Sunday, 02 February 2020

Binary and Non-Binary Trans: if you think there’s such a big difference, perhaps think again.

Binary and Non-Binary Trans: if you think there’s such a big difference, perhaps think again.

One of the most confusing and even confounding issues for Australia’s transgender and gender diverse community is the way that gender identity as a monolithic structure continues to change. The TGD community, whether it likes it or not is caught in a watershed moment; a heated and passionate internal argument about how we define or don’t define what gender means for the community. As divisive as it can be a little more compassionate.


There are seemingly two sides to this fight. For some, usually older, sections of the transgender community there is a history of identifying strongly with not only binary gender identity but also binary sexuality.  Whether or not this is true in practice is hard to be certain, but with a few visible exceptions such as the TGD activist and elder Norrie, the story older trans people who transitioned in the 80s, 90s, and even 00s tell is one of binary conformity in the face discrimination, vilification, violence and even death. 


The other side the debate is a response to the extraordinary shift in perception, identity and breathing room the community has been able to fight and carve out for itself over the last decade. This tends to be a younger more gender diverse, social media savvy section of the community;  and it’s worth considering how recent changes for the TGD community have shaped the emergence of more gender diverse identities.


For one, overt discrimination has eased for some sections of the TGD community. Violence has shifted too. It is reportedly becoming less overt, institutional and deadly, though at the same time it is still ever-present and still experienced across the breadth of the community. Public understanding of TGD lives continues to improve at the same time as there’s been an increase in media focus (good and bad) around the community.


For younger more gender diverse people the TGD community is frequently identified as a community, and one grounded in more political consciousness. Older more binary trans community members often experience being trans as isolating and therefore opt out of political debate for fear of drawing more attention to their difference. Also, there remains a tendency for older and/or binary transgender people to see transition somewhere between a lottery and caste system. The more a trans person can ‘pass’ as their target gender the more success and even respect they achieve.  Gender diverse, non-binary and gender non-conforming folk in contrast seem to actively reject this, valuing individual choice and the shared community that comes from the experience of queering gender and sexual identity. 


Importantly, the rise of more gender diverse identities have coincided with a more politically motivated community. Some of the biggest LGBTQI driven achievements of the last few years; marriage equality, changes to state-based ID laws, and recent changes in the way that the Australian Press Council monitors reporting on TGD people’s lives have backdropped an emergent gender diverse community. Political success after decades of fear and discrimination has given a younger gender diverse section of the community confidence that change can happen and that perhaps even our relationship to gender itself might be changed for the better. 


This broadly is the main source of the seeming conflict between the T and GD of the trans and gender diverse community. On one hand the tyranny of gender conformity might be overwritten or be repurposed to have multiple, even playful meanings. On the other that Gender identity is too dangerous to mess with, a survival instinct so powerful in some older binary trans people as to be taken as a physical insult if transgressed. However this distinction might not be as powerful as its often made out to be.


Take for instance the magnificent 2019 Kirby Institute sexual health survey of 1600 transgender and gender diverse Australians. One of the most fascinating aspects of the survey was that it revealed the entirely pragmatic way that younger TGD people used multiple identity labels to safely navigate health, social media, social networks, family and work. For example, visiting a hospital a non-binary person might identify themselves as male or female for access and safety reasons. With a family who has limited understanding or tolerance of gender diversity, a non-binary person might describe themselves as lesbian or gay. While to a more trusted but not necessarily educated doctor they might test the waters by describing themselves as transgender, and finally amongst the safety of their own social circles a non-binary person might describe themselves as non-binary and request they/them pronouns.


Far from having a fluid or evolving sense of identity, younger TGD people aoften use different identity labels in different circumstance to specifically avoid or reduce conflict, make themselves make more sense in an often clueless health system, and to adjust to the complex and even contradictory understandings of family and public who have a limited tolerance of divergent gender identity. All of these issues seem to be exactly the same challenge faced by earlier binary transgender people as they struggled to survive an overtly hostile and isolating environment. It’s  incredible to see how much the rules of survival for the TGD community have both radically changed and remained exactly the same in such a short time.