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A non-binary femme in a gender neutral bathroom
Photograph: The Gender Spectrum Collection

Not a woman, not a man: navigating the world when you identify as non-binary

For the first time ever, Sydney's All About Women feminist festival is hosting a panel all about people who identify outside of the gender binary

Alannah Le Cross
Written by
Alannah Le Cross

“For me, the end goal is the elimination of the gender binary. But that doesn't mean eliminating men and women or the categories of men and women, or insisting that everyone needs to be trans or non-binary,” says Dr Yves Rees, the co-curator of a watershed discussion at this year's All About Women, the annual feminist thought festival at the Sydney Opera House. Beyond the Binary is set to be a disruptive discussion with an entirely trans and gender-nonconforming panel that seeks to imagine a future where rigid gender binaries have disappeared. It's the first time such a discussion has been part of the festival, but in Rees' opinion, it's a blind spot that deserves more visibility in such forums.

“To my mind, this festival is called All About Women, but I think it's really fundamentally a festival about gender and power,” Rees tells Time Out. “Even though I'm not a woman, non-binary people such as myself, we are at the absolute forefront of thinking about questions on gender and power because of the work we do in living outside the gender binary. And in so doing, analysing gender binary, patriarchy, gendered expectations and norms and how all those things work. So I think at any any festival concerned with these questions about gender and power, non-binary people are not peripheral, we’re actually central to the discussion.”

Rees uses they/them pronouns and came out as trans and non-binary four years ago, at the age of 30. While terms like non-binary have only become common knowledge fairly recently, gender identities other than ‘man’ or ‘woman’ have existed for generations; and singular gender-neutral pronouns are not only grammatically correct, they’ve also been around for centuries

“When I discovered these words, it was an incredible moment... Like, that's who I am. It gives me an identity, it gives me a community, it gives me a set of conceptual tools to talk about my experience with others,” says Rees.

Yves Rees
Photograph: Supplied/Susan Papazian | Yves Rees

“I think it's important to say that these words are kind of a clumsy shorthand in a way. [Non-binary is] a huge category, because it can refer to anyone who isn't a man or woman, who lives outside of the binary, and there's a million possible different genders in that space. So lumping us all under the non-binary category can be a bit limiting. But these words are a lot better than nothing. And it's really validating, to feel to feel less alone and to feel like you exist. Because one of the hardest things about being non-binary, particularly when I was growing up and still today, is that the world just doesn't recognise that people like us can be real.” 

The panel that Rees has helped to assemble brings together a diverse group of people who demonstrate that there is a rich variety of self-expression that exists under the binary-defying umbrella.

The line-up includes Professor Sandy O’Sullivan, a Wiradjuri, transgender and non-binary academic at Macquarie University; Amao Leota Lu, a proud Samoa Fa’afafine and an Indigenous Pasifika trans woman who is an activist, performance artist, writer, poet and storyteller; and Jinghua Qian, a Shanghainese writer living in Melbourne's west who can count performance poetry and arts criticism as strings to their bow. 

For Qian, who uses the neo-pronouns ey/eir/em, ey hope this will be an opportunity to disrupt tired discussions about gender nonconformity: “[I’m] tired of boring, invasive questions about our bodies and the logistics of legal, social and medical transition. Like, it's important to support access to all that stuff, but I think there's a kind of obsessive and voyeuristic focus on this imagined, dramatic moment of 'transition' rather than the rest of our lives. We're starting to see that change in media representations – similar to how queer narratives are moving on from a singular focus on 'coming out', we're seeing more stories about trans people who are already trans rather than only seeing transition stories."

“I'm also really tired of individual experiences being taken as representative of 'transness', but that's the case for any minoritised group. What I wished people asked more is for my opinions about TV. I have too many and I would like someone to take them out of my brain, please,” Qian adds.

While including trans and non-binary identifying people in a festival that addresses gender and patriarchy should be a no-brainer, it is a bold statement of inclusivity for All About Women to be spotlighting these voices so prominently. From J.K Rowling’s senior moments on Twitter to Mark Latham’s Parental Privacy and Religious Discrimination Bill, the voices of trans people themselves are all too often missing from discussions in feminist debate and in general public debate.

As Rees explains: “For a long time, [feminist] spaces have tended to be unthinkingly centred on the category of woman. But I think the challenge posed by non-binary people like myself, is to ask, are these spaces really for women? Or should they be for marginalised genders? And that can include women, but it can also include non-binary people, gender diverse people and trans men …[and] if you actually are serious about including trans and non-binary people, you need to recognise that we're not like an add on.” 

“The gender binary hurts all of us, no matter our gender identity because gender expectations create really small boxes for us about how we should behave. So even for people who very strongly feel like a man or a woman and have no issue with that gender they were assigned at birth, even for those people society still gives us a very, very narrow and violently enforced idea of what a man or woman is and how they can behave.”

When you begin to pull apart the concept of the binary, a world of questions is opened up. And with those questions come more questions and some very exciting possibilities.

“I'm tired of being asked, ‘how can we help non-binary people?’ What I want to be asked instead is, ‘how could non-binary people help us and teach us?’” adds Rees.

The Beyond the Binary panel is presented on Sunday, March 13 as part of All About Women. You can book tickets for the live event and the livestream here.

Yves Rees published their memoir, All About Yves: Notes from a Transition, through Allen & Unwin in 2021.

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