Meeting X, a person who doesn’t fit the normative binary boxes

Posted: February 20, 2011 in Bodies, Damned binaries, Gender, Personal, Relationships, Sex & Sexuality
Tags: , , , ,

A cis guy I know told me this story to illustrate how accepting he is of gender non-conformity. It’s paraphrased, because there were a lot of interruptions from me.

Hell, I know a chick who I thought was a dude! Hung around her for years, I just thought she was a dude – dressed like a dude, acted like a dude, everything. Then one time she took her shirt off and… yeah.

My instant question – Did this person ever say they were a girl?

Well, she was [hand gestures] and – [interrupted by me. Ten minutes later, after a bit of wriggling…] She didn’t say it…

Then, my friend, how do you know? If this person truly identified as a girl, I’m not sure it’s likely you would have hung around with this person for that long without someone correcting you on pronouns, for a start. You can’t just make these assumptions based on anatomy. Sex is a broken category system anyway; we don’t know where things begin and end, we can’t generalise it to the whole population, we invented it based on a collection of symptoms, we originally used it to mean gender.

The whole story is playing into the trans/non-cis-people-as-deceivers trope. If this person is a man, my acquaintance was being profoundly disrespectful and harmful by misgendering him. If this person is non-binary, the same applies (with the added caveat that I really want to meet that person because I know no non-binary, and don’t think I know any non-cis, people in meatspace). If this person is a girl, well, that works out well for everyone because my acquaintance hasn’t been being cissexist and his friend hasn’t been misgendered – except for all the time before he ‘found out.’

So in honour of this acquaintance of mine, here’s a guide for cis (and non-cis??) binary people running into someone (name, here, of X) who doesn’t fit with their binary view of the world.

  1. Don’t get angry. Seriously. X is not trying to fuck with you. X is most likely looking like X does because X likes it. It’s quite simple, really.
  2. Don’t knaw at it. There is no reason why you should be assuming anyone‘s gender at first sight, whether they fit into your idea of the binary or not. X is no different.
  3. Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter. Honestly. In most situations, gender is totally irrelevent. If you don’t know X, gender may well be made clear during introductions and if not it’s not that important. If you get a pronoun wrong, apologise, remember the preferred one, and move on. If you do know X, chances are you’ve either been told or are in a position to ask.
  4. Don’t ask unnecessarily. Sometimes you seriously don’t need to know. Situations like these are when you’ve seen X on the other side of the road, going the other way. Or are passing X in the shop. If you’re never likely to have to talk to or about X, there’s no need to ask. However, if you are going to be more closely acquainted with X, by all means ask, but…
  5. Don’t be too loud about it. Asking is always the best, if you’re not told, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to walk up to someone and say, ‘What gender are you?’ at the top of your voice. You take X aside and say in a quiet voice, ‘Excuse me, I apologise if this is intrusive; would you be comfortable telling me what your gender/pronoun is, since I’d rather not get it wrong and make a dangerous mistake,’ or something along those lines. Do so in a non-threatening way – don’t stand between X and a way out of the conversation if X desires it. If X turns out to be cis and binary and takes offense, don’t put yourself in danger. There are some cis binary folks who can be quite aggressive when their privilege is called into question. Leave the situation, find a friend, stress that you were trying to be considerate, stand close to authority figures.
  6. Don’t mess up. Once you know X’s gender/s/non-gender/s and pronouns, remember them. If you slip, apologise and move on. Respect X’s self-knowledge. If X has chosen not to tell you, respect that as well.
  7. Don’t comment on genitalia. Ever. Unless you’re dating with an eye to a sexual relationship, and even then you should wait for X to be comfortable talking about X’s genitalia.
  8. Don’t ridicule, Other or police X’s self-expression. See the first point.

I have probably missed many things out, but it covers quite a few of the gross breaches of human decency I’ve come across myself. I’ve seen a lot of these tropes happen, mainly to myself, and read about all of them happening to other people. Ignoring these basic points leads to a lot of really shitty situations, including my acquaintance’s little story above.

At least I’m pretty sure he’s not seeing me as binary… I just wish he’d learn that I’m not an isolated case and that he needs to apply the principles he uses to deal with me respectfully to others.

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