“I don’t want to fill the boxes society imposes on me”

As the world is slowly changing around us, so are we. Gender-neutralism is something we are more familiar with now, along with the fight to abolish gendered toys. The term “non-binary,” however, addresses something else and is in some ways much more. It is for some a more comfortable way of moving through life and society. To get to know yourself outside of the standards set by society.

For this subject, I decided to interview 23-year old ‘Ier’, as the person preferred to be identified, who has personal experience and knowledge about being non-binary, thus neither a man nor a woman. Ier is currently studying Gender Studies at the University of Utrecht, in The Netherlands.

Before we can understand the world surrounding non-binary, it is important to get to know the meaning behind this distinctive term. Thus, I asked Iris what it means,

Question: What does non-binary entail?
Ier:  Well, binary stands for a kind of dichotomy, and in society that is seen as… well, actually you can just divide everything in two. So for example, as black and white, but also as man and woman. And then non-binary means that you don’t really feel comfortable within one of those two options. Thus, that you don’t identify with one of those categories but instead you identify with neither, you kind of reject the whole idea of binary.

Note: As we continued the interview, a short gender lesson was provided with some important distinctions.

Q: What distinctions can be made regarding sexuality and expression?
Ier:  So, there are four things. One is Sexuality, which involves if you are gay or not, or bisexual. Then there is Sex, is man or woman, thus is biological, which is what you were born. Then there is Gender, how you identify yourself. Furthermore, there is Gender Expression, thus how you dress and what you feel comfortable with. With gender and gender expression, are we talking about masculinity and femininity.

Q: How did you experience this expression?
Ier:  It’s really something that is between all of that. I don’t feel attracted to the feminine side, so I almost never wear dresses, which you can tell. (At this moment, Ier smilingly pointed to her outfit.) But I also don’t necessarily need to feel manly. I just have the idea I’m somewhere in the middle, and I also rather not define myself as one or the other.

As childhood is an important and big part of almost anyone’s life, I wondered what it was like for Iris. Iris tells me that from a young age on, there really was no big interest for her in barbie dolls.

Q: What was your childhood like?
Ier:  I never really felt as if I was super girly, or something like that. And now I think, a year or two years, I’ve been realizing…oh well yes, now being like this makes me feel the most comfortable.

Iris told me that playing with Knex or Lego instead was more fun, however that may be considered boyish in society.

Ier:  Then it is officially seen as a boy’s things, but you can also put some question marks next to that — because what is that? Why is that?

Q: Could you tell me what your parents were like?
Ier:  They never forced a type of sex on me in that way. No, they almost always let me do my thing, and I was very free. Never like, ‘wow I think you should go to ballet or take dance lessons’.  No, never.

But then, at what point does someone make a decision like this? For Iris it was a gradual process.

Q: At what point did you decide that you were going to identity as non-binary?
Ier:  I just started slowly dissecting how I felt, and I got to know the term. I also got to know a group of people who also shared the same feelings as me. You enter certain circles and then the majority of the people also know what it means and how it works. Then I came to figure out that this was a label that suited me. I think that was about two years ago.

An interesting link lies in the fact that Iris also studies Gender.

Q: Did your study have some influence on your decision?
Ier:  Yes, absolutely. I’ve learned from it. Because you do not only learn about gender and how you experience it, but there you also learn the theoretical side of it. The theoretical side is also very pleasant to know because it explains things and helps me feel freer. But it is not as if it was a direct influence, that was not the case. I also think a lot of people view gender studies as something girly, but it does not have anything to do with one another.

Q:  Why do you feel the actual need to identify as non-binary?
Ier:  Because I just don’t want to fill the boxes society imposes on me. So it’s kind of a rebellious approach as well. I just think, yeah you guys with your manhood and femininity. Why do there need to be these booths, because it’s actually quite oppressive. And that’s why.

What does the world look like for someone who identifies as non-binary? 

Q:  What does your friend circle look like?
Ier: Yes, well that actually differs quite a lot. Lately I’ve started my new studies, that was about 1.5 months ago and… now I am surrounded by a group of people, like three of them, who all identify as non-binary, and they became friends of mine. Coincidentally, we just discussed this yesterday, that we kind of share a special feeling between ourselves and yeah, we in a way came together because that aspect of our identity is something important to us. It’s also just that you know how the other person feels about it, and how you think about it, and it just feels safer to surround myself in that type of circle. But I also have friends who identify as cis-gender and that is the idea that your gender is equal to the sex you were born with.  So, for example, when born with a vagina and that is your sex, and thereby you identify as women. So yes, I also have a lot of friends who are cis-gender, and that’s also very nice. But that sometimes is kind of a layer like … well, when I hang out with them, I kind of feel as there is a layer of understanding missing because you have a slightly different experience, and in a way it’s also some more alternative view of life.

Q: What does your social life look like, which type of events or parties do you like?
Ier:  Well, that’s also a very typical question, and I have a very good answer. I only go to queer parties.

I’ve asked Iris to explain a bit more about those parties…

Q: what do these parties look like?
Ier: Well, those are parties which are organized inside of the community, because, in Rotterdam and Utrecht we have queer communities … it’s just parties where different kinds of people with different gender identifications come together. It’s all very free and open, and there are just a lot of loving people. And the events sometimes have a lot of strict rules — for example, make sure you let the other person feel comfortable and don’t touch each other in a way that might be uncomfortable. It’s all kind of socially politically correct in that way. But it does create a very pleasant atmosphere, and that’s something you don’t experience in other bars or pubs. Sometimes you can get stared at, for example, that just happened quite a lot that people stare and think ‘what is that person’?? Or ‘oh, there you have a lesbian type’. And there are also a lot of sexual comments and you just notice that it happens in those spheres, and I’ve just grown tired of it. I can still go to normal bars, but at some point, I’m just like ‘Uh, yeah, rather not’ — it just takes up a lot of energy. I’d rather be with people who feel the same.

But how does one actually live in a society surrounded by many people who might not understand?

Q: Do you adapt your behavior to your surroundings?
Ier:  Yes definitely, because sometimes it’s easier to be one thing or another. Um, unconsciously also, sometimes you just adjust unconsciously, because it’s easier. For example, with older people. You just already know that they won’t understand, so then I’m thinking to myself ‘oh well then, I will just adapt myself’. Sometimes I try to make others feel comfortable, but then I make myself unhappy. Sometimes it’s kind of a weird balance, but it is also still part of the society where we still need to adjust, unfortunately.

Q: How does society treat people who identify as non-binary?
Ier:  I do notice it’s getting more open and also bigger, because now you also do your research about it, and I think that’s very nice to hear. So, it is getting more of a thing in society. But there is also a lot of discussion and things going on about gender neutralism, but that is very different. That isn’t really about the idea of that you identify as non-binary, but more yeah, for example, at the Hema clothes, they yelled at each other but it is about children’s clothes, so what is a piece of fabric, what does that say about a small child? And then we won’t be forced that we all become transgender, because that is often expected. Those terms get mixed up quite a lot, gender-neutral and transgender. But no, that is not what is being said. Why do we even worry so much about a piece of clothes? We can also just put all of the clothes together. There is just a lot of misinformation, people don’t look things up, and they don’t have the will to listen.

Society still has some things to learn regarding openness..

Q:  What would you like to see different in society?
Ier:  More openness. And that we will think with a more open-minded perspective. Regarding both masculine and femininity, for example, for terms that women should be caring, which is of course old and rusted into society but also like a man should not cry but must behave tough — or just stuff like that, it also brings damage to identity. Thus, I would want to try and find a good middle way, and increase and open the boxes of society.

Since there were some things Iris would like to see different, I wondered if Iris was politically active as well. I discovered that it was not in that same sense. But Iris did protest during Amsterdam Pride.

Q: Are you politically active?
Ier: (…) We went to protest against the Pride in Amsterdam. Because pride is of course a big annual event, and we went to actually protest because a lot of companies participate in the Pride, and that is the commodification of pride or commercializing of pride. There are a lot of companies who then participate, like ING for example, who for a month long gave away rainbow passes.  Or any other big company who act very inclusive for a month and pretend like they really fight for LGBT people, but for the rest of the year they don’t care about it at all. And then within this one month they only use it to save their own asses and pretend to be so inclusive and they even make money doing it. So they just use sexuality to fill their own pockets with money. And that is just not what it is about. The whole idea behind it is about inclusiveness and acceptance, and capitalism just does not work in that way. So, we just went to protest against capitalism and against big companies.

Being on a political topic I had another interesting question…

Q:  Do you think gendered toys should be abolished?
Ier:  Oh no, I don’t think so. It’s kind of the same thing I mentioned before about the clothing. Why do they view some things as only feminine? For example, a boy can also enjoy cooking, although it may not be viewed as something natural. Just why do these boxes exist? Just stop buying children, from a young age on, only one thing. Just give them space, and let them decide with what kind of toys they want to play.  Because we keep stereotypes alive if we constantly let only girls have caring tasks and stuff.

Iris has provided quite some inspiration to get us thinking about openness and accepting with this still relatively unknown term, “non-binary.”

Q: What advice would you give to someone struggling with their own gender identification?
Ier:  It’s off-course a very individual process for everyone, and no one’s experience is comparable to another. I do notice that, for example in middle school, there is not something like the gay-straight alliance. And that is something I’ve never had, but I think that’s a very big step now for people who want to come out of the closet as homosexual or bisexual. I hope that there will also be some attention for gender, so that maybe from the age of 12 it is already being discussed. And I also hope there will be some school subjects covering the topic, and that people are being educated about it from a young age on.

For the advice I can give, just be who you are. And try to find people who feel the same way as you, where you can talk about it and start to accept yourself.

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