Beyond the Binary

Saturday, 28 March, 2015

Trigger warning: discussions of transphobia and queerphobia

Despite the chill, the annual Pride March in St Kilda this February drew a large and vibrant crowd. It was heart-warming to see the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) community marching together with its allies without fear of harassment or judgment.

There was an overwhelming presence of rainbow-coloured items such as flags, umbrellas and handmade signs on the street; however, those in lavender, white and green — the non-binary and genderqueer colours — were in short supply. Granted, it is commonly understood that the rainbow flag represents the entire LGBTQI community. But is gender diversity truly visible in society?

For those who are wondering, the terms ‘non-binary’ and ‘gender diverse’ relate to people who, simply put, do not fit into the conventional gender binary of male or female.

Before we investigate this issue any further, it is important to first understand the difference between biological sex and gender. ‘Sex’ refers to a person’s biological characteristics, which is commonly described as male or female. (There are, for instance, intersex people who have biological characteristics that are not distinctly male or female: this is different to the concept of non-binary gender.) ‘Gender’, on the other hand, refers to the social and cultural construction of how one wishes to identify and express their characteristics. This includes behaviours, like ways of dressing, not commonly associated with their sex assigned to them at birth. That said, these definitions have long been contentious, and subject to frequent revision.

This general concept of non-binary gender might be novel for some, but it has actually been recorded in the Western hemisphere from as early as the 19th century. It is present in various communities around the globe, such as ‘two-spirit’ people in Native American cultures, hijra in South Asia and bissu among the Buginese people of Indonesia.

The government included gender diversity under the Sex Discrimination Act 2013, effectively protecting non-binary individuals under federal law. However, it is still difficult to measure the amount of non-binary and gender diverse people in Australia. The first and the biggest Australia-wide trans mental health study was conducted by Curtin University in 2013. It had nearly a thousand participants, and over two hundred of them identified themselves as non-binary.

So how does gender diversity fare at the University of Melbourne campus?

John*, a University of Melbourne student who identifies as non-binary, explains how he perceives gender as a quality in flux, rather than strictly black-or-white, male-or-female.

“For me, I think my gender identity is generally on the masculine end of the spectrum, but my feelings about my physical sex change quite a lot. It’s not one or the other — male or female — it can be both.”

John feels that there is not enough visibility for gender diverse students on campus, despite the visibility of LGBTQI students in some spaces. Andrea, an openly non-binary Queer Office Bearer in the University of Melbourne Student Union, agrees with this remark.

In particular, Andrea is alarmed by the strong conservative and trans-exclusionary presence in the university at a bureaucratic level. An example would be a lack of a third option for gender in forms, such as an ‘Other’, ‘Unspecified’ or ‘Mx’ (as opposed to ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’) option.

“The system is just not capable of taking in that change… people don’t understand the importance of why that will be such a step forward for us in terms of progressive inclusiveness.”

This is important because despite official recognition from the government, there is still a long way to go. Trans and gender diverse individuals still face high levels of discrimination, harassment, and violence. This impacts physical and mental health in the community, and leads to higher rates of suicide and self-harm.

Since safety is a paramount issue, one solution that gender diversity advocates are calling for is gender-neutral bathrooms.

Lee Taube is the Queer Representative at Swinburne University who has both successfully lobbied for ‘Mx’ as a title and secured a gender-neutral bathroom on campus — the first in Victoria. Lee points to the fact that trans and gender diverse people are more likely than most to face violence and discrimination when using gender-specific bathrooms.

‘Their options may be to get yelled at in one bathroom, or even get assaulted in another.’

Lee says they were not met with any opposition from the bureaucratic system (the same goes for the ‘Mx’ title), and the move garnered a lot of support. Many people, not only the gender diverse, saw these bathrooms as beneficial.

“They’re not this thing only trans or queer people need. They’re in a lot of cafes, they’re in just about everything… they’re not a new, scary thing. It’s just a bathroom that anyone can use.”

As for the University of Melbourne, Andrea reports that the Queer Office is also lobbying for gender-neutral bathrooms in all new buildings.

“Whether that be a combined — wheelchair-access, gender-neutral — room, or separate no-gender room and a disability toilet, because there?s a whole lot of buildings in the uni that don?t have either of those things.”

However, gender-neutral bathrooms alone do not solve the problems that non-binary and gender diverse people face. There is still a lack of understanding within the general community about the concept of gender diversity. This translates into a lack of tolerance, and a refusal to respect preferred pronouns (gender diverse people commonly use neutral pronouns such as — but not limited to — ‘they/their/them’).

Lee, who is also openly non-binary, observes that many still cling to the idea of the two traditional genders.

“They put you in a box so they know how to treat you. It shouldn’t be a thing because it comes from sexism, like ‘I want to know if somebody’s a man or a woman so I know at what level to treat them.’ You should treat everyone lovely regardless.”

There also seems to be no consensus as to whether or not non-binary or gender diverse people can be included under the ‘trans’ umbrella. Factionalism and politics within the queer community can inhibit progress towards safer communities. Andrea explains that shared understanding is crucial to solving a lot of these problems.

“I believe that we’re all fighting for the same thing, because what non-binary people are fighting for is the same as what trans people are fighting for most of the time: just acceptance, respect and a little bit of open-mindedness.”

This year, the University of Melbourne Student Union Queer Office aims to increase support and awareness for gender diversity by distributing flyers and posters, and also by organising the Pride Prom to be held at the end of semester one.

“It’s only the beginning of the year but we’ve got a lot of stuff planned to make it as inclusive as possible. The past couple of years [we’ve had] more people of colour, people whose first language is not English, women, non-binary people, and bi people in.”

Apart from that, Andrea also offers some support for those who might be confused about their gender identity.

“I think you just need to look at your own situation and decide for yourself, and don’t let anyone else tell you what’s right for you — maybe listen to their advice, but it’s your choice.”

As for those who are not trans or gender diverse, Andrea implores them to be respectful. This constitutes respecting one’s pronouns, not making fun of the way they dress or behave, and not making a fuss if they use either of the gendered toilets.

Most important, however, is that people need to understand that regardless of what one’s gender identity may be, they are still no different from their peers.

As Lee says, “Just because somebody doesn’t identify as binary male or female, it doesn’t mean that they’re not human. Gender’s not tied to humanity — you don’t have to be a man or a woman to be human.”

* Name has been changed.