Magazine article The Spectator

Why I’m Afraid of the ‘Non-Binary’ Crusade

Magazine article The Spectator

Why I’m Afraid of the ‘Non-Binary’ Crusade

Article excerpt

This was the year that the word ‘non-binary’ went mainstream. It has now officially entered the dictionary — lexicographers at Collins have defined the term as ‘a gender or sexual identity that does not belong to the binary categories of male or female, heterosexual or homosexual’.

Non-binary also entered the Liberal Democrat manifesto, though Jo Swinson may now be regretting this decision. Non-binary is easy to announce; it’s rather more challenging to explain to the electorate — or to journalists. In a series of difficult interviews this week, she even denied the fact that every human being is either male or female. I’m a science teacher; if she had been one of my pupils, I think I would have despaired.

I transitioned at the age of 44, having always struggled with my gender. By the age of three, I wanted to be one of the girls — though I had no idea why. I didn’t know whether boys felt the same way as me. I did, however, sense that the subject was one I could not broach: taboos kick in young. In the years leading up to my transition, my gender dysphoria never vanished, but its intensity did wax and wane in line with how busy and happy I was. Finally, when it did overwhelm me, I took the plunge.

As a trans woman who is in the thick of the debate over trans rights, I’m not sure the Collins dictionary definition clarifies much, not least because it conflates sex and gender. George Orwell once wrote: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ As I see it, the rapidly shifting language around transgender issues has corrupted a good deal of thought.

The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ have become increasingly muddled. But they’re distinct concepts. Essentially, sex is about biology while gender is about psychology. Our sex relates to our role — or potential role — in the reproduction of our species. Gender, on the other hand, is a more abstract term that relates to aspects of our psychology: how we express our personality in the context of gendered roles within society.

While some may resent being told they have a sex, they do. It is one of two things: male or female. We cannot change it, and we can’t choose it any more than we can choose the colour of our eyes.

Sex is binary. It takes two people to make a baby — one provides the egg and the other supplies the sperm. Despite what the dictionary says, no one is outside the two sex categories, male and female, and in that sense, nobody is non-binary. Intersex people may have variations of sexual development, but those differences exist within the two sex classes, not between them.

Gender is far less clear. Roles and expected characteristics vary hugely. Who gets to wear make-up and who pulls on the trousers are worked out in a constantly shifting social context. How many gender identities could there be? Until recently, that great authority Facebook offered 71. Every human is unique and we are all a riotous mix of masculine and feminine characteristics. In gender terms, there is no binary to speak of, and everybody is non-binary.

To my mind, the conflation of sex and gender is insidious and is causing major problems. We are discussing enshrining ‘non-binary rights’ in law, for example, including the right to obfuscate sex markers on official documents. …

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