Features Lived Experience Non-binary Transphobia

Growing up outside the gender binary


by Calley Zanelf

Having grown up not identifying with the gender I was assigned at birth I, like so many other trans folk, endured daily struggles that I just didn’t have the knowledge, understanding or language to express. School uniform was gendered: boys wore shorts / trousers, girls wore skirts / dresses. Expectations were prescribed by grown-ups: behaviour, sports, hobbies, jobs. Clothes shops were (and still are) gendered: “boys’ clothes”, for the rough and ready adventurer, “girls’ clothes” for pretty princesses hosting tea parties with their dolls. Gendered toys, accessories, even lunchboxes! Unbelievably this is still the case, even in these times of supposed equality!

As I got older, I learnt of binary transgender identities, but knew this did not apply to me. Growing up pre-Google I had no point of reference. I felt as if I was the only freaky alien in the world who was not male or female. I was convinced I’d been ‘made wrong’.

Discovering the language and validity of my gender as an adult was liberating and exciting. But I was wrong to assume that things would simply fall in to place. Anyone outside of the normative gender binary faces transphobia/transignorance in all areas of their lives, constantly. ‘Non-binary’ and ‘agender’ are not in the public psyche. It’s not taught at school, we’re not able to ‘pass’ as our authentic gender because the collective consciousness does not have a box for us. Binary trans folk’s appearances generally offer clues for cis people to identify; boobs, facial hair, clothing. 

There’s no barometer for what a non-binary or agender person looks like. Why should there be? There ARE amazing ambassadors for non-binary folk. People like Addison Rose Vincent (#breakthebinary) who has a phenomenal shapely body, beautiful silky long hair and an amazing beard. But for those of us who are trapped in the cycle of hiding the bodies that we detest and the features that “give us away”; we are denied the opportunities to be gendered correctly. We are constantly misgendered.

We face the choice to educate, or “let it go”. Every day we’re addressed by well-meaning folk with polite intentions. “Sir”. “Madam”. “What can I get you, ladies?” “How’re you boys today?” Assumptions are made based on our appearance. If we take this opportunity to educate it’s either met with interest, embarrassment or dismissal – making the rest of the interaction uncomfortable.

I had a damaging relationship with a Community Psychiatric Nurse and a Support Worker who had clearly never heard of, let alone encountered, a non-binary person before. Their questioning was rude, insensitive and demeaning and ultimately they decided they ‘didn’t believe in it’ and chose to completely ignore the subject! My inappropriate community mental health team also refused to use the pronoun ‘they’. Following me raising the point repeatedly, they made a half-hearted effort in my presence, but in conversations about me (internally and with outside service providers) they would only use gender specific pronouns. When an individual informs you of their pronouns it’s ok to slip up while getting used to it – providing you recognise this and respectfully make an effort. But refusal to use correct pronouns or repeatedly ‘slipping up’ suggests that you actually perceive that person as the wrong gender. This is disrespectful and insulting.

The UK government ‘doesn’t recognise’ any gender outside of male or female. A Gender Recognition Act reform survey was issued in 2018 which received 100,000 responses. The government pledged to publish the findings in spring 2019. A year later; we’re still waiting! Reform of the GRA is desperately needed to give trans people appropriate rights and protection, and to (I really hope) finally recognise (as other countries do) that non-binary people DO exist! Then we could have our correct gender marker displayed on ID documents and be able to travel abroad without having to lie about our gender. 

When completing forms, we’re asked ‘male or female’ even if it’s completely irrelevant. Why does a lawn mower retailer, bank clerk or double glazing sales person need to know your gender? The only people who need to know assigned gender are healthcare providers – there are implications associated with not knowing biological details that could be dangerous in a medical emergency.

I’ve also never understood the need for sexuality to be featured on forms but maybe that’s because, as an agender, non-binary person there’s no neat box that describes my sexuality. I’m not gay and I’m not straight. What would the ‘opposite’ gender even be? If pushed, I say I’m ‘queer’ but that’s seen as a provocative term or one that’s designed to create mystery. Queer is often lumped in with ‘non-binary’ – perceived as a “fashionable” or “fake” label.Some non-binary people choose to take low dose ‘cross-gender’ hormones to ‘neutralise’ their appearance, moving away from the stereotypical characteristics of their assigned gender. Some non-binary people choose higher doses in an attempt to display some of the physical characteristics traditionally attributed to the gender ‘opposite’ to their assigned gender. Some non-binary people, like me, choose not to take hormones at all. Although I have constant dysphoria and detest most of my body, for me the uncertainty of ways in which hormones would change my appearance is too great a risk to my psychological well-being. 

There are members of the trans community, and even within the non-binary community, that claim that those of us who decide not to medically transition are ‘faking’ our gender, that we’re ‘playing’ at being non-binary. It’s so sad that we face this prejudice within our own community.

By historical comparison we are making progress in terms of appropriate language and overall acceptance. But isn’t it sad that (according to official statistics) the 0.4% of the UK population (1 in approx 250 people) who specifically identify as non-binary or agender are ridiculed, bullied and excluded routinely in their daily lives? Furthermore (according to a YouGov poll) 20% of the UK population place themselves somewhere on the spectrum between ‘100% male’ and ‘100% female’, so the actual percentage of non-binary people (if this was officially recognised for identity documents) could be a lot higher than we think. 

Research conducted in 2012 (Harrison et al.) reported that 40% of non-binary people had attempted suicide, a third had experienced physical assault and a sixth had been sexually assaulted based on their gender. Schools are beginning to recognise, accept and discuss the subject of gender beyond the binary. But this is faced with widespread condemnation and opposition. Until a whole generation can understand and accept the reality of non-binary identities, and until that generation grows up and carries it forward to future generations, we will continue to face discrimination in most areas of our lives.

Although I am honoured to be writing this piece for a trans platform, it’s cisgender people in particular who need to be aware of the issues faced by non-binary and agender people. At the moment we feel like the novelty act, the weirdos who insist on being different. It’s time for non-binary people to be taken seriously and to be treated respectfully.

Skip to content