Why we need to drop the term “binary trans person”

We, as humans, keep creating false binaries, and I’m so tired.

Oh, how humans love a dichotomy, an either/or, when messy nature is so often more both/and. Why do our brains do that? I suspect it’s a programming glitch.

The most ridiculous and artificial dichotomy is binary/non-binary. Honestly, if I could wish on a magic unicorn for anything at all, it would be for a much better word for what I am. Non-binary really does not work as a term, but we seem to be stuck with it.

Let’s spell this out. Binary means 0 or 1. It means 2 mutually exclusive and incompatible options. It means there can only be male or female, that these two things exclude each other, and no other options exist.

Non-binary means there is more than 0 or 1. It is an analogue, a continuum, much like the Kinsey scale (only way more complex). Let’s just borrow from Kinsey for a sec, and say “Man” scores 0, “Woman” scores 6, and everything in between is non-binary. Technically, that’s everything from 0.000001 through to 5.999999, but of course for practical purposes “Man” extends all the way to at least 2.5 and maybe more, and it all gets a bit fuzzy and complicated in the middle because English doesn’t have very good words for this sort of thing.

Anyway, it’s completely not like that at all, it’s way more complicated, but I hope you see the point – man and woman still exist completely and safely, perhaps even more expansively than if forced to hover over one precise point. They exist, just not as a binary.

This means if “non-binary” exists, there is no binary and “non-binary” becomes too vague a term because it includes everyone, including people who are just men, and just women – cis, trans, intersex, male, female, enby.  I will use “enby” from here to differentiate from “non-binary”, meaningless as that term is in the absence of an authentic binary. I use “enby” for people who cannot live within the artificial legal/social binary that is imposed on us. And enby people need everyone else to understand this legal/social binary is not fixed or objectively real, and can be reshaped or dismantled without hurting anyone, to allow for the reality of our existence, and to give us the civil rights everyone else has.

[image: an androgynous person is asked "are you a boy or a girl?" they answer "no"]

It should not be controversial to say neither sex nor gender are binary. Intersex people exist, enby people exist. To invoke or enforce a binary is to erase us. There has to be another way of doing things. But for those more comfortable in this artificial binary, it may be hard to see that.

The trouble is, enby people require an adjustment of how things are done, a change in social understanding away from the idea that there are only men and women and that’s that. At this point sometimes people get cross and say I want to erase men and women. Trans men and women, despite the social, legal and linguistic changes that have made their lives easier, still sometimes resist the idea that we should change from a binary system into something else – a ternary system, or a fully open, self-determining system, for instance.

Sometimes it’s about the fear we may be pushing too far and that the push-back will hurt trans people who are comfortable with things as they now are. Be patient and wait your turn, the bus will come back for you, they say to us, just as gay people said to trans people 40 years ago as they disappeared over the horizon without a backward glance. Of course, some of us would say that if we stood together for rights for all we would be stronger, not weaker, and that the dilution of civil rights caused by glossing over some people’s needs only serves to reinforce prejudice and limit everyone’s options. Plus, what makes one person’s rights more of a priority than another’s, exactly?

I do want to undo the idea that men and women are “opposites” or clear and distinct categories that neither overlap nor have an alternative, but I cannot deny the existence of men and women, nor do I want to. I like men and women, trans or cis. I like that people are different from each other, and the last thing I desire is for us all to live in some grey unisex fog. And I can’t deny that the majority of people sit comfortably with the idea of being (more or less) one or the other. I see no need for this to change.

I just want enby identities to be as legally and socially valid. To have complete parity. I want my civil rights please.

And this is where as a community we sometimes come unstuck, because trans men and women seem to often want the “binary” to exist, and to be held sacrosanct and separate, and for “enby” to be a category outside of this. And that simply is not possible. At best, we have a ternary. I suspect though, we actually have something multi-dimensional. What we can’t have is a binary.

You can see how our own language dooms us enbies, and in a way we have only ourselves to blame. We actually coined, or at least gave rise to the terms “binary trans man/woman” where once trans man/woman was sufficient (as it should be). We constantly talk about being “outside the binary” “beyond the binary” as if the binary exists but we are somewhere else entirely, when we have always been right here, in the detail of ordinary, everyday human existence. This horrible othering banishes us into number three of only two imagined options. An impossible conundrum, created by the way legal and social sex was conceptualised in the 18th Century and just hasn’t moved on much since. Before then, everything was much more flexible. And it could be again.

I think, unfortunately, we might be stuck with the word “non-binary” for want of a better term. Like “lesbian” and “bisexual” its meaning has shifted from what the term means literally, and it has become a fait accompli as the accepted term for our community. A way of talking about people whose existence cannot be described by the word “man” or “woman” alone.

But the newcomer term “binary trans person” has no such use or purpose. Neither does it have enough heritage or traction to warrant preserving. There is no compelling argument to justify its use other than a vague and muddled sort of “tit for tat”. It was coined to differentiate from non-binary, but it is redundant – the terms man and woman already exist, and are entirely sufficient. What the term “binary trans person” does is achieve an over-emphasis, a reinforcement of the legal binary and the legitimacy of those identities over others. It also exaggerates the distance between enby people and trans men and women. It feels othering to many of us.

And it’s often accompanied with a criticism of any perceived attack on “the binary”. The binary must be preserved, we are told, and trans men and women’s identities are somehow under threat if the binary is not preserved. But as enby people cannot exist within a legal (or social) binary, we are at a standoff. The preservation of the binary does violence to us.

Much like the artificial pitting of trans and cis women’s rights against each other, our rights are seen as somehow in conflict. For us to be legally recognised, the binary cannot help but be broken – that sounds violent, but what breaks is not people’s identities but a dividing wall built where people need to live. To use an analogy, East and West Berlin still exist and have their own styles and cultures even now the wall has come down, it’s just that now travelling and mixing and living in the centre become far easier.

Eventually, we’re going to gave to stop talking about “binary trans people” and simply talk about “trans men and women” or else we are going to keep reinforcing the idea that a binary exists. Which, if I exist, and intersex people exist, it doesn’t. Trans men are real, trans women are real, but the gender “binary” is a lie.

Here are things you can say instead of “binary trans person” – someone more aligned with, or comfortable with, the binary. A non-enby trans person. A trans man. A trans woman. There are plenty of language uses that validate trans men and women without reinforcing an artificial binary that does enby people genuine violence.

Part of accepting the need to reflect on language use is accepting the privilege trans people hold if they have legal and civil rights that enbies don’t. And when I talk about us not having civil rights, I am explicitly talking about those of us who require a change in law in order to have a correct gender marker on our passport, marriage or birth certificate. Those of us who use pronouns other than he or she and titles other than Mr/Ms. This doesn’t apply to all enbies, and there are some people who might be described as enby, like Eddie Izzard or Grayson Perry, who live in relative privilege compared to most of the trans community. We are by no means a homogeneous group.

My existence does not threaten other people’s, but of course, the usual reaction to any emerging civil rights campaign is to try and suppress it by claiming it poses some sort of threat. I am asking, from the bottom of my heart, for trans men and women to stop talking about themselves as “binary” and to stop reinforcing or clinging onto the idea of a gender and sex binary that does not need to exist. Please allow me to exist alongside you and just as real and valid and equal. Embrace the ternary.

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9 thoughts on “Why we need to drop the term “binary trans person”

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I use spectrum for people who are just beginning to poke their nose out of the binary but it’s way inadequate! I like this version

      Reply
  1. Deirhna

    You have a way of articulating the bits and pieces of thoughts that ramble around the back of my head, half formed, hidden from public view that I would otherwise never acknowledge. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Margo Schulter

    Thank you very much for a persuasive state. I must admit to having used “binary trans woman” many times, with the thought that “I’m acknowledging my binary [i.e. nonenby] privilege.” But I get that it’s a mistake for two reasons.

    The first is the very logical one you present so well: if indeed enby experience is real, then there’s at least a ternary! The binary is already broken, so why am I claiming it? What I thought of as “owning my privilege” is actually reinforcing a patriarchal binary model that doesn’t apply in reality.

    The second is that while being able to live comfortably with the label of a “woman” or “female,” while indeed a privilege, shouldn’t lead me to create needless distance between myself and the enby community. It is distinctly curious, in a not-so-pleasant way, for to proclaim that I am “an androgynous woman,” and not realize that my “ambiguity” (as the so-called “binary” would see it) is not totally unrelated to the enby condition.

    One idea by analogy with a term which the intersex community seems to be increasingly favoring, evidently coined by Heike Bodeker, who used it at a conference in 2000: endosex for those who are not intersex, and thus endogender for those who are not enby.

    If endogender is a good term, then when it’s appropriate explicitly to claim nonenby privilege, I can also call it endogender privilege — without affirming and reinforcing a “binary” at once logically absurd and perennially oppressive.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I like the idea, but apparently endogender has already been claimed! and isn’t dyadic catching on for non-intersex? Maybe one day we’ll have better words for everything 🙂

      Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I personally prefer genderqueer, but I can see why nb beat it as an umbrella term because so many older generation ppl find “queer” offensive. I wish there was another option tbh. mostly I prefer just to be a trans person.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Can I be non-binary and transsexual? | A Feminist Challenging Transphobia

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