Non-binary People, the Trans Narrative, and “Passing” Privilege

"passing", agender, cissexism, gender fluid, genderqueer, misgendering, non-binary, privilege, trans narrative, transgender

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. 

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10 thoughts on “Non-binary People, the Trans Narrative, and “Passing” Privilege

  1. Great post. One of the strange things about the “trans narrative”–which, as you say, truly dominates the discourse–is the way it gets (re)produced in the lives of binary trans people. I once thought of myself as not fitting the narrative. I was gender-nonconforming and experienced dysphoria from a young age, but it wasn’t til my late teens that I was able to put that into words, and I experimented with a number of identities before I settled on male.

    Imagine my surprise when I read the letter my counselor wrote me for top surgery, which said that I had stated my male identity from age 3. Wtf?! I did tell my counselor I was depressed and had trouble fitting in from my earliest memories, and that in retrospect I see it was because I’m trans. I never mentioned a specific age, though, and I know for sure I was not able to say “I’m a boy” when I was in preschool (I expressed it in my own, less obvious ways).

    Now I have to say I do fit the dominant narrative…but it’s not because that’s the obvious course of my life. It’s because my life has been constructed that way, mostly by people other than me, and so effectively that it’s become somewhat true. There’s a lot of mess and lot of magic that’s obscured by that.

    Thanks for making me think!

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    1. Thanks! I appreciate hearing about your experience and perspective, too. It’s interesting to hear how the trans narrative can shape people’s transitions/genders/lives from a different viewpoint. 🙂

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  2. Tough issue, truly. Hard to dissect but it seems you did it.

    I have barely the standing to comment, though, since my own experience, while difficult in its way, has been easier than yours, I gather. With the standing only of a thoughtful, ethical human denizen who can read and relate, I applaud your work. I would commend it to anyone in the caregiving and counseling professions to give it due consideration.

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    1. Thanks! I don’t know much about your experience, and I think everyone really has shit to deal with. But I appreciate the kind words. And, yeah, therapists & medical professionals need to get up to speed! Actually, anyone who works with people, but them in particular.

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  3. I agree that we need to have each other’s backs, and to not be so rigid about our categories or our identities.

    Try not to blame the trans men and trans women who choose a binary identity – they did not create the narrative, in many cases it has been foisted upon them (as Rimonim noted in his comment). From the 1950’s through the not so distant past (and sometimes the present) anyone in the US who wanted legal and safe access to hormones and/or surgery had to go through medical and psychiatric gatekeepers who controlled access.

    The only way to get access was to give a standard narrative and to present as binary and heteronormatively as possible. Trans women who said they were attracted to women were denied access – they had to lie and pretend they wanted to marry a man and be Suzy Homemaker. They had to “dress up” for their appointments and feign interest in fashion and cooking. Transsexuals were expected to fit the binary mold.

    The medical model left no room for other authentic identities – there was no transgender spectrum and no acceptance of gender non-conformity within it.

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    1. Yup, I totally agree! That history plays a huge role, and we’ve internalized it for sure. I’m not sure where blaming binary trans people came into it in this piece–that wasn’t my goal, let me know if there was a certain part that showed that and I’ll check it out.

      At the same time, binary prejudice is a real thing that a number of binary trans (and cis) people hold, and it hurts us all. That tension is real, and it doesn’t solely come from the messed-up medical model that still has a lot of gatekeeping going on. Of course, there are plenty of people everywhere who are chill about all genders, inside or outside of the binary, however they’re expressed. But this kind of prejudice is there too. This post is partially a response to the kind of prejudice I was responding to earlier this week from a comment on this post: http://theyismypronoun.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/do-non-transsexual-singular-they-users-trivialize-trans-peoples-struggles/.

      As I said in my piece, it definitely is a narrative that doesn’t easily fit many binary trans people as well. Thanks for talking more about that!

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  4. I identify loosely as transgender and butch, and I would describe myself as gender non-conforming and not assimilated into mainstream culture. The genderqueer term feels a little too fluid for me (I am kind of rigid in my refusal to be even the least bit feminine) and non-binary is probably closest although I dislike defining myself as what I am not, which is why I throw myself upon the transgender bandwagon. I experience my oppression through my inability to conform.

    In terms of blaming, I interpreted this sentence “This is the normative trans narrative that so many people decry in their vlogs and blogs and all sorts of places.”
    My issue with the vlogs (other than being bored by one more “my first week on T post”) is their lack of introspection and nuance and their desire to be like everyone else – to have the homogeneous trans guy experience.

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    1. Oh–but to decry something is to publicly denounce it. I was saying that a lot of people (including binary people–could have made that clearer) talk about how much the trans narrative sucks. I’m not sure how that fits in with an idea that I’m blaming binary trans people for the trans narrative.

      I haven’t spent a lot of time on the vlogs, so I can’t really say much about them, but I have seen some that are less stuck to the trans narrative. (I also want to say that it’s totally fine to fit that, follow it, and be comfortable with it! We are all who we are. The problem is visibility & gender policing, not anyone being who they are.)

      And I also apologize for my language if it’s not inclusive enough of your experience. Is there something I can do differently to include you more?

      Thanks for your feedback! 🙂

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