// 2 March 2011

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Around the Wall.JPG

[Image shows two blond Playmobil people, one in blue and one in red, separated by a wall of wooden blocks on a black background]

I’m very bad at intro posts, so this is just going to have to stand alone. Suffice to say, I’m JKBC and I’m honoured to have been invited to guest blog at the F-Word.

It took a long time for me to understand, accept and embrace myself. My late childhood and early-mid teens were spent in a zigzag between the two binary genders – I would think myself to be and express myself as one and then the other, alternating every year or two with dramatic changes in appearance and physicality.

A relatively short time ago, I decided to stop bothering ‘presenting’ as any gender because it was too much hard work. It was soon after that that I learned about feminism and anti-kyriarchism and became socially aware, noticing the biases rampant in the world around me. Feminism was a sphere that felt right, especially when I learned about intersectionality. After that, it wasn’t long before I found out that being outside of the gender binary of man/woman was possible.

It’s hard to describe what a freeing notion that was for me. It finally made sense, this niggling feeling that something was wrong. I didn’t get it right at first – started off identifying as genderqueer as a gender identity in itself, before realising that it wasn’t that I had a non-binary gender. It was that I had no gender.

The realisation simultaneously made things easier and harder for me. I’ve always been a person who likes words, and I finally had a word that I felt described me; agender. Armed with that knowledge, I was able to put a name to the body dissonance that had niggled away in the corner of my mind for a long time. I was able to understand why I felt the way I did, why I was uncomfortable with my name, why I was uncomfortable with the gender binary. The knowledge gave me the courage I needed to request a name change socially.

All that was countered by the bad. Now I had a name for the body dissonance, I found it harder to stick it in the back of my mind and ignore it; I had demolished the walls that told me I shouldn’t be feeling it, which made it feel more immediate and painful. I also found myself noticing all the myriad times I was gendered, day in, day out, incorrectly and nonconsensually. And coming out has brought with it a host of problems.

Binarism, the prejudice against those outside of the gender/sex binary (very much intertwined with cissexism), is incredibly normalised. It’s so normalised that in many spaces, until a dialogue is created it will go totally unnoticed. No matter how low its profile, though, it has an impact. It hurts. For me, it is a constant bubbling of lava underneath the crust of my life, and I never know just when or where it’s going to break through.

I do not know how binarism is to be ended. It will fall when the kyriarchy falls, but until that point all I can do is try to fight against it in the individual circumstances in which it crops up. To urge anyone making surveys and questionnaires to either avoid the ‘gender’ or ‘sex’ box entirely, or to allow it to be an open text field. To urge people to try to understand others as people rather than as genders. To urge people to refrain from the belief, expressed in phrases such as ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ that the world is made up of only men and women. To urge people not to assume gender or pronouns based on self-expression. To fight cissexism. To urge people to work against their other kyriarchal attitudes, since all kyriarchy, all oppression, is bad and affects all of us.

It’s going to be a long struggle, as long as that against any part of the kyriarchy, against the whole of the kyriarchy. But it’s worth it. It’s always worth it. And hopefully one day we can exist as ourselves, without lines in the sand or baseless prejudice dividing us, able to grow into and exist as our true selves without condemnation.


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Comments From You

Amelia // Posted 2 March 2011 at 7:08 pm

As new a feminist as I am, my partner is even newer, and so far you have been directly responsible for us having a real discussion sparked by words such as “ze”, “cisgender”, “genderqueer” and “kyriarchy” and I have to thank you for that. You’ve started a dialogue between us that has made us both a little more feminist and aware. For my part, I will no longer be ticking any box for gender on surveys and questionnaires, and will not include that box on surveys and questionnaires I make for my own business.

Lindsey // Posted 3 March 2011 at 10:30 am

Thanks for sharing, JKBC, I’d heard of asexual before but not agender.

The ticking boxes thing is interesting too, especially considering the census is coming up. I just know I’m going to end up spending hours filling mine in.

coldharbour // Posted 3 March 2011 at 11:28 am

This is by far the most heartening article I have read on the F-Word so far. I emailed the London Feminist Network about their policy for Feminism in London regarding gender neutral individuals only to be told gender neutral folks don’t exist because we are obligated to subordinate our identity to the way society perceives us. It wouldn’t take a genius to work out why they’ve had such bad internal problems with transphobia in the past (or present, one only knows).

lucifermourning // Posted 3 March 2011 at 1:37 pm

I found your post very interesting – thank you for sharing.

I am curious about some of the things you suggest, and what you (and anyone else) thinks about some of the possible ramifications of some of them.

For example, the idea of removing gender from questionaires/making it an open text field. I would think that there is still a lot of value in collecting this information, and just adding an “other” box with open text for further. While it is important that minority voices be heard, the overwhelming majority of people do identify as male or female. To not collect this information opens the possibility of rendering gender inequalities invisible. How can an organisation, or the public, know if an equal opportunities policy is successful if they don’t collect statistical information? People being what they are (a bit lazy, less likely to answer the more they have to write), tick boxes will usually get a higher response rate.

Also, what sort of phrases would you propose to replace “ladies and gentlemen”, and the like. This is a language problem (pronouns in general, actually!) How would you address a room full of people, especially in a formal setting where “hi everyone” might not be appropriate? Making up new words in cool in theory, but difficult in practice, so I would love to hear others’ thoughts.

And the point about not assuming gender – while nice in principle, there’s plenty of people who would be offended if someone refused to make an assumption about their gender. As a practical question, how would you like to see people act? If someone’s gender is visible ambiguous, that’s a bit different. But for most people, it’s pretty obvious, and any assumption will prove right. I would say that there is a distinction between respecting minority rights and everyone’s comfort and being so open-minded that you ignore information that is pretty obvious. Sometimes that will be a mistake, but not very often.

JKBC // Posted 3 March 2011 at 5:45 pm

@Amelia; I’m glad I can spark off a dialogue, and help people become more aware. Thank you for the feedback.

@Lindsay; agender is a word that doesn’t come up often, especially outside of specifically trans/non-cis and non-binary spaces. I’m glad I made you aware of it – it is for reasons like this that I make the attempts I do to be as out as possible.

@lucifermourning; re gender on surveys, if it is important to the survey to know gender (to assess inequalities and so on), then by all means put it in. But as an open text box. It won’t harm the majority, who will simply write either man/male or woman/female in it, and it will actively help the rest of us. If there is the possibility of a lower response rate, then there can be an ‘Other’ box with a ‘Please specify’ text field. Erasing a portion of the population introduces inaccuracy into results.

Personally, I can’t say I’ve ever said ‘ladies and gentlemen.’ I normally say, ‘folks,’ or ‘comrades,’ or if I’m trying to be formal, ‘fellow human beings.’ There’s a host of other options out there, though.

Unfortunately, most people haven’t caught up with the idea that gender can’t be assumed from self-expression. In any casual situation where you are unlikely to be speaking to the person, it doesn’t matter. On the whole, it is best to have the idea in the back of your mind that this person may not be as binary as they seem, and be open to that possibility. Ask about pronouns if it is safe and comfortable for both of you to do so – which it isn’t often, unfortunately – and if someone is likely to take offence, look after yourself. The idea that non-binary people should have to present in a hard-to-figure way to be respected is not nice, especially since perceptions are subjective. It’s a contentious idea, and one that is hard to act on in the current climate. That doesn’t mean that its point is invalid.

JKBC // Posted 3 March 2011 at 8:48 pm

@coldharbour; That’s not a good response from London Feminist Network. Nobody should be required to ‘subordinate’ their identities to anything. Especially since ‘society’ does not have a uniform view, and I – and presumably others – can and have been perceived as both the binary genders in one hour. (By the way, I’m not sure whether by gender-neutral you mean just people who identify as such or all non-binary folks – I imagine the response would be the same, though.)

coldhabour // Posted 3 March 2011 at 11:07 pm


I actually didn’t have a problem with them excluding me because of my biology, I had a problem with them ridiculing and negating my entire identity.

Kirsty // Posted 3 March 2011 at 11:20 pm

JKBC – thank you so much for this post :) For a long time I’ve been feeling like maybe I’m the only non-binary person lurking around here, so seeing this post made me really happy. Thank you!

lucifermourning // Posted 4 March 2011 at 7:31 am

@JKBC thank you very much for responding to my questions. they are very much meant in the spirit of enquiry – i am really interested by the practicalities/logistics of a lot of issues, i.e. how, in practice, we could approach increasing equality.

I do think “third option” is a really good way to approach it. much like religious and ethnicity questions will have a bunch of main boxes, then an other – they take into account the realities, that most people fit a box, while allowing for the possibility that some don’t.

thanks for your suggestions about addressing groups. i think it is a bit like people wishing others “merry christmas” – “happy holidays” would be nicer, as it recognises that not everyone celebrates, but it’s not generally worth taking offense. just trying to use better practice and educate where possible.

i do think the gendered assumptions are very difficult. to be honest, most people i know would look at me like i’d grown a second head if i started asking people’s genders/preferred pronouns, outside specific circumstances (e.g. in a group which was concerned with gender identity). while i appreciate that it is uncomfortable to have to correct people or be incorrectedly labelled, it is often impractical, where you need to know (e.g. to refer to someone in the third person). said person might no longer be around (otherwise you wouldn’t need to use third person!), and/or it could turn the entire conversation into a discussion of gender. which, from a practical standpoint, is often not really desirable.

i don’t really know what the answer to this is. it’s nice not to make assumptions, but this is dealing with an question where the answer is visible 99% of the time, as non-gendered people are pretty rare.

how do you approach it? do you ask everyone you meet (unless it’s an unsafe/damaging environment)?

Theo // Posted 4 March 2011 at 11:16 am

lucifermourning: I do get where you’re coming from and i know it’s difficult not to make assumptions about other people’s genders but I disagree that people’s gender is obvious in most cases. Gender identity is invisible and it survives in a person no matter what clothes ze is wearing and no matter what sex ze is and no matter what sex ze was assigned at birth. You cannot look at a person and actually tell how is best to address them. It’s hard not to try to make “educated guesses” and I will admit now that I am prone to making such assumptions myself but it’s worth remembering that those guesses *are* guesses and it’s pretty much guaranteed that we’ve all guessed incorrectly about several people in our lives.

People who look “obviously” one gender may well identify as another and we want to work towards a world where they can do so and still be confident of appropriate and respectful treatment as their own gender. Though currently there are only certain settings where it is safe and appropriate to ask someone’s preferred pronoun, I am trying to widen that in my own life and trying to ask even those people who look “obviously” one gender or the other just to highlight that this is a mere assumption that is sometimes incorrect and to make it okay and polite in my little portion of the world at least to ask this question.

militantbarbie // Posted 4 March 2011 at 1:04 pm

Thanks for writing this JKBC, it’s great to be talking about living outside the gender binary in a feminist space.

I am also (theoretically) genderqueer, and have no wish to identify with either option presented by binary gender. However I find this very hard to live practically in my own life, working in an office job. I’ve zigzagged too in the past, but my body is such that how ever I dress I only really ever present as ‘girl’. So I’ve ended up having to try the ‘femme as a trans identity’ route, which I’m not particularly happy with.

I choose the either/neither option on the forms, I try to highlight non-binary visibility where I can, but I feel that’s not enough. In short, I agree, but I’d love to see more discussions about how to live in a non-binary way in everyday life, in the same way I live my feminist and environmentalist politics.

Kit // Posted 4 March 2011 at 1:45 pm

“how do you approach it? do you ask everyone you meet (unless it’s an unsafe/damaging environment)?”

I use “they”, “them”,”their” or the person’s name if I’m unsure how someone identifies/what pronouns they prefer or if I just don’t see the need to gender someone in conversation (like when talking about my SO). Not sure how folks feel about that though :(, but grammar fans just love it.

lucifermourning // Posted 4 March 2011 at 2:02 pm


I think we will just disagree on one point – I do still believe that gender is obvious in most cases.

Have I guessed wrong sometimes? Maybe – but not very often.

Though I would really like to know how you (or anyone else here!) actually approach the subject. Do you ask every time you meet someone new, assuming it’s a reasonably safe environment? Do you just ask people once you’ve got to know them a bit?

The trouble I have is that I think, given most of the circles I move in, I’d be a lot more likely to meet people who would feel deeply offended and uncomfortable to be asked than people who would be uncomfortable to have assumptions made. The only scenario I can imagine where this would not be an issue would be in fairly radical groups, feminist groups, queer right groups, etc. Perhaps that’s just a poverty of imagination though?

JKBC // Posted 4 March 2011 at 4:26 pm

@coldhabour; I didn’t mention biology, and I agree with you that dismissing and negating identities is unacceptable.

@Kirsty; I find it’s always good to know others are out there!

@lucifermourning; I agree with Theo about the gendered assumptions – I know it can be very difficult, but it’s still an aim worth working towards. Gender is not expression; gender is an aspect of self and so is expression, but the one does not come from the other. One may inform another, as in many cases, but it is never possible to tell without asking. I dream of a world in which, ‘what’s your pronoun?’ was as common a question as ‘what’s your name?’

I personally have learned to speak about people with as few pronouns as possible, if I’m uncomfortable asking. ‘They’ or the person’s name, as Kit says, are generally acceptable especially in more casual circumstances.

@Theo; Agreed.

@militantbarbie; I sympathise; trying to live outside the binary can be very hard, especially when people think that presentation makes the gender or make the cissexist assumption that gender can be deduced from bodies. I generally try to pull people who aren’t in a position of power over me up whenever they gender me non-consensually, and make room for the people around me to define their own gender identities.

@Kit; I hate it when people object to ‘they’ on grammatical grounds… There’s no legitimacy to the objection at all and even if there was, grammar is not as important as people.

Alice // Posted 5 March 2011 at 7:08 am

I’ve been puzzled by the term “assigned at birth” – aren’t babies physically born one sex or the other – there’s no “god” or person that decides which sex someone is physically born as.

Vicky // Posted 5 March 2011 at 11:24 am

Alice, I think the term refers to people who are born intersex. They have different genitalia from other people – they may have both male and female reproductive organs, for example. In this case a doctor will often ‘assign’ a gender to the baby. The gender the baby is assigned usually depends on practical considerations – for example, if it’s easiest to ‘make’ the baby female, that is what the surgeon will do.

JKBC // Posted 5 March 2011 at 12:01 pm

@Alice; Sex is a broken social construct, used to attach gender to bodies. A male body is one belonging to a male, even if he does have a vagina and was female assigned by doctors at birth. Humans aren’t particularly sexually dimorphic (1/100 people being intersex) and there’s no specific cut-off point for each sex; sex is a collection of symptoms that aren’t universal.

One more way that we could deal with cissexism binarism, dyadism (term from the intersex community meaning prejudice against those who don’t fit specifically the sex binary) would be; stopping assigning sexes/genders at birth, allowing people to grow into their selves, and respecting that. Call an organ an organ, teach people about their own bodies rather than a generalised approximation of a large number of people’s bodies, and treat people accordingly.

JKBC // Posted 5 March 2011 at 12:06 pm

As an addition to my last comment, I didn’t stress this enough – People also have the right to change their bodies for their own necessity. Our bodies, our choices, our words.

coldharbour // Posted 5 March 2011 at 2:47 pm


I think that’s a very good point and I think a lot of people calling themselves feminists who appropriate behaviour to ‘men’ and ‘women’ come from a cissexist and dyadist perspective.

saranga // Posted 5 March 2011 at 5:25 pm

really interesting discussion here. thanks for sparking this off JKBC. :)

Theo // Posted 5 March 2011 at 11:40 pm

I am on several activist / Union committees (not all LGBT-related) and I’m trying to make it the norm there to declare name and pronoun round the table at the start of each meeting and the same at the start of any discussion group I chair (and several where I’ve just mentioned it to the discussion chair at the start) just to make declaring one’s pronoun a normal thing for people to do. Rather than asking other’s pronouns, I tell new people my own pronoun (which is he) when I meet them. In this way, I acknowledge that the correct way to address people is not obvious without upsetting a person by suggesting that the way to address them is less obvious than the way to address me.

Kit // Posted 6 March 2011 at 2:44 pm

@JKBC “There’s no legitimacy to the objection at all and even if there was, grammar is not as important as people.” – amen! I find it puzzling how strong the negative reaction to the suggestion of using “they” etc. can be, as an alternative to otherwise risking mis-gendering people or gendering someone who is agender (if that makes sense ^^; ) :/

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