The District of Columbia recently introduced an alternative way to reflect gender on driver’s licenses and identification cards. Residents will now have the option of listing ‘X’, rather than selecting male or female as their gender. Oregon is in the process of creating a similar option, and the California Senate took one step closer by approving the Gender Recognition Act (Senate Bill 179).
Changes like these are sending a powerful ripple effect out into society, similar to those experienced when same-sex couples began challenging being denied marriage licenses.
The question then becomes, how do we best support non-binary and gender diverse individuals, while the rest of the population begins to process this new understanding of identity?
First, let’s take a step back and talk the much maligned gender binary.
So, gender. Gender is one of the first and possibly more influential determinate of our fates, established by a quick visual assessment at birth. The outcome of this observation sets each of us on a pink or blue trajectory that largely defines social expectations, access to opportunities, and relative safety in the world.
Our assigned gender tells the world how to interact with us; it tells others how we should be treated.
If only human biology were that easy.
I liken determining gender at birth to when people lacked the understanding of different blood types. Until that little nuance was discovered, it was impossible to predict if putting one person’s blood into another person would save the recipient’s life or end it. Defining gender by the appearance of one’s genitals ignores the complexity and nuance that makes each of us spectacularly unique.
As a society, we love labels. Labels make things easier to categorize and allow us to apply a wide array of expectations without having to invest much energy. Thinking of gender as a distinct female XX / male XY binary, rather than a spectrum, limits our appreciation for the range of humanity. If I can’t label you as a man or a woman, by what other method can I determine how to treat you? Right? Read that last sentence out loud again...it’s ridiculous how much of our daily exchanges with other humans are influenced by such an arbitrary factor.
People who reject the limit of male or female, may consider themselves gender fluid, genderless, agender, or a number of different possibilities. Again, the point is not about finding another label; it’s about naming one’s own experience. Non-binary individuals are reclaiming the human right to define their innate sense of gender for themselves.
Now, back to the real-world implementation aspect.
Non-binary people are declaring their identities and the cultural curve of change is going to be steep. Moving away from the male / female tick boxes on forms is a much needed first step in the process. Creating space for everyone, in a social structure developed around gender expectations, is going to be the bigger challenge.
Steps to supporting non-binary, transgender, and gender diverse individuals:
Realize that this is a thing. Yes, this is a thing. It’s a thing and it’s happening. Pronouns, new HR forms, one giant combined toy section for kids, all gender bathrooms….it’s happening. And you will be fine.
If you still have questions after item #1, consider the range of X, XX, XY, XXY, XY chromosomal variations in humans. Then take another step back and realize it’s not about you, it’s about recognizing the humanity in another person.
“It doesn’t matter” and “it’s none of your business” (these are the standard answers to most uninvited questions about a person’s anatomy, sexual orientation, spouse, or future plans with their bodies).
“They” is an accepted, gender-neutral, singular pronoun. Does this present a challenge for you grammatically? Then, practice until it doesn’t. If the APA can adapt ‘they, them, theirs’ to the style guide, so can you.
Last, don’t get too hung up on not knowing how to treat people without having gender as a guideline. Be nice. Be considerate. Be human.