Straits Times Lifestyle
13 October 2019

I'm neither girl nor boy

Non-binary is a gender identity that more people in Singapore, especially the younger ones, are identifying with

Olivia Ho
Arts Correspondent

Alex is wearing a badge. "Hello," it reads, "my pronouns are he/him and they/them."

"I'm definitely not a girl or a boy," says the 20-year-old polytechnic graduate, who has identified as gender non-binary since the age of 13. "I just consider myself to be a person, a human-shaped blob of gender. I am all-encompassing. I am the umbrella term.

"I wear this badge when I don't have to hide, when I'm with certain groups of friends I feel safer with, but not in my normal daily life. People get a bit weird about it."

"Non-binary" is an umbrella term for those whose gender identities do not sit comfortably with either "man" or "woman".

Grammy Award-winning singer Sam Smith came out as non-binary earlier this year and announced last month on Instagram: "I've decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM. After a lifetime of being at war with my gender, I've decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out."

Smith joins some other celebrities who have come out as non-binary, including actor Asia Kate Dillon, who has been in TV series Billions (2016 to present) and movie John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019); and Jonathan Van Ness, the grooming expert on Netflix show Queer Eye (2018 to present).

At least two novels longlisted this year for the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction feature non-binary characters - Jeanette Winterson's Frankissstein, which reimagines Frankenstein author Mary Shelley as a transgender doctor in the modern day; and Bernardine Evaristo's shortlisted Girl, Woman, Other, in which one of the 12 protagonists transitions from Megan to Morgan.

"Non-binary" is not synonymous with "transgender", although some people may identify as both. It is also separate from sexuality.

For example, Alex is bisexual, but other non-binary individuals might have different sexual orientations.

Many non-binary people use "they/them" pronouns as well as - or instead of - "he/him" and "she/her". Also used, though less commonly, are specifically gender-neutral pronouns such as "ze", "sie" or "hir".

Last month, Merriam-Webster dictionary officially recognised "they/them" as a singular non-binary pronoun, noting in a blog post that "'they' has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s".

Mr Leow Yangfa, executive director of Oogachaga, a non-profit organisation that works with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people in Singapore, says: "So, for example, if a non-binary person uses 'they' as their pronoun, we can say 'My friend's name is Pat. They identify as gender non-binary.'"

Though the concept of non-binary gender has long been present throughout history - the Bugis people in Sulawesi, Indonesia, acknowledge five genders, including the gender-neutral "bissu" - the term "non-binary" has lately gained traction in popular culture.

"I've always known I was not completely female, but I didn't want to be a boy," says Carmen, a 30-year-old who encountered the term two years ago. "I feel the same way I've always felt, but now I have a name to put to it."

Non-profit organisations which support the LGBTQ community in Singapore, such as Oogachaga, TransgenderSG and The T Project, say they have observed a small increase in the number of non-binary people approaching them.

Mr Leow estimates that in the past two years, Oogachaga has supported around six to 10 non-binary persons a year through various counselling services.

"More and more people, especially younger persons, identify as non-binary. It's a term I never heard of 10 years ago," says The T Project executive director June Chua. "Because their gender identity and gender expression do not fall within the societal norms of how they should behave or dress, they face discrimination and misunderstanding."

Of the eight non-binary people The Sunday Times interviewed, most asked to be anonymous or identified only by their first names because they have not come out to their families or because of the stigma that non-binary people face.

Bartender Stephanie, 32, says: "I've heard strangers and acquaintances say non-binary people are just being trendy, are mentally ill, should be locked up, should kill themselves, should be referred to as 'it'... It is dangerous for many non-binary people to use gendered toilets.

"Even within the LGBTQ community, there are many who think that non-binary people aren't valid or real and just want attention. Sometimes, this makes me fear being out and, other times, hearing this makes me want to come out even more."

Alex's father does not know his only child is non-binary. "He still refers to me as his daughter," says Alex. "My mother told me a few years ago that if I ever come out to him, I have to make sure I don't love him any more. That was very hard to take. I don't want to lie to my father about who I actually am."

Even after coming out, non-binary people have difficulty getting others to accept their pronouns. Referring to non-binary people by the pronouns they have asked one not to use is called "misgendering".

Carmen, who works in insurance, says: "I've come out at work, but people tend to forget and default to 'she'. I try to gently remind them. Sometimes, I just let it slide. You don't want to be an a**hole about it. It's not going to make me kill myself, but it would be nice if they used my pronouns."

Freelance writer Clay, 25, does not try to explain being non-binary to clients. "I am afraid of what they would think of me and whether it would cost me the job if I were to impose anything on them."

National University of Singapore University Scholars Programme associate professor Lo Mun Hou, who teaches the course The Problematic Concept Of "Gender", says misgendering can be harmful and hurtful. "For many people, identities and identifications are not 'internally' generated; our sense of ourselves also depends on being recognised and acknowledged by others.

"If you are, for example, a biological and cisgender man, you might be embarrassed, mortified, depressed or angry if you go through life and find that other people persistently and mistakenly call you 'miss' or 'madam'."

"Cisgender" is the term for people for whom gender identity corresponds with birth sex.

He suggests that more people, not just those who are transgender or non-binary, make an effort to indicate their pronouns in their biographies, e-mail signatures or social media. "This practice can underline the notion that gender is not necessarily tied to sex and not necessarily 'readable' from appearances."

There is no fixed way to present as non-binary. Reilly, a teacher who passes as a cisgender man, prefers to browse racks of women's clothing. "Gender is a capitalist fantasy that wants to limit us and get us to buy stuff we don't really need," says the 36-year-old. "We should be free to be who we want and buy what we want."

Junior college student Tay Yi Ting usually appears stereotypically masculine - short hair, button-up shirt, a low-pitched voice - but will wear a cheongsam during Chinese New Year or high heels to a conference.

The 17-year-old says: "It's much more important and efficient to educate people on these foreign concepts instead of forcing them to accept me for who I am, before giving them the time and capacity to internalise these new ideas.

"After all, it took me some time to discover my own identity and it'd only be fair to grant them time to challenge their deeply entrenched ideals, and start understanding and accepting something they've never had to think about, at their own pace."