TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of misgendering, invalidation of trans identities
NOTE: I want to use this post to start a conversation. I know that there’s plenty of trans experiences I don’t have–so if I’m missing something, please don’t be afraid to let me know!
So, this flashy word people throw around, “trans narrative,” when they say it, they’re talking about the normative idea of what it is to be trans, what it involves. Knowing you were trans before you could barely speak and asserting that clearly to your family, expressing your true gender in normative ways, wanting to medically transition in all ways possible. Not really “counting” as trans until medical transition starts. This is the normative trans narrative that so many people decry in their vlogs and blogs and all sorts of places.
This trans narrative does not have room for non-binary people.
There are normative pressures in the non-binary world, too, possibly that you’re AFAB and that you express more on a masculine spectrum/androgynously. But the dominant trans narrative, cultivated by so many years of warped guidelines for therapists (and warped therapists) and our own trans community, does not even leave space for our existence. It also doesn’t leave space for many binary trans people. Anybody who doesn’t check all of those boxes can deal with some invalidation because of not fitting into this narrative.
Much of the dominant culture and conversation about what it is to be trans is constructed for and focused on binary trans people. It’s important to note that this isn’t the only point of focus: dominant conversations about transness revolve around white, able-bodied, thin-privileged, class-privileged citizens of the United States (at least in the US). All of this intersects in different ways. Right now I’m going to focus on non-binary identity because I’m not versed in all of these intersections–I need to work on that. If I create any glaring holes, I apologize. If you feel comfortable, please let me know and I will do my best to correct it.
I will give you one example of how this plays out. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about “passing” privilege that non-binary people can sometimes have. I want to front-load this conversation by saying that “passing” can be a complicated topic for many people, and not everyone’s goal is to “pass.” The word itself is cissexist and sucky. But I’m going to use it here because people do talk a lot about “passing” privilege. If folks have an idea about a better word, I’d love to know about it!
Inside the trans community, there are two types of “passing.” One is to “pass” as cisgender. The other is to “pass” as our true genders. For binary trans people, even if it is hard or impossible to “pass” as either of these things, “passing” as one’s true gender can often mean “passing” as cisgender. (This is still true, but more complicated, with binary people who have non-normative gender expressions. There are also many binary trans people that do not want to “pass” as cisgender.)
As diverse as the binary trans community is, it’s harder to talk about non-binary people because we are even more diverse. However, for many non-binary people, it is nearly impossible to pass as our true gender(s) (or lack of gender). Very rarely does it cross people’s minds that “non-binary” could be an option when they’re projecting their gender assumptions onto people. Some non-binary people are (sometimes, often, or always) comfortable presenting as a binary gender. Some non-binary people CAN’T be read as cisgender because of their gender expression or medical transition. (I think that part of this assumption about non-binary “passing” privilege is based on the wrong idea that none of us transition medically.) Some wish they weren’t read as cisgender or binary trans, but due to any number of limitations, that’s what they are read as. When trying to be read as our full selves, sometimes the best we can hope for is confusing people. Many binary trans people can hope for being seen as their true genders. In order for non-binary people to be seen as our true genders (or lack thereof), we first need to educate people not only on what it means to be trans, but on the existence of our gender(s) (or lack of gender).
Then, while we’re doing that educating, we are also working against a dominant trans narrative, and many binary trans people, that also say that we don’t exist. Or that if we do, we are doing this for political reasons or something, or just to threaten binary people’s genders, or some other hogwash. So, yes, some non-binary people have the “passing” privilege of appearing cisgender–as do some binary trans people. Very few to no non-binary people have the “passing” privilege of being read as our true genders (or lack of gender). This is also true for some binary trans people. The difference is that binary trans people’s true genders at least exist as a pre-formulated possibility in people’s minds, even if they refuse to recognize a binary trans person, even if “that person might be trans” doesn’t occur to them when projecting gender onto someone. Non-binary people do not exist as a possibility in most people’s minds.
This is why we need binary trans people to have our backs. Many of us across the trans community are challenging this dominant trans narrative, but it is pervasive. It contains a lot of binary prejudice. There are many other ways that we talk about binary trans experience as if it’s the experience of everyone who isn’t cisgender. It’s not just in conversations about “passing” privilege, it’s everywhere. I hear a lot of non-binary people apologizing for their “passing” privilege, and I think it’s important for any and everyone to own what privileges they do have. Some non-binary people do have a variety of privileges. But I also want to recognize that the whole dynamic is skewed, is set up from a binary trans perspective. What would it look like if we had a narrative that held everyone equally? It might be a lot messier and longer and take some more words, but then everyone would be seen.