The Struggles of Rejecting the Gender Binary

Just in the last few years, nonbinary identity has been slowly seeping into societal consciousness. A nonbinary actor, Asia Kate Dillon, has starred since 2017 as a nonbinary character on the Showtime series “Billions.” A raft of new nonbinary models are featured in fashion spreads, and a Coke ad, aired during the 2018 Super Bowl, paired an androgynous face with a pointed gender-neutral pronoun. “There’s a Coke,” the voice-over said, “for he and she and her and me and them.” Nonbinary as a category has even slipped into state laws. In 2016, an Oregon court granted a plaintiff the right to label themself nonbinary on their driver’s license, and by now, though the Trump administration proclaims that gender is a simple matter of biology, some dozen states, from New York to Utah, offer some form of Oregon’s flexibility. Yet the nation’s glimmers of tolerance don’t necessarily mean much — even in New York, let alone in rural North Carolina — when you’re living in opposition to our most basic way of seeing and sorting and comprehending one another.

It’s impossible to say how many Salems, how many nonbinary people, there are across the United States. Surveys have yet to deal with this reliably. And any researcher who takes on the question will run into a problem with terminology. An abundance of labels, with subtle distinctions, are in play. Neutrois and gender nonconforming and demiboy and demigirl and pangender and genderqueer are among the array of closely related identities that could confound any demographer. Another complication is that many nonbinary people also call themselves transgender or trans — not, as Salem has, to avoid explaining themselves, but as an umbrella term, encompassing all kinds of self-definition, all sorts of physical transformation and transgression of the norms of F and M.

“Data are scarce, and the research gaps are vast,” Jody Herman, a public-policy scholar at the U.C.L.A. School of Law’s Williams Institute, a think tank devoted to issues of gender and sexual orientation, told me, cautioning against any estimate of the country’s nonbinary population. That said, she pointed to an analysis of two federal public-health surveys, conducted by phone in 2014 and 2015, on which 19 states included a brief optional section about gender identity. The results suggest — tenuously — that the total of all transgender-identified adults in the United States is in the neighborhood of 1.4 million. The optional section had a lone follow-up question seeking more specificity: “Do you consider yourself to be male-to-female, female-to-male or gender nonconforming?” Around one-fifth of those who identified as trans chose nonconforming. Yet at the very outset of the section, any interview subject asking for clarification about the meaning of transgender was given a traditional binary definition along with an example of someone born male but living as female. So anyone who rejected both male and female classifications was potentially excluded. All told, the results didn’t provide much insight into nonbinary numbers; instead, the surveys were a reminder of the confusion and ignorance surrounding the topic.

For anyone interested in nonbinary demographics, the surveys had another shortcoming. They excluded anyone under age 18, and according to clinicians who specialize in gender, it’s among the young that nonbinary identity is taking hold most rapidly. “It’s growing exponentially,” Linda Hawkins, co-director of the Gender and Sexuality Development Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told me about the number of kids and youth in her practice — from ages 6 to 21 — who identify as nonbinary.  Read more via New York Times