Existing in Space: Mental Health and The Oppression of Non-Binary Gender Identities
In order to understand what a “non-binary” gender identity is we must first examine the concept of binary gender. According to Burdge, binary gender operates based on three assumptions: “that anatomy determines identity”, “that reproductive functions accurately predict” behavior and psychology, and “that only male and female genders exist” (Cooper 1999; West & Zimmerman 1987; Bem 1993, as cited in Burdge, 2007). Therefore the gender binary operates as a male/female (man/woman) system where gender is determined by physical sex at birth.
The problem is that anatomy doesn’t determine identity, behavior, or psychology. Anatomy itself even is not truly a male/female binary, but so strong is the adherence to the gender binary that individuals born with genitalia that does not fit firmly into the male or female categories are often operated on in order to comply with the system (Burdge, 2007). Just as anatomy does not always neatly fit into the binary system, gender does not either. These gender identities which do not fit into the man/woman system are grouped under the transgender umbrella and are referred to as “non-binary” gender identities (also referred to as genderqueer) (Budge, Howard, & Rossman, 2014).
Unfortunately, even within the trans* community non-binary or genderqueer identities seem to be overshadowed by binary trans* identities such as MtF (male to female transgender) or FtM (female to male transgender). These identities refer to individuals who identify with the binary gender opposite to the one assigned to them at birth. Non-binary gender identities (genderqueer) differ in that the individual does not identify with either binary gender (Factor and Rothblum, 2008). Compared to both MtF and FtM individuals non-binary individuals reported feeling that their gender identity was “perceived accurately” by others less of the time, responding “ ‘a little bit’ and ‘moderately’ on average”. This is compared to an average answer of “often perceived accurately” for both MtF and FtM individuals (Factor and Rothblum).
Living in a world that is overwhelmingly structured to cater to a the idea of all people as binary gendered individuals creates a number of obstacles for non-binary people. Transgender individuals, including non-binary identities, are subject to “harassment, social and familial rejection, workplace discrimination, denial of parental rights, and physical and sexual assault–for violating gender categories” (Burgess 1999; Donovan, 2001 as cited in Burdge, 2007) as well as “a social environment that invalidates their reality” (Bern, 1993; Brooks, 2000, as cited in Burdge, 2007). Things as simple as bathrooms and paperwork can become obstacles for non-binary individuals as they are forced to try to fit into a man/woman binary with no options afforded for those who do not fit into these two categories. Factor and Rothblum found that 89% of non-binary (genderqueer) individuals “experienced some discomfort with having to choose a gendered toilet” (Factor and Rothblum, 2008).
A 2014 study done by Budge, Howard, and Rossman of genderqueer (non-binary) individuals found that 53% of individuals presented “severe levels of depressive symptomology” and 39% with “clinical anxiety symptomology” as compared with 16.6% and 28.8% respectively in the “general population” (Budge, Howard, & Rossman, 2014). In terms of connecting the unique experience of non-binary (or genderqueer) individuals to these increased rates of depression and anxiety, this study cites “minority stress theory”. The theory “contends that anxiety and depression in minority populations is often a result of individuals being stigmatized based on social categories” (Budge, Howard, & Rossman). This can certainly be applied to the trans* community including non-binary individuals.
The study also found that social support (from friends, family, and partners) was related to decreased levels of both depression and anxiety. In the specific case of anxiety, individuals with increased social support also reported an increase in positive emotional coping (Budge, Howard, & Rossman, 2014). Unfortunately transgender individuals, including non-binary (genderqueer) identities, are often found to receive “significantly less social support from their family than their non-transgender brothers and sisters” (Factor and Rothblum, 2008).
While social support does not solve the basic problems of obstacles created for non-binary individuals by society’s adherence to the gender binary, it does appear to be extremely important in helping individuals deal with their present situation. Mental health and social support can be seen as helping to further the cause of non-binary rights by helping individuals cope with their oppression in order be able to fight against it.
Budge, S., Rossman, K., & Howard, K. (2014). Coping and psychological distress among genderqueer individuals: The moderating effect of social support. Journal F LGBT Issues in Counseling, 8(1), 95-117. Retrieved February 12, 2015, from http://www.tandfonline.com.libproxy.temple.edu/doi/full/10.1080/15538605.2014.853641#abstract
Burdge, B. (2007). Bending Gender, Ending Gender: Theoretical Foundations for Social Work Practice with the Transgender Community. Social Work, 52(3), 243-250. Retrieved February 14, 2015, from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libproxy.temple.edu/ehost/detail/detail?sid=4015f896-71da-43ea-a441-d08039b9382b@sessionmgr4003&vid=0&hid=4109&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=pbh&AN=26769115
Factor, R., & Rothblum, E. (2008). Exploring Gender Identity And Community Among Three Groups Of Transgender Individuals In The United States: MTFs, FTMs, And Genderqueers. Health Sociology Review, 17(3), 235-253. Retrieved February 14, 2015, from http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.temple.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE|A188159176&v=2.1&u=temple_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&authCount=1