How to be an ally to Non-binary folk in tech

HOTFIX 1.0

I got (rightfully) schooled on a few bits, low-down:

First off, I used the words identify/identity a lot. This is easier for people new to gender things to understand, but it shouldn’t be used out there in the world! It can be really invalidating for someone to say “Hey this is Bruce, they identify as non-binary” instead of “Hey this is Bruce, they are non-binary”. I have replaced it in most places, but beware!

Secondly, I have changed the word ‘spectrum’ to ‘jumble’ because spectrum implies a range between two points, and there are plenty of gender identities that fall outside of the line between man and woman. Like… wayyyyyyy outside that line. If man was a moon, and woman was a different moon, then identities that are neither of those things would be the entire expanding universe around them. Not to intimidate you or anything.

Lastly, I take a very modern European view of what it means to live outside of the gender binary, because that’s my experience. There are plenty of examples of genders outside of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ all over the World though, and their experiences differ a lot from that of most people who use the term non-binary. It is Super Duper Especially Not Cool (and offensive to many) to say or infer that these genders lie within the non-binary jumble. They have a special and distinct significance.

/end hotfix


So I’m writing a talk on this subject, but after setting out everything I feel needs saying, I’ve ended up with a two-hour talk from which I couldn’t possibly pull a single slide. I hope that writing this post will help me to whittle down what’s really important!

(spoiler: it did not, but now I have a really long blog post as well as a really long talk!)

(incentive: get the juicy goss on many never-before-seen aspects of my identity and personal life oooOOOoooo)

Decorative image showing a character holding bouquets of flowers that are also weights
Drew this picture ages ago, always wanted to use it for something

What does it mean to be non-binary (NB/enby)?

Whoooooooo boye, what a question. You probably think you know the answer. Maybe you’ve heard some things, perhaps you know one or two non-binary humans, and you’ve spoken to them and you know to use they/them pronouns and be generally respectful, and that’s that.

The first thing you need to learn when becoming an ally (to anyone) is that you don’t know DIDDLY SQUAT. That’s why you’re here – to learn about all the diddlies and the squats. You have no idea what you’re talking about. You’ve assumed a bunch of things, or maybe learnt them from your one non-binary friend and don’t realise that we’re all going through different lived experiences.

I’ll give you the most nuanced brief overview I can.

Also, I’m sorry if you do actually know all the diddlies and the squats! Welcome to my TED talk either way!

Non-binary is a jumble!

Who knew!? There isn’t actually one non-binary experience, or one non-binary gender. NB folk can feel that they have no particular gender (agender), two or more genders (bigender), that their gender changes over time (genderfluid) or that they associate more strongly with one of the traditional binary genders than the other (fem and masc identities). They might also feel a partial connection to a particular gender (demi-girl/boy), or may be ambivalent to the whole gender thing in general (greygender). Many genders have nothing whatsoever to do with either of the traditional binary ones, just throw those out the window! (It’s not very easy or even useful to describe non-binary genders in terms of binary traits haha.) Perhaps they go with multiple genders over time, or multiple genders at the same time! Sometimes they just hate everything about gendered-ness and want it all to go away and not be related to them in any way (omg I feel that).

They may or may not suffer from gender dysphoria (a super pants feeling born from the mismatch between physical characteristics of the body, and the gender identity). They may or may not have a pronoun preference, and – surprise, shock! – look just like you and me. Or maybe they don’t and they look way more rad than you or me.

Sex != gender!

Sex is not the same as gender! You may know this, but I want to really hammer it home. For many/most people, there is no difference between the biological sex they were given by the lottery of life, and the gender they feel in their hearts/souls/minds. This makes it kinda difficult to talk about the differences, because we’re basically asking cisgender people (anyone who is not non-binary or transgender) to understand something that is totally alien to their lived experience. Like trying to describe the taste of cheese to someone who’s never eaten dairy products before – in a world that doesn’t believe in cows.

Edit: sex is also very complex, and though I’ve reduced it to mere chromosomes and a binary here again, there is more to it. I’m sorry, but as humans we are also all jumbled up in our bodies. This is mostly out of my ability to talk about clearly, but putting it out there!

I’m not going to go into detail about sex and gender, but I’ll link you two randomly selected resources that describe it here and here. Got ’em from a search engine, which you could also do. Basically, biological sex is determined by things like genitalia and chromosomes etc. Gender is much more complex.

We’re not making this up for sh*ts and gigs!

This is another thing that any prospective ally thinks they already know. As someone who is non-binary and has struggled with the topic in the past, I can almost guarantee that there is part of you who thinks some of these labels are a bit made up and unnecessary.

I used to be one of those people who looked at the ever-growing lists of incredibly specific identities and had a private laugh in my head about why someone would ever need to create a word and even a flag for feeling that your gender is too complex to reduce to a single word (novigender). But guess what?! We’re not making these up for sh*ts and gigs! Words exist to communicate ideas, and labels exist to share aspects of our identities with others, and are super duper useful.


A side story about how labels save lives

–This section has a content warning for suicidal ideation and Bad Things, please skip to the next separator to get back to the good stuff (the next seven paragraphs are in this section)–

Once upon a time, there was a little Bruce child thing who did not want to do the do with anyone, and neither did anyone else because they were all children. Then the little Bruce child thing grew up and everyone else wanted to do the do, and the big Bruce adult thing still did not want to do the do (sex – I’m talking about sex). The big Bruce adult thing thought to itself, “goodness me, if I don’t want to do the do with anyone then I am worthless and don’t deserve to be alive because the prime directive of life is to create more life and just ew no thanks”, but in a more complex and meaningful and heartbreaking way over the course of many years. The big Bruce adult thing identified as a lesbian for an entire decade because it was easier than admitting that it didn’t want to do the do with girls, boys or anyone else at all.

Decorative image of me in a dark, oppressive place

And then one day, when the big Bruce adult thing was spending their day as usual thinking about how they didn’t deserve to be alive (and should really stop being alive sometime soon for the good of humanity) the big Bruce Mum thing came along and said “Hey, do you think you might be asexual?”

The big Bruce adult thing laughed heartily. “Asexual? Hah!” it said, “I’m telling you now that I will never be accurately described by a word that has the word sex in.”

But then the big Bruce Mum thing explained that asexual people don’t feel sexual attraction to people of any gender, and that’s okay. The big Bruce adult thing laughed again because it didn’t want anyone to know that they were quite used to the idea that they didn’t deserve to be alive, and changing that seemed like a lot of effort at this point.

Later on though, the big Bruce adult thing looked up the word and cried for about a million years because here was an ENTIRE COMMUNITY of people who felt the exact same way, who had experienced the same feelings and hardships and who also sometimes felt like they did not deserve to be alive or even happy.

And knowing that there was not only one other person out there who felt the same way, but over 1% of the population feeling it, helped the big Bruce adult thing to realise that maybe, just maybe they did (perhaps, barely, sort of a little bit) deserve to be alive after all, over the course of many years because that much damage is not undone easily.

This has been a story about how labels save lives and so you are never ever ever ever ever for the rest of your entire life after reading this, allowed to ever laugh at or make jokes about any label or gender. You don’t have to understand the word, and it doesn’t need to be necessary to your life, but it might just be necessary for someone else’s.


A great test you can do to see how great an ally you are, is to look through a list of identities and their descriptions such as this one: LINK. If you catch yourself thinking “oh come on” at any of them, then you can do better.

Okay so that’s as much as I’m going to say about non-binary humans, please do your own research and find positive sources!

Know how to apologise

This is the number 1 skill for anyone wanting to be an ally to anyone else. Apologising should be really simple, but we are generally very bad at it. I count myself in that statement because I know for a fact that I am guilty of non-apologising as much as the next person.

What’s a non-apology, Bruce?

So glad you asked!

A non-apology is when you say the words “I’m sorry” while taking no responsibility whatsoever for your actions, or having no intention of making real change in behaviour or opinion in the future. A classic example of this would be:

“I’m so sorry you feel that way, it wasn’t my intention to…”

This is not an apology because the person saying this has not accepted that they did something wrong. They’re apologising for your feelings, not their actions. Putting the responsibility back on you. What a jerk! See also:

“I’m sorry about what happened.”

No. No no no, you’re either sorry about what YOU did, or you’re not sorry at all. This is apologising for some mystical event that fell down from the sky on top of your heads, instead of your part in it.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m finding it so difficult to…”

OH IT’S DIFFICULT FOR YOU, IS IT? SOOOOOooooo difficult. Okay I’m just ranting now, but you probably get what I mean.

So what does a good apology even look like?

Another excellent question, what a great audience you are!

I have a friend, Shey, who is a master at apologising. I mean that in a good way, not like he’s great at fake apologising, or that he’s great at it because he has to apologise all the time for repeated mistakes. I have watched and listened to his apologies over the last few months, and this is what I call the Shey method: (it probably has an existing name, but research is for chumps or something)

Apologise sincerely

You may think this is the beginning and end of a good apology, but it is not. What I mean by this is that you should apologise right off the bat for what you did. An example of this could be:

“I am sorry that I misgendered you, it was super pants of me.”
“I am so sorry for assuming your pronouns. I should have known better.”

Assess the bias/belief that led to your behaviour

Take a moment to realise why you did what you did. It might be that you didn’t have all the data. Maybe someone else gave you false information, or you made an assumption based on your personal biases. Depending on the situation, you may or may not want to explain yourself. If you do, keep it brief. No one wants to stand there and listen to you explain how you’re totally not transphobic but you made an assumption because of XYZ thing that you heard when you were nine years old.

This is also not a time to make excuses. “It’s hard for people my age…” NOPE. My aunt in her eighties was able to use the correct name and pronouns for myself and my transgender girlfriend during her living wake. My uncles and cousins of varying ages and generations managed not to make excuses. There’s no free pass, and if there was then age would definitely not be it. Especially in the workplace.

Thank the person who corrected you

Thank them??? What for!

For giving you the opportunity to do better. This is a step I really love, though it’s not appropriate for every situation (if you use the wrong pronoun during a conversation, just correct yourself – “sorry, he” – and carry on, no fuss). Thanking the person for telling you what you did wrong lets them know that it’s safe to do so, and they’re more likely to correct you in the future – which is a good thing, because you don’t want to go around hurting people over and over through ignorance, right? Thank goodness this excellent human told you in time.

Change your behaviour

An apology is great and all, but if you’ve apologised twenty times for the same thing already (barring that you have legitimate problems with memory etc) then you’ll have to excuse us for questioning the amount of responsibility and urgency you feel about it.

Move on

After apologising, drop it. I could not count the number of times someone has made a genuine mistake, apologised for it and then CARRIED ON AND ON AND ON about why they made the mistake, how terrible they feel about it and how it’s going to haunt them for the rest of their lives.

“I’m so sorry, that was so unlike me. I feel awful, I hate to think that I made you feel rubbish. I don’t think of you as a woman, and I definitely respect your non-binary identity, I don’t know what came over me. I think hearing everyone else using that word got it stuck in my head. Goodness me I feel so bad, I’m such a terrible friend. I’ll do better, I promise. The last thing I want is to make you feel uncomfortable, or like you can’t talk to me about this stuff because I think you’re so awesome and so brave and I admire you so much…”

Cue the waterworks and twenty minutes of comforting the person who hurt you so they know they’re not a terrible human being.

There are some occasions when you’ll be expected to show a bit more repentence than “Oh sorry, I shouldn’t have done that lol. Thanks for letting me know. kthxbye” and I’ll talk about an example a bit later, but most of the time it’s not appropriate to drag out an apology.


A tale of two managers who misgendered me

I’m not going to talk about every time I’ve been misgendered ever, that would take days. I do however have two stories from my time working in tech that I think go great together, since they’re very similar but have different endings.

Once upon a time there was a Bruce, and this Bruce was new to tech. They’d just landed their first job as a tester, and worked in an all-male office where they were already ‘other’ enough without drawing attention to the fact that they were not a woman-in-tech Other but a non-binary-in-tech-oh-you-don’t-know-what-that-means-let-me-spend-the-next-two-hours-explaining-myself-and-also-why-it’s-valid-and-I-am-allowed-to-exist-please-love-me Other. Bruce did their very best to make sure that no one knew their deadname, ie the name that they were given by their parents, which also happened to still be their legal name. Being called by that name made Bruce feel Bad Things.

Unfortunately for Bruce, their manager did not understand at all and so they threw this deadname around like branded lanyards at a tech conference. Bruce, who spent their walk home every day crying because they were never going to fit in or make friends, worked up the courage a few times to awkwardly say “oh uh, sorry, um you used the wrong name ah hah, I’d really like it if you could uh remember to use Bruce in the future ah… If, if you can.”

The manager non-apologised, explaining that it was very hard for him to remember because he already had the deadname stuck in his head from the job application forms and HR system, but said that he would Try Very Hard.

A few weeks of this later, they had an all-hands video meeting with everyone in the company, including many people from the other office that Bruce had never met or spoken to, the CEO and the CTO. The manager, in front of EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THE COMPANY, used the deadname to refer to Bruce.

Decorative image showing a bunch of blue circles, with a purple circle in the middle. One of the blue circles has a speech bubble pointing at the purple circle, stating that it is in fact a pink circle

As if that wasn’t bad enough, while Bruce was literally paralysed by terror, the chat picked up: “Who is X?” “Wait I thought the new QA was a guy.” “Who is he talking about? Did we hire someone without me knowing?” Bruce would have liked very much to type a message about how they had been called by the wrong name, but all they could think about was every time they had been deadnamed and no one had done anything about it. Their manager, the person who should have been looking out for them, was the one doing it. Where could they go from there? Who could they tell? Who would listen, or was this just the reality they had to accept? Is this what it meant to be working in tech? Their fingers wouldn’t move.

And then a well-meaning developer typed the following reply:

“Oh, that’s Bruce’s real name.”

That is Bruce’s. Real. Name. Ugh.

Bruce didn’t receive any meaningful apology, but after admitting to someone that they felt a little bit pants about the whole thing, background cogs moved and their email address was changed to use their preferred name. The manager did not use Bruce’s given name in a group setting again.

That’s the pants experience. Bruce went on to lead an Inclusivity group at that company, to ensure that a similar experience wouldn’t happen to anyone else, and made a number of great friends who they miss terribly after leaving. T-T

A couple of years later (a few months ago), Bruce moved to another company. This time they used their preferred name on the application, and generally made it very clear that their legal name should not be seen or known by anyone ever without express permission and good reason. All was well on that front.

However – there’s always a however, isn’t there? – Bruce’s manager and other people on the team kept using female terms when referring to them. For example, “wow I’m so glad we have another girl on the team”, “Bruce is such an intelligent young lady”, “what a great lass Bruce is, such a great addition to the company”, “something something woman something”. (I might have taken some liberties with the exact words.)

Bruce put up with this for a few weeks, because again they didn’t know how safe it would be to bring up that they were ‘other’. After a while though, they had used up their energy and decided that it was worth the risk to bring up the issue with their manager. It was that or go to bed and never leave.

And do you know what? It was blinkin’ great. The manager said, in not these exact words, “Oh fuck I didn’t think of that, I’m so sorry. Shit. I should have thought about it, that is totally on me. I’ll stop using those words to describe you. And oh! What do you want me to do when other people do it? Would you feel comfortable with me calling them out at the time, or would you rather I take them aside privately to avoid drawing attention to you?”

Bruce thought: WELL OKAY I WAS PREPARED TO CRY TODAY BUT NOT LIKE THIS.

Decorative image of me crying with sparkles to show that it's good crying, not bad crying

Do you know what the best bit is? That manager followed through. Within days, everyone stopped using female words to describe Bruce. How great is that? And then Bruce felt that they could bring their whole genuine self to work, felt more comfortable and part of the team, and started telling everyone about everything that happened to them all the time every day. It was very annoying for everyone else, I’m sure.


Understand the severity of your actions

That takes us nicely to the next topic and experience. If you want to be a good ally, you don’t have to understand 100% of the experiences non-binary people have. You do need to understand why your actions can be harmful though, and the effect they might have on a person. This will help you to know when you need to gtfo your butt and do something to fix the situation right now with total urgency, or not.

Story time again, so soon? Heck yeah, have another tale:


The time someone I trusted acted with no urgency at all

Once upon a time there was a Bruce. This time you will need to have some context for how Bruce came to be, so this is super historical story time! (yaaay)

Bruce first began asking others to use that name for them when they were 13 years old, in Year 9 of secondary school. Everyone generally ignored this, using it at best as a nickname or a joke. Every time Bruce made new friends, they would introduce themself with that name and the new friend would call them by it for about a month before SOMEHOW finding out their birth name and starting to use that instead. Every. Single. Darn. Time.

Bruce even had some friends who used the name Bruce for two entire years before they heard someone refer to Bruce by their given name, and then instantly switched to using that for no reason whatsoever – incidentally, this is how Bruce learned that people who say “it’s so hard to start using a different name for you after knowing you as X for so many years” are talking out of their arses, and what they really mean is “I see X as your real name, and so it’s hard for me to call you Bruce because in my head you are a woman called X.”

Eventually Bruce went to university and made sure that everyone – from lecturers to housemates to classmates – knew absolutely that they must use the name Bruce forever and always absolutely, without exception. Without the constant deadnaming from older friends or family members, it actually worked somewhat. Finally, after using the name to describe themself for six entire years, other people around them began to use it consistently too. All it took was moving to another county and never letting anyone from their old life visit them, ever. Annoyingly though, everyone knew their given name because it was on the course register, assignments etc. There were times when people started using X instead of Bruce, and Bruce would have to explain why that was pants, and it would be a whole big THING and it was exhausting. Their old name became a weapon that people would bring up in arguments, knowing that the invalidation would hurt.

Bruce realised that the only way to protect themself from people doing that, either by accident or on purpose, was to build a life in which no one knew their given name.

At the age of 24, eleven years after they began asking others to use the name Bruce, they moved to the city and a year later they got a job in tech. They started up a blog using their preferred name, made friends at conferences and meetups who had no way of ever finding out their given name, and (after a blip with their manager) had an entire life built up where everyone called them Bruce. At 26, they could happily state that no one aside from their family ever deadnamed them, mostly because no one COULD. It was great. After thirteen entire years of trying, Bruce was finally just… Bruce.

Decorative image of me meditating and looking calm and happy

However… (I told you, there’s always a ‘however’).

Bruce had talked a lot with this really cool recruiting company who prided themselves on their inclusion and a mission to improve Diversity In Tech(TM), and they were generally a good and friendly bunch. They asked if Bruce would like to do an interview for their Women Rock blog series. At first, Bruce was a bit iffy about it – even small things associating them with the word ‘woman’ could be troublesome in helping people to assume the wrong gender. After reading the blog though, for which men had also been interviewed, and receiving assurances that they would not be referred to as a woman, Bruce agreed. Bruce loves doing interviews because they like to be the center of attention and making everything about themself – as it should be because Bruce is a legend, and legends should always be seen and loved by the adoring masses.

Bruce did the interview. Everyone else referred to Bruce as Bruce. Bruce referred to Bruce as Bruce. Bruce was Bruce. No one used the name X, and Bruce to this day is not entirely sure where in the world they pulled X from because it was never used in the exchanges by either party… but they did.

The first that Bruce knew of this was when they were tagged on twitter with a link to the interview. OMG how exciting. They clicked through and-

Their. stomach. dropped. There was their name, right in the title – “AN INTERVIEW WITH X”. Right underneath a photo of Bruce, just in case there was any doubt who the interview was about.

header of a blog post with a photo of Bruce next to the words WOMEN ROCK. Underneath, the title reads "All she could do for all of them was be herself, here and now, as hard as she could - an interview with Bruce Hughes"
This is the corrected version of the headline, with a big ol’ photo of me at the top

The previous thirteen years of context is needed in order for you to understand that this was a Very Big Deal. Bruce’s deadname had just been put up online, and they had been tagged in it so that all their new tech friends who didn’t know Bruce as anything other than Bruce, would be able to see it and have that weapon to use against Bruce in the future. Bruce was terrified. Everything that they had built – for thirteen years, half their life – was in danger.

Bruce hurriedly responded to the tweet, and then DM’d the recruitment agency to be safe, and received no reply. Luckily they were attending a testing meetup that evening which was being run by the agency. Bruce left work earlier than usual and hurried to the venue, obsessively checking their phone for messages with shaking hands for the eternal twenty minute walk.

When they arrived, they found one of the agency humans and quickly explained the situation. The human smiled and said in an unconcerned, conversational tone “Oh yeah I saw your message about that but I knew you were coming to the meetup, so I thought I’d wait to chat with you and double check.”

Bruce was floored. Their message had been seen, read, understood – and categorised as not urgent. The name took two minutes to correct, but the people who had the power to do that chose to wait, leaving it up for anyone to see for an extra half hour. They had no idea how terrifying that half hour was from the other side.

This wasn’t through any malice, but I should hope that one thing everyone has learnt from the BLM movement is that your intent doesn’t matter when your actions cause harm. The fact is that I had to push myself through a panic attack to walk the streets of Bristol from my office to the venue, without knowing what would happen when I got there. Without knowing if someone at the end would say “well yeah we used that because it’s your REAL name, duh”, and without knowing how many people were learning my deadname every time I took a step. I still don’t know how many of my followers read that – probably not many to be fair, it’s not like I’m famous or whatever – and have that information in their heads, ready to pop out when I least expect it.

So here is the lesson: if you do something rubbish, don’t brush it off. Don’t act like it’s no big deal, because it is probably a big deal to the other person. When you make a mistake, act with urgency and gravity. Act as if you understand – as if you care.


Bruce, I still don’t know how to not be rubbish

Right. I like a list. Something a bit more condensed than the rants above, a takeaway if you will. Here is a list of some things that might be harmful to some non-binary people (remember we are all individuals with our own experiences and identities, so things that hurt one person won’t matter to another. Jumbles are inconvenient like that.)

  • Misgendering – using the wrong words (‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘guy’, ‘girl’) or pronouns (‘he/him’, ‘she/her’, ‘they/them’ etc)
  • Deadnaming – using the wrong name (hint: the one they ask you to use is always the right one)
  • Gender jokes – for example “haha these new genders amirite, I identify as an APACHE ATTACK HELICOPTER and my pronouns are rofl/rofl/rofl” (this joke is only funny when non-binary people tell it, sorry)
  • Implicit misgendering – not using the exact words, but saying things that imply you think of them as the wrong gender (“how was the queue for the ladies”; giving a feminine-presenting non-binary person a pink cup instead of blue (although why anyone would gender cups is beyond me))

Here are some other experiences that many non-binary people have, which I don’t want to talk about at length (but probably will because why use one word when you can use seven thousand?):

Gendered toilets

At least from my experience, binary gendered bathrooms are a massive pain the butt. Hahahahahaha, I made a joke. I look like a girl, and so it’s easy and safe for me to use the women’s bathroom and I never get questioned on it. But here’s the thing – I am very aware that every time I am seen walking through those doors, it cements the idea in someone’s head that I am a GIRL non-binary person. I consider myself to be agender, and it is invalidating when people I know and like treat me as a woman. (There is another discussion to be had around what it means to be treated as a woman, and it’s definitely not a bad thing to be a woman or to be recognised and loved as one if that’s what you are. I however am not a woman, so it’s super butts.) This works the other way too, for non-binary people who were assigned male at birth. To be honest, I feel that non-binary people who were assigned male at birth have a lot of extra challenges when it comes to being and expressing themselves differently due to the glorification of masculinity, which I haven’t really talked about but I do appreciate.

Anyhow, having non-gendered bathrooms is REALLY COOL. You should totally contact the people who run the buildings you work in and be all like “so have you heard of our lord and saviour, non-gendered bathrooms?” They’ll love it, and probably ignore you or tell you why it’s not possible. You should totally do it anyway.

Decorative image showing me wearing fake glasses, moustache and nose, entering the ladies bathroom
Gotta make sure no one sees me going to the loo

Oh, and while we’re on the topic of bathrooms, my body screams GIRL GIRL GIRL GIRL GIRL GIRL GIRL GIRL at me for a week every month, which is like a quarter of my life. And I can’t talk to other humans about it because then their brains will be going GIRL GIRL GIRL GIRL GIRL! We should definitely normalise being able to talk about these natural body functions in any setting because the experiences are important to people across the jumble, but be mindful that some non-binary and trans people will be very sad if you assume they do/don’t have periods.

Filling out forms

UGHHHHHH

Have you heard of the three genders: “Male”; “Female”; and “Prefer Not To Say”? I have! Over and over, every time I make an online account or fill out a form. Even when my gender is totally irrelevant to the service I’m trying to access. As testers, developers, product owners, designers etc, we HAVE THE POWER. We can add more genders to the droplists! If you’re making or designing one right now, please consider any of the following options:

  • not asking for gender at all – like, why do you even need to know?
  • using a textbox so people can enter their own identities
  • “Male”; “Female”; “Non-Binary”; “Other”; “Prefer Not To Say” (oh my god that’s like TWO EXTRA OPTIONS HOW WILL OUR BACKEND COPE /s)

And while we’re at it, if you’re not making a droplist at the moment but someone says to you “gosh darn this thing we use sucks” and you find yourself about to say “well that’s just how it is, it sucks but whatchu gunna dooo…”, you could instead go: “oh my days you’re right this is the absolute worst I’m going to bring this up with the product owner of that other team” or “yes this is unacceptable, I shall e-mail my contact at this third-party service we use to see what can be done about it”. The answer will probably be nothing, but if enough people ask and make a fuss, maybe we can change something together using the power of friendship and love et cetera.

Gender Expression

OK it’s time for a test!

Using the information you have gained so far about non-binary folk, take a look at the following image. These people are wearing the same outfits and hairstyles, though they are all different to one another! Assume that each of these people woke up and decided to wear this outfit of their own volition, choosing out of every option in their wardrobes that this is what they felt like wearing today. In the same weather conditions and social environment. (had to add these details cos y’all a bunch of testers and I know what testers are like) Can you tell which of them are non-binary?

Image shows five people displaying traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics, while wearing pink bikini tops and short skirts.
These matching outfits are proper friendship goals ❤ (If you wanna get matching magical girl outfits for TestBash next year pls let me know)

You done?

Cool.

Did you check for masculine or androgynous traits to contrast with the feminine outfit? Did you look at the poses, the size of hips, chest or muscles?

Congratulations, you (probably) activated my trap card! Muwahahahaha! The answer should be “I don’t know”.

(If instead, you were judging my inability to draw different body types and skin colours then omg I am with you, I really really need to stop only drawing my own beautiful face over and over…)

I spoke a bit at the beginning of this post about the difference between sex and gender, but this is important too:

The difference between someone’s biological sex and their gender is NOT the way they dress.

Just imagine I put clap emojis between each word there. There is a whole other thing called Gender Expression, which is how you, uh, express you gender.

If someone who was assigned female at birth (midwife looked at them and went “yup that’s totally a girl for sure”) goes on to wear men’s clothing or take on a cool androgynous look, this does not make them non-binary. If they do some exploration and then decide that they are non-binary… that’s what makes them non-binary. If someone tells you they are non-binary and they happen to be biologically male, dress and act in a way that you think is traditionally manly, they are still non-binary. It’s not about how they look, but how they experience this aspect of their life.

Someone’s gender might influence the way they decide to dress or express themselves, sure, but they are not of a certain gender because of the way they dress.

That reminds me:

Using the right labels

I told you that non-binary is an umbrella term covering a whole host of identities. As such, some people who don’t conform to the gender binary may use a different term to describe themself. For example, I have occasionally found it helpful to refer to myself as agender or maybe agentail. Non-binary genders also come under the transgender umbrella – as people who identify differently to the gender they were assigned as birth, we are trans.

You might thusly be tempted to say something like “oh have you met Timothy? They’re trans!” because technically that might be true in terms of what the words mean when written down on a piece of paper. This can be very Not Cool. A person’s gender, or any aspect of their identity, is an incredibly personal thing, describing the way they see themselves as an individual and also as part of the world around them. Even if you think you’re technically correct, don’t describe people using words they don’t use to describe themselves.

We pick and choose our labels, and there is such a great variety of them, because they exist to communicate ideas. What might be a useful descriptor for one person however, won’t be for someone else who on paper appears to feel the exact same way about their gender. I don’t call myself trans, and I would correct someone who introduced me as such because I don’t find it a personally useful term for describing my experiences. I use non-binary because it gets the idea across and doesn’t force me to explain myself. On the other hand, if you introduced me as an agender person, I’d probably end up having to explain what that means and why it’s a valid gender bla bla bla, which would also be annoying in most scenarios. Hopefully you get the idea.

Basically:

It doesn’t matter what you think their identity is, it matters what they are.

This comes into play in day-to-day conversation for me when I try to talk about representation. As a fan of cartoons and anime, it comes up surprisingly often that some fans assign non-binary identities to characters that are being portrayed as male or female.

It happens mostly with aliens, robots, animals and basically any other type of character who doesn’t have obvious sex characteristics (eg breasts and genitalia, but also beards and particular body shapes, hips etc). A person is not non-binary just because they don’t have gendered sex characteristics! A person is non-binary when they identify as such, and any character who does not see themself as non-binary is not non-binary. This is because a. your gender is about you, not how other people see you; and b. sex != gender.

As a fan, and because representation is totally rubbish, we’re allowed to have head-canons – ie, we might personally believe that a character should be non-binary, or we wish they were non-binary, or we suspect that the creators have made them as a non-binary character but can’t expressly state as such from fear of backlash. It doesn’t make those characters non-binary, and doesn’t help us feel accepted to see those characters on tv.

Side note: as a human, you can privately resonate with a particular gender without ever telling anyone else. That’s valid, and you don’t have to be ‘out’ to be awesome and cool.

The effects of unconscious bias

This is another huge topic that I won’t talk about at length, but as an ally you should know that many or most non-binary people carry with them an immense sense of ‘otherness’. No matter where I go, I walk into a room and am made aware of it. Similar to how a white woman might walk into a meeting only to find that everyone else is a guy… or how a black woman might walk into the very same meeting a few minutes later and feel the same sense of otherness because everyone else in the room is white. Being the odd one out affects both how you behave, and how people treat you.

In my experience, openly having one of these ‘young people’ genders makes others think of you as less reliable and professional, and they are less likely to take your ideas seriously. Not because they’re poopy butts who think you’re a silly child, but because they have an unconscious bias they’re probably unaware of. Check in with yourself around your biases and how they might be affecting the interactions you have every day. That’s an ongoing battle for all of us.

Asking invasive questions

As the last point in a REALLY LONG blog post talking about my experiences, I should totally say this: it is not my job as a non-binary human to teach you this stuff. I may choose to do so at times, but it’s not my job to educate you, or to direct you to resources for learning, or to answer any invasive and invalidating questions. There are so many great resources out there – so transport yourself to a search engine and look up some non-binary friendly sites, LGBT+ organisations and charities etc. They will have so much information for you.

Seriously. I can’t stress this enough. I’ve had a stranger ask me if I am asexual because someone did Bad Things to me as a child. That was asked out of genuine curiosity, a desire to understand and empathise, but was incredibly hurtful. Like, who asks that?

Additionally, the seemingly innocent question ‘how do you know your gender is X?’ often reveals itself to be: ‘I don’t believe you, please prove that you have a long history of gender dysphoria or your experience isn’t valid, but also even if you describe your experiences of gender dysphoria, please then prove that they’re not caused by these ten other things I thought of including why you hate women. Also if you don’t have this lengthy debate with me about whether or not you made it all up, then you’re just running away because you don’t have good answers because your existence isn’t valid and I win ha-HA’.

Even if you are not asking it with that intent, we’ve heard it so many times that it’s not worth the risk to engage with those questions. xD

END.

This has been my not-a-TED-talk about how to be an ally to non-binary folk (or not) in tech. Well, mostly it’s been me talking about meeeeee and things that have happened in the last couple of years. Empathy is a transferable skill though, so hopefully you learnt something you weren’t aware of – and now you can be a better ally not only to non-binary humans, but other groups as well.

Also, while you’re here: trans women are women; trans men are men; black lives matter.

Hah if you’re still reading this then idk congrats and thanks? Please don’t use any of these experiences I’m putting on the internet for anyone to see against me, thanks! 😀

Ah I just realised I never made a single joke about the binary being for computers. Gosh darn.

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