As non-binary people, do we really want legal recognition? Or should we just abolish gender markers altogether?
A petition to make non-binary a legally recognised gender in the UK has collected almost 130,000 signatures, which means that parliament will consider holding a debate on the question and must formally respond.
Similar demands in the past have not been nearly so popular – for comparison, a 2019 version by non-binary model and author Jamie Windust gathered around 20,000 signatures. Moments like this force us to grapple with an important distinction, which is whether non-binary people should demand legal recognition or the abolition of gender categories altogether – trans rights now, or trans liberation later?
Broadly speaking: do we want an X gender marker on our legal documents, or to remove gender markers on legal documents altogether?
If you are not a non-binary person, then you have entered the dangerous waters of the theoretical question. Take a moment to consider the world as you live in it, but with the addition of a continuous drizzle of dysphoria. Think about every time you are called love or mate in a corner shop, sir or madam on the phone, ladies or gentlemen at a live event (RIP), Mr or Mrs by Royal Mail, son or daughter, mum or dad, brother or sister. As non-binary people, those moments tell us that we don’t exist. They force us to choose a gender that is not ours on a form. They remind us that, by and large, society – if it acknowledges us at all – thinks we are making it up, or mentally ill, or doing it for attention.
While we think about the question, we must hold close these daily harms experienced by non-binary people at the hands of the gender binary. Many non-binary people who want legal gender recognition are seeking any form of relief, however small, however short term, from living in a world that doesn’t see us at all.
This week, the discourse has been more thunderous than ever, seeing not just non-binary people try to answer the question of recognition vs abolition, but plenty of men and women weighing in for either side, too. But as non-binary people we specialise in the both/and, rather than the either/or. So, why not both?
It doesn’t have to be a binary choice between demanding non-binary legal recognition or becoming a full-blown revolutionary trying to abolish gender categories. We can do both.
We must work to reduce the harms experienced by non-binary people related to a lack of legal recognition. In the short term, why not allow ourselves some hope, some sense of connection and solidarity by seeing hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition in support of us, and in doing so keep the pressure on the government to include non-binary people in gender recognition laws.
Let’s also think critically about what legal gender recognition means for non-binary people.
An important point the question usually throws up focuses on personal safety. Do I want this current government (or any government, frankly) to have me on a list of non-binary people? Absolutely not. Would it be potentially dangerous for a person with a non-binary gender marker on their passport to travel to a country with anti-LGBT+ laws (which are, almost everywhere, an injustice left over by British colonialism)? Yes.
But it’s not just about whether we as non-binary people would be safe on this list. By asking to be recognised within the system, we ourselves help legitimise it.
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We cannot ask for legal gender recognition from the government without recognising that the state itself perpetrates violence against people of all genders, but especially women and people of marginalised genders. And so the wider question we must ask when it comes to safety is about the way in which the state relies on the gender binary, and gender categories, to commit violence. We have to think about gender-based violence perpetrated by the police – who, not two months ago, brutally attacked grieving women at a vigil for Sarah Everard, who was allegedly kidnapped and murdered by a police officer.
A demand that the state legally recognises non-binary people upholds the current system, which affects not just non-binary people but others, too. What if legal recognition for non-binary people could create a “third gender” category for state services? Would this see the government build non-binary prisons – do we want more prisons and by default more prisoners? It’s a complex question but it’s also not non-binary people who would be served by adding another gender category to the prison system.
To be clear, legal recognition would be helpful in many ways. I don’t dream of a future where being non-binary continues to involve those small daily shocks: choosing male or female on a form, renewing a drivers license in the wrong gender, the small hurts that come from being made to put Mr or Miss or Mrs or Ms on an online shop. When I think of the future, I imagine a world where gender is freedom, gender is playful, where I can be genderfull not genderless, and where gender is not something that is weaponised against me and others.
Being non-binary is inherently about choosing this freedom, no matter how hard it often is, and being able to envision a different world, one not broken and broken down into two genders. By our very existence, we are a threat to the current order of things. And as we are already positioned as a menace, forming coalitions with other groups seeking to dismantle the state seems hardly radical, more the logical next step.
So, yes, sign the petition. And follow its progress: if the government does hold a debate on the petition, email your MP about why you think non-binary people should be legally recognised, and ask them to stand up for us in parliament when the time comes.
But don’t forget the broader goal. If we want to live in a world where the gender binary is obsolete – and I would argue that this is the future that we must imagine today – we won’t get there just by adding another gender category.