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The whitewashing and erasure of nonbinary people

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People of color are often left out of very Western-centric narratives about gender.

Though we are now in a time of unprecedented trans visibility—with more and more people aware of transgender people and the fight for their rights—the needle still has not moved much in the realm of trans discourse. People’s ideas of what trans people are and what their lived experience entails is still stuck somewhere in Caitlyn Jenner’s 2015 coming-out interview. It is not reflective of the actual diversity of trans lives.

The most popular trans narrative goes something like this: There are two genders, “man” and “woman.” Each are tied to its corresponding sex of “male” and “female” and associated with specific body types and ideals. Trans people, though, feel they are born in the “wrong” body. All trans people experience body dysphoria, which is an extreme discomfort due to not having the “correct” body. To rectify this, they take hormones and seek “sex changes” to go from either female to male (a trans man) or male to female (a trans woman). This is the ultimate end goal for trans people and the best way to “fix their issues.”

It’s a relatively straightforward and fairly reductive story, mainly because the goal is to strip the complexity of trans existence of all nuance to service cisgender people’s comfort. The prevalent idea of transness inextricably ties sex to gender, does not challenge the binary-gender system, and tries to homogenize the trans experience to one of unending pain, self-hate, and the desire to conform to cisgender standards. There is also an uncomfortable aspect in how body-centric this narrative is, underscoring a certain cis fixation on anatomy. It is completely unwilling and unprepared to discuss the actual nuances of gender as distinct from bodies and from sex and as products of the societies we inhabit, not our biology.

The cultural consciousness lacks the empathy and imagination to consider trans women at home in their bodies in slacks and stubble, trans men who dress feminine, the large majority of transfolx who do not seek surgery, and the swaths of us that don’t even seek affirmative hormonal therapy. It is heavily invested in its own dual categories and desires to place everyone neatly within those boxes, erasing entirely those who do not fit—especially nonbinary people.

The reality is not everyone who isn’t cisgender identifies as a man or a woman. Nonbinary people, to put it simply, are people who identify as neither strictly men nor strictly women. “Enby” individuals include people with two or more genders, whose identities are fluid and shift with time, who identify with third or other genders outside of the man-woman paradigm and even people who lack a gender at all.

I’m a Brown nonbinary trans woman. I had “corrective” surgery when I was born, was raised and socialized as a boy, and only in college began reckoning with the trauma of being forced into an existence counter to my identity. My body is both nonbinary and femme, and I do not feel that it needs hormones or surgery to be so. I’m cute in skirts and stunning in suits. I’m brown, big, and fat; I don’t adhere to the thin, white and masculine-centric white ideal of androgyny. And my gender is both real and valid.

If this all seems confusing, it’s only because the way we think about gender is lacking in nuance and is often misdefined as something biologically inherent. Gender in general—and masculinity and femininity, specifically—are culturally informed constructs. Even biological sex isn’t a binary. Plenty of transantagonism is justified with the claim that “scientifically” one’s sex is either male or female, when in truth there are more reproductive and chromosomal configurations than taught in the simplified, boiled-down versions in high school biology classrooms. Unless you really think that a specific body configuration predisposes people to liking pink or blue—and ignore that pink has not always been coded feminine—then it should be clear that biological sex doesn’t force people to adhere to typically male or female behavior.

In America, however, we teach and talk in terms of strictly men and women, not third genders or fluidity, because these binary views have been passed down since colonization. We ignore, or are kept unaware of, other cultures with nonbinary genders because they are a threat to our simplified gender norms. Also, by conveniently forgetting these cultures exist, we don’t have to address how the Western world colonized these people and stripped them of such nuances in the first place.  

In other words, to examine gender nonconformity and even queerness, is to examine the effects of colonization. Many cultures and nations colonized by Western powers have rich histories and traditions of gender fluidity and gender categories beyond men and women. India, where my family has lived for generations, has a noted history of hijra as a third gender. Native American cultures have recognized as many as five gender roles at one time. The Igbo of Nigeria have terms like nyahikwa and ekwe for people who do not adhere to rigid gender roles, and the Philippines have long recognized bakla as nonbinary gender category. Native Hawaiians, whose land was stolen and colonized by Americans, have a third gender or “self” called mahu.

These histories, cultures, and traditions have largely been violently erased and forgotten due to colonization; they have been swept aside in favor of installing Puritanical Christian notions of sex and gender throughout most of the globe by force. For many people of color, there is an uncomfortable reckoning with how much we must relate to our genders through concepts and language codified by our oppressors. No one considers how difficult it may be for us to regain an authentic sense of identity within cultures whose own gender traditions were repressed and forgotten. The process may be confusing for cisgender people, but it is painful for us, both in how much trauma there is to cope with and the actual violence that’s invited when we dare to be our authentic selves.

My existence, though, will not be defined by the few narrow topics that the Western world is comfortable with. Science, history, and anthropology all support the existence of nonbinary people; the consistent cis desire to have me justify myself over and over is at once exhausting and, at this point, unnecessary. The conversation must move forward if we are to ever make any progress for trans rights.