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Nonbinary People Don’t Want to Owe Androgyny, But We Do It to Survive

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Reiterated in socially conscious spaces until it makes me want to gouge my ears out: “Nonbinary people don’t owe you androgyny!”

I’m sure people who say this are supportive and generally understanding of the plight of gender in modern American society. Perhaps a student in a Women, Gender, and Sexuality seminar says this to snaps around the table. Perhaps they were themself filled with nonbinary rage at the machine of society that demands this exacting display of equal male and female characteristics from us.

I bought into this rage, heavy, when I was younger and starting to toe the edges of gender; I didn’t owe anyone else a window into my gender identity. Now, I am a cynic: To be broadly seen as nonbinary, you must present as androgynous.

***

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I refuse to argue the existence of nonbinary gender identity. Eighty-two percent of transgender individuals have considered suicide, as have 94 percent of nonbinary individuals; 40 percent of each group has attempted.

The existence of 1.2 million people who identify as nonbinary in the United States alone, regardless of whether that identity can be considered “real” (and really, what is real when we talk social constructs), is enough to warrant solving the issues they face. We kill trans and nonbinary people with our inaction. Thousands upon thousands of bodies slump over for the last time, as we argue over whether we even see them.

***

There is a gap between self-defined identity, which describes how one internally identifies, and other-imposed identity, which refers to how they are externally perceived. In a typical example concerning race, one might self-define as consider themself Chinese because they were raised in a culturally Chinese household that celebrated the Lunar New Year and split mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival. That same person might be widely perceived as some flavor of vaguely East Asian based on the tint of their skin or the skew of their eyes.

In determining other-imposed gender identity, we are evaluated in accordance with the established looks of men and women. We all know what male and female look like — or at least, we think we do, according to the notions of gender expression developed by our surrounding societies. Every recorded civilization has had at least the two genders of male and female. Gender has a look refined over human history, as conveyed by hair, makeup, clothing, size, stature, bone structure, et cetera. Men have muscles, body hair, and rugged faces; women have curves, long silky hair, and a softness to their edges.

I can’t escape this judgment. No one has ever seen me, with my medium wolf cut, winged eyeliner, and high-waisted pants, and thought anything other than “woman.”

If I wanted them to think otherwise, I would need to change parts of me. I’d cut flesh from my chest, build structure in my jaw, shave my head, grow five more inches. I’d flee my own body.

***

People describe others with their own perceptions, until they learn that others’ self-defined identities differ, and they care enough to update their perceptions. Human beings are duck testable: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck — and to call a duck anything other than a duck is ridiculous.

Even at Harvard, where students campaign for social justice, the duck test is used without asking whether someone identifies as a duck first. The most socially progressive people I know have defaulted to “she/her” for me. I don’t blame them for it. It’s easy to advocate for respecting gender identities at large; it’s hard to deliver the requisite respect in individual situations when the right answer seems already too apparent, when we’ve been raised to assume that gender is generally obvious.

We could use neutral pronouns for each other until otherwise specified. In theory, this would solve all thorniness; in practice, no one ever does it. Only around half of all Americans are even somewhat comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns when specifically asked to do so; it seems reasonable to assume that the percentage of Americans comfortable with using gender-neutral pronouns even before being asked to do so is much lower.

Overall, the trendline for national comfort with gender neutrality is depressingly static. Coupled with the disinclination to explain one’s entire identity to a new group of peers, the duck test seems unlikely to leave us anytime soon, at Harvard or beyond.

***

If you want to be widely perceived as nonbinary, you need to present like the single socially-understood look. Nonbinary people might not have the same history of civilizations established on male and female to define what our gender identity looks like — but we have a look nonetheless, defined in the space between male and female.

It’s androgyny: the perfect blend between masculine and feminine. Think of every “gender envy” Pinterest board of skinny, pale, smudged-out teens with dark hair and worried knuckles. You want to be perceived as neither male nor female, but neutrally? You need a neutral body.

Never mind the fact that this might not be how you personally identify. Nonbinary identity rarely files perfectly down the center of the male-female continuum. Rather, nonbinary identity encapsulates a large swathe of gender identities, from feeling like both man and woman in different amounts, to feeling no gender at all. It’s a three-dimensional identity that we attempt to collapse down to the two-dimensional scale between male and female.

Never mind the fact that you might not want to change the body you grew up in, which has served you for all these years. Many nonbinary people do not want to pursue hormone therapy or gender-affirming procedures. They are not nonbinary souls “stuck in the wrong bodies,” as the popular myths would claim; their bodies are their own, made nonbinary by their identities.

Finally, never mind the fact that body change to the androgynous ideal might not even be possible. A thin, white, childlike body is unachievable by much of the nonbinary population due to genetics alone. For many nonbinary people, striving towards an androgynous body is a hopeless act towards an unreachable fantasy.

The fantasy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. Even if you fit the model of androgyny to a tee, you are not guaranteed an other-imposed nonbinary identity. People still perceive you without your clarification all the time, while passing you on the street or participating beside you in section. Androgyny only works as shorthand for nonbinary if the audience’s duck tests are updated to recognize this latest model of nonbinary appearance. You’re entrusting the reception of your identity to people who, statistically speaking, are in the 73 percent of Americans who have heard little to nothing about nonbinary identity. One in five Americans know someone who identifies as nonbinary; likely even fewer grasp the nuances of how that person conceptualizes their complex gender identity.

Here is the crux of the nonbinary tragedy: We need to perform to be recognized, that performance might not be how we want to be recognized in the first place, and even then, the performance doesn’t always work to generate recognition.

We want to be perceived as we perceive ourselves, so badly. But the journey is treacherous, consuming our bodies and agency for a chance at public acceptance. Maybe that’s why 94 percent of us want to kill ourselves: It’s the last act of agency we can afford in a system that grants us none.

***

I do not want nonbinary people to die. I want nothing but euphoria and gentle endings for my nonbinary siblings.

History bears witness to how people like me have tried for a kinder future. Activists have redefined gender neutrality and resisted gender norms since the 1970s. Younger generations are rewiring how we think about gender beyond the man-woman binary.

But we need more. I am tired of waiting for the dead to accumulate. Perhaps it’s too existentially difficult for us to decouple the body from the identity, to wipe our mechanisms of perception, such that nonbinary people are freed from their Sisyphean torture. But we can control the extent to which these perceptions are verbalized. We can default to gender-neutral language. We can refrain from commenting on each others’ bodies. We can change the behemoth of culture one surface-level action at a time, until it becomes second nature and itself culture.

If we can create this culture change anywhere, it’s at the microcosm of Harvard, a campus so overwhelmingly liberal that we had a near-scandal over the lack of conservative voices. Use “they/them” before anyone else. Check your biases before making assumptions about others’ gender identities based on their bodies. Do it for the at least 2.7 percent of current Harvard students who identify as nonbinary. Do it to save lives.

***

This LGBTQ+ History Month, as we celebrate the queer trailblazers who have carved our passage towards civil rights into the deepest granite of time, I also want us to look to the future birthed by today’s history. I want us to make the choices now that will lead to broad acceptance of nonbinary people and reduce trans and nonbinary death down the line.

Until then, nonbinary people are saddled with this ugly tragedy, the dichotomy of choice between self-respect and others’ respect. I don’t want to owe you androgyny, but you’re going to ask for it anyways.

Christina M. Xiao ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is a joint concentrator in Computer Science and Government in Eliot House.

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