N for Nonbinary? LGBTQ & Beyond [UPDATED]

UPDATE (7/10/14, 5:00pm): Several readers have let me know that I over-stepped by wading into this debate as a binary trans person. Thanks for giving me this feedback and for doing it so politely. I apologize and I can see how I distracted from a necessary in-group conversation. If I could do it over, I’d address the topic in a very different way, sticking to my own experiences and making it more clear that it’s up to nonbinary folks to decide this one. My bad. Thanks to everyone who’s shared their thoughts so far.

Topherbigelow makes the case for adding N for nonbinary to the LGBTQ+ acronym:

If the LGBT community would like to stand strong in its support of all sexual and gender “minorities,” we should add an “N” to accommodate our nonbinary members. The constant pissing contests of who’s more trans needs to stop and if there is an entirely separate letter and a new vocabulary, maybe it will.

If you don’t identify with your sex assigned at birth, you are a nonconformer. If you identify with another binary gender, you’re trans. If you don’t, you’re nonbinary. It’s really not hard. Stop fighting each other and start fighting for what we all need.

First, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment in that last sentence. “Trans enough” policing is a damaging waste of time. Instead, we should work together to improve conditions for all of us.

I’ve never heard this proposal before, and it really got me thinking. Thanks to topherbigelow for raising this interesting question. I want to make clear that I am not trying to refute anything he said, just to explain my own current thinking on the matter.

At this time, I am not in favor of adding N for nonbinary to the acronym. I am not dead-set against it; as a transsexual man, I will defer to my nonbinary comrades if a consensus emerges in favor of the N. Nonbinary readers are encouraged to weigh-in in the comments. For now, I’d like to share a preliminary assessment of the idea. I lay out my concerns with making the acronym any longer, and then discuss some reasons I think nonbinary folks belong within the trans umbrella.

First, an argument from parsimony. The LGBTQ+ acronym has already been elaborated to the point that very few people are going to use or understand its longer incarnations. For example, topherbigelow uses the acronym LGBTQQIAAHP (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, allies, HIV infected/affected, poly/pansexual). Wow! I admire the inclusiveness of this acronym. I also worry it’s too much of a mouthful to be of much use, especially offline. I have been an activist for gender and sexual minorities for over a decade, I read LGBTQ+ blogs every day, and I had never heard this version. Off the top of my head, the longest version I know is LGBTQQIA (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual)–already too long for many situations.

I think it’s fair to say that many people, including many who are gender and/or sexual minorities themselves, are not going to understand this terminology. We have to strike a balance between explicitly including different parts of our community and using terms that will be understood by as many as possible. Language is useful only to the extent it allows us to communicate. Since nonbinary people are already included in the term transgender–though it’s true that not enough people realize this–I wonder how much is to be gained by adding yet another letter.

That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, however. I think we should continue to work for greater visibility of nonbinary people within the trans umbrella. Binary and nonbinary trans people do have our differences–but we also have so many similarities. We face stigma and ignorance that is heavily overlapping; the same laws bar (or fail to bar) discrimination as against us; we struggle with shame and misgendered childhoods.

Many of the differences–pronoun preference, medical care needs, legal document changes–exist within as well as between these groups. For example, hormone therapy is associated with trans men and women. I do think it’s probably true that trans men and women are more likely to seek out hormone therapy than nonbinary folks. However, there are some trans men and women who don’t take hormones, and some nonbinary people who do.

The variation within groups goes even deeper. How much do an 18-year-old queer, radical trans woman of color and a 50-year-old straight, white, Republican man of transsexual history really have in common?  Just one thing: their sex assignment at birth differs from their real gender. That’s something they both have in common with any nonbinary person, too. Because of the tyrannical sex/gender regime, that one thing turns out to be really damn important.

In my time in our communities, I have learned so much from nonbinary people who have courageously spoken up in person, in print and online. I was often there to hear them precisely because we had connected through the label “transgender.” Though the mainstream conception of trans people is still basically transsexual men and women, I see much potential for further acknowledgement of our nonbinary kin, and I think a lot of good would come from that. I worry that adding an N would cause nonbinary people to get booted out of a community whether they have just started to make a real home.

Again, though,  I am aware I say this as a trans man. It may well be that my privilege is hiding the true depth of the rifts among gender-nonconforming people.

What’s your take on all this? Nonbinary folks are especially encouraged to comment.

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17 comments

  1. captainglittertoes

    I kinda feel like you don’t have a right to speak to this, given that you’re a binary trans person. This is a debate nonbinary people need to have. I appreciate your appreciation of us in the trans community though. I think it’s a bit rash to assume that we’ve started to make a home in a trans community that has so much binary prejudice. Some places, sure, but not homey in general by a long shot. We are regularly forgotten, excluded, and ignored.

    Personally, I don’t agree with the original blogger that non-binary people aren’t necessarily trans. It really depends on who you ask, and however we identify or affiliate is really up to each one of us! I hope that nobody thinks they have a right to tell us who to be. I ID as trans and non-binary, but other people don’t, and that’s OK. I think adding an N could be good, in addition to other letters that are under or near the trans umbrella. Why do we have 4 words for different kinds of sexual orientations in the LGBTQ acronym, but only one for gender identity, when there are many words for our genders? That itself shows how skewed this acronym is, and the faux inclusivity that it represents. We need to take that back.

    As for acronym length, sometimes I say alphabet soup, or just “queer and trans.” Even though those words aren’t completely inclusive, it helps. But if length is the issue here, why and how do we decide who gets recognized and who is ignored?

    • rimonim

      Hi, captainglittertoes! You absolutely right that this is something for nonbinary folks to decide amongst themselves. Reflecting on it now, I see I could have written a different post, narrowly commenting on my own experience–for example, sharing that I personally feel a sense of community w/ nonbinary folks–without making a case for how nonbinary people should decide this issue. I apologize. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      Why do we have 4 words for different kinds of sexual orientations in the LGBTQ acronym, but only one for gender identity, when there are many words for our genders?

      Excellent point. I’ve taken “LGBTQ” so for granted that I didn’t even think of this–which is a huge problem.

      • captainglittertoes

        Hi there! Thanks for your reply, and I appreciate that you’ve checked some privilege.

        It is a huge problem. If we’re gonna do alphabet soup, we need to do it all the way. Otherwise we really are privileging the people who get a spot. It is long. But complaining about its length when you’re already included is a little rash…

  2. Mystic Girl

    In my opinion “Non-binary” doesn’t necessarily need to be added to QUILTBAG, its just one more letter and it doesn’t serve much purpose. “Non-binary” already is under “Transgender” they are not mutually exclusive things. (I’m Bigender which means I’m non binary)

  3. genderneutral

    I have been contemplating language and the lack there of for the non binary. I am trans. for lack of a better description I am a two spirited trans man. And sometimes I struggle with the man thing. maybe it is my age. Maybe it is my lack of need for bottom surgery. But I will never be a man in the traditional sense of a man. I feel like a new word needs to be brought forth in to the language to describe us non-binary folks. and I agree also that the LGBTQ+++ is getting beyond useful comprehension. I am cool staying under the umbrella of trans, AND we need language to shift to accommodate all. I cannot tell you how many conversatons I have had lately where people cannot differentiate non-binary from tran – in their minds if you or I am trans then I am a man (in my case). they don’t get that their is something else outside of the binary. This needs to change. And to be clear these are open-minded, liberal, gays and lesbians.

    • rimonim

      I cannot tell you how many conversatons I have had lately where people cannot differentiate non-binary from tran – in their minds if you or I am trans then I am a man (in my case). they don’t get that their is something else outside of the binary. This needs to change. And to be clear these are open-minded, liberal, gays and lesbians.

      Thank you for sharing this. I’m getting a huge reality check on just how included nonbinary people actually are within the trans umbrella.

  4. janitorqueer

    In general I like the idea of keeping things less convoluted, so that the most people can be reached / understand the main points. I like short acronyms, if acronyms need to be used.

    I identify as trans, genderqueer, or non-binary. But, I’m not always a fan of the term, “non-binary” even, because out of context, it is not clear what binary is being referred to – for example, “a binary system is a system of two objects in space which are so close that their gravitational interaction causes them to orbit about a common center of mass.” (That’s from wikipedia, when I look up “binary system.”) “Binary” is used in math, computing, science, etc. etc. etc.

    I don’t know whether I can say if non-binary people are finding community within the trans community or not… I’ll be going to a local meet-up group for the first time tonight for those who identify as “gender variant,” so I might get a better sense after that. Wish me luck! Online, I largely do feel included in the discourses. I follow a lot of blogs by both non-binary people and binary trans people, mainly, and I feel there is a sense of camaraderie, for the most part…

    Anyway, I very much appreciate you writing about this topic!

  5. Pingback: The Acronym™ | FISTFELT
  6. topherbigelow

    I love everyone’s perspective of this. Also, I couldn’t agree more than the acronym is ridiculous. I typically only use it online and in doing work for the LGBT+ non-profit I work for. When I’m out in the real world, I use LGBT+ or LGBTQ+. There really should be more letters to discuss gender identity, and help the masses understand more deeply that there are more than two genders, which seems like it’s really hard for a lot of them to conceptualize.

    Thanks, rimonim, for writing on this topic!

  7. Jamie Ray

    Rimonim,

    This is not a critique of what you wrote but a reaction to the original piece. I think we need a big tent and a lot of discussion.

    I feel very strongly that each transgender person is uniquely transgender in their own way. This is based upon their experiences growing up (factor in race, class, religion, culture, generation, country etc…) and how they personally dealt with their trans-ness as a child, an adolescent, and an adult.
    I believe that trans is a sense of who you are (i.e. it is in your head); it is not something that you become. This includes transgender folk who do not have access to medicalized transition and/or would be endangered by social transition, or who are willing to live out their lives without transitioning because that is who they are. We have to get out of this idea that trans=a particular style of transition.
    There is no point at which we become transgender – it isn’t because you have changed your name, or taken hormones, or had surgery, or legally changed your gender markers. You were transgender before you started your transition, you’d still be transgender if you never transitioned. If you feel that you are not authentically the “sex you were assigned at birth” then you are trans. It is splitting hairs to divide people up by whether they formulate their experience as “I don’t feel like I am a woman” vs. “I feel like I am a man” vs. “I am a man”.
    Transgender people existed before the medical and legal options for transition existed. Transgender people exist who choose some or none of the options above. There will be more options in the future, and they won’t make anyone more transgender either, but hopefully they will make it more accessible, cheaper, easier, and effective.

  8. Whim

    Since it doesn’t flow easily in anything else I want to say: I am agender, and thus nonbinary, though I tend not to say much about it because I go to the extreme where even calling myself nonbinary is a word about gender and it’s applied to ME and no no no no no get it away. So, technically nonbinary, but not really involved in or often vocal about it, so I sort of do and sort of don’t have room to comment on this.

    I think that the people who have said you don’t really have the right to comment on this sort of have a point, in that nonbinary issues aren’t yours and so you don’t get the final say on them. (And particularly since it’s a situation where you’re already in the acronym, and you’re musing about whether someone else should be included in the acronym, that can come off looking much worse than it is very easily.) Assuming I read what you meant correctly, though, I don’t think the issue is in what you were actually saying; there’s a situation that, while it doesn’t really center around you, is close enough to involve you, and you thought about it and shared your thoughts, and you did specifically note that you’re aware that what you’re saying is your thoughts from your perspective, and not the final or necessarily correct ones. So, I think any problems come from the situation and phrasing rather than what you said.

    On the actual post: I have only been able to try joining one real life LGBT+ group, which I didn’t go back to due to their not seeming to know asexuality existed, so I never had any idea how that group would have interacted with nonbinary gender identities or if any were present. Out of individual people I know though, I have two nonbinary and two binary transgender friends. I haven’t had any serious debates about gender with either nonbinary friend, and one of the binary friends (the one I’ve known much longer, which may be involved) I’ve also had no issues with, while the other I don’t mention anything about gender around, because he tends to not quite literally start hissing at me any time I come within five miles of the subject, and seems to think that I look down on anyone with an at all masculine or feminine identity or expression. (My best guess is that that’s a misinterpretation of a probably badly phrased rant against gender stereotypes/restrictions, but it’s only come up when he was already mad at me for it, so I’m not really sure. Missing communication all around, probably.) So, I can’t say how large a pattern it is and am mostly only secure saying it is a pattern since I’ve heard confirmation from other people, but I am a bit leery of mentioning anything about my thoughts or feelings on gender around anyone with a binary gender.

    Also, semi-related fun fact: I and a friend once amused ourselves trying to come up with a list of all gender, sexuality and romantic orientation related identities we could think of. I believe the list ended up around 30 identities total, though there was some overlap (nonbinary was on the list for example, along with more specific things like agender, bigender, gender fluid, etc.). Trying to specifically include everyone would get very unwieldy, anyway. (I personally tried using larger acronyms for a while, before getting sick of it and resorting to LGBT, LGBT+, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, or queer spectrum/queer continuum/similar phrases, depending on who I’m talking to and in what context.)

  9. Donna Levinsohn

    I think people should be careful not to assume that all or most so-called “binary trans people” (a group in which I am usually included) actually believe in the concept of a gender binary — i.e., that they believe gender is, in fact, a binary (and only a binary) system. To the extent I can articulate what I believe at all, I think of gender as a multi-dimensional spectrum with a near-infinite number of points on that spectrum, and that nobody is limited to only one such point, because any two or more of them can intersect. I happen to consider myself as occupying the rather large point(s) — really a territory — which could be characterized as “a woman of trans history who is not visibly gender-variant.” But that doesn’t mean I believe that there actually is a gender binary. Beyond that, it’s certainly not my place to express an opinion on whether or not non-binary people “are trans” (with or without the asterisk) or whether the “T” alone should be enough to encompass them even if they do identify as trans.

    Separately, I strongly agree with Rimonim that:

    “There is no point at which we become transgender – it isn’t because you have changed your name, or taken hormones, or had surgery, or legally changed your gender markers. You were transgender before you started your transition, you’d still be transgender if you never transitioned. If you feel that you are not authentically the “sex you were assigned at birth” then you are trans. It is splitting hairs to divide people up by whether they formulate their experience as “I don’t feel like I am a woman” vs. “I feel like I am a man” vs. “I am a man”.”

    With the one exception that I would only consider all such people as being trans — binary or otherwise — if they identify as such. I’m uncomfortable imposing identities on people. That said, I especially like the last sentence: it used to drive me up the wall to read people who insisted that you were only a “true transsexual” (a term that has, thankfully, virtually disappeared in the last decade) if as a small child (if assigned male at birth) you believed that you actually “were” a girl, rather than simply that you “wanted to be” a girl, as I did. I’m glad that that kind of exclusionary absurdity is far less common than it was when I first started reading about trans issues on the Internet 17 years ago!

    Donna

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