This March, GW elected its first openly non-binary SA President. For many students, this announcement was met with a little confusion. What does non-binary mean? What are singular ‘they’ pronouns? Who better to ask than the experts—non-binary students themselves.
Let’s start with the basics.
“Gender is different than sex,” explains Allied in Pride President Ciaran Lithgow, who identifies as non-binary and uses singular they pronouns. “It’s how you identify inside, and how you express your insides to the outside world.”
You’ve probably heard of the umbrella term ‘transgender,’ which describes someone who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Non-binary is a sub-category of this term, which includes anyone who does not identify within the boundaries of traditional masculinity and femininity.
Some non-binary people “have a strong gender identity…separate from [binary male and female genders],” explains GW grad student Gabe Schirvar. For example, Schirvar is maverique, “a non-binary identity that’s similar to third gender, but not appropriative [of non-Western cultures].”
Then there are non-binary people who don’t identify with gender at all. Youtuber and former GW student Mx. Kilo, who is agender, describes it as “a rejection of gender…I am neither and both at the same time.”
Non-binary people use a variety of pronouns, from ones you’ve heard of (she/her/hers and he/him/his), to ones that might be new (ze/hir/hirs). But the one that seems to trip people up the most is singular they. However, most students already use it more than they realize.
“Say someone left an umbrella in your office and you don’t know whose it is,” Lithgow explains. “You would say ‘somebody left their umbrella in my office.’”
“[Refusing to use singular they pronouns because they’re ‘grammatically incorrect’] is an intellectual attempt to justify transphobia,” says Schirvar. “For me, it comes back to self-determination. It’s the belief that you and you alone have the right to determine who you are and what your identity is and nobody else has the right to question that.”
All of the students we interviewed said that one way cisgender students can make campus a more welcoming place for non-binary students is to introduce themselves with their name and pronouns. This is especially true of student org leaders, who can start meetings with brief name-pronoun intros, or provide name tags with fill-in-the-blank pronouns.
“You immediately make it a safe space for us to tell you about your pronouns. That indicates to us that you are [informed], that you are accepting, and that you will probably get my pronouns right,” explains Lithgow.
If you slip up…
If you accidentally misgender someone by using incorrect pronouns, the best thing to do is briefly apologize, correct yourself, and move on.
‘Sorry, they.’ Resist the urge to make it into a big deal or get defensive.
“As a non-binary person there’s not really anything you can say when someone goes on and on apologizing, because it’s not ok to use the wrong pronouns, but we also understand that there’s a learning curve,” explains Schirvar. “[But] as a trans person, I don’t want to stand here while I’m reminded that my existence makes people uncomfortable.”
Some closing thoughts…
• Mx. Kilo: “If you see someone in the bathroom who you think might not belong there, they chose to enter that bathroom, and that makes them comfortable, so just do your business…And stop asking about genitalia. That is personal information, and the only time you should be having that conversation is when you’re about to have sex with someone.”
• Gabe Schirvar: “One of the biggest things that anybody can do for a non-binary person is to believe them, and to trust that they are the best people to know who they are.”
• Mx. Kilo: “People assume when I wear a dress or makeup ‘oh you’re going to fully transitioned’ and I’m like, ‘I’m fully transitioned. I’m where I want to be.’”
The first step to becoming a better ally to non-binary students is to get educated on the issues they face. Reading this article is a start– but there are some incredible resources out there createdby and documenting the experiences of non-binary folks which can help us work towards a more inclusive campus.