I’m a nonbinary person. The word nonbinary reflects how far we still need to come, as a gender-nonconforming community, in asserting our existence. When I think about how the best descriptor I have for myself is the negation of binary gender—when I don’t have language yet that claims a positive vision of gender liberation—I feel the weight of the work ahead. The word nonbinary is (for me, at least) shorthand for the fact that I am learning to sit in the discomfort of the contradiction between my personal experience of gender and the gender that I was assigned at birth. The word says that I am actively working to build a world in which gender as an oppressive social construct is abolished. The word helps me find my community, and that will always be its most important function.
If you’re reading this newsletter, you’ve probably heard that gender is a social construct. I recall thinking, when I first started learning about this concept years ago, that “social construct” was synonymous with “imaginary.” As I started to discover my own gender identity, and to unlearn the biases I was taught while growing up under cis-hetero-patriarchy (both of which remain ongoing processes for me), it became clear that the social construct of gender was very real.
How real is gender oppression in our society? I think about this most often in terms of trans youth. Just in this country, 75% of trans kids feel unsafe at school, 24% of trans kids (K-12) are physically assaulted at school, and 17% of trans kids drop out due to this hostile climate. Not only do trans people often face violence from family members when they come out, but 8% are kicked out of the house, and 10% run away from home. By age 19, almost 30% of trans women, over 40% of nonbinary people, and over 50% of trans men have attempted suicide. And following the foundational oppressions they face in their early lives, trans populations face rates of poverty (29%) and houselessness (30%), much higher than the rates among their cisgender peers. When trans people are sent to prison, they face sexual assault at a higher rate than the average prison population, both from prison staff (5x higher) and inmates (9x higher). The list goes on, from fights against “bathroom bills” to the common struggle for health insurance.
I write these bleak statistics not to ask for your pity, but to show that there are ways to incorporate the fight for gender liberation into many different organizing strategies. When we recognize the material conditions of all our comrades in our work, we build stronger ties to one another and we build better campaigns. And it is much easier to organize across difference when we practice radical inclusivity instead of liberal tokenism. I think often about pronouns as an example: introducing ourselves with our pronouns is not itself gender liberation. But stating our pronouns can create more space for examining the contradiction between, for example, the socially-constructed gender binary and the existence of trans and nonbinary people. And the more space we have for that analysis as a movement, the more work we can do to fold gender liberation into our organizing.