Nonbinary Generation

I’m 42 years old and not really with-it, or hip, or anything like that. Yet it does seem like a grassroots conceptual revolution has gotten underway in a relatively short time, when it comes to sex and gender. The rise of nonbinary identification seems like it is gathering pace especially rapidly.

Personally I can definitely describe myself as gendernonconforming, which is a pretty broad category given what rigid expectations of gender norms still prevail in our culture. There is no obvious reason why nail polish, my most public demonstration of this, is so much associated with a specific sex only, but it is. (The only comments on my nails to date have all been positive, but not everywhere is Lakewood.) Nonbinary might also be applicable, but the term feels so new that I wonder if I understand properly.

Recently I caught up with a Generation X friend who has two gendernonconforming children, the older of whom identifies as nonbinary and has adopted they/them pronouns. It was only during our conversation that I realized how recently I have had any real awareness of nonbinary status as more than an abstract concept. I heard another acquaintance mention one of his children identifying as nonbinary, some time in 2018 or 2019. So, maybe three years. A lot has happened during the past three years, but that’s still not a long time compared with four decades.

A few thoughts about this for whatever they’re worth.

In my case, I don’t feel like I am really different from what I have always been. It’s just that, as with so many things, the possibilities presented to people shape our ideas rather than just quantifying them. I did not grow up in a particularly repressive environment, by nearly any measure, but 1980s America was really different in terms of culture around sex and gender. Among other things, patriarchy was consolidating a broad backlash against feminism.

Time and a lot of effort have deconstructed that, during the intervening generation, and it is not surprising to read things like “Gen Z Is the Queerest Generation Ever.” In a big sense, the European culture which overran much of the world from the 15th through 19th centuries carried ideas about gender which are simplistic and rigid to an extent which is not at all representative of all or even most human culture. Despite which, opening up to more diverse concepts has been slow and recent. It’s also of course something conservatives have explicitly warned against; it seems to me that “teaching” (i.e. being exposed at all to) concepts of more than rigid, binary gender traditions, results in practice in more gendernonconformity around us. This just seems like a positive, to me, whereas the right sees it as an abomination.

I wonder if the pandemic, or more specifically stay-at-home life, accelerated a gendernonconformity awakening at all. Freeing people for an extended period from in-person peer interaction as well as disrupting routines generally seems like it might have that kind of effect. But it also seems like this was gathering pace beforehand anyway. At the beginning of 2019, “my pronouns are” was at the fringes of my awareness at most, and by year’s end it seemed like it had become just about a basic expectation at least among “woke culture.”

I still use the same pronouns (he/him) for various reasons, although some time ago I figured out the non-gendered person emoji found in some menus, and I quickly adopted those for use wherever they are available. That for what it’s worth seems more graceful than most of the verbal options available so far. It’s revealing that both gendernonconforming and nonbinary are in a basic sense negative identities, i.e. statements of what one is not rather than what one is. Our culture doesn’t really have words for people outside its traditional simplistic male/female model. I see some people adopting “enby” (N.B.) and maybe that will become popularized. Who knows?

All of this is evolving (in addition to being fundamentally a challenge to precise, fixed boundaries anyway). As of right now it seems like there is surprisingly little in the way of any dedicated nonbinary news/resource accounts on Twitter, although there are plenty of enby user accounts. I imagine that as additional prominent people decide that this identity describes who they are, and Generation Z makes its way into adulthood, the result will be further exploration of and revised thinking about gendernonconformity.

I also expect further reactionary backlash, which is already underway. How ugly or aggressive that will get is difficult to say. Looking back, the argument over same-sex marriage seems like it was kind of hollow and collapsed relatively fast with nothing like the endless war against e.g. abortion. But even if it was, that’s no guarantee of a similar conclusion to the 2020s backlash against nonconformist gender identity; America’s right was vile during the GW Bush years but it has also gotten worse and has captured more positions of authority since then.

People go on asking why so many Americans vote against their own interests, but I’m quite convinced that a significant minority of America wants a caste system based on race and sex, traditional binary models being a key part of the latter. I don’t think we’re anywhere near dissuading them of that value system, or developing an effective response to protect everyone else’s rights to the extent that one is even possible.

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