Beyond the binary

'Non-Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities', edited by Jos Twist, Ben Vincent, Meg-John Barker and Kat Gupta (Jessica Kingsley Publishers; £14.99). Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hubbard.

03 November 2020

What does it mean to be non-binary in the 21st Century? That’s the key question of this compelling and in-depth anthology. The answer: It means lots of different things to lots of different people. At the heart of this book is the recognition of multiple factors which intersect with gender to shape experiences of being non-binary. It is these personal and nuanced perspectives which make this book so significant. Each and every chapter shares a narrative which is alive with idiosyncratic personality.

The editors provide a full backdrop to the book highlighting the importance of intersections, stories and language. They explain how ‘non-binary’ is used in the book as an umbrella term for people who do not identify with being exclusively female or male and this often (within a current UK context) encompasses those who are genderqueer, genderfluid, trans feminine, trans masculine, among others. They untangle some of the complexities around terminology to describe people who are not the gender they were assigned at birth. Unsurprisingly, the concept of binaries is critiqued by many contributors and subsequently, the very idea that non-binary is defined by what it is not. This goes to show the impact of language and its ability to include/exclude or make in/visible, and how this is crucial to understanding possible ways of being. For this reason alone, this book is vital in sharing the stories of non-binary people to show how the binary way, isn’t the only way.

Chapters are sectioned into four main parts: Cultural Context, Communities, The Lifecourse, and Bodies, Health and Well-Being, with each introduced by a drawing from artist Lee-Anne Lawrence. These sections group the diversity of stories excellently but still allow for commonalities to emerge across the chapters. One particular point which stood out to me, as a cisgender woman, was the sheer quantity of tools that non-binary people have to acquire to navigate a world based on binaried ideas of gender. Such navigation was particularly apparent in chapters which touch upon healthcare (see chapters by Chai-Yoel Korn, Karen Pollock, Igi Moon, Drew Simms and others). In thinking about health, Francis Ray White reminds us:

‘There are of course infinite ways to be non-binary, and whether we describe it as an identity, a feeling, or a general sense of who we are, we can’t get away from the fact that we also have to live it, in a body.’ (p. 223)

Such embodied experiences and reflections throughout the book were incredibly mindful of intersections with dis/ability, as well as cultural context, class and sexuality.

In the conclusion editors are explicit about the cultural context in which the book was written and the impact it has had on them as editors and authors. They acknowledge that some potential contributors were not able to write (even under a pseudonym) for fear it may risk their personal safety or because their mental health has been so impacted by a societal transphobia and recent moral panics. Indeed, at the point of writing the conclusion they indicate that they were awaiting the outcome of the government’s consultation on the Gender Recognition Act. While I was reading the book, the outcome was published and it became apparent that the government intends to ignore that the majority of respondents were in favour of easing the burdens associated with gaining legal gender recognition for trans people in the UK. The fight for trans rights therefore once again has to resist rollbacks of rights whilst simultaneously fighting for those they don’t have. Such an exhausting situation clearly demonstrates just how right the editors were to highlight the importance of self-care in such times.

Challenges therefore continue and challenging the binary is just one of them. As mud howard explained: ‘It’s hard to re-wire your brain to unlearn something as sticky and stubborn as gender. Gender gets on everything, and requires a large amount of skill to unstick’ (p. 177). But if you too wish to become unstuck, this book (alongside the others advertised at the back), is a great place to start.

- Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hubbard, Lecturer, University of Surrey