Non-Binary as more than an adjective

  1. The quality of being non-binary is to position oneself outside the bounds of binary gender. It is an act of negation; the quality of being not-man and not-woman. Through the negation of this binary opposition wherein the masculine stands apart from the feminine, to assume the quality of non-binary requires, first and foremost, disaffection with the gendered standards of being.

  2. To be non-binary is to reject the quality of being assigned gender. It is not, for example, androgyny. Androgyny deals with signifiers of gender. Non-binary can overlap with the signifiers androgyny, but the condition of being non-binary refers less to the markers of gender than to the gendering of those markers. Growing a beard—a typical signifier of masculinity—becomes non-binary through the refusal to acknowledge that such a signifier is related to masculinity. Growing a beard is non-binary not as a marker, but as the appropriation and un-fixing of a gendered marker onto the non-binary body.

  3. Non-binary, then, is not a third gender. It has no signifiers which mark it as gender. As Judith Butler writes in Gender Trouble, the "repetitive practices of this terrain of signification" must be displaced "through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself".1 To be non-binary is to enact the destabilization of the repetitions that form gender. What Butler envisioned to be the proliferation of gender forms is, in practice, the process of unmooring signifier from signified in ways that dislocate the repetitions of gender.

    1. "They/them" and its grammatical incompatibility with the singular person, is precisely the practice of de-signification that is required to inhabit the quality of being non-binary. The grammatical dissonance is precisely the point.
  4. To be non-binary is a fundamentally political action as much as it is a reflection of self. It is a reflection of self which is meant to destabilize the categories which have, to a large extent, restricted the expression of the individual or required an uncomfortable performance of gender. It is the projection of gender negation outwards to others; a refusal which must be made and re-made constantly. To dis-identify with gender in an interior sense is merely the result of what Judith Butler describes as the "failure to become 'real' and to embody 'the natural' is... a constitutive failure of all gender enactments".2 Gender is, for Butler, ontologically unachievable. To identify as non-binary is the public expression of this impossibility; a queer act of failure. As such, it is a social act. It posits a form of being which is, in itself, radical.

  5. As the quality of being non-binary becomes more widely recognized and enacted, it risks territorialization into another gender. The fascination with assigning gender characteristics to baristas with pink hair and pronouns are efforts to affix signifiers to a signified and in so doing create a gender expression out of negation. Few non-binary people I know willingly concede to this practice of "fixing"–stabilizing gender. Yet, to be non-binary is still ultimately an identity to be represented, and in these representations "fixed." Thus, the insistence on androgyny as the signifier of non-binary is more than a misunderstanding of what it means to be non-binary—it is a process by which the quality of being non-binary may become surveilled and enforced like other enactments of gender.

  6. This prevailing normalization of androgyny as a signifier of being non-binary is particularly fraught precisely because it represents a political victory. Non-binary simply becomes a way of expressing inclusion: ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary folks. It is always non-binary "folks." Non-binary, in this formulation, occupies merely a third possibility of gender. The fact I am able to tell companies, governments, and other structures of power that I am non-binary is both a victory and defeat. The ability to "fix" an identity expressed as negation enables forms of enforcement. The archetype of the non-binary defense contractor becomes the symbol of a radical gesture which becomes so easily subsumed into current structures of imperial-patriarchal power.

    1. Similar arguments were made about the quality of being trans* in the early 2000s. Trans-ness became, to the frustration of many trans people, a political statement about the fungibility of gender signifiers. The quality of being non-binary resembles the quality of being trans* (and is included within that category). Being trans should not be a political act. Being trans is to be, and the politicization follows from the hetero-patriarchal apparatus. Non-binary is, to my mind, fundamentally political insofar as it challenges the signification of gender itself. To be trans is to be brave, to be non-binary is to be defiant. To position transness as radical is to normalize the apparatus which politicizes human expression. Non-binary offers the challenge to those processes of normalization.
    2. I do not intend for this to snipe at trans activism, which is both necessary and radical, but rather to offer a political line which positions transness as something which can become a settled issue, while maintaining the broader challenge to gender norms and hetero-patriarchal power within the space of other identities which can be adopted by anyone.
    3. Non-binary is unique, insofar as it can be inhabited by anyone at any time. As an act of negation, it can supplant with any other set of signifiers. To be non-binary is to de-couple signifiers from signified. This is a political operation which some trans people may not be able to accomplish in the climate of politicized being, but should remain open.
  7. Ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary folks—a third category, signified by the adjective non-binary. But non-binary is not an adjective, but rather an action. It is the negation of identity which precedes the person. It is an articulation of un-fix-edness, of instability. As an action, as a social assertion, the quality of being non-binary must constantly shift away from any attempt to fix it. Non-binary takes on the quality of the avant-garde—the forefront in the challenge of normative signification. The radical enactment of being non-binary is the constant de-signification of self.

  8. What remains, then, is how non-binary will enact the role of avant-garde. The crucial aim of this essay is not a prescriptive practice, but the allergy to stability and fix-edness that must inform this enactment. Nothing will be determined; it must all be enacted.

  1. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 202–3.↩︎

  2. Butler, 200.↩︎