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In discussions on the relationship between gender and activism, women and men and subsequent ideologies of femininity and masculinity are often the paramount subjects of concern. These discussions might consider how female activists are treated differently than male activists, how activists have gathered around gender-based social movements such as feminism, or how the sociopolitical challenges that women face differ from those of men. However, many of these conversations are severely lacking when it comes to one group of people: nonbinary individuals. At this point in social justice history, the binary genders of male and female have long been a focal point of social movements, but little attention has been paid to those who identify outside of the binary, as genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, or any other nonbinary identity. (Bergman) Throughout this paper, I will discuss the importance of the consideration of nonbinary persons with regards to the relationship between gender and activism by highlighting the notions of gender held in nonbinary activism, the ways in which nonbinary activism has manifested, and the connections between nonbinary activists and other social movements.
The ideologies promoted by nonbinary activism such as gender performativity and gender divergence are not just queer or transgender issues; they are theories which are applicable to and to be understood by all genders. Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity is described by sociologist Alison Rooke as “an epistemological framework for promoting much needed social justice agendas” with regards to gender-related activism. (Rooke) “Gender performativity” argues that individuals are not born with an inherent gender identity, but that gender is an ongoing performance, and presentation of masculinity or femininity is “achieved”, not innate. (Rooke) Transgender and nonbinary activists have frequently cited this concept as it challenges the distinction between “normative” and “deviant” categories of gender and broadens society’s idea of possible gender identities. (Schep) Accepting that gender is a social construct and a performance rather than a biological category allows for activists, whether they be cisgender or trans, to critically examine how women and/or nonbinary people have been treated in mainstream society and in social movements. (Bergman) The nonbinary movement is not alone in this regard; trans activists such as Kate Bornstein and Stephen Whittle argue that the Transgender Rights movement, stemming from the response to transgender-exclusionary radical feminism, has been challenging the gender binary from its start, a fight which has implications for both cisgender and transgender populations. (Bergman)
Nonbinary activism has manifested with a variety of goals, all focusing on the rights and safety of individuals who identify outside of the gender binary. (Bergman) Nonbinary activism is an umbrella for a wide variety of ideas, but some of the current primary focuses are conducting research with nonbinary people to obtain data on the challenges they face, campaigning for nonbinary peoples’ right to self-determine their gender, promoting the usage and legitimacy of gender neutral pronouns, and providing accessibility for nonbinary people in public spaces, such as having gender neutral bathrooms. (Bergman) Additionally, it has been statistically proven that nonbinary and transgender people are a medically underserved community, due to doctors refusing health care access because the individuals do not identify with the biological gender on their medical records or to doctors not having knowledge of how to work with non-cisgender bodies. (Hanssmann) Though many who are unfamiliar with nonbinary activism may mistakenly call it a new invention born in the 21st century, these goals have their roots in the older trans, queer, and bisexual movements, along with drawing from various schools of feminist thought. (Bergman)
Just as individuals have examined how binary genders interact with activism, researchers have recently turned to considering the relationship between activism and nonbinary people. In a study reviewed by the Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, researchers gathered survey data on gender identity from a university population and focused on the answers of those who identify outside of the gender binary. (Chang) They found that the life experiences of those who identify outside of the gender binary are “distinctly different” from individuals who conform to defined gender roles. (Chang) Additionally, those who identify as nonbinary are significantly more likely to view the world as more dangerous and less inclusive, which may be a significant drive for nonbinary individuals to participate in activism. (Chang) One could consider how this compares to the experiences of women, who generally view the world to be more dangerous than men, and the implication that personal life experience is a central motivator for activists. (Rooke)
Obviously, nonbinary people are not the only ones that are frequently excluded, even within progressive social movements. As members of the LGBT community, nonbinary people have deep connections to gay and transgender activism; however, many individuals have noticed that nonbinary people often have less of a voice than cisgender activists within the movement. (Bergman) This is a contemporary obstacle that reflects issues faced by a number of other groups in the past, most notably female activists within social movements. For instance, despite being an active participant in and an iconic symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks was frequently pushed to the side in activist forums for being a woman. (Parks) Although her contributions to the movement were undeniably significant, she was often asked merely to serve as a symbol for other activists, but was rarely encouraged to voice her own opinions or even to comment on those of others. (Parks) Similarly, the presence of nonbinary people in LGBT activism is often allowed and even encouraged, but their voices and personal concerns are often unheard and minimized. (Bergman)
Furthermore, even when nonbinary voices are heard in their own community, other progressive social movements has historically refused to listen. (Schep) Even radical groups like the Lavender Menace, composed of radical lesbian feminists such as Karla Jay, were subject to transgender-exclusionary second-wave feminism, which was at its peak during the 1970s when the group was formed. (Jay) Karla Jay describes in her memoir how the Lavender Menace aimed to display the legitimacy of lesbian activists in feminist social movements, since many mainstreams feminists at the time fiercely excluded lesbians from their activism in blatant acts of homophobia. (Jay) Despite this fight for lesbian inclusion in activist circles, mainstream and radical second-wave feminists rejected the activism of transgender and nonbinary individuals in clear displays of gender discrimination. (Schep)
Overall, nonbinary individuals have faced a number of unique challenges in finding their place within the pervasive relationship between gender and activism. However, their challenges are mirrored by those of other minorities, who have struggled even within the social context of activist circles. As activism has evolved to become more inclusive of women as a gender, so to must it evolve to be inclusive of nonbinary genders, as those individuals have as much of a right to participation in social movements as do cisgender individuals. Furthermore, by including nonbinary people in discussions of gender and/or activism, one can explore in depth concepts like gender performativity, which can be useful tools in social activism for all people, not just those who are gender divergent. The link between gender and activism is historically and conceptually undeniable; therefore, activist circles must be considerate of all genders, including those outside of the binary.
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