Reiterated in socially conscious spaces until it makes me want to rip my ears out: “Non-binary people don’t owe you androgyny!”
I’m sure people who say this generally support and understand the plight of gender in modern American society. Maybe a student from a seminar on women, gender and sexuality says that to the clatters around the table. Perhaps they themselves were filled with a non-binary rage against the machinery of society that demands this demanding display of equal male and female characteristics from us.
I bought into this rage, heavy, when I was younger and started to touch the edges of sex; I owed no one else a window into my gender identity. Now, I’m a cynic: to be widely seen as non-binary, you have to present yourself as androgynous.
I refuse to discuss the existence of a non-binary gender identity. Eighty-two percent of transgender people have considered suicide, as have 94% of non-binary people; 40 percent of each group tried.
The existence of 1.2 million people who identify as non-binary in the United States alone, whether that identity can be considered “real” (and really, what is real when we talk about social constructs), is enough to justify solving the problems they face. . We are killing trans and non-binary people with our inaction. Thousands and thousands of bodies crumble for the last time, as we argue over whether we even see them.
There is a gap between self-defined identity, which describes how one identifies internally, and imposed identity, which refers to how they are perceived from the outside. In a typical example regarding race, one might define themselves as considering themselves Chinese because they were raised in a culturally Chinese household that celebrated the Lunar New Year and shared mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival. This same person could be widely perceived as a vaguely East Asian flavor based on the hue of their skin or the slant of their eyes.
To determine the gender identity imposed by others, we are evaluated according to the established appearance of men and women. We all know what men and women look like – or at least we think we do, according to the notions of gender expression developed by our surrounding societies. Every recorded civilization has had at least both male and female genders. Gender has a refined appearance throughout human history as conveyed by hair, makeup, clothing, height, stature, bone structure, etc. The men have strong muscles, hair and faces; women have curves, long silky hair and softness on their edges.
I cannot escape this judgment. No one has ever seen me, with my medium wolf haircut, winged eyeliner, and high waisted pants, and thought of anything but “woman.”
If I wanted them to think otherwise, I would have to change parts of me. I would cut the flesh off my chest, build a structure in my jawbone, shave my head, grow five inches taller. I would run away from my own body.
People describe others with their own perceptions, until they learn that the identities defined by others differ, and they care enough to update their perceptions. Humans are duck-testable: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck – and calling a duck anything but a duck is ridiculous.
Even at Harvard, where students campaign for social justice, the duck test is used without first asking if someone identifies as a duck. The most socially progressive people I know have defaulted to “her” for me. I don’t blame them. It is easy to argue for respect for gender identities writ large; it’s hard to offer the respect required in individual situations when the right answer already seems too obvious, when we’ve been brought up to assume that gender is generally obvious.
We may use neutral pronouns for each other until otherwise specified. In theory, this would solve all the thorns; in practice, no one ever does. Only about half of all Americans are even somewhat comfortable with using gender-neutral pronouns when specifically asked to do so; it seems reasonable to assume that the percentage of Americans comfortable with using gender-neutral pronouns before they are even asked to do so is much lower.
Overall, the trendline of national comfort with gender neutrality is hopelessly static. Coupled with the reluctance to explain one’s entire identity to a new set of peers, the duck test seems unlikely to leave us anytime soon, at Harvard or beyond.
If you want to be widely perceived as non-binary, you need to present yourself as the only socially understood gaze. Non-binary people may not have the same history of civilizations built on masculine and feminine to define what our gender identity looks like – but we do have a definite look into the space between masculine and feminine nonetheless. .
It’s androgyny: the perfect blend of masculine and feminine. Think about every “gender envy” Pinterest board of skinny, pale, blotchy teenagers with dark hair and worried knuckles. Do you want to be perceived neither as a man nor as a woman, but in a neutral way? You need a neutral body.
Never mind that this may not be how you personally identify. Non-binary identity rarely sits neatly at the center of the male-female continuum. On the contrary, non-binary identity encompasses a wide range of gender identities, ranging from feeling both male and female to varying degrees, to feeling no gender at all. It is a three-dimensional identity that we try to reduce to the two-dimensional scale between masculine and feminine.
It doesn’t matter that you may not want to change the body you grew up in, which has served you for all these years. Many non-binary people are unwilling to undergo hormone therapy or gender-affirming procedures. They are not non-binary souls “stuck in the wrong bodies,” as popular myths claim; their bodies are their own, made non-binary by their identities.
Finally, never mind the fact that changing the body to the androgynous ideal might not even be possible. A thin, white, childlike body is unattainable for much of the non-binary population due to genetics alone. For many non-binary people, striving towards an androgynous body is a hopeless act towards an unattainable fantasy.
The fantasy isn’t all it’s made out to be either. Even if you perfectly fit the model of androgyny, you are not assured of a non-binary identity imposed by others. People still perceive you without your enlightenment all the time, passing you on the street or participating next to you in section. Androgyny only works as a shorthand for nonbinary if public duck tests are updated to recognize this latest nonbinary-looking pattern. You entrust the reception of your identity to people who, statistically speaking, are among the 73% of Americans who have heard almost nothing about non-binary identity. One in five Americans know someone who identifies as non-binary; probably even less grasp the nuances of how this person conceptualizes their complex gender identity.
Here’s the crux of the non-binary tragedy: we have to perform to be recognized, that performance may not be how we want to be recognized in the first place, and even then performance doesn’t always work to generate recognition. .
We want to be perceived as we perceive ourselves, so badly. But the journey is treacherous, consuming our bodies and our agency for a chance of being accepted by the public. Maybe that’s why 94% of us want to kill ourselves: it’s the last act of free will we can allow ourselves in a system that grants us none.
I don’t want non-binary people to die. I want nothing but euphoria and sweet endings for my non-binary siblings.
History bears witness to how people like me tried to have a better future. Activists have redefined gender neutrality and resisted gender norms since the 1970s. Younger generations are redefining the way we think about gender beyond the male-female pair.
But we need more. I’m sick of waiting for the deaths to pile up. Perhaps it is too difficult for us, from an existential point of view, to decouple the body from identity, to erase our mechanisms of perception, so that non-binary people are freed from their Sisyphean torture . But we can control the extent to which these perceptions are verbalized. We may default to gender-neutral language. We can refrain from commenting on the bodies of others. We can change the juggernaut of culture one superficial action at a time, until it becomes second nature and itself a culture.
If we can create this culture change anywhere, it’s in the microcosm of Harvard, a campus so predominantly liberal that we’ve had a near-scandal over the lack of conservative voices. Use “them/them” before everyone else. Check your biases before making assumptions about other people’s gender identity based on their body. Do so for at least 2.7% of current Harvard students who identify as non-binary. Do it to save lives.
In this LGBTQ+ History Month, as we celebrate the queer trailblazers who etched our passage to civil rights in the deepest granite of time, I also want us to look to the future born of history. of today. I want us to make the choices now that will lead to broad acceptance of non-binary people and reduce trans and non-binary deaths down the line.
Until then, non-binary people grapple with this horrible tragedy, the dichotomy of choosing between self-respect and respect for others. I don’t want to owe you androgyny, but you’re going to ask for it anyway.
Christina M. Xiao ’24, associate editorial writer, is a co-concentrator in computing and government at Eliot House.