Non-Binary Lives Book Reflection Reveals Challenges

by Vanessa Bentley, Ph.D., Humanities and Philosophy — 

I attended two out of three sessions for the Non-Binary Lives reading group led by Ed Cunliff in Spring 2021. I joined the reading group for professional and personal reasons. Professionally, as a gender studies scholar, I’m interested in inclusionary and intersectional accounts of gender, particularly from the perspectives and lives of the people living such identities. In addition to better understanding their experiences and the way they describe their lives, I was hoping to learn “personal” accounts (first-person lived experience) to accompany the “academic” (abstract, somewhat homogenizing and non-personal) materials that I’m familiar with from feminist and queer theory. And personally, I have more and more friends coming out as queer, transgender, and nonbinary, so I am interested in learning about the experiences of transgender, queer and nonbinary people to be a better informed, understanding friend and ally.

One of the things that struck me was the very different ways people came “into” their identities. Everyone navigated their dissatisfactions with the binary sex/gender system in different ways. One chapter, by Drew Simms, a psychiatric nurse, really got me thinking. Simms hid their identity, and would have been fine continuing to be “in the closet,” until they met some teenagers going through the mental health care system who were gender-questioning and transitioning. Even though Simms was “managing” their gender mismatch, they felt it was their duty to be open about their gender identity to be the role model they never had, in order to better support the teenagers they were seeing in the psychiatric practice. It is hard enough getting by in a world that has no place for you, but on top of that, Simms felt the extra burden of being a role model to help others. It takes so much strength and bravery to do that. And it is unfair that our society puts such extra burdens on some people.

Our last reading group meeting was especially productive. Given the range of staff members who were in the reading group, we were able to have a really interesting discussion about the barriers in internal systems at UCO that keep nonbinary and transgender people from being about to affirm their identities. The process to register a preferred name, pronouns, or gender is not easy or straightforward. Staff are often “overriding” systems and offering temporary fixes within the limited offerings of our technology systems. We talked about what we could do to change it. One thing we came up with was to speak up for our transgender and nonbinary colleagues and students when we are in a meeting where new technology systems are being discussed. This means continuing to learn and think about what transgender and nonbinary people need and want, in order to communicate that when they are not present in the meetings where policies and procedures that affect them are being discussed.

This was a really good book, and I’ve benefited from having conversations with other campus community members on this issue as well as better understanding Oklahoma natives (I’m not from around here!). Transgender people are under attack right now, with numerous states passing legislation to deny or restrict trans children and adults from receiving gender-affirming treatment or even medical services in general or to ban transgender girls and women from participating in athletics. Prior to coming to this group, I knew I was comfortable supporting a trans student in my class, but after participating in this group, I’m feeing challenged to do more, to be more active in supporting transgender and nonbinary individuals who are facing discrimination.

Twist, J., Vincent, B., Barker, M.-J., & Gupta, K. (Eds). (2020). Non-Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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