I first heard about being non-binary a couple of years ago along with the use of the pronoun "they," singular, instead of "he" or "she."
Non-binary is a term used by those whose identities do not fit into a strictly male/female binary.
While more people are educated about what it means to be gay or transgender, the idea of being non-binary was totally new to me. It encompasses a whole rainbow of people — those who identify as neither male nor female, those who identify as both, those who are gender-fluid and identify periodically more as feminine or masculine.
Rory Starkman, 28, and Russell Louder, 22, are both trans non-binary Islanders, and they agreed to sit down with me and patiently answer my politically incorrect questions. They spoke about their own experiences being non-binary. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Although I contacted them separately, I discovered they were close friends already and consider one another non-romantic "platonic partners."
1. What does non-binary mean?
Russell: Gender has historically been broken down into two categories — man and woman. I think people are generally starting to recognize that gender is a giant enigma with many diverse identities.
I don't identify as female or male.
Rory: If you're looking at gender on a spectrum from male to female, non-binary could be anywhere outside of that spectrum or in between the male and female.
The definition of non-binary is unique to the person who is identifying as non-binary — there's no universal definition of non-binary.
2. How do you explain it to people?
Rory: The way that I describe it for myself, is just that I don't feel like I am inherently male or female, though I've been assigned female at birth, and one may look at me — in particular if they were to see me naked! — they'd be like, OK, you have the anatomy of what we typically think of as female.
But how I feel about myself and how I present my gender is that I really don't feel like I am male or female. In terms of my gender expression I'm perhaps more masculine presenting, but that being said I think there are a lot of non-binary people who are really trying to unpack and deconstruct all the assumptions we have about gender.
3. How important is it that people refer to you as 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she'?
Russell: 'They' is just the proper pronoun to use for me. It's incredibly important to me, it's just a part of who I am.
It has actually created conflict when it hasn't needed to because it does throw people off. I make a point of correcting people.
Rory: I didn't grow up knowing that non-binary was out there. I did feel a certain way, but I didn't have the words and I only found the words a couple years ago.
Since identifying as non-binary it has become more and more important to me to be referred to with they/them pronouns because using she/her pronouns is actually really uncomfortable because it doesn't align with how I see myself. I don't feel like 'she,' but I also don't feel like 'he.'
Hence, having it tattooed on me. People have pointed it out recently and said 'What's they?' And I'm like that's my pronoun, and it sort of helps me start that conversation because it's really hard to correct people when they're messing up along the way.
People are typically pretty good about saying 'OK I will try but it might be hard for me.' And I say that's OK, because it was hard for me to change in my own head!
4. How should people know what to call you?
Russell: I'm kind of at the point where I think people should use gender-neutral pronouns when they don't know someone's gender. You can't really assume anybody's gender identity, ever. A lot of trans people tend to look gender ambiguous. People don't have to know but people should be receptive.
5. Being non-binary has nothing to do with sexual preference, right?
Russell: The more I think about identifying myself with who I am romantically or sexually involved with, the more confused I get! (laughs) I love who I love and it doesn't have to do with gender.
Rory: When I was identifying as female I identified as a lesbian, but that never quite felt right. I'm perfectly fine taking on the term gay now or queer in that I'm just not straight.
6. How do people react when you tell them you are non-binary?
Rory: If people haven't encountered these terms before it's really confusing. They're like, 'What do you mean?' We all grow up being told there's man and woman and they get together and make babies. (Both laugh) But I've never encountered any direct animosity.
7. How did your families react?
Rory: They were like, sure, that's great, we'll call you whatever you want. I don't know how much they fully understand it but it's nice to see people making the effort to at least respect my pronouns.
Because my family's pretty conservative for a long time I just wanted to be normal, so I tried to be a straight, cis woman and as an actor, I think I did a fairly good job! (laughs)
Russell: As a kid I identified as a boy for quite a long period of my life. They embraced it — I remember my dad teaching me how to tie a tie, my mom taking me to get my hair cut short. I was really lucky ... My family's been great.
8. When and why did you change your name?
Rory: Two years ago, because I never really liked my name beforehand. When I started identifying as non-binary I needed something like a name change to really have that shift. For me that was a catalyst to assert my gender-neutral pronoun.
Russell: I go by Russell Louder, I was born with those as my two last names. Before I had the language to identify as non-binary I just wasn't feeling my first given name. So I wanted to cut it off and just go by Russell Louder. I talked to both my parents about it and they said OK, weird, but cool. I was 18. Then the rest of the non-binary stuff just fell into place. It wasn't like a coming-out thing, it was something I was able to ease into.
Nobody even uses my dead name any more. I'm called Russell now which is awesome.
9. Is being non-binary a new thing?
Russell: It's absolutely not a new thing. Gender has existed in many forms since the beginning of time. But it has been stifled by a pretty hetero-normative society. Now there's a process of rediscovering the language and creating language in English for these identities.
Rory: The creation of terms in itself is an empowering thing for people who don't quite feel they fit inside these rigid boxes.
10. Where do non-binary people go to the bathroom?
Russell: You don't. I have been so uncomfortable in certain public situations, I have just held it in. And I'm not the only one. I don't think gender-neutral bathrooms are a difficult thing to strive for. Get with it, it's 2018.
Rory: I definitely have moments where I'll look at bathroom signs and I'll be uncomfortable. But I'm going to go pee if I have to pee. I'm pretty lucky that I haven't really encountered any issues but I've definitely had moments when I've felt uncomfortable in the bathroom.
Louder is a musician and producer, performance and visual artist.
Starkman is a playwright, actor, stage manager and academic.
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