Claiming “Woman” and the Nuance of Non-Binary Gender

I came out nearly ten months ago, eight or nine weeks into our continuing pandemic. I’ve spent the time since coming out staying… well… in. Though I wish I could do things like go to Pride and explore queerness in the presence of friends, I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to make much of my initial social transition while staying away from the complicated world of in-person networking. I have the space to explore aesthetic choices based on what makes me happy instead of worrying about what’s going to fly around my cis colleagues. When I have a rough day, I can lean on my partner for support. Beyond teaching, if I don’t want to be visible (or audible) at any given time, I don’t have to be.

Still, there are some days when the outside world and all its judgment encroach so insistently I can’t ignore it. Often this takes the form of reading the various calls for applications and proposals that have begun to re-emerge. I used to have no problem with my eligibility—though I haven’t been happy using “woman” to categorize myself for at least a couple years, it was an easy enough word to find in the eligibility section of any call.

But how many times have you seen “genderfluid” or “genderflux” in a call for anything?

The last time I joined an all-women space, I had to explain my genderfluidity to a panel of strangers.

Interestingly, a lot of the biggest question marks arise when I’m considering organizations that have previously welcomed me because of the woman-ish part of my gender. Many, many organizations have aimed to unify and promote kinship among professional women in any given field, but in today’s landscape, it’s often unclear what that means. Some orgs might have “women” in their mission statement or name because at the time of founding, those folks in charge only understood gender marginalization in a binary sense. Other institutions say “women” because they mean it—marginalized genders bearing any other label, even related ones, are not welcome. In these cases, “women” also usually means “cis women.”

Unless you’re very, very, very familiar with a specific group and their inner workings, it can be nearly impossible to tell the difference. Most websites and social media accounts don’t give enough information to know for sure—and if they do, sometimes it’s nested in fine print or on an obscure page well hidden from most casual visitors. That kind of framing, even from a group that means well, doesn’t feel encouraging: are our identities of so little importance that they’re functionally invisible while women are on damn near every page? Or are there so many transphobes and TERFs in the org’s membership that hidden from view is the only place they can put us?

In either case, are we safe? Are we included and supported?

No.

Most groups don’t even get that far, though. They say “women” and it’s up to us gender-marginalized not-cis-women to figure out if we’re even allowed to breathe in that general direction. Newsflash: most of us won’t bother.

See, most places that support women first and trans people as a tangential afterthought aren’t actually equipped to support androgynous or masc-presenting folks who might benefit from the services or kinship they offer. Their staff haven’t considered that “ladies!” is a severely misgendering greeting when your audience includes nonbinary and transmasculine folks of various identities. They haven’t thought about how some of us may, to borrow a phrase from a friend, caucus with women while bearing an identity that isn’t a one-to-one correlation. They may not know some nonbinary identities (hi!) involve womanhood.

Everyone’s allowed to learn. But I’ve seen too many organizations misstep badly (lookin’ at you, ICD) because they dove into representing marginalized genders without having a clue about how our needs differ from cis women’s.

If you’re a woman-focused org and want to represent other gender-marginalized folks, you need them with you from the planning process of these new endeavors. You need to prioritize their voices while also taking time away from your organization to educate yourself without exhausting the trans and nonbinary people immediately around you. Adding us in after the fact, once implementation has already happened, just increases the labor required of us. Chances are we’ll have to grapple directly with unintentional transphobia that’s popped up at some point in the process.

Above all, though, be clear about who you’re hoping to reach. Make sure all your gender demographics get equal billing, and try to eliminate any instances where we’d have to out ourselves to you in order to be welcome.

Oh, and stop asking other cis people how to refer to large categories of trans folks. Unless that cis person is a gender scholar, you will almost always get a better answer from independent research and consultation with trans community members who are open to consulting with you.

The last time I joined an all-women space, I had to explain my genderfluidity to a panel of strangers. Womanhood is part of my gender, but even don’t know where I’m welcome. I don’t face the same hurdles some transfeminine and nonbinary folks do—if I was willing to be constantly misgendered in more professional contexts than I already am, I could fly under the radar and move through these spaces without opposition. But I can’t justify benefiting from these opportunities when I know my trans siblings would be treated worse.

I will gladly and gratefully accept kinship with women when it is offered. But none of us should have to sacrifice healthy, gender-affirming interactions to access that.

Megan, with short blue hair under a beanie, gazes up at the camera. Her purple eyeshadow matches their purple mask; because she's looking up, their torso and the rest of her body is visible. They're wearing a black tank top, black skinny jeans, white Vans, and has a shirt knotted around her waist.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like more analysis and commentary like this in your life, come back every Saturday at 8pm MST. To support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @ordinarilymeg on Instagram.

[btw, my thoughts on the ICD Review are coming very, very soon. get ready.]

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