Why Do We Have Such A Limited Imagination For Who Can Be Non-binary?

Battle For Acceptance, LGBT parenting, Nonbinary Identities, BornNoWay, Mental Health and Queerphobic Sentiments, queer
Nonbinary Identities: Humans are a species susceptible to normativity. Given the scale and social structures that we’ve formed over time through the path of evolution, it is unsurprising that the social brain tried to find ways to structure and organise information in order to process it meaningfully. This led to the evolution of norms, institutions and specific forms of categorisation.

While arguably useful as a heuristic to the human species as a whole, this norm enforcement (or policing) has detrimental impacts when used not as a suggestion, but as an implementation to facilitate the imposition of specific identity forms.

Gender norms and policing have long since been used to describe this enforcement of normative identities upon what gender expression can and should look like. There are arbitrary frameworks in place to dictate whose performance of gender is adequate enough and whether or not aspects of gender presentation need to be shifted in order to accommodate this judgement. This is particularly dangerous because this reinforcement of judgement comes from a place of systemic implementation (and consequently bias) and thus has an impact on which identities are allowed to be seen in the mainstream – what bodies are allowed to be visible, and who serves as different but sufficiently obliging enough to fit into what the public eye allows.

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This boxing in of the gender differences that are acceptably allowed sets a dangerous precedent for the “acceptable” ways to be queer. The reduction of the argument thus becomes: “It’s okay if you are (identity), as long as you do (widely acceptable thing) and not (anything that vaguely sets off discomfort in an individual).” Worse still, people begin to believe that this is an acceptable ask to have of someone: to ask someone to be less of themselves so it is more convenient for the consumer/observer to be around. Even in its most innocuous form, it is limiting; but shift the scales even slightly, and it becomes dangerous.

People seem to allude to specific normative expectations of bodies particularly when it comes to gender binaries. The functionalist nature of the argument involves biological reductionism of identity to the perceived role a specific organ has and thereby, reduces the role of the individual to what “biology intended for them”. Furthermore, it becomes a way to promote subjugation of specific bodies and identities, and further marginalises them by limiting their expression and performance of gender.

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This can be observed in how societies and systems respond poorly to trans and nonbinary identities as well. Going back to the argument that humans prefer boxing things neatly using a heuristic, the existence of the trans identity (and indeed, the trans body) means that there is somebody who is daring to defy these conventions and what they can look like. Categorisation becomes a tool to perpetuate violence and inflict emotional (if not physical) pain on all those who dare not to conform to specific expectations.

In particular, the marginalisation of trans and nonbinary individuals means that their bodies are subject to scrutiny and specifically heightened expectations. When asked to picture what a nonbinary person looks like, the image often conjured is that of a person with a thin body, short hair, androgynous looking, and dressed in clothing that drapes over the body in masculine ways: sharp, straight lines, single colours or a specific bold print on one accessory of clothing. All of this expression is valid and is absolutely nonbinary if the person identifies as such, but is certainly not the only way a nonbinary person can look. This specific representation of nonbinary identities stems from media representations and ideas of what is considered palatable for consumption and tends to be reduced to the idea of women-lite. But that is not who a nonbinary person needs to be. A non-binary person can look like… any other person really, which is to say, like anyone. If gender identity is limitless, then why do we have such a limited imagination for who can be non-binary?

At some point, an important question does need to be asked for those who stand to benefit from asking it: where do identity, personhood and gender interact, and what does this mean for someone specifically? There is no catch-all solution that makes the process of “identifying” people who defy the binary easier – and there needn’t be. Bodies should not have to look a certain way to fit in: to be moved out of one box just to be put into another. And yes, this is going to mean there will be some struggle with language, power, social responsibility, role, performance, presentation – and all other manner of things – as somebody predictably tries to categorize. But that’s what makes it so important.

A non-binary person can look like… any other person really, which is to say, like anyone. If gender identity is limitless, then why do we have such a limited imagination for who can be non-binary?

To reimagine the nonbinary body, you don’t just ask where somebody lies on the axis between “male” and “female”. You start by understanding how this spectrum can be very limiting, and question the role the axis can even play in the first place. Think about novel ways gender can exist, yes, but also about what the meaning of gender even is, and the value it (can/cannot/should/should not) hold(s). Then, non-binary can look like anyone – even us.

Aishwarya Srinivasan is a social psychologist and cognitive anthropologist, with a background in cognitive science, evolution, social behaviour, and mental health. The views expressed are the author’s own.

The Queer Quill is a collaborative column by One Future Collective X SheThePeople on the theme of queer rights with a focus on law, modern culture and the intersections of art and history.