If you are on the Internet for long enough, you are probably going to hear the phrase “gender exists on a spectrum” somewhere. This simple phrase is relatively few words used to explain the basic idea of a very complex phenomenon referred to as gender nonbinarism, which results in a group of people who prefer to be called nonbinary. Many people believe that nonbinary individuals are something made up by millennials and are simply another trend that will die out in coming years, but there is archaeological evidence that gender nonbinarism goes back to Ancient Egypt, and possibly even earlier, turning up in many non-western cultures’ myths and legends, often portrayed as closer to the gods and even as rulers of nations.
Many of the arguments against the existence of gender nonbinarism are rooted in a lack of education about the subject, usually centered around the idea that sex and gender are the same thing, or that gender nonbinarism is a brand new or made up idea. Neither of these are true. A person’s sex usually refers to the chromosomes, genitalia, and other physical characteristics a person is born with. That same person’s gender is a mindset they are born with, and affects what they decide to do with those physical characteristics (Mills). A cisgendered person, usually referred to as “cis,” is someone whose gender matches their sex. A transgender person is someone whose gender is different than their sex, and a nonbinary person is someone whose gender does not fit neatly into either male or female boxes (Huston). One of the best ways to combat this lack of education is to add a third gender on passports and birth certificates, something a few states and countries are just beginning to pioneer.
Gender nonbinarism is more than just an elusive or singular third gender. It is the idea it is not and has never been possible to put every member of humanity into two neat categories; it is the freedom to be messy with everything, even gender. The word nonbinary means “not relating to, composed of, or involving just two things,” such as the concepts of men and women (“Definition of Nonbinary”). The word nonbinary is used as an umbrella term for anyone whose gender doesn’t fall neatly into either of those categories, such as agender, bigender, or genderfluid people (Huston). There is a wide variety of nonbinary pronouns as well, since most nonbinary people do not feel that “she” or “he” describes them. Some of the more common replacements for these pronouns are hir, a combination of the pronouns “him” and “her” for bigender people; zem, an alternative off the gender spectrum entirely for agender people; or even just simply the singular “they/them” (Staufenberg), though there are an infinite amount of pronouns. I myself have met a person who prefers to go by xe/xym/xyr.
Gender nonbinarism is not a new idea, either. “Quite similar…traditions existed among the native peoples of Siberia and Central and southeast Asia,” writes Walter L Williams. “Since the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Siberia over 20,000 years ago, and since reports of highly respected androgynous persons have been noted among indigenous Americans from Alaska to Chile, androgyny seems to be quite ancient among humans.” Native Americans had a concept of “two-spirits,” people who were neither male nor female, usually tasked with keeping the culture’s traditions and healing. There are currently 165 known tribes who recognized a third gender, all with different terms for it, though two spirit was a universal term decided in 1990 by a group of Native American leaders (Pullin).
The concept of a third gender is an important part of Indian culture as well. The term hijra refers to any number of non-cisgendered individuals who have thrived in Indian culture despite western colonization. Under British rule, being hijra was a criminal offense. The hijra community went into hiding, creating their own societal hierarchies with a “mother figure” providing financial and emotional support (Gupta). They are still a key part of Indian culture, often asked to provide blessings for weddings and childbirth, as well as helping in government PSAs about seatbelts.
In Ancient Egypt as well, where artwork of a pharaoh was an extremely important key to how they would be depicted in the afterlife, sculptures and carvings of the ruler Akhenaten has confused archaeologists since they have been discovered. Many sculptures depict the pharaoh with either no genitalia or both masculine and feminine facial features, or even sometimes crossing the kingly crook and staff over female breasts, and in carvings in their tomb, they wear a combination of a typically masculine kilt and a typically feminine dress (“Beyond the Binary”). This pharaoh ruled Egypt as a king who was the equivalent of a god for seventeen years, dying around 1335 BCE, demolishing the idea that gender nonbinarism is a completely new concept perpetuated by left-wing radicals and politically correct young adults (Jarus).
This was the mindset of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who set off a media firestorm when he said he refused to use gender neutral pronouns such as these ones in protest of a Canadian law that added gender identity to a list of things it is illegal to discriminate against (Murphy). Claiming that the law is a dangerous push towards authoritarianism, Peterson believes that gender neutral pronouns like “hir,” “zem,” or just “they,” are attempts to control the language people use (“‘I’m Not a Bigot’”). This could not be farther from the truth; asking someone to use the correct pronouns is not attempting to control someone, it is simply asking someone to address them correctly. Not using the correct pronouns can be disrespectful and dismissive of another person (“Why Is It Important to Respect People’s Pronouns?”).
However, gender affirming care is the currently accepted form of ethical treatment for nonbinary people. “Binary representation perpetuates invisibility, discrimination, and victimization—and subsequent poorer health—among [gender nonconforming] patients,” says Eckstrand et al. With higher rates of harassment and abuse, a lack of affirmative care, including the use of the correct, gender neutral pronouns, results in nonbinary people refusing to seek out healthcare for the problems that arise from 83% of nonbinary individuals reporting harassment because of their gender.
This is finally changing, however, with new laws preparing the world for the legal recognition of nonbinary genders. Australia, New Zealand, and India already allow people to place the letter X instead of M or F on passports and birth certificates, a huge step in legal recognition, with Scotland and California both considering adopting the policy (Johnson). This could have an incredible benefits for nonbinary people.
While nonbinary people fall under the umbrella term of trans since they are not cisgendered, they do tend to have more issues than gender conforming trans people, or people who transition from male to female or female to male. Nonbinary people have a 43% suicide rate, 3% higher than gender conforming trans people. They are also 7% more likely to have experienced assault than gender conforming trans people (Jones). Having ID that reflects a nonbinary gender could change that. “For people whose IDs are already inconsistent with their presentation, having an accurate ID could mean the difference between safety and harassment,” writes Corrine Segal. A nonbinary person may present as neither male nor female, causing confusion when their ID says M or F. This confusion often leads to the people asking for ID interrogating and harassing them, since their nonbinary expression does not match either letter. In Segal’s article, a more feminine nonbinary person is quoted as saying “I feel better about having an ID symbol that I might need to explain to people than one they’ll think is incompatible with my appearance.”
Ultimately, allowing an option for a nonbinary gender on IDs and passports will benefit the people it would affect. People who have high suicide and assault rates would see more acceptance, lowering both of those rates, from legal recognition. It would result in people knowing more about gender nonbinarism and understanding that it is not something to be fixed or eradicated. Gender nonbinarism was celebrated in ancient times, and is becoming celebrated again. Maybe it has become time for the government to recognize it once again.
“Definition of Nonbinary.” Oxford Living Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2017, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/non-binary.
Eckstrand, Kirsten L. et al. “Affirmative and Responsive Healthcare for People with Nonconforming Gender Identities and Expressions.” AMA Journal of Ethics, American Medical Association, Nov 2016, http://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/2016/11/pfor1-1611.html.
Gupta, Sonali. “The History of Hijras–South Asia’s Transsexual and Transgender Community.” India.com, India WebPortal, 16 Sept 2015, http://www.india.com/lifestyle/the-history-of-hijras-south-asias-transsexual-and-transgender-community-540754/.
Huston, Matt. “None of the Above.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 9 March 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201503/none-the-above.
“‘I’m Not a Bigot’ Meet the U of T Professor Who Refuses to Use Genderless Pronouns.” CBC Radio. CBC/Radio-Canada, 30 Sept 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.3786140/i-m-not-a-bigot-meet-the-u-of-t-prof-who-refuses-to-use-genderless-pronouns-1.3786144.
Jarus, Owen. “Akhenaten: Egyptian Pharaoh, Nefertiti’s Husband, Tut’s Father.” Live Science. Purch, 30 Aug 2013, http://www.livescience.com/39349-akhenaten.html.
Johnson, Simon. “Nicola Sturgeon: Scots to Be Allowed to Change Gender So They Are Neither Male Nor Female.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 31 March 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/03/31/nicola-sturgeon-scots-to-be-allowed-to-change-gender-so-they-are/.
Jones, Kelsie Brynn. “When Being Trans Is Not Trans Enough.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 4 Jan. 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelsie-brynn-jones/when-being-trans-is-not-t_b_6340728.html.
Mills, Michael. “Sex Difference vs. Gender Difference? Oh, I’m So Confused!” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 20 Oct. 2011, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-how-and-why-sex-differences/201110/sex-difference-vs-gender-difference-oh-im-so-confused.
Murphy, Jessica. “Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson Takes on Gender-Neutral Pronouns.” BBC News. BBC, 4 Nov 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37875695.
“Non-Binary Legends: Akhenaten.” Beyond the Binary, n.p., 14 May 2016, http://beyondthebinary.co.uk/non-binary-legends-akhenaten/.
Pullin, Zachary. “Two Spirit: the Story of a Movement Unfolds.” Native Peoples Magazine, n.p., May-June 2014, http://www.nativepeoples.com/Native-Peoples/May-June-2014/Two-Spirit-The-Story-of-a-Movement-Unfolds/.
Segal, Corrine. “The Complications of ID for Non-Binary People – and How It Could Change Soon.” PBS, Newshour Productions, 21 Aug. 2016, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/ids-nonbinary-people/.
Staufenberg, Jeff. “University of Tennessee Switches Gender-Specific Pronouns ‘He’ and ‘She’ for ‘Xe’ and ‘Ze’ to Promote Inclusivity.” Independent, n.p., 29 Aug 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/university-of-tennessee-switches-gender-specific-pronouns-he-and-she-for-xe-and-ze-to-promote-10478034.html.
“Why Is It Important to Respect People’s Pronouns?” University of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2017, https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/qa_faqs/why-is-it-important-to-respect-peoples-pronouns/.
Williams, Walter L. “The ‘Two-Spirit’ People of Indigenous North America.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Oct 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/oct/11/two-spirit-people-north-america.