Tl;dr Asking nonbinary people to choose between two binary options instead of accommodating us, while better than nothing, is actually a way to continue to not actually support nonbinary people.
In a binary universe, nonbinary people are usually seen as “in between” or a “mix” of the two binary genders. This makes sense – when we’ve been conditioned to believe only two options exist, it’s really hard to not use those options as a reference when trying to understand a third (or fourth, or fifth) option.
And while I really hate referring to myself in terms of binary genders, there are circumstances when I will, because the person I’m talking to isn’t quite ready leave behind the references. It’s like training wheels. With some people, I can happily rip them off and they’ll happily go careening into the gender unknown, but some people really need some time to get rid of their training wheels. I mean, when I learned to ride a bike, my grandfather had to trick me into thinking he was holding me up. Brains are weird.
There is one trend, though, that I would really like to see squashed into the dirt, and it’s this idea that nonbinary people can choose between the two genders at whim. This can happen in a number of circumstances. Sometimes in a dance class, men and women are offered different movement options, and if I flag that with a teacher as a problem, they tell me I get to choose. Sometimes it’s when there are two unmoveable categories, I’m thinking of Asia Kate Dillon being asked to choose between “actor” and “actress” for the Emmys. That particular example is actually pretty cool, because it turned out that neither category has a gender requirement, but, at the end of the day, they were still forced to choose between two gendered options. There’s also the time I was working at a camp and, the last night, staff got two cabins – a women’s and a men’s. When I asked where I should go, the director just shook her head and told me to choose.
These are just examples, but really, it’s any situation in which the categorization of male/female seems absolutely and utterly necessary, to the point that no one knows what to do with someone who falls outside of that category. Instead of accommodating us, they tell us to make the decision, putting the responsibility on us.
Sometimes it’s necessary to choose, leave the training wheels on for another day. Choosing is better than nothing, it gives a level of freedom and power over our identity that we wouldn’t otherwise have.
But asking us to choose, not only puts the responsibility on us (which is really, a very twisty way to not actually accommodate nonbinary folks), it is literally forcing us to misgender ourselves. When I’m given two options and told to choose, even if it is intended in the most well-meaning way possible, what is really being asked is still “so which binary option are you really?”
Not only would making any choice be a form of misgendering, I feel like I’m being tricked to tell the asker things I don’t want to tell them. If I choose the male option, I fit into a pattern of trans masculinity and fulfil the cis person’s tricycle narrative of “man born in a woman’s body” (because society has decided I have a woman’s body, even though it really is just my body, and, thus, nonbinary). If I choose the female option, it’s proof that I’m not really that trans because I choose something that correlates to my assigned gender.
And, at the end of the day, I’m being forced into a box that isn’t mine, except with the appearance that I’ve chosen that box. And I’m all for boxes, but I like being able to choose mine, not forced to choose between two that definitely aren’t mine.
This needs to stop. Nonbinary people aren’t Schrodingers gender – nothing until asked to choose. We’re not secretly binary. We’re nonbinary. Whether or not we’re comfortable choosing between two binary options (and some of us are more than others), we shouldn’t have to choose unless we want to.
Asking me to choose is a very good way to get me to rip the training wheels off immediately. Because seriously? I’m really sick of people assuming that, deep down, I am one binary gender or the other.