‘As non-binary, someone not strictly a man or a woman, I’m seen as too confusing to discuss’

Kay Cairns contributes to the gender episode of this week’s Women’s Podcast to demystify terms such as non-binary, gender fluidity and cisgender

Kay Cairns is a 23-year-old freelance journalist and a person of non-binary gender. A non-binary gender person doesn't fit within the binary of male and female and feels like neither a man nor a woman, or both man and woman. Video: Bryan O'Brien


“Hi, I’m Kay and I use they pronouns.” This is a regular and necessary conversation starter for me. People automatically assume because of the way I look that I’m a woman and use ‘she’ pronouns. I’m actually non-binary, someone who’s not strictly a man or a woman. There are a lot of us, and at a recent Irish trans youth camp we made up well over half the participants. But you don’t see us talking on TV, on the radio or in the papers. Non-binary people are seen as too confusing to talk about.

It’s surprising then that almost half of Britons feel gender is non-binary, according to the Fawcett Society, in a survey of 8,000 people.

So we might ask - what is it to be a man or a woman? Is it having a penis or a vagina, is it being physically strong or weak, is it being emotionally cold, versus in-touch with our emotions? Or are these all silly stereotypes that don’t make much sense to us in the modern world?

If you’re not transgender and you’re reading this, you’ve probably never had to think about gender. You’ve never had to identify it and ask questions of what gender you are and why. I’m asked these questions pretty regularly because, as a transgender person who’s not strictly male or female, I’m seen as different. In these situations, and many others, it can be useful to have words to describe gender. Words like cisgender, transgender and non-binary.

Instead of saying ‘normal’, to describe someone who isn’t transgender, we can say cisgender. (Someone who is cisgender typically identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.)

To describe someone who’s a man or a woman (whether they’re cisgender or trans) we can say they have a binary gender. When talking about me and those like me, we can use the phrase ‘non-binary.’

It’s important to have words like these and respect them. The same goes for pronouns. Some people don’t feel comfortable using he or she, and will use they. Zie and ey pronouns are also gaining ground. There’s no reason to disrespect these pronouns just because they’re not the norm. These terms have come about out of comfort and creativity. One’s got to ask, who has the agency on words? We build up on them as we go along.

Day in, day out, we all reinforce different norms, formed by the way we were brought up as kids. In my case, I grew out my hair, wore make-up and shaved my legs, because that’s what all my friends were doing in the highlands of Scotland in the early 2000s. But had I been brought up somewhere else in the world or some other era, with a different culture around gender and expression, I might have done differently.

We’re all different. I like to think of us all as stars in a cosmos. We each have different ways of being who we are - whether it’s the way we dress, the way we behave, or the way we identify ourselves. None of us can completely fit inside either a male or female stereotype. Indeed there are so many stereotypes outside the western world, and throughout history we aren’t all aware of. We’re a mish-mash of our experiences, our preferences, and our deep-set feelings of gender. The way you feel and express your gender could be very different to that of the person sitting beside you. You’re different stars in this big old universe of identity and expression.

If we think of gender in this way, as a cosmos where we all have different ways of being, transgender identities don’t seem so confusing. The problem is, we’re just not used to thinking about what makes us, us. And we only need to think about it if we defy the norms around us, the norms we grew up with after being told we’re a little boy or a little girl.

We’re taught to think that if we continue to identify as a boy or a girl growing up, and fill the roles set before us, that we’re normal. If we don’t fit the norms, we’re seen as different, and at worst, ‘freaks’.

It’s difficult to exist in a world that views us this way.

That’s why, when I figured out my identity, I set up a support and advocacy organization for people like me who are non-binary. It’s only a year old, but has made a big impact on the people who have come in contact with it. We’ve over a hundred members who meet up for coffee, chat and get support online through our Facebook page, working together to create space for us in a binary world where issues such as gendered bathrooms, legal identity and housing need to be discussed.

Slowly but surely we’re coming out of the dark and being seen. We’re not confusing, we’re just another part of the cosmos.

Non-Binary+ Ireland is a group for any and all non-binary+ people living in Ireland. The plus is there to include a wider spectrum of identities, including genderqueer, demigender, bigender, agender, gender non-conforming, questioning etc. If you’re non-binary+ and would like to be added to our secret discussion space, pop us an email at nonbinaryirl@gmail.com. Find us on Facebook: fb.com/nonbinaryirl

Listen to Kathy Sheridan in conversation with Kay Cairns, Dr Colm Noctor and writer Chris Ricketts on this week’s Women’s Podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher

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