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.