Neither Male Nor Female: ‘Nonbinary’ People See Hope In California Bill
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for brevity. It contains frank discussion of human anatomy.
Monday, July 3, 2017
The Gender Recognition Act is a bill in the California legislature authored by Senator Toni Atkins that would allow people to choose a third gender option, "nonbinary," on state documents. It would also streamline the process by which transgender people can legally change their gender.
The bill passed the Senate on party lines in May, and is currently in the Assembly. Similar laws have been passed in Oregon and Washington, D.C. Republicans are opposing the bill, as are some conservative groups, including the Pacific Justice Institute and the California Family Council.
KPBS has a first-person account from David Vance, a staff member at the San Diego LGBT Community Center who identifies as nonbinary.
Q: What does being nonbinary mean to you?
A: The first word we have to talk about is the word binary. Specifically in the context of gender, that's referring to the social, cultural mandate that there are only two ways you can exist as a human being: man, woman, and that's it. So being nonbinary is basically not identifying with man or woman. And that means different things to different people. Some people see themselves as in between genders, some people think they don't have a gender at all. Other people experience it as a fluidity — one day I feel more masculine, one day I feel more feminine.
I'm just all over the place. There are times when I have all this make up on, but a beard. And there are other times when I am in a dress and no make up. And there are other times when I'm totally butched out. So it really just depends on the day.
Q: A lot of people nowadays are aware of the existence of transgender people, and this idea of being born in the wrong body. Is that something you experience, and can you talk about the difference between being nonbinary and being trans?
A: There are some nonbinary people who also identify as trans, but there are some nonbinary people who don't. I'm definitely on the trans spectrum. I fantasize about having a vagina all the time, but at the same time I don't dislike my penis or want to get rid of it. I honestly wish I could take a vagina on and off like underwear. But I have zero desire to have boobs. But I would love to never grow facial hair and wear make up all the time. So it's really all over the place.
Q: What has the reaction been from your family?
A: I grew up in a very hyper-conservative, rural, very closed off, sheltered part of Wisconsin. For my family, they were incredibly uncomfortable with the make up for a long time. And I would post pictures and my mom would literally text me and tell me to take them down. So it took them a while. I actually didn't really have this explicitly nonbinary conversation with my family until last Thanksgiving. And once I explained to them that I just don't really feel like I'm a man or a woman, I think they really got it. Because I think anybody who actually knows me or who has known me for a long time would go, "That makes a lot of sense." And that's pretty much what their reaction was.
Q: What are your pronouns, and what do they mean to you?
A: My pronouns are they, them, theirs. And that is sort of replicating the idea that I'm not a man or a woman. So instead of using "he" or "she," you would use "they" because it is genderless, or lacks gender. And it also sort of implies a multiplicity, or the existence of multiple things within one person. I'm very comfortable with "she" and I love being called "she," also.
But I love how queer and sort of punk rock "they" is, because it's so subversive and it's undermining so many things. And that's exactly what nonbinary is. It's a direct challenge to these institutions and ideas that we've had for a long time. Not to say that nonbinary people are a new thing, because do a little bit of anthropological research and you will find out that nonbinary or third gender people have been around all across the world and all cultures for thousands of years. So this idea that nonbinary is something totally new or we just made it up now is a complete fallacy.
Q: Describe your ideal world in terms of how our society should view gender.
A: The term I like to use is gender anarchy. Not to say that everybody needs to be nonbinary and man and woman should totally die as ideas. First and foremost, I would want a world where there are no expectations about how you should look, how you should dress, what things you should be interested in — none of that should be dependent on what's between your legs. And if we don't assign genders or expectations or behaviors on people on the basis of what's between their legs, that totally expands what gender can be. You can be fluid. You can wear a dress one day if you feel like it. You can wear a dirty pair of jeans the other day if you feel like it. There's so much policing around gender, and making sure that you are in line with the gender you were assigned at birth.
We're still so fixed on the idea of man and woman. And that might be partly biological, but intersex people are way more prevalent than people realize. Intersex is when somebody is born with ambiguous genitalia — some male genitals and some female genitals. So even the existence of intersex people is a challenge to our ideas of, not only gender, but sex and biology.
Q: How does your gender identity inform the work you do at The Center?
A: I am the PrEP coodinator at The Center — PrEP is a once-a-day pill that prevents HIV infection. The biggest part of my job is just helping people get on PrEP. The work we're trying to do right now is center the trans community in our HIV testing and PrEP outreach and education. So that's been really cool for me because I consider myself under the trans umbrella. It really helps me connect with my clients. The conversations that I can have with another nonbinary person or with a trans person are on a different level, because there's such a high level of empathy and understanding and trust. And trust is absolutely huge in relationships with clients.
Q: What would it mean to you if the Gender Recognition Act were to pass and you could be legally recognized as neither male nor female?
A: For me personally, yes, absolutely, I would love to be able to have NB or nonbinary on my driver's license, on my birth certificate possibly. But what I think what it would mean most to me is it's really bringing us out into the open. It is making us visible on a level that other people who maybe would not view nonbinary as something legitimate before would now go, "Huh, wait a minute, maybe this is an actual thing." It would be a really hugely powerful, institutional-level statement of: Nonbinary people exist and are real, and not everybody fits into one of two boxes.
A bill in Sacramento, authored by Senator Toni Atkins, would allow people to choose a third gender option, "nonbinary," on state documents. KPBS spoke with one person who identifies as nonbinary to see what the bill would mean to them.
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