Tag Archives: Genderqueer

Welcoming Non-Binary Gender in the Learning Environment

What does it mean to include non-binary gender in the learning environment? It’s a question without easy answers, because of the constant presence of the gender binary in social spaces. Gender segregated bathrooms (with no non-binary option!) are one of the most obvious binary-enforcers, but statements like the ubiquitous “men and women” also contribute. There is a constant undercurrent of binarization, made more visible in moments like this, when we see the public clamouring to know the gender of the new royal baby (we know the baby’s assigned sex, and we know how the baby will be socialized and conditioned as a result of that assigned sex, but I would argue that we don’t actually know the baby’s gender yet and we won’t for a while!).

I recently presented a talk on non-binary gender in digital humanities at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference. Part of my presentation, co-created with Milena Radzikowska and Stan Ruecker, focused on welcoming non-binary gender into the digital humanities learning environment.

The gender binary, and the call for the inclusion of non-binary gender, is a significant concern in the digital humanities, where scholars are working to digitize and encode data sets and collections of humanities information, including literary collections in projects such as Orlando. This question of tagging, encoding, sorting and designing databases is a complex and challenging one. The question of welcoming non-binary gender into the learning environment – in front of the screen rather than in the code behind it – is a little bit easier.

Here are six steps towards gender inclusivity in the learning environment, a space that encompasses the physical classroom, the extra-curricular physical space of office hours and chance meetings, the digital spaces where students and professors interact – Blackboard, Zotero, Twitter, etc. – as well as transactional spaces such as assignments and tests.

This list is not comprehensive, and I would love to engage all parts of the academic body in this ongoing discussion. Join the twitter conversation with hashtag #NonBinaryDH or comment here. This post will be cross-posted over at SexTexts, my own academic blog.

1 – Challenge assumptions of gender in your learning environment by disclosing your preferred gender pronouns in classroom introductions and online bios.

Not only does this challenge the assumption of binary gender, it sets an example and opens the door for discussions of both gender identity and the validity of preferred gender pronouns. This applies to cisgender individuals as much (or more!) than to trans* or non-binary individuals because it makes it clear that even if a person is cisgender, they have a preferred gender pronoun – it’s just invisible that this is a preference because it is assumed to be the “natural” order of things. Cisgender identity is often invisible because it is the default. This invisibility means that every other gender performance is othered, and making cisgender identity visible contributes to an inclusive environment where every individual has a legitimate gender identity and preferred pronouns, and nobody is othered. By stating your preferred gender pronouns up front, you set the stage in the learning environment for gender to be questioned and critiqued.

2 – Ask your colleagues their preferred gender pronouns.

Not only will this create a safe space for trans* and non-binary individuals to be visible and acknowledged, it also gives cisgender individuals an opportunity to reflect on their gender identity and also to be visible and acknowledged.

3 – Use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in the learning environment.

Gender-neutral language, such as speaking about “people” rather than “men and women” allows non-binary listeners to see ourselves reflected. Gender-inclusive language, such as “men, women and everyone else” allows everyone to see us. Gender-inclusive language is bulkier and can be jarring, but that slight discomfort has the potential to open up space for conversation and reflection on the fact that gender is a spectrum, and does not fit into the binary model.

4 – Discuss gendered material in terms of being “masculine” or “feminine” rather than being “men’s” or “women’s.”

It is sometimes easier to grasp the concept of masculinity and femininity existing on a spectrum, a stepping stone towards understanding that gender itself exists on a spectrum (men, women, and others). Images of butch women and femme men are a common staple in our media culture. These images often conflate sexual orientation with gender, problematically representing all butch women as lesbians, and all femme men as gay. (While we’re busy breaking binaries, let’s remember that bisexuality is a real thing!) However, this spectrum of gender performance does provide an opening for us to begin speaking about gender identity as also being on a spectrum. Simple linguistic changes that challenge the binary in bite-size pieces can provide space for non-binary individuals in learning environments that otherwise would rarely discuss the topic of gender. (This point came up in a discussion about design classes, for example.)

5 – Recognize, and talk about, the differences between sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The conflation of sex and gender is pervasive and reinforces the gender binary. In many areas it is impossible to change your ID as a trans* person unless you can prove that you’ve had SRS (sex reassignment surgery). In this situation, non-binary gender is erased and although trans* identities are validated, it is only binary trans* identities that are acceptable or even visible. Gender identity is distinct from biological sex, which is also not a clear-cut binary. The male/female binary is complicated by chromosomal variances and the reality of intersex, which is much more common than we often believe. According to Mira Hird in Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary, “one in every 100 births shows some morphological ‘anomaly’, which is observable enough in one in every 1000 births to initiate questions about a child’s sex” (Hird 350).

Further, gender identity is separate from sexual orientation, which again exists on a spectrum rather than sitting comfortably as a gay/straight binary. Recognizing these differences and challenging our own habitual mashing up of unrelated identity categories goes a long way to normalizing non-binary gender and allowing non-binary individuals (as well as binary cis and trans* individuals!) to see the wide range of possibilities open to them.

When sex is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals have few options, because there is no culturally acknowledged template for non-binary sex despite the frequency of intersex – our bodies become policed into sex categories that are then assumed to dictate our gender and our gender becomes difficult to perform because our bodies don’t conform. When sexual orientation is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals again see few options for themselves (especially when bisexuality or other non-monosexual orientations remain invisible). Sex, sexual orientation and gender – three separate, distinct, interrelated but not interdependent categories!

6 – Include non-binary authors in curriculums and reading lists.

This is a challenging prospect because non-binary gender is so often invisible. However, anthologies such as Mattilda (a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore)’s Nobody Passes (2006, Seal Press), and Nestle, Howell and Wilchin’s GenderQueer (2002, Alyson Books), as well as Kate Bornstein’s books, Jiz Lee’s blog (NSFW) and their contributions to various anthologies (including The Feminist Porn Book), and dozens of chapters scattered throughout anthologies dealing with gender, sexuality, and various other feminist issues. It takes a bit of digging, but there is a wealth of material being produced by the non-binary community. Canadian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon is non-binary, and has put out multiple albums and a book. There are also a wide range of blogs and twitter accounts run by non-binary individuals, offering insight into the community and our identities and struggles. Including non-binary authors provides an opportunity to normalize gender-neutral pronouns such as Jiz Lee’s use of “they,” and also demonstrates that being non-binary does not mean being excluded from cultural production. The work that we do has value.

Hird, Mira J. “Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary.” Feminist Theory 1.3 (2000): 347-364. Tandfonline.com. Web.

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Being (white, queer, polyamorous, kinky, with neurodivergence and an invisible disability) Genderqueer

Graffiti on an outdoor wall that says "Gender Queer"

Photo by nicole wilkins (un_cola), under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial license.

“I find that I fail miserably at being a guy, whether it’s with butches or transmen or any other masculine-identified people. I feel more comfortable with femmes of any gender, but I don’t quite present or feel feminine enough to call myself a femme.” (Nico Dacumos from the essay “All Mixed Up With No Place to Go: Inhabiting Mixed Consciousness On The Margins” in Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity ed. Mattilda.)

My five-year-old niece is sitting on my bed as I pack for a trip. The topic of gender comes up when I pull out a skirt and fold it onto the stack of clothes coming with me.

“You’re a girl,” she says.

“Sometimes,” I reply. “Well, not really. I’m genderqueer.”

“Are you a boy?”

“No… I’m genderqueer.”

“What’s that?”

“It means I’m not a girl or a boy. Sometimes I’m more like a girl or more like a boy, but I’m not either of them.”

“But do you have private parts like a girl?”


“Then you’re a girl?”


“Then what are you?”

“I’m genderqueer … ”

The conversation trails off. She’s confused, and I’m not sure what to say. I’m just genderqueer, and that’s the only word I have for it. It’s not the right word for a five-year-old, though. It doesn’t mean anything to her. And I can’t explain it because, like Nico Dacumos in the quote above, I don’t really fit into either category and I’m not sure what language to use to describe myself. I just am this weird mixed thing, and it feels wrong to deny it but it doesn’t really feel right when I describe it because I don’t really know what it is.

Dacumos writes, “The problem with being everything is that it mostly gets me a whole lot of nothing. In theory I should be able to claim all the identities and related spaces … but we all know that’s not true. Instead I find myself isolated. And a liar.”

Although I know that I do not share all of Dacumos’ identity categories (most relevantly in trying to relate to the essay, I am not mixed-race), the essay eloquently articulates my own struggle with mixedness. Dacumos does not claim a genderqueer identity, but writes about being mixed-gender in a way that resonates with my own performance and experience of gender.

Writing about the experience of being mixed in a post-secondary institution, Dacumos describes the loneliness of not fitting into non-mixed spaces, and the difficulty of interacting with others in ways that are true to the mixed identity but still comprehensible to someone who is not mixed. Where are the elders and the mentors, where are the spaces that do not demand some form of passing? It is lonely and exhausting.

I have been lucky to find elders such as genderqueer porn performer, activist and performance artist Jiz Lee, and in writing like the anthology Dacumos’ essay is in. I am also lucky enough to have friends who are equally mixed and mixed-up, and to be part of a community (in Possibilities) that is gender-inclusive. I still sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time talking about what it means to be genderqueer, struggling to find language that articulates what I am – my mixedness that does not cross the gender binary to land me on the other side, but also does not stay fixed to my biological sex.

For the most part, these points of connection and experiences of community happen outside of my academic life. Although I am out as genderqueer in my classes and with my colleagues and professors, I don’t find much community in academic spaces. This may be because, as Dacumos writes, “[m]ost transgender scholarship leaves little room for groups of people or ways of being that do not fit a narrow definition of what is scholarly enough or trans-gressive enough. Transgender masculine politic also shuts out transgender women from these queer and feminist academic circles: Misogyny among privileged gay and/or straight male academics actively excludes transgender women; transphobia among feminist academics casts transgender women as wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Transmisogyny is an issue that seems to be ignored in many academic spaces. While transmasculinity is often praised, transfemininity is ignored or vilified. I want my performance of gender to be part of my anti-oppressive activism, but I find myself wary of performing any kind of femmeness – I am afraid that a skirt invalidates my genderqueer identity because it aligns too easily with my biological sex. This fear of femme identification seems, to me, to be an elephant in the room in many queer and feminist spaces.

Last year at the first annual Possibilities BiBQ, both of my niephlings* wore “proud of my genderqueer aunt” shirts that my sibling made them. And they both have an amazing acceptance of the fact that sometimes girls have penises and sometimes boys have vaginas. That’s a long step further than a lot of adults I know! But how do I talk with them about my gender, which is not simply a reverse of the expected but is this other, more amorphous thing? How do I describe my mixedness?

Never mind description, I don’t even know how to dress as a genderqueer person. And clothes are important, I think. They reflect who you are, or at least they can. I land on jeans and t-shirts most of the time (my t-shirt collection is nerdy and awesome, if I do say so myself). It’s a gender-neutral look, and one that reflects my nerdy self, and often my queer and feminist self also. But it’s not really genderqueer. And because my face is quite feminine, people read me as a woman, even in my gender-neutral attire.

So I don’t have the right clothes to signal my gender identity, and I don’t have the right language, and I just don’t know what to do about it. Like Dacumos, “I will continue to search for alliances with those who foreground the concerns of femmes and feminine-identified people while also creating new options for enacting masculinities.” And I will continue to inhabit this strange mixed space that includes my femme days and my own soft masculinity.

I’m out, but it’s a constant and frustrating process of being and coming out. Bathrooms, forms, confused five-year-olds …

I don’t have an answer for this. Genderqueer is the word for what I am, but it’s not common enough yet for people to be able to understand it. And honestly, even I am confused about what it means. I don’t have a template for the performance of genderqueerness, and I’m not a trailblazer. I just am what I am, but I don’t really know what that means.

Four years ago I went to San Francisco on my own. I walked into the Good Vibrations store on Valencia, and I tried on a couple harnesses over my pants. I bought the one that fit the best, and I bought a pack-and-play dildo to wear with it. I felt like my gender identity was shifting – something was happening that I had no words for and no understanding of. The discomfort I had always felt with some aspects of myself as a “woman” was intensifying, and when I dressed in drag, something just… shifted. Fell into place. It took years to figure out that I wasn’t transgender, and I wasn’t cisgender, I was this other thing.

Dacumos writes, “I find myself doing activism and making radical change in the world in the ways I have always wanted. I find myself becoming the elder that I always hoped to find.”

My goal is to also become the elder I had hoped to find. As an academic, I want to figure out how to break open space for mixedness in academic settings, to bring the community that I have found outside of the institution in with me.

As the anthology says, nobody passes. Nobody actually fits into the tidy binaries. We just have to figure out how to be okay with that, and how to talk about it in ways that are clear, inclusive and understandable.

*There is no gender-neutral term of the children of your sibling, so I have coined “neiphling.” Although both my niece and my nephew seem, at this point in their lives, to be cisgender, I don’t see the benefit of constantly reinforcing their assumed gender identity, and constantly reinforcing that they are different – niece/nephew, girl/boy – in every single reference to them. This is my own attempt to break open some space for non-normativity in my language. Also, it’s cute.

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Coming out of the liminal closet

Liminal identities present specific challenges to a post-secondary student. These often-invisible identities are perceived as being “between” two more easily recognizable categories. My own bisexual identity exists outside of the gay-straight binary, and my genderqueer identity exists outside of the man-woman binary. And the construction of “betweenness,” so common in discussions of these identity categories, is frustrating. I am not a Frankensteinian monster, bits of this and bits of that mashed together and animated. I am my own thing. My identity is a real thing. I am a real person.

Not that you’d know it, looking at the system I operate within.

There are no genderqueer bathrooms, so I slide myself over into one half of a binary that is false and misleading, denying my identity so that I can pee.

The University of Calgary has the Q Centre, an inclusive space for anyone in the QUILTBAG,* and a space that is now explicitly bi-friendly.** But there is no “bisexual” in GSAs, the Gay-Straight Alliance groups that are doing such good work. I’m assured that I am welcome, but unless I speak up about my liminal identity, I will be assumed to be straight if I mention my boyfriend, or gay if I mention my girlfriend. (People read me as a woman unless I speak up about my genderqueerness – that liminality is even less visible to most people than my bisexuality.)

Dan Savage “tells the truth” about bisexuality, which is that “it’s a fundamental truth … that it is a phase … it is a choice.” After saying that bisexuality is a choice in that clip, he goes on to talk about how gay and straight identities are not a choice, there’s no switch to flip – unless you’re bisexual, and you exist in that liminal space between and outside of the binary.

My bookshelves, full of the books that are cited in my research papers, include writing about “gay and lesbian literature,” “gay and lesbian film,” “gay and lesbian media.”

Class discussions often swing around to “men and women” – their differences, their similarities, their conditioning, their unique intersections of marginalization and oppression – and that’s fine. Men and women do exist. They do have similarities and differences, they are socialized and conditioned in different ways, and they occupy a variety of intersections of privilege and marginalization. Those conversations are not, in themselves, a problem. But those conversations are often the only ones that happen in class. There is no space for non-binary gender identities in those discussions.

Coming out of these liminal closets can be exhausting. And because liminal identities are so often invisible, it is not enough to come out once. Instead, it is an ongoing, constant process of coming out. Or, sometimes, it’s a painful choice to stay in the closet for that class, that conversation. It is not possible to always be the person challenging the binary; none of us have infinite resources, and we should not be expected to always be the ones to speak up. As Dayna pointed out in this space last week, “Just because someone personally relates to something doesn’t mean they are expected to represent that particular issue.” And it is not always just about whether we have the resiliency to be The Bisexual or The Genderqueer in a specific class – coming out as a bisexual is uniquely challenging. AfterEllen has a fantastic piece (with some great links to resources) about how difficult it is to come out as bisexual, and the comments prove the truth of the article.

We live in a world full of binaries, but those binaries fail to account for a huge number of us. It’s hard to see us. It’s hard to understand us (even I have trouble understanding myself!), and it’s hard to remember us because it’s just so easy to talk about things in terms of the binaries that we’re so strongly conditioned to operate within.

But we’re here. We always have been.


*Queer/Questioning, Unidentified, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer

**Huge shout-out to the Q Centre, whose coordinators responded beautifully to community members’ concerns about biphobic comments being made by some Q Centre volunteers. A public meeting was held, a discussion was had, the Q Centre reached out to the bisexual community in Calgary for input, and changes were made. It’s not all invisibility and erasure – there are moments of hope and progress!

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