Understanding Non-Binary Identities
The cultural conversation on gender is fast-paced. One of the developments in the last few years has been the increasing popularity of non-binary gender identities.
These identities (such as non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid etc.) are adopted by those who don’t feel they fall clearly into either side of the gender binary. In this way they differ from those who identify as transgender, those who feel they fall on the opposite side of the gender binary to what their body may seem to suggest. (Christians are yet to really wrestle with the growing prominence of these non-binary identities, although Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky’s Emerging Gender Identities, due for publication this summer, promises to be a helpful starting point.)
This week, The Guardian has started a new series called Genderqueer Generation which seeks to highlight ‘the experiences and perspectives of non-binary and other gender-nonconforming young people’. The opening article in the series offers insights from four teenagers on how they came to identify as non-binary.
There’s lots we can learn from these accounts. In this post, I will draw on the article to briefly highlight some useful insights about non-binary identities, and in a subsequent post I will reflect on how these insights might help us as we seek to care for and disciple children and young people.
A contrast between non-binary identities and transgender is that gender dysphoria is often not present in non-binary identities. This is important in understanding non-binary identities, and therefore important to being able to respond well.
Gender dysphoria is the medical diagnosis that can be given when an individual experiences significant distress because of a disconnect between their internal sense of gender and their biological sex. (Or in the language of the DSM-5: ‘between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender’.) Most who identify as transgender and who seek to transition experience gender dysphoria, but many who identify with non-binary identities do not.
This is highlighted in the Guardian article in that none of the accounts speak about gender dysphoria and the young people don’t seem to have experienced the sort of distress that is a key diagnostic criterion for gender dysphoria.
This fact should shape the way we engage with those who adopt a non-binary identity. It is important to not assume that those identifying as non-binary are experiencing gender dysphoria or that they believe they have been born in the wrong body. In personal relationship and conversation, our first response should always be to gently ask to hear more of the individual’s story to better understand them.
Like transgender, non-binary identities rely on a form of internal identity formation: identity is rooted in internal feelings and desires. This can be seen in the words of the young people in the article. ‘It’s my identity. It’s how I feel. It’s not how you feel.’
The accounts in the article all seem to root their identities in what they find inside themselves. One describes this as a process of ‘self-discovering’. We should note, however, that some people are happy to create their own identity through making their own decision about who they are, without any clear reference to an internal feeling. This is one of the more recent steps in identity formation. Not only is identity not dependent on what the body or anyone or anything else says, but it’s also not dependent on the internal self. Identity can be created rather than discovered. This is an important nuance that requires a different response. Again, getting to know an individual’s own story and self-conception is so important in being able to respond well.
Problems with Internal Identity
Since these young people have adopted internal identities, it’s not surprising that their accounts reveal several of the problems of internal identity.
A simple problem is the extreme subjectivity of internal identity. The young people’s words reveal that the only evidence for the accuracy of their new identity is in how it makes them feel. ‘I thought … that feels so much better.’ ‘I investigated and realized that using they/them pronouns works the best for me.’ ‘I’m just gonna do this thing and see if it feels better.’ This is a problem because knowing who we are is really important. A good, solid, stable sense of identity, and the self-worth it brings, is vital to thriving in life. And our identity speaks to us about how we can live out our best life. It matters that we get identity right, and our own subjective feelings of an identity being a good fit are a shaky foundation on which to build something so important.
The young people also show how unstable an internal identity can be. Far from being static, an internal identity is always liable to change because our feelings and desires change. Since a solid, stable sense of identity is so important this is a potential problem. Several of the accounts reveal how unstable internal identities are: ‘I switched labels a lot’. ‘Non-binary is a good label for me right now.’
Finally, the accounts reveal the uncomfortable pressure that is produced by the need to discover one’s identity internally and to be sure of that identity and then to live it out. One of the saddest statements in the article comes from River: ‘I haven’t come out to my family… I’m scared to tell them about it [in case] in a couple of years I don’t feel like calling myself non-binary anymore and I have to do the whole thing again’. This is an 18-year-old who doesn’t feel they can be honest with their own family about a big part of their self-experience because of the pressure to discover who they are and to get that right. Internal identity puts an unbearable weight of pressure on people. It’s not good news.
But thankfully, there is good news. There’s good news of an identity which is given, not discovered. An identity that doesn’t change and that isn’t subjective. An identity that doesn’t put pressure on us, because everything that is needed to make it a reality has already been done by someone else. In the midst of identity confusion, we, as Christians, have the good news that can bring true freedom.
How can some of these insights and others from the accounts of these teenagers help us as we engage with young people in our families and our churches? These are the questions I’ll seek to answer in a subsequent article.