Queering the Narrative: Tropes to Avoid When Writing Characters Outside the Gender Binary

Tropes to Avoid When Writing Characters Outside the Gender Binary

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! This week, we’re going to continue our discussion from last week by talking about some tropes that you should avoid — or subvert, at the very least — when writing characters outside the gender binary!

Please bear in mind that this is in no way meant to be a comprehensive list of every problematic trope related to characters outside the binary. As a binary person, I do not have an absolute understanding of these. However, I try to keep abreast of these issues so that I myself can avoid them when writing characters outside the gender binary.

If you’re thinking about writing a character outside the gender binary in your next work of fiction, be open to criticisms if you stumble into a harmful trope you didn’t know existed. And if the removal of that trope derails your entire project… honestly, it might be time to scrap that project.

1. Lack of gender as inhumanity

A common trope that cis folk stumble into when writing characters outside the gender binary is to use lack of gender or a non-binary gender as a lack of humanity.

This can be seen in celestial beings that cannot understand gender, malicious shapeshifters whose gender is as in flux as their physical form, and robots that are absolutely baffled by the conception of human gender. More often than not, these characters are cast as either antagonists or strange beyond comprehension. Even if they’re portrayed as benevolent, though, they are always cast as inhuman — because what could be less human than lacking a gender?

an image of the character Janet from NBC's "The Good Place"
Janet from NBC’s The Good Place is an example of a benevolent characters whose lack of gender is portrayed as a facet of her inhumanity. (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

The harm in this trope comes from the simple fact that real humans exist outside the gender binary. There is no singular way that we humans see gender, so experiencing gender in a different way CAN’T be the defining factor of your character’s inhumanity! Doing so is inherently problematic, and serves to other and invalidate folx outside the gender binary. 

It’s possible your characters truly don’t understand gender — this is relatively common in SFF — and that is not inherently problematic, but just make sure there are OTHER FACTORS which denote your alien/robot/whatever’s lack of humanity. And, to be safe, be sure to include a well-rounded human character outside the binary as a foil to them, to illustrate that their lack of gender is NOT what defines them as inhuman!

2. Fixation on biology

The “but what are you REALLY?” question is the fucking pits. It’s a common ground that can be found among many gender expansive identities, and can range from troubling to traumatic to see in media.

HOWEVER, people outside the binary are particularly vulnerable to this trope, because cis (and sometimes even trans!) people tend to think they’re entitled to knowing what someone’s assigned gender at birth is.

This is exacerbated by the fact that folx outside the binary may not present in ways that are traditionally gender-coded, purposefully seeking out elusive androgeny or gender-fuckery. This leads people — in fiction as well as real life — to begin insisting that they reveal what they “really” are. This is disgusting and toxic, and I highly recommend you do NOT use this when writing characters outside the gender binary.

The only folx I would give a pass on this hard rule are actual people outside the gender binary who might want to tell these stories, to illustrate the struggles faced by their community. If that isn’t you, then avoid this.

3. Jokes at the expense of pronouns

“So there’s more than one Sam?” is a tired joke that continues to not be funny. Singular they is a grammatically correct and widely-used neutral pronoun, even when it doesn’t refer to a person outside the binary. If you don’t believe me, ask Merriam-Webster.

“Neopronouns” — non-standard pronouns such as ze/zim or ae/aer — often get mocked as being “made up.” The fact that all language is inherently made up is beside the point — if someone wants to be referred to using certain words, then they deserve to be referred to that way, full stop. Don’t mock these pronouns in your work; I guarantee it won’t age well, even if the words themselves fall out of use.

4. The Binary Non-binary

This is the practice of assuming that folx without a single or static gender (such as genderfluid or bigender folx) inherently experience one or both of the binary genders, ignoring the possibility of a nonbinary/agender experience.

image of the cover of the book "The Symptoms of Being Human" by Jeff Garvin
This book (written by Jeff Garvin, a cis man) is a perfect example of this problematic trope in action.

This is an extremely binary view of what it means to exist outside the gender binary, and it’s pretty popular — probably because us binary people have trouble conceptualizing a gendered experience that’s different from our own. Though some folx outside the binary might experience one or both of the binary genders, that does not mean all such people do. And even those who do experience those binary genders often do so in a far more nuanced way than binary people might imagine.

5. The Binary Trans Misunderstanding

This is the misunderstanding that, somehow, binary trans men/women exist outside the binary, because they’re “really” their birth sex. This is a flawed and transphobic understanding of gender vs. sex.

Binary trans folks exist within the gender binary, even if they have genitals commonly related to their birth sex! Women can have penises, men can have vaginas, and neither is less their gender because of it.

Assuming that all trans folx are pre-op or are “really” their assigned gender at birth is problematic. It is even more problematic to equate a binary trans person’s experience with that of a person who exists outside the gender binary, as folx outside the binary experience a host of their own unique challenges beyond what binary trans folx do!

A binary trans character, even if they have the genital configuration most often related to their birth sex, is NOT outside the gender binary. Suggesting otherwise simultaneously minimizes the experience of actual folx outside the gender binary and serves to invalidate the genders of trans men and women.

Conclusion

Writing characters outside the gender binary can be fun, and it’s important — characters outside the gender binary are criminally underrepresented in our media. However, it’s important to do so mindfully, and bear in mind the harmful tropes listed above. If you want some tips on how to introduce a character outside the binary to your work, check out this post. And, until next week, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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