What is non-binary?

Last week I heard what is becoming a fairly familiar story to many parents.  A fifteen year old boy announced to his whole family, including his grandparents, on the last evening of a half term holiday that he was changing his name (to an unusual female one) and from now on his pronouns were to be they/she.  Everyone was stunned. There had been no warning whatsoever. However it transpired that he wasn’t the only one… another five youngsters in his year had done the same thing.  His parents managed to have a look at his internet history and found reams of websites and social media sites on transitioning. Eliza Mondegreen, an academic who researches the online trans and detrans communities tells Stella O’Malley  in a Gender: a Wider Lens podcast  that we cannot understand young people’s desire to be non -binary or trans without studying what goes on online. I think she is right. In the podcast series The Witch Trials of JK Rowling (episode 3) in which  the impact of social media on language and culture of the youth trans community is analysed one youngster says “ I hadn’t heard of non-binary until I came across it on social media”. 

This may be described as youthful rebellion but this isn’t one that the young have dreamed up themselves and can have more far reaching consequences than being a punk or a goth ever had.  Kids have been carefully served on a plate an ideology that insists that their bodies do not necessarily determine whether they are male or female,  and that they have an inner gender identity which according to the teachings takes priority over biological sex. Those of us who still believe in material reality know this to be nonsense.

Non-binary is very much a young person’s choice of identity. Thanks to the 2021 Census we know that 85% of all those choosing to identify as non-binary are between the ages of 16 and 24. And there were only 30,000 of them in England and Wales (although as we now know even this number may have been exaggerated because the concepts of gender identity and non-binary were poorly understood by segments of the population)

Of all the identities on offer non-binary at first glance appears to be the most appealing and the most non-committal.  (However there are those who start off as non-binary, use it a stepping stone and go on to want to fully transition to the opposite sex).  And now like the boy above, announcing mixed pronouns adds a bit more nuance  – non-binary with a hint of female hence the double pronoun they/she. But even just being non-binary gives you the golden ticket of being trans.

No one was describing themselves as non-binary until about five years ago. Even in academia which heralded in most of the gender identity ideology that is now flowing through our institutions, using they/them is fairly recent.  “The practice of using pronouns in a non-binary way has not featured much in academic writing – the first paper on it was published in 2017, but has become more accepted online and on social media, with people now listing them in their Twitter bios.”

Apart from a confused number of rebellious probably gay youth another group ‘coming out’ as non-binary are celebrities.

“I’m not male or female, I think I flow somewhere in between. It’s all on the spectrum,” said Sam Smith, speaking in a March 2019 I Weigh episode with Jameela Jamil.

Emma Corrin, The Crown star ‘came out’ as non-binary in 2021 by updating their pronouns on Instagram. “because my journey has been a long one and has still got a long way to go” she said.
Later in an interview she said, “I think that we are so used to defining ourselves, and that’s the way, sadly, society works, within these binaries. It’s taken me a long time to realize that I exist somewhere in between and I’m still not sure where that is yet.”  Join the club Emma.  We are all on a spectrum of femininity and masculinity but we don’t have to essentialise it.

Stonewall tries to define non-binary but succeeds in only telling us what it isn’t, followed by a tautology .

“Non-binary is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn’t sit comfortably with ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Non-binary identities are varied and can include people who identify with some aspects of binary identities, while others reject them entirely. Non-binary people can feel that their gender identity and gender experience involves being both a man and a woman, or that it is fluid , or completely outside of that binary”

For this definition to even begin to make a modicum of sense we must believe in the subjective notion of gender identity, another concept that defies rational definition, but which is the crux of all current transgender theory.

Feminism has said for decades that gender is a social and cultural construct and changes in time and place. It has never been fixed. Sex is fixed.  Being gender non-conforming means not conforming to expectations of what the current dominant modes of masculinity or femininity are, the stereotypes, that may be via physical expression or conveying atypical characteristics of behaviour and character. Prince was gender non-conforming, David Bowie was gender non-conforming, the New Romantics were gender non-conforming and thousands of feminists are gender non-conforming. This really is nothing new.

What is new is the terminology, and the insistence that this signifies you are somehow outside the categories of male and female (sex) and  that this subjective feeling must be recognised and acknowledged publicly by others. Despite the very small numbers and the young age of those who call themselves non-binary,  there are calls from lobby groups to legislate specifically for this group and organisations are accommodating new language and providing training on non-binary discrimination.  In Scotland the government feel so strongly that the lives of non-binary people need to be improved that last week it published an action plan.  As Debbie Hayton says in the Spectator in response to this announcement “Why? Who told these children they were non-binary – in a separate category to other children – and why is the Scottish government playing along with it? Children need to be told the truth: that there are two sexes, and while they may be able to shun the social conventions associated with their sex, they cannot opt out of their sex altogether.”

It is hard to determine in what ways those young people describing themselves as non-binary are really any different from anyone else. Maybe because there are few outward signs, many who describe themselves as non-binary die their hair – pink or blue usually and may wear non stereotypical clothes for their sex.  Lest we should make the mistake of confusing gender expression with gender identity Stonewall is on hand to tell us what the difference is…

“In order to understand non-binary gender identities better, it’s vital to understand the difference between gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity refers to a person’s clear sense of their own gender. This is not something which is governed by a person’s physical attributes. Gender expression is how you express yourself and just like everyone else, non-binary people have all sorts of ways to express themselves and their identity. They can present as masculine, feminine or in another way and this can change over time, but none of these expressions make their identity any less valid or worthy of respect.” 

So, if I understand correctly, there are no external signals to tell you that this person in front of you is anything other than a man or a woman, they will have to tell you. And you must refer to them in the way they ask you to. At what point was this particularly concept debated? Recognizing the opposite sex is how our species has survived. No wonder pronouns are compulsory – it’s all they’ve got.