitalism to keep the working class divided—and gender roles are vital to capitalism.

The right uses gender identity to ramp up “culture wars”.

They look to cut across class by demonising trans people as a risk to family life that is intertwined with class society.

Women lost out thousands of years ago with the emergence of classes. Society had progressed to the point where there was a surplus beyond the necessities to survive.

Those who controlled it became a ruling class, and created state structures to protect it.

There was simultaneously a shift in women’s status, described by socialist Frederick Engels in the 19th century as “the world historic defeat of the female sex”.

From being co-decision-makers with men, they were thrust into a position of dependence and subordination.

The new intensive production techniques tended to prioritise men’s labour over women’s for the first time.

A woman became a “wife”, part of a tightly organised family. For the ruling class that family was to produce heirs and pass on property.


And the working class family played a key role in reproducing the next generation of labour, based on the unpaid labour of women.

The freedom to express gender or sexuality was lost.

The rise of capitalism pushed people into big cities and factories with appalling conditions. This threatened the family set-up, and bosses panicked as they needed new generations of healthy workers to profit off.

The creation of the ideology of the nuclear family was pushed so that children were raised at no cost to the state or the bosses.

Anything that threatened this, such as alternatives to gender norms, was denounced and sometimes criminalised.

To uphold this, further fusing of gender and biological sex determined what women and men were “naturally” expected to do.

Myths are pushed that women are naturally emotional, caring and nurturing, so take on the care-giving role based on the fact they have certain physical characteristics.

Worldwide this saves the ruling classes trillions annually in unpaid labour.

Meanwhile men are tough, competitive, made to earn a living and prefer the colour blue.

But these gender roles are a product of the material basis of class society.

Sex, gender and women’s liberation
Sex, gender and women’s liberation
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They are created by the structure of the nuclear family to shape the social relations between the exploited and exploiters.

So-called differences between men and women have been used to justify women’s oppression ever since.

Biological sex isn’t as binary as capitalist ideology would have us believe. And that goes further than the existence of intersex people who don’t fit into XX or XY chromosomes.

Women and LGBT+ people have won gains through struggle.

But ruling classes can roll back such achievements in order to deepen divides and step up oppression.

The presidency of Donald Trump saw assaults on LGBT+ rights as well as attacks on the rights of women, migrants, Muslims and black people.

The gay liberation movements of the 1960s won rights for sexuality—but gender rights were only given limited recognition decades later.

As a result, same sex couples can legally marry and adopt children to serve the nuclear family and gender roles the system is dependent on. Transgender and gender non‑conforming people are still seen as a threat

By fighting against oppression as a class and removing the economic base to it—capitalism—the foundation for women’s oppression is removed. As are the gender roles and nuclear family that flow from it.

Only in a socialist society can people win real liberation.

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