Understanding Binary Privilege
An Oft-Overlooked Axis of Gendered Privilege
Disclaimer: I, a white woman, originally wrote this article before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police. As I say in the piece, I drew a lot of inspiration for this article from Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay on White Privilege, which she in turn wrote with input from the Black women she worked closely with.
Civil rights activism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The LGBTQ+ community has derived many of our civil rights advocacy practices from the powerful Black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Though it’s Pride month, it’s extremely important that we do not lose sight of the very real and important struggle for justice, dignity, and respect for Black Americans. Black Lives Matter.
For a long time, as a binary trans woman, I thought that I had a nuanced understanding of all things gender. I was under the impression that, because I had examined my own gender identity, I understood how that worked for everyone. However as I spoke more and more with genderqueer and nonbinary folx, I began to realize just how little I understood about the privilege my identity carries.
The unearned advantages many of us enjoy in life, known as privileges, have an undeniable and often insidious effect on our lives, as well as on the lives of people who do not enjoy these advantages. Though many people are familiar with concepts such as white privilege, male privilege, and straight privilege, there are other avenues of privilege which are less well-known. These include things such as able-bodied privilege, cis privilege, and one which is rarely talked about but extremely important in our current society: binary privilege.
The term privilege, specifically social privilege, refers to the advantages that certain groups in a society have over other groups. For those who enjoy these benefits, they are largely invisible, and seen as “normal” or “standard”, even though others in the same society may not have regular (or any) access to these things. In her 1988 essay on White Privilege, Peggy McIntosh described privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets” which she had access to, but her black contemporaries did not. McIntosh was a white woman who realized, while trying to educate men about the advantages they had over her due to their gender, that she herself had advantages over the women of color that she worked alongside. This prompted her to examine and codify her white privilege with a list of 46 advantages that she had over non-white American women.
To understand what I mean by “binary privilege”, it can be helpful to think of privileges in terms of the axes upon which they sit. For example, women are largely disadvantaged in relation to men; this is the axis upon which male privilege sits. Similarly, transgender people are largely disadvantaged in relation to their cis counterparts; this is the axis on which cis privilege sits. Nonbinary folx are largely disadvantaged in relation to people who identify as one of the binary genders; this is the axis upon which binary privilege exists. Therefore, binary privilege refers to the unearned advantages that people with a binary gender identity enjoy which nonbinary folx do not.
For the sake of clarity, it is important to note that “nonbinary” is both an umbrella term and a specific identity. Nonbinary as an umbrella term covers such identities as genderqueer, agender, third-gender, genderfluid, and bigender, among many others. This is the way that I am using “nonbinary” in this article — not just to reference people with a static nonbinary gender, but also to reference people with fluid, multiple, absent, or otherwise gender-expansive identities.
Many people — including, for a long time, myself — are under the impression that the issues specific to nonbinary gender identities are covered under the broader transgender activism network. This is not always the case. Many binary trans people do not realize the inherent privilege in their gender identity. This is likely because, as we do not benefit from cis privilege, we assume that we do not enjoy any advantages on the basis of gender. This misconception makes us blind to the comparative disadvantages faced by nonbinary folx.
I once considered myself to be in the same boat as nonbinary people, because I assumed that in general they, too, identified as trans. We both had genders assigned to us at birth that we did not identify with. We both felt distress with the expected roles and appearances of the gender we had been assigned to. We even both often went through the arduous process of changing our names and pronouns.
It took some time to realize that not all nonbinary people experience these things. Even compared to those who do, as a binary trans woman I have certain unearned advantages that my nonbinary contemporaries do not. These advantages include, but are not limited to, the following:
- I never have to explain my gender — everyone knows, broadly, what a woman is.
- Though it can be difficult, I can get my gender markers changed to one that matches my actual gender. Only 15 states (and D.C.) currently have an “X” gender marker as an option on their official identification documents, and the U.S. Federal government doesn’t recognize them at all.
- I have the ability to signal my gender identity through the use of standard “feminine” modes of presentation. It is much more difficult to signal nonbinary presentation, especially for people who do not physically present as androgynous.
- I never have to explain the proper use of my pronouns. Though they/them may have gained the widest recognition, there isn’t a true consensus in the nonbinary community as to what the nonbinary pronoun is, forcing nonbinary folx to explain their pronouns to those around them.
- My pronouns are a traditional part of the English language and have never had their validity argued. Nonbinary folx often have to deal with confusion, ignorance, and even hostility regarding their pronouns. Though it is currently the most widely accepted, singular they/them has faced grammatical criticism for years, and pronouns such as ze/zim and ae/aer are often dismissed as “made up.”
- I was able to change my name to a feminine name to denote my gender — though some names are unisex, there are no names which are inherently perceived as nonbinary the same way names can be perceived as inherently male or female.
- My appearance is such that people will most often gender me correctly and use the proper pronouns for me, whereas many people do not use they/them as a default pronoun. (This advantage also stems from my white and thin privilege, both of which help me to “pass” in day-to-day life.)
- People tend to at least understand what being transgender is, even if they have issues with trans folx. Many don’t even consider the idea of being nonbinary.
- There are no widely accepted gender-neutral honorifics — I am comfortable being called “Ma’am” or “Ms.”, but there is no gender-neutral equivalents. Though such honorifics as “Mx.” or “M.” technically exist, they are not widely used or recognized — and even in spaces where they might be recognized, they aren’t pronounceable, making their everyday use nearly impossible. Furthermore, there simply isn’t a gender-neutral “sir/ma’am.”
- When I have a child, I will have no qualms calling myself a “mother”, but there is no equivalent gender-neutral parental word — except, perhaps, “guardian”, though that often refers to a child’s caretaker rather than their biological/adoptive parents.
- I can, generally speaking, see people that I connect with in media. Though trans women are rare, binary women are extremely common, whereas nonbinary and genderqueer characters are rare, and nonbinary genders are often used to denote a “lack of humanity” in an other-worldy being — because what could be more incomprehensible than someone that doesn’t fit into the gender binary?
- I never have my gender identity equated with any sort of apathy or emotionlessness — many binary people seem only able to conceptualize gender-neutral folx as robotic or alien.
- I am not often lumped into LGBTQIA+ categories that I do not identify with on the sole basis of my gender identity — many people assume that a genderqueer or nonbinary individual is also trans, but this isn’t always the case.
- I have never seen my gender equated with asexuality — some binary people are only able to conceptualize attraction inside the binary, and so assume that a nonbinary person cannot experience sexual attraction at all. Though some nonbinary people are ace, not all are.
- I am not often made uncomfortable by the rhetoric of trans-friendly activism, except in relation to how they speak about the binary nature of genders. Many LGBTQIA+ and other activism networks persist in using binary, gendered language, especially in relation to gay/lesbian rights or the politics around transition.
- I mostly fit into what people “expect” of a trans person, in that I chose to medically transition. Many nonbinary people are not trans or otherwise do not have a desire to medically transition, but they are often still expected to do so by their contemporaries.
- I’ve never had to endure someone making a joke of my pronouns — whereas nonbinary folx are often mocked for the “nonexistence” of neopronouns, the supposed plurality of they/them, and even sometimes dehumanized by being told that if they don’t have a gender they should just go by “it”.
- Because my pronouns are inherently singular, there is never any confusion as to whether “she” refers to an individual or a group in written scenes. Because they/them is the most widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun but can also be used as a plural pronoun, the antecedent of the pronoun can be difficult to parse in prose writing.
- I can find spaces where I can be surrounded by other binary women, both cis and trans. Spaces where nonbinary folx might be able to congregate are exceedingly rare, and are often also occupied by binary trans folx.
- I could choose to not pay attention to the activism for and developments of the rights of folx who identify outside of the gender binary, and that is unlikely to negatively affect me.
- I can be relatively certain that, when attending events in trangender-friendly spaces, the validity of my experience of my gender will not be questioned. Many nonbinary folx in these spaces will be faced with questions about when they will “figure out” that they’re trans, or will be derogatorily referred to as a “transtrender” or similar because of their identities.
- I can be confident that people in LGBT+ spaces will be understanding toward my gender identity and my process for discovering it — even among other queer folx, nonbinary people often have to justify their own existence or fight for validation.
- If I am not out to people, they generally assume the correct gender for me. As nonbinary genders do not occur to most people, there is less of a chance that a person will assume that somebody identifies with a nonbinary gender.
- I do not have to come out to people for them to gender me correctly (I can be “stealth”), whereas a nonbinary person must come out for someone to even consider gendering them correctly.
Though it comes in many different forms, the takeaway is this: binary privilege is having your gender understood. In our binary society, it is broadly assumed that everyone experiences their gender the same way — which is why it is somewhat easier for many people to accept at least the concept of a binary trans person. They can feel confident, looking at me, that I experience my gender in approximately the same way that they do — that it is innate, static, and easy to comprehend.
For many nonbinary folx, however, this isn’t the case. Though some experience a static feeling of a “third gender,” many do not. Some do not feel an innate sense of gender at all; others do not feel a static sense of gender. When confronted with the binary, gender-essentialist nature of our society, these folx tend to be misunderstood simply because no one asks them how they experience their gender. It is assumed that they experience gender in the same way a binary person might, and therefore anything they try to express outside of that feeling is them wanting to be special or somehow being confused. Binary privilege is an innate cultural understanding of your gender identity — the parallel disadvantage of nonbinary people is that others presume to understand their gender, and so never actually ask them about it.
The thing about privilege, as McIntosh says in her essay, is that it’s insidious. It can be difficult to dissect and identify the different sorts of privileges you might hold over another person — in fact, we are often taught to be unaware of these advantages. The idea of binary privilege never occurred to me until I realized that I’d never considered the world from the perspective of a nonbinary person. For a long time, I thought that simply knowing about and respecting them was enough.
Though that is certainly the minimum that can be expected of me, it is far from “enough.” The culture that we have grown up in is reliant on the idea of male and female, and it is so ingrained that it is seen as an inevitability, a resting state. To identify as nonbinary is seen as breaking that mold, to be pulling against what is culturally acceptable.
As a binary trans woman I enjoy the comfort, safety, and relative acceptance of fitting into one of the two prescribed boxes that make up the gender binary in our current society. Some people may dislike that I felt the need to change boxes, but I still get to be in one of them. Nonbinary folx, though, have to endure the issue of being completely outside of these boxes, of attempting to move between them with ease and comfort, or of trying to erect their own boxes despite the ire of those who think they should be content with the perfectly fine boxes we’ve got right over here. And, no matter how they present themselves or how they explain their identities, nonbinary folx will often find themselves boxed in with one of the binary genders.
Considering these realities helped me to realize that, even as a transgender woman, I enjoy gendered privileges that others do not. Even if I have to endure debate as to whether or not I’m allowed to be the gender that I am, there is no argument that my gender isn’t real. Just as Peggy McIntosh realized once she became aware of her white privilege, it’s become clear to me that it’s time to start deconstructing the systems that granted me these unearned advantages in the first place.
We cannot deconstruct these systems if we are unaware of them, which is why it is important to consider as many different types of advantages as possible. The gender binary is comfortable for those of us who get to enjoy its benefits — it was helpful to me when I started my transition, because people simply had to switch which box they saw me in. I could signal my box with name, pronoun, and style of dress. In all these ways, I benefited from the binary gender system — just as many other binary trans people have benefited from it, and just as binary cis people enjoy the benefits of a gendered system which they created.
This benefit, however, comes at the cost of disadvantaging nonbinary people. The only reason that the gender binary remains such a comfortable place for people like me is because it excludes people unlike me by insisting that they simply cannot exist. There just isn’t a box for them. The system as it is now must be changed, but these changes cannot be wrought by those who are negatively impacted by the system alone. Rather, as binary people, we should use our inherent privilege and power to try and bring about change that will benefit our nonbinary and genderqueer friends.
There need to be more boxes, and those boxes need to be far more malleable and porous than they are now. We need to build a system which advocates and validates people who build new boxes, who frequently move between boxes, who occupy more than one box, or who don’t really like the idea of boxes in the first place. These people deserve an equal footing in our society, and it is our responsibility as the privileged party to listen to them and use our unearned advantages however we can to support them.
A great place to learn how to do this is The Gender Spectrum, an organization dedicated to helping create a gender-inclusive world for all children and youth.