Much of society’s thinking operates in a highly rigid and binary manner; something is good or bad, right or wrong, a success or a failure, and so on. Challenging this limited way of thinking, authors Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi explore how non-binary methods of thought can be applied to all aspects of life, in their new book, Life Isn’t Binary.
Meg-John and Alex hosted this episode of the JKP podcast, answering a series of questions around non-binary thinking and how it can help us to better understand ourselves.
They discussed the trans umbrella, Colonial thinking, bi-gender people and plural selves, sexualities, queerphobia, Disney Pixar’s ‘Inside Out,’ binary governing of our bodies and emotions, labels, intersectional identities, hierarchies, marginalisation, policing identity boundaries, prioritisation of different relationships, growing up in Italy, Capitalism, the importance of reflection, and being kind to yourself.
Listen to the podcast here.
They covered a lot of ground in the course of an hour. You can read the main points from their discussion below.
Most people will be familiar with the term non-binary in terms of gender identity, but for those listeners who aren’t familiar or might have an inkling but not a full understanding, could you explain what the term means?
Non-binary is typically understood as a subset of the ‘transgender’ umbrella – people who do not experience themselves as male or female. This could be a-gender, gender neutral, or between male and female, or both male and female.
However, some people identify as non-binary, but not as transgender.
Non-binary encompasses a massive range of identities and experiences.
The Western world is merely catching up with the rest of the globe, where there are many different cultural interpretations of gender.
Colonial thinking enforces binary identities. But non-binary thinking is not ‘new’ – there has just been a recent resurgence.
Have you always identified as non-binary? If not, when and how did you come to the realisation that this identity suited how you felt?
Alex: No, I haven’t. Gender had always been confusing to them. They were excited when people mistook them for a boy while growing up. In their twenties, they discovered language around gender-queerness, although it was based on androgyny which still didn’t quite fit them. The identity of transman didn’t fit either. When non-binary become more visible, this presentation felt right. (Check out How To Understand Your Gender!)
MJ: Bi-gender people, shifting between genders, plural selves – this didn’t match MJ’s identity at first, but now the concept seems more comfortable. Different sides to their identity are differently gendered. (Check out Re-writing the Rules)
In your new book you explore how non-binary thinking can be applied to multiple areas of life – like our bodies, emotions and thoughts. Why do you think people are comfortable with the concept of non-binary sexualities, but struggle to apply non-binary thinking to these other areas of life?
People aren’t comfortable with non-binary sexualities yet – there is still a lot of biphobia and queerphobia. There is a lot of suspicion around non-binary – people consider it as ‘just a phase.’ People like binary thinking!
What are the binaries that govern our thinking about our bodies (able-bodied / disabled, well / sick) and emotions (negative / positive, happy / sad.) What are the hierarchies here?
The media thinks that debates have only two sides. Eg. ‘Does trans exist?’ – Yes vs no.
Dividing emotions into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – people are realising this isn’t healthy. Look at the Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out. This is creeping into popular culture, which is hopeful! Rejecting the dichotomy.
Ultimately, it can be argued that ‘non-binary’ is still a label, just like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’. Why do you think people are fixated on labelling themselves and others?
What is this idea that non-binary people need to get over labels, when other people don’t? The most marginalised and invisible people deserve the right to labels – labels that the government understands, in order to get the rights and recognition they need.
But people’s gender should not be so significant that it defines people. Although there are years of patriarchy to overcome!
As humans, we are storytellers, and labels can be helpful – who is like me? Who is different? Labels can bind communities together. They can create momentum in social justice movements.
Why are people so resistant to the label of ‘non-binary,’ versus other labels? Why are people upset by marginalised groups using labels?
Heterosexual and cis people are sometimes upset when they’re labelled as such. But we need to call out privilege. These people can’t be considered the ‘default’ if we are to move forward.
We end up with hierarchies within communities – who is trans enough? – which is very complex, particularly when identities are intersectional or invisible.
‘You don’t look non-binary’ – you can’t police the boundaries of identity! You can’t keep people out of these identities just because they don’t match your criteria.
Why do you think we prioritise romantic love (e.g being in a romantic relationship) to the detriment of our other relationships and friendships?
Alex grew up in Italy – this idea that romantic relationships are superior is not actually true here, given the importance of familial love in Italian culture. This concept is very Anglo-dominant. What is the cultural lens that we are brought up with and how does this affect our attitude towards relationships?
Why do we put certain relationships above others? Why is this bond worth more than that bond? We must question these hierarchies. Relationships should be seen as ongoing journeys, allowing for flexibility over time – a more non-binary attitude.
Why is it better to base a relationship on just love? Why do we assume doing relationships this way is better?
Could you outline your relationship with each other?
A short-lived romantic relationship, which turned into being writing and creative partners. Still in each other’s lives!
In the book you explore how bodies are defiant of the binary. Could you expand on this?
Bodies are amazing landscapes – so much more complex than the binaries we apply to them.
When we try to confine our bodies into binaries – sick or healthy, fat or thin – it doesn’t work. Our bodies are too expansive for this. We have a desire to contain and categorise our bodies – defined by our capitalist culture.
Capitalism makes our bodies into commodities to be traded. Everything is monetised. The before and after binary – we can turn you from fat to thin, from ugly to beautiful. The promise of sad over happy. This is based on problematic binaries.
Throughout the book you have included reflection points where you invite the reader to take some time out or to engage in a reflective activity. What was the thinking behind this?
Alex’s idea. Let’s slow down. Let’s see how these ideas are settling. Take care of yourself and your body. When we think fast, our bodies aren’t keeping up with our prefrontal cortex in the brain, so it’s important to be mindful and be reflective. Being reflective will let you see different perspectives.
How do you think non-binary thinking could improve listener’s lives?
Binary thinking is heavily implicated in conflict and suffering – the idea of us vs them. We polarise our thinking and this can cause conflict in ourselves – ‘I’m a bad person.’
Shifting to non-binary forms of thinking can alleviate this.
It can make us more relational with ourselves and one another. Helps us to think of ourselves as part of the eco-system.
Yes, it can be challenging but it is also rewarding. A journey towards less individual suffering.
For listeners who’d like to shift their thinking into a more non-binary direction – what’s the first thing they should aim to do?
It’s a stepping stone approach, it will take a while. But it’s a good thing to aspire to and to practice daily, but make sure to be kind to yourself!
What is the main point that you’d like readers to take away from your book, and from this discussion?
You’ll have to read the book!
Life Isn’t Binary will be published in May and is available to pre-order now.
You can buy their first JKP book, How To Understand Your Gender, here.