Love, Wellness

For nonbinary people, invisibility directly impacts our mental health

Being told your gender doesn't exist weighs on your mental wellness.

June in the U.S. is a time for celebrating LGBT Pride, and for reflecting on the challenges our community still faces. For many of us nonbinary people – those who don’t fully identify as either male or female – one of those challenges is invisibility in mainstream society, and the way that invisibility impacts our health.

Most people today believe in a concept called the gender binary: the idea that there are two genders. However, the gender binary doesn’t actually capture some people’s experience of their gender. Nonbinary is an umbrella term for anyone who identifies outside the gender binary. Under that term, people can also have other more specific identities. For instance, someone who doesn’t identify with any gender could use the term agender, while someone whose gender identity varies over time might use genderfluid.

Despite progress in recent years, queer identities are still underrepresented in media. Only 6.4 percent of regular characters on primetime broadcast TV last year were LGBT, according to GLAAD’s annual report on LGBT media representation, and almost none were nonbinary. We’re often left out of mainstream discussions of LGBT rights and history. That invisibility can make it hard to feel confident in our identities. And while some countries and American states are starting to recognize a third gender on official documents, most of the time our legal identification has a binary gender on it, meaning our government is officially pigeonholing us into an identity that doesn’t fit.

Being nonbinary means living most of your life carrying an invisible weight: you’re almost constantly misgendered, deliberately or accidentally, and faced with the many expectations society has of your perceived gender. Being misgendered can contribute to gender dysphoria – discomfort associated with being perceived or assigned a gender that is different from your identity. 

Studies show that coming out in a supportive environment is good for LGBT people’s mental health. That makes sense: carrying a secret about your identity is definitely mentally and emotionally taxing. And it highlights the importance of social acceptance of LGBT identities: it directly impacts our health.

Unfortunately, ‘coming out’ can be a scary, tiring, or even dangerous process for many nonbinary people. Correcting people can be lengthy and exhausting: not only do you have to tell them what your real gender is, but you face the possibility of having to try to convince them that your gender is real. I joke with friends that I feel like I needed to carry around a projector and PowerPoint presentation to make coming out as nonbinary worth the effort.

For me, the cost of being nonbinary most often comes in a weird sense of preemptive exhaustion. I sometimes choose not to come out to people because the thought of having to deconstruct their understanding of gender to explain myself is so tiring. Plus, after all that effort, they might not really understand or respect my identity. So I avoid coming out, which leads to me being misgendered and experiencing dysphoria. This dysphoria makes me feel ill at ease in my own body, self-conscious about its shape and the space it occupies, and like it somehow doesn’t fit me. I’ve almost exclusively only come out to friends who are queer, because I know their journey towards understanding themselves probably already taught them a bit about the gender binary and the fact that people can exist outside it.

A study of 900 transgender youths in Canada found that nonbinary participants struggled more with their mental health than their binary trans counterparts. A study in Europe produced similar results. That isn’t to minimize the challenges faced by binary trans individuals; it’s just that society is gradually coming to understand trans binary identities better, while nonbinary identities remain little known or understood outside the LGBT community. Both straight, cisgender people and LGBT people sometimes discredit nonbinary identities as some sort of fad, despite the fact that many societies around the world had nonbinary identities long before they experienced Western colonization.

A day after I talked with a friend about how much I wished people would stop assuming my gender when they looked at me, I was leaving my gym and a stranger on the street (probably drunk) started shouting at me, “Hey! HEY! Are you a dude or a chick? A dude or a chick? I just wanna know!” Technically, I wanted people to recognize that I was neither a man or a woman, but the way the stranger approached me was callous, disrespectful and scary.

[bctt tweet=”People want you to fit into the gender binary, and even strangers feel entitled to try and police you to that end.” username=”wearethetempest”]

People want you to fit into the gender binary, and even strangers feel entitled to try and police you to that end. Nonbinary invisibility means I have to explain my gender experience to well-meaning friends (which I don’t always mind, but again, can get tiring), but I am also hounded by strangers who think that I am not adequately performing a gender I don’t identify with. The person who shouted at me didn’t pursue me or pose a real threat, but that was a matter of luck, not a marker of genuine safety in our society for people outside the gender binary. That stress has real costs for our mental health.