Coming out as ‘non-binary’ throws other women under the bus

Sam Escobar. (Image: Twitter)
Sam Escobar. (Image: Twitter)

The cool thing for “feminist” writers to do lately is “come out” as “non-binary” or “genderqueer.” These women claim to be non-binary based on the premise that they have complex inner lives and don’t identify with every aspect of their social subordination through femininity.

Laurie Penny says she felt trapped in her female body as it developed sexually objectified breasts and curves as a teen. Jack Monroe recounts going through childhood photos that revealed she didn’t always wear explicitly feminine clothing: “Me, aged seven, in a baseball cap and jeans. Me, aged twelve, with a one-inch crop all over my head. Me, aged thirteen, insisting on wearing trousers to school like my friend Z.” Good Housekeeping’s beauty editor, Sam Escobar, recently published a shallow account of her non-binary status, explaining that she was “not exclusively attracted to boys” and sometimes “watched straight porn… from the male perspective.”

If these supposed indications of non-binary status sound to you like extremely mundane experiences common to a vast number of women, you would be correct. This is because non-binary identity is essentially devoid of meaning.

Some common narratives conveyed by “non-binary” women include: “I always liked having short hair,” “I don’t like being subjected to sexual violence,” “I feel uncomfortable in my female body.” Often being non-binary is defined by superficial choices that aren’t viewed as stereotypically “feminine.” However, even those choices seem to not be a requirement for non-binary status, as exemplified by Escobar, who looks as “feminine” as any woman.

Unlike some categorizations popular within queer ideology (“trans, “femme,” “genderfluid”), non-binary is less an “identification” than it is a “dis-identification.” Non-binary status is defined based on what it is not: “I am not a member of the subhuman class known as women. I am not the thing to be fucked.”

A woman coming out as “non-binary” is a non-statement that declares nothing but common loathing of the female class. Is the alternative to a “non-binary” woman a “binary” woman? And what does that mean? That we all love our bodies and have managed not to internalize the male gaze? That we are all fully at ease with the gendered stereotypes placed on us? The non-binary declaration is a slap in the face to all women, who, if they haven’t come out as “genderqueer,” presumably possess an internal essence perfectly in-line with the misogynistic parody of womanhood created by patriarchy.

Unlike second-wave feminists, who advocated for women to unite collectively under the banner of feminism, queer theorist Judith Butler touted “disidentification” as a politically progressive act. In 1993, Butler argued that women should “collectively disidentify” with other members of the female sex as a means to “queer” the category of sex itself. Over 20 years later, Butler’s vision has come to eerie fruition, as women proudly proclaim they have nothing in common with other females.

Butler’s bizarre, seemingly-antifeminist political prescriptions make sense in the context of her wider political project. In her two main works on gender theory, Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, Butler theorizes that gender is not oppressive due to the sexist, hierarchical stereotypes attached to masculinity and femininity, but because of its binary nature, which she says “violently excludes” those who fall outside the “margins” of the gender binary. For Butler, homosexuality can be equally as “exclusionary” and  in need of “deconstruction” as heterosexuality, as both are binary terms that “cruelly erase” other sexualities, such as bisexuality. Butler’s overarching political aim is to render marginalization impossible by making all social categories “inclusive.” This appears to have been achieved in a way, today, as we see the melding together of all categories of sexual orientation into the amorphous “queer.” (Oddly, oppression still exists, despite this magical rewording.)

The recent trend of declaring oneself “non-binary” seems to be another victory for Butlerian queer politics, wherein social reality has lost definitional shape and blurred into a mass of individuals who are supposedly “not men and not women.”

Butler is focused on eliminating marginalization for “non-normative” identities (which could theoretically include anyone from BDSM practitioners to pedophiles), not specifically women. She argues that the category of “woman” itself must be deconstructed, as it excludes other individuals who aren’t women (aka males). Since Butler is not concerned with the liberation of women in particular, the fact that women disidentifying with one another is likely to impede feminist efforts doesn’t bother her. But despite Butler’s admission that her politics are not specifically concerned with female liberation, many women still declare their non-binary disidentification to be a feminist act.

Penny at least acknowledges that disidentification with women clashes with feminist politics, but attempts to resolve this by saying she still “identifies, politically, as a woman.” This is paradoxical, as Penny’s non-binary declaration is not merely a neutral personal expression of her individuality, but already saturated with a certain political ideology. In this ideology, when a woman bristles under the boot of patriarchy — exemplified in the way Penny hated her female body during puberty and painfully felt pressured to conform to standards of femininity — this discomfort is seen not as a natural reaction to the unjust imposition of power, but rather as an indication that a woman is not a woman at all.

If discomfort in the female social position means a woman is “non-binary,” then what does it mean for all the women who don’t declare themselves “genderqueer?” Are they always a-ok with their lives under patriarchy? Do they never feel restrained by the narrow confines of femininity? Few people, if any, align perfectly with one end of the gender binary or the other, so, as Rebecca Reilly-Cooper argues, “If gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition?”

Escobar notes that she “identified considerably with men,” which is completely unsurprising, considering our culture is almost entirely dominated by the male perspective. Our literature and films feature mostly male characters who are the heroes, villains, and rogues, while most female characters appear only in relation to those males: the love-interest, wife, or mother. Feeling such intense alienation (combined with the trauma of rape), it makes sense that Escobar would experience depression, eating disorders, and body dysmorphia.

But she makes no such connections between her experiences and patriarchal power, instead implying that her unhappiness and alienation were due to not yet having realized her “difficult-to-name” uniqueness she describes as “non-binary.” (Penny similarly attributes her struggle to growing up in “a time before Tumblr when very few teenagers were talking about being genderqueer or transmasculine.” The horror!)

What this assumes is that structural power will disappear when women realize their unhappiness under patriarchy is only due to a personal oddity or defect. The ideology behind “non-binary” exemplifies the liberal concept of the social contract (that is, the idea that individuals living under state power are assumed to consent to that power, otherwise they would simply choose to relocate.) When being narrowly defined by sexist stereotypes is positioned as a state one can simply reject, voluntarily, women who don’t choose to opt out of gender are positioned as therefore consenting to that power.

I can think of nothing more anti-feminist than an ideology that precludes the possibility of identifying and confronting patriarchal power, and instead individualizes oppression as though it is a “personal choice.” Penny argues that she is still a feminist, and any obligation for women to identify with other women, “politically or otherwise,” constitutes “fucked up and bullshit” “identity policing.”  But feminism is not a matter of personal identity. Just like feeling pain under patriarchy is not a result of individual women’s quirks. Unfortunately, we can’t come out as “human beings” in order to convince men to treat us like equals. So please, spare us your insulting insinuations that we can identify (or “disindentify”) our way out of structural oppression. We’ll be trying to build a political movement with the specific aim of female liberation, in the meantime.

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.