Kate Harrad gives the readers of online newspaper The Huffington Post a gentle introduction to nonbinary and genderqueer identities and experiences:
So this is how I’ve started to think about gender. It is just a metaphor.
Once upon a time there was a country called Gender. The country consisted mainly of two large cities, one called Male and one called Female. Most people lived in one of the cities, and people who didn’t were frowned on, but sometimes someone would leave one city and go and live in the other, if they were allowed in. Other times, people would visit the other city and come back.
Some people didn’t want to live in the cities at all. They left and went to the space in between, or to a different part of the country altogether, and built their own houses there. They even founded villages with other people who didn’t take to city life.
Some of the people who’d left tried to persuade the city-dwellers that it was OK not to live in a city. Just because most people lived in cities, they argued, it didn’t mean that everyone had to, or that cities were better than villages, any more than villages were better than cities. But most of the city dwellers were very suspicious of the people who’d left, and often mocked them or even hurt them, because they felt that leaving the cities was weird and wrong, even though it wasn’t doing anyone any harm.
(Responsibility for this metaphor rests entirely with me. This metaphor is entirely my own opinion and is not legally binding. Use of this metaphor is at your own risk.)
I’m someone who’s always lived in the city of Female, but I know quite a few people who have gone visiting, or have rejected city life altogether*. They might describe themselves as nonbinary, non-gendered, genderqueer, genderfree, trans, androgynous or all or none of the above or something else entirely. What they have in common is that they can’t or won’t fit into a simple binary definition of male or female.
[Warning: Interview uses an outdated term considered offensive by many intersex people]
“As a child I loved stories of wonderment,” he tells me. “Knights in shining armour, princes in tights, fairy princesses, that sort of thing. My elder brother says I used to scare myself silly with monsters, skeletons and graveyards. I lived in my imagination because I knew deep down I should really have been born a girl. I couldn’t say that out loud so I pulled the shutters down and lived inside my head.”
I ask if he’s ever considered gender reassignment. He says no. He describes his gender identification and bisexuality in the following way:
“My feeling is that there are hormonal triggers in the womb. For me, hermaphrodites are proof that things don’t always go according to plan. I keep arguing we’re all on some kind of continuum. Some are hard-wired male or female and others are somewhere in between. After a period feeling schizoid I decided I’d just be me. I’m more male than female, but if I want to go out in a frock I will.”
O’Brien previously talked to Pink News about being nonbinary transgender in August 2009, saying:
“All my life, I’ve been fighting never belonging, never being male or female, and it got to the stage where I couldn’t deal with it any longer. To feel you don’t belong … to feel insane … to feel perverted and disgusting … you go f***ing nuts.
“If society allowed you to grow up feeling it was normal to be what you are, there wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t think the term ‘transvestite’ or ‘transsexual’ would exist: you’d just be another human being.”
“I’d been fighting, going to therapy, treating what I was as though it were some kind of illness to be cured. But actually, no, I was basically transgender, and just unhappy.”
O’Brien, who uses transgender to describe feeling “in between” being a man or a woman, added: “There is a continuum between male and female. Some are hard-wired one way or another, I’m in between. Or a third sex, I could see myself as quite easily.”
On plucking up the courage to tell his children about being trans, O’Brien said their reaction was: “Dad, and your point is?”
Nonbinary visibility on UK radio and in US and UK print media. Particularly notable for discussion of the ‘Mx’ honorific title and a third gender pronoun:
This morning’s BBC Radio 4 Midweek programme interviewed gender binary rejecting transgender cabaret performer Mx Justin Vivian Bond who uses the third gender pronoun v.
The interview covers Mx Bond’s cabaret, third gender identity and childhood, starting 4 minutes 35 seconds into the episode.
Libby Purves (interviewer): Over from the US cabaret scene to enhance the Soho theatre, here is Justin Vivian Bond. If you’re a cabaret follower you may know him[sic] as Kiki DuRane of the duo Kiki and Herb. Played the Carnegie Hall and Broadband and nominated for a Tony. But the Kiki DuRane character, the bitter has been old show girl. Is she gone forever now?
Justin V Bond: Uh, I think so, hopefully. I’ve been in a much better mood since she went into retirement. [Panel members laugh] So I think she’ll stay in her nursing home in New Jersey where she is mentally in —I guess the word is intoned.
LP: [Laughs] Your uh, [laughs] Your new show is just you, is called Dendrophile. Just explain Dendrophile, someone who is fond of trees?
JVB: It would be someone who gets an erotic charge out of nature. Uh, literally a tree hugger. [Laughs from interviewer] But uh I like the word because I think it can incorporate any kind of exploration of nature or, uh, even human nature. Which I get a big thrill out of, especially people who dig deeply into their own nature to be genuine and authentic. Which I think is something that — because we are bombarded with images from the media of what we should think we should be like. It’s nice to—
LP: Everything is digital.
JVB: Yeah. It’s good to just kind of sit with yourself every now and then and try and get real.
LP: There’s a lovely review of your singing actually as ‘a voice that conjured cracking bark, creeping tendrils and rising saps’. Someone thinks you’d sing as a tree, don’t they?
JVB: I think someone was writing me a love letter!
LP: Why not? In the past you seem, having, meeting you this morning, a very cheerful character but you’ve got a lot of fun in the past out of a real cabaret sense of hopelessness, you you —that Noel Coward song, I Hate The Spring, ‘I love rabies, I hate babies’ and—
JVB: Well that much is true! But I think you can be cheerful and have that attitude.
LP: There’s a splendid one saying ‘It’s the new depression, so why am I filled will with glee, everyone’s coming down quickly, now they can all join me.’ You like the depressive vibe do you?
JVB: Well I don’t know if that’s depressive. I’m an optimist and I’m just sort of happy to see everyone in the same boat.
LP: I got a sort of echo of Quentin Crisp out of that, his great line, ‘don’t keep up with the Joneses, drag them down to your level instead!’
JVB: That’s a great attitude!
LP: [Laughing] That’s your motto!
JVB: I mean, the only person that would upset is the Joneses really.
LP: Yeah well, drag them down to your level. Um. One thing you’ve done now is to declare yourself formally to be neither male nor female, and we have a new prefix, you’re not Mr, you’re not Ms, you’re M X.
LP: Mx. That’s clever.
JVP: Well, thank you.
LP: And you don’t like he or she, it’s got to be v?
JVP: V, yes.
LP: Which is for the Vivian?
JVP: Right —Well no, v is just a pronoun —Vivian’s, it’s sort of coincidental that Vivian starts with a v. But I wanted v as a pronoun because I thought it sort of again, it’s two sides that meet in the middle. And so visually, as a sort of symbol, I think v is a good idea for a third gender.
LP: Why do you want to be a third gender?
JVB: I don’t want to, I kind of feel that I am.
LP: You feel like you always were, but you don’t wish to change gender? You don’t want gender reassignment?
JVB: No because if I was to ‘change gender’ it would imply that I’m something that I’m not already. Um, to change my physical body uh — which I am doing a bit with oestrogen, but because that’s sort of an aesthetic choice — but um, I don’t feel like I’m uh a woman trapped in a man’s body, I feel like I am transgendered person trapped in a man’s body. So um, I don’t feel like — I feel like if I say I’m a man, it’s a lie. And I feel if I say I’m a woman it’s a lie, so I’m just trying to find a space in between where I can live comfortably. And honestly.
LP: Is it a happy thing? Is it something that’s become a happy thing? Deciding this?
JVB: [Speaks over]Well it’s always been a happy thing.
LP: [Spoken over]Because it’s difficult to be—
JVB: —it’s difficult to be but it’s always been a happy thing. Because I’ve always enjoyed being who I am, I’ve always enjoyed my life. The only difficulty comes in coming against people’s ideas of what I should be and feeling that I’m disappointing them. Or feeling that they, for some reason, are presumptuous enough to feel that they can impose their ideas on me. Then I become frustrated. But uh I would say as far as my own outlook, it’s always been relatively positive, and the more uh, I become able to articulate it, the more relaxing and enjoyable my life is.
LP: How was it when you were growing up? Because you, you’re a church going family I think? You’re a sort of Maryland, serious church going family. Was, was that difficult? What did your parents feel about your [laughs] refusal to join either gender? [Laughs]
JVB: Well it’s ironic because um although I was raised in a very religious atmosphere and a very conservative atmosphere, and one that wasn’t particularly, uh —I wasn’t surrounded by people who were well educated. Um, because they knew me, especially the girls that were my age, they just sort of accepted me for who I was, and never questioned, and always just sort of knew. And so I felt a tremendous amount of comfort and very little conflict with them. I feel that my, my mother specifically felt it was her responsibility to kind of guide me, or even force me, into a role that she and her friends and her community felt more comfortable with. So that was a struggle, between us. But I think because there were people all along who kind of got it and understood me and allowed me to be [stumbles] myself. My father’s step father, my grandfather, um, he was always completely accepting, and encouraging and loving. So I had this sense of self worth because there were people who loved me, and seemed to get it from the very beginning. And so I just felt like the other people, including my mother at times, were just troublesome and didn’t get it, and I kind of worked around them as much as I could.
[Programme moves on to the next guest]