Non Binary Tings
Drawing on deep and varied experiences, Ashleigh J Mills identifies the multiple intersections between blackness and transness, and celebrating their journey to becoming visible.
I grew up in post-industrial town of Bradford in West Yorkshire. Despite its multi-ethnic melting pot heritage, my experience of its supposed diversity is founded in strange wells of segregation. Growing up as the only visibly non-white person in my family, this was a great source of confusion. Growing up to become a Black, non-binary femme, this has meant I’ve had to find myself, and seek out my strength, in ways not everyone has to.
The mercurial political scope of the city could never save me from the anti-black experiences I had to grit my teeth through. In one area, I would get anti-black racial slurs thrown at me. In another, my older white brother would have to tread carefully and never alone. Again, in another, my white-passing sister would feel safe moving her family to a house in a local community where I would feel unsafe waiting for a bus outside. In Bradford, these specific areas co-exist within 15 minutes of each other. While there’s many theories on why it is the way it is, these theories are seldom explained to the youth growing there.
Growing up in a white family came with challenges unique to mixed Black – that is Black Caribbean with white British – folk. What I considered foundational knowledge as a child, quickly became something else as a proud, Black adult. Perhaps the lessons I had to learn in a painful way wouldn’t have been as stark if I had been in touch with a Black community growing up. Unfortunately, like many other Black children raised in a white family, my access to Black family was never stable enough for me to feel at home and reflected.
The inherent anti-blackness that I grew up with, and forced myself to outgrow, was something intrinsic to my experience. There are many steps to untangling the knots produced and maintained by a deeply racist society: ideas around intent (“it’s not racist if they didn’t mean it that way”), around respectability (“you talk like a white person”), around misogynoir (“I like you because you’re not like other black girls”). For me, assimilation into white supremacy often masqueraded as politeness, as not causing a scene, as being proud of being apart from those Other Black People. I know now that assimilation is often a marginalised person being proud of the things they’re consistently told to be proud of, without realising those very same things strip them of their personhood.
Needless to say, the learning curve to figure out who I was and wanted to be was a steady uphill process.
A foundational tenet of who I am now, at 26, is being neurodivergent. Although my autism diagnosis came late in my early 20s, I know it has coloured everything I’ve ever been or done. There was never a time in my life where I wasn’t autistic: it’s in the way I think, feel and experience, and always has been. Naturally, like every other concept I’ve thought about, my perception of gender is filtered by my neurodivergent mind.
What I used to know about gender and autism and what I know now are oceans apart. For example, I now know that it’s estimated that an autistic person is around 7 times more likely than an allistic person to be trans. However, with a lot of autism research aiming to unpack the long-reigning stereotype of the ‘autistic male brain’ (thanks Baron-Cohen /s), awareness remains rooted in the gender binary. Despite this, the more you learn about autism and neurodivergence, the more you realise our people and our history is rich, varied and cannot be so easily categorised.
On the spectrum of neurodivergence, gender often sits pride of place for autistics. After all – what does it feel like to be a woman or a man? I think for many autistic people, examining our answers to that question and coming up blank or with more questions, leads us to the agender identity. Before I was a non-binary femme, I was an agender femme. While some agender folk consider themselves under the non-binary umbrella, for me it signified a neutral sense of apathy; I didn’t feel connected to any gender particularly, nor did I care if people considered me a man or a woman. My pronoun neutrality reflected this.
The decision to start identifying as non-binary stemmed from a few different realisations: A significant realisation was that using he, her or them pronouns for me had stopped feeling so neutral. Before, I didn’t mind that cisgender people could sidestep acknowledging that my relation to gender didn’t mirror their own. I didn’t initially care that their use of ‘she’ for me, as an AFAB person, reinforced a binary because I didn’t consider it my problem. However, if given the choice between acknowledgment of my queering of the binary and being able to largely ignore that, most cisgender people chose the latter. Perhaps if more people had used each pronoun more interchangeably, I wouldn’t have shifted to they/them primarily. However, that wasn’t the case, and in moving to they/them (sometimes he) pronouns, I retracted any implicit approval I had granted before.
A second major realisation – and perhaps a relatively late one for a non-binary person – was that within the gender binary, anything other than cis man or cis women equalled trans. Maybe it’s because I’m autistic, or maybe I just processed this at a slower pace, but the weight and scale of the gender binary that wider society adheres to hadn’t fully cemented the idea that through the lens with which I’m viewed, I was already distinctly Other. While I had fully recognised that genders outside the binary were, by definition, not of the binary, I had been considering this from an outwards projecting lens, from me-to-society. It didn’t strike me until later that the lens I was observed with, from society-to-me, dictated that if I wasn’t cisgender I was unequivocally transgender.
Which ties in nicely with my third major realisation: that the binary is colonial. Like many strict dichotomies present in current society, the acceptance and perpetuation of the gender binary originated with western colonial powers – that is, the British Empire. The impact that British atrocities had on the world are far-reaching and limitless. For those not engaged in Black radical thought, or those who don’t seek the true history of our country, it may come as a surprise that we exist in the aftermath of political, social and economic domination. The lenses with which we consider the everyday are irrevocably tainted by a culture of force and assimilation. There is much to be addressed and unlearned, both culturally and individually. It is not just statues of slavers that exist as monuments to the Empire, but the very foundations of what we consider to be good, proper and natural. Gender, as a construct we live under in Britain, must equally be decolonized.
Like many strict dichotomies present in current society, the acceptance and perpetuation of the gender binary originated with western colonial powers – that is, the British Empire. The impact that British atrocities had on the world are far-reaching and limitless. For those not engaged in Black radical thought, or those who don’t seek the true history of our country, it may come as a surprise that we exist in the aftermath of political, social and economic domination.
My gender identity being visible and not of the (imposed, western) binary, is an explicit acknowledgement of my commitment to decolonisation. Being anti-colonial is a constant steady undertaking of unlearning and learning that will likely continue for the rest of my life. In terms of gender, decolonising what I have been taught means living as authentically as I am able. Living authentically means living outside of silence.
Other than shouting about colonialisation on twitter, visibility manifests as how I identify, what those identities mean to me in particular, and how I share them. I am non-binary not because I am both man and woman (or neither), but because I recognise that man or woman as a binary is intrinsically flawed. I am a Black femme – with emphasis on the Black – because I am kin with and admire the femmes that came before me. To be Black and politically aware means to properly acknowledge the work of Black femmes historically. Femme, as it’s considered within the western binary, often connotes femininity as an aesthetic – or in some circles, a solely lesbian identity.
For Black folk, to reducing femme to aesthetic is to spit on the legacy of those who fought for our rights, over and over again. From LGBTQ+ rights, to upholding the fight for Black liberation, to community based mutual aid, to supplying breakfasts for children in poverty – we must appreciate their legacy. While for some, femme might blend into womanhood and overlap with being lesbian, femme is not intrinsically just one of these. It’s more than woman and more than sexuality. It’s inherent power and tenderness and radical softness (that is, vulnerability) in the face of a world that systemically vilifies and kills us. It’s upholding and maintaining a legacy that predates slavery, that predates colonialism, in a world not built for us.
The concept of coming out often follows the idea of visibility when it comes to being queer. I’m still personally figuring out what that means for me. My online circles are already filled with trans and gender non-conforming people, so it was a pretty easy task to remove the she/her option from my social media profiles. It was just as easy to let my girlfriend know I’d prefer they/them pronouns until further notice. It was harder to tell my boyfriend, simply because I stand at the gateway to his access to Queer Life. Still, it was manageable and he is supportive of me as a whole. For my partners, friends and found family, falling into open gender discussions is just a matter of us all having a spare ten minutes to chat.
Being out with my family of origin – my biological family – poses the most difficulty for me. My relationship with them is a tremulous thing, and long ago I acknowledged that we work best when there’s distance in the day-to-day. The way I think, feel and process the world is often in opposition when we share a space. While I’ve always felt separated from them to some extent, but it has more weight as a choice now. As such, it feels a little redundant to sit them down and ‘come out’ as non-binary to them – I am already the openly queer, polyamorous, activist aunt of the family. In a more vulnerable way, I also recognise that although their opinions don’t have the power to change who I am, they do have the power to hurt me. I suppose that, for now, I’m saving any potential heartbreak. While that could change in the future, for now, I only know my present.
Overall, my goals right now are to continue finding and building my community, both online and in person (when it’s safe). The more I see myself reflected, the more I feel wholly myself and rooted in who I currently am. In the future I know there’ll be more questions I’ll have to find the answers to: Do I want top surgery? Should I ask for only they/them pronouns throughout my up-coming MA – even if it means I’m further othered as the Black, queer and disabled person? Am I happy as I am? Every question could easily lead to two more. To manage this, I make a concerted effort to sit with my feelings, to rely on the support of those I connect with, and to just ride the wave as much as I’m able. I’m a non-binary Black femme, and I’m pretty happy with that.
Ashleigh J Mills