An argument for the existence of non-binary gender identities

So there’s a thought I’ve been having lately. The idea that some people identify as neither male nor female has become more mainstream over the past few years. And I assume like a lot of people, I’ve struggled with giving those people a place within my own concept and experience of gender. So I’d taken the accepting-but-condescending view of “yeah whatever, do what makes you happy, I just don’t understand it”. That stance is sufficient for making the lives of those people nicer, but what really makes the lives of those people nicer is if they feel understood and believed.

And I think I finally grok it within my own understanding of what gender is. I want to share this, but it requires already being on board with a few things:

  • Gender is a social construct, in so much as it can only be understood by humans within social contexts. It is different from biological sex, but possibly informed by it. Some people understand gender to be bad because it is a social construct, but I am not one of those people.

  • Transgender people exist. This mostly goes without saying, but it needs saying. Some people, somehow, are inclined towards a gender that does not match with their sex.

  • Trans women are women. Trans men are men. There are a lot of arguments for this—just pick your poison for which one you like best. I am personally convinced by performativism, or the Intrinsic Inclination model suggested by Julia Serano.

  • Intersex people exist. This also goes without saying. Some people are born neither male nor female, either because their genetics are different, or because their genitals are different.

The last point is especially important. As you do, I was thinking about intersex people a few weeks ago, and I wondered what gender they might identify as. What usually happens is that they gravitate towards either binary choice, and that is fine. But I wondered then, what if they do not? What if they identify along the same lines of their sex: somewhere in between?

I could not find a single good argument that might explain why they couldn’t. Even a gender essentialist might be convinced that an intersex person has every right to identify somewhere in between in line with their physical sex. So if there is room for an “intersex” gender identity, then that must necessarily mean that gender is a spectrum.

And if gender is a spectrum, and we agree that the gender identities of trans people are valid even though they do not match their sex, then that must necessarily mean that the gender identities of non-binary people are also valid. Otherwise you end up in a strange situation where only intersex people are allowed to identify as non-binary, which is equally as restricting as saying that only cis men are allowed to identify as men.

I am half-certain that I am making some incorrect leaps in logic here or there, and I am not academically well-read on the topic, but this reasoning helped me a lot with at least giving the existence of a non-binary gender identity a place within my own framework of how gender works. And I hope it helps others too.

See also