Méabh McMahon speaks to Kay Cairns, a freelance journalist, trans rights activist and founder of Non-Binary+ Ireland. As a non-binary activist Kay has worked with groups like the Irish Trans Students’ Alliance (ITSA), and they have served on the board of Transgender Equality Network of Ireland (TENI) in the past. Non-Binary+ Ireland was founded in July 2015. Someone who identifies as ‘non-binary’ is a person who identifies somewhere outside the binary male & female genders.
Express: Do you think pronoun introductions should be incorporated into normal speech and society? Are non-traditional pronouns such as ‘ze or zir’ helpful for giving people more choices, or do they make it easier for skeptics to ridicule the issue?
Kay: Definitely. I’ve found the best way to let someone know what my pronouns are is to introduce them right off the bat. “Hey, nice to meet you Ed, what are your pronouns…? Oh awesome, mine are ‘they.'” It’s simple, easy, and educates everyone you meet of the importance of pronouns and not assuming.
I use ‘they’ pronouns, but some non-binary people use she, he, ze, sie, hir, co, ey, or a different pronoun. It can be tough to use a pronoun that’s not she or he because sometimes people have to learn to use it and will decide it’s too complicated. But there are great games you can find online to help you use these pronouns, such as the Pronouns App.
There’s still so much stigma surrounding non-binary identities in the trans community. There’s the fear that our flexibility around gender and use of a broader set of pronouns can lead to increased ridicule of the trans community. Indeed, this can be the case, but by stigmatising people we’re prioritising the skeptics as opposed to standing up for those non-binary people ridiculed in our community.
Gender-neutral clothing lines have come under criticism for being catered to tall, androgynous-looking white people. People who have typically feminine or masculine traits – such as curves or a beard – are often in turn told that they ‘don’t look non-binary enough’. How do we best get recognition for non-binary people in society, while also not creating a category that alienates its own members?
Kay: In our advocacy we need to constantly be highlighting the diversity in the non-binary community. We’re short, we’re tall, we’re femme, we’re masc, we’re wibbly-wobbly, we’re androgynous, we’re fat, we’re skinny, we’re old, we’re young, we’re people of colour, we’re white, and we’re people of a variety of ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.
There’s sometimes an assumption when people come across Non-Binary+ Ireland that we’re somehow exclusionary of anyone who doesn’t fit some kind of definition of non-binary. We’re super inclusive though, that’s why we have the plus in our name. It includes anyone and everyone who feels non-binary, whether that’s their sole gender identity, or whether they only feel a little bit non-binary or gender non-conforming- we’re here.
I’ve been asked, “Why does Non-Binary+ Ireland exist then, if non-binary is such a broad thing, don’t other trans organisations cover this? Do we even need an organisation for this?” The answer is a very strong yes. We’re essential to the non-binary community – one which is stigmatised, is barred from receiving medical transition treatment, is excluded from legal gender recognition, is the regular target of attacks, is the least understood and recognised, and has been constantly ignored by the trans community, until Non-Binary+ Ireland came along.
Transgender people have some of the highest rates of suicide among any group in society. What would you say to people for whom the phrase ‘it gets better’ rings hollow? If someone is thinking about their own gender identity for the first time, what do you think is best way to approach those kinds of questions?
Kay: ‘It gets better’ does ring hollow. If you’re deeply distressed because of how society, your family, or your friends treat you and are losing hope, ‘it gets better’ is just too much of a distant promise. Yes, it will get better, but that takes time. People need immediate support, a chance at talking therapy with someone who understands non-binary identities, and to be equipped with the skills to be resilient to constant attacks and micro-aggressions. This support shouldn’t be the rarity that it is. It should be easy to access for everyone, funded, and run by trained professionals.
Most of the time when a trans person goes to a therapist they first have to jump the hurdle of explaining their gender identity and educating the therapist. This can be especially hard as a non-binary person when your therapist has more often than not never heard of the term non-binary. You’re educating right from start, before you can even begin to address your trauma, anxieties or depression, etc. Often because of the therapist’s lack of experience and knowledge in trans identities, they will ask you to question your identity: “…but what if you’re just a trans man/ non-binary because you’re frustrated with the patriarchy?” “Maybe you’re just rejecting your femininity because you’re ashamed of it?” “Maybe you’re not a trans woman/ non-binary, you just have a fetish?” “Maybe you’re just gay?”
These questions are bloody awful and lead to so much unnecessary pain and guilt on the behalf of the trans person. I agonised for years over going on testosterone because I was worried I was somehow unconsciously doing it because I wanted to ‘partake in the patriarchy.'” Now I realise how damaging that thought process is and that we just have to give ourselves a break and let ourselves explore our gender identities without guilt, cisgender expectations, or the horrible voice of the medical establishment of what they deem ok for us to do with our own bodies.
A contentious issue is whether cisgender authors should try to write trans characters, or whether only trans people can, and should, tell their stories. Do you believe this is true? Do you support cisgender actors playing transgender characters, or should that be the sole reserve of actual trans people?
Kay: I believe anyone can and should write trans characters. We need more trans characters! There aren’t many… That said, I’m sure someone who is trans and has that life experience will be much better placed at writing an authentic trans character, and so it would be awesome to see more trans authors getting published on the big stage. The kid’s book George (by Alex Gino) was a game changer for me – read it!
I’m not sure I’ll ever support cisgender actors playing trans characters though, at least not until society stops seeing trans women/ non-binary people as men in dresses and they stop being killed; and trans men/ non-binary people aren’t seen as ‘dykes’ and raped, beaten and murdered.
How did you get involved in non-binary issues? Do you remember the first time you heard the term ‘non-binary’, and what did you think about it then? How have you found this line of work thus far?
Kay: One of my exes came out to me as trans when we were dating, and so supporting him through his transition helped me to come to realise my own gender. I kept reading and educating myself, and eventually came across the term non-binary. It fit me a whole lot better than trans man, and helped me find other people like me. I wasn’t alone anymore.
That said, when I realised I was non-binary, there were no supports out there. I attended the local trans support group with my partners, but I was often the only out non-binary person there, and the talk usually revolved around hormones and surgery – something I wasn’t thinking about. Our largest trans organisation, TENI, didn’t speak about non-binary identities or advocate for our visibility, support or needs at that time.
When I chatted to friends about the issue, they suggested I set up my own organisation for non-binary people, and while that was a sucky burden to have placed on me, I’m really glad I did it. Non-Binary+ Ireland is now one year old, is funded, and provides online and physical support spaces to over 120 people. We advocate for non-binary visibility and inclusion, provide workshops, and help other LGBTI+ organisations, such as TENI, in its outreach to non-binary people and advocacy for medical and legal inclusion. It’s been an incredibly tough year – as I’ve faced so much stigma and attacks from my family, the trans community and other trans activists for my work. But it’s incredibly rewarding. I know I’m helping people and that’s what keeps me going.
Conservatives argue that services that reach out to young trans people are dangerous, given that they may make life-altering decisions over something which could be a passing phase. They point to young girls, who may resent the fact that they were born female in our patriarchal society, but that does not mean they are necessarily trans, and they should not be offered hormone therapy or surgery so quickly. How would you respond to those claims?
Kay: It’s a non-question. Trans people aren’t offered hormone therapy or surgeries quickly. It takes years to acquire – years of convincing multiple doctors, psychologists and endocrinologists that you’re ‘trans enough’ to get medical care. For non-binary people, it can be near impossible to access care, with many forced to pretend they’re a trans man/ woman to gain access.
The argument that ‘young girls’ would resent the fact they were ‘born female’ and would seek to therefore access hormones or surgery to change themselves because of patriarchy is sexist. It infantalises women, relying on the belief that they aren’t intelligent enough to have agency over their own bodies and so should be ‘gatekeeped’ by doctors. The implications of this argument are far-reaching and pretty terrifying. Everybody should have agency over their own body, no matter how they identify. Trust people who are assigned female at birth to know their own minds.
“They” was named Word of the Year in 2015 by the American Dialect Society. Do you see this as an achievement of recognition, or a sign that wider society sees these issues as a trend that will quickly go out of fashion?
Kay: Non-binary gender isn’t a trend, just as being bi isn’t a trend. Identities are referred to as trends by skeptics when they are trying to delegitimise or ridicule something. As an LGBTI+ community we must stand up for our non-binary siblings and their validity and need for greater recognition, not side with or bend to the will of the skeptics.
It was fantastic to see ‘they’ being awarded Word of the Year, as it gave weight to the fact non-binary people exist and our pronoun exists, and as much a some people like to complain, it’s not grammatically incorrect to use and must be respected.
The Gender-recognition Act recently passed in Ireland. What kind of legislative challenges are still facing us? Do you think, after the passing of the bill and Marriage Equality, that people believe the battle for LGBT rights has been won and are paying less attention to these issues?
Kay: The gender recognition act excludes non-binary people completely, doesn’t acknowledge intersex people, lacks provision for binary trans people (men/ women) who are under 16 and makes it very difficult for 16 to 18 year olds to access gender recognition. At Non-Binary+ Ireland’s end, we’re working with TENI to make sure the next review of the gender recognition act puts strong emphasis on non-binary inclusion, as this was missing from its initial campaign.
In some sense the binary trans community has been fortunate in that the gender recognition act received so little attention. It seemed the likes of the Iona Institute were unaware the bill was being processed.
That said, it would be awesome to have the support of the rest of the LGBTI+ community in Ireland, as it’s never paid attention to the T, unless in a tokenistic sense. Indeed, the intersex community is payed even less attention, by both the LGB and trans communities.
Do you believe that gender-identity groups should split from sexual-orientation groups (ie T split from LBG)? Is Non-Binary+ Ireland affiliated with TENI? Could you elucidate the difference between transgender issues and non-binary issues, or it there a significant overlap?
I think we’re stronger together. We need to support each other in our work, form partnerships, and boost eachothers’ progress. I’ve found it tough to form partnerships between Non-Binary+ Ireland and our country’s other trans organisations, as they often believe they are already non-binary inclusive, and unfortunately this just isn’t the case.
I can understand therefore why other movements, like the intersex movement, has forged on ahead without the rest of the LGBT+ community, because as minorities within minorities we receive an incredible amount of marginalisation within our ‘safe spaces’ and it can just be too frustrating and tiring to fight for change from within.
It can often be easier to work as an individual community, and continue to nudge everybody else to catch on. I’ve worked for years within trans organisations to help make them more non-binary, gender non-conforming and intersex inclusive, and hit so many roadblocks I realised it would be more beneficial to go it alone, establish a non-binary support and advocacy organisation, and make all of our resources openly accessible to everyone, in the hopes they’ll take some of it on board. Making these resources is our next step at Non-Binary+ Ireland.
We’re also working with TENI in creating a non-binary forum to travel through Ireland and gather information on the experiences and needs of the non-binary community. We have distinct issues to tackle as we’re often treated as invisible, unworthy of medical and legal transition, and shunned by the trans community. I’m hopeful the research and anecdotes from the non-binary forum will help us start to raise visibility to these issues in a very real way, be noticed, and create deep structural change.
For more information on Non-Binary+ Ireland, and the work they do, you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find them on social media, @NonBinaryIRL. Kay can be found on Twitter, @KayACairns.