"You see, this is the problem," says Dani, clicking on the registration page for a property website. "You only have two options: male or female, that’s it."
Dani is non-binary. As if flat hunting in London wasn’t already unpleasant enough, their identity is not even recognised by sites like SpareRoom.
"We use such weirdly medicalised terminology when looking for flat-mates," they continue. "Like, 'we’re looking for another female to keep the balance' – who even talks like that? You find yourself having to give really personal details every time you respond to an ad – not to mention having to explain the basics of gender theory. It’s pretty invasive and exhausting."
At first glance, trouble with house-share websites may seem like it falls under the category of microaggressions – annoying, othering, longterm-bad-for-mental-health – but, not necessarily life-threatening. But non-binary gender identification is not recognised in UK law. Under the 2010 Equalities Act, other forms of trans identity are recognised and protected. If you are discriminated against on the basis of gender – however you define that within the binary – you can take legal action to protect yourself. If you are non-binary, you simply can’t. This leads to problems for non-binary people, from daily microaggressions to outright denial of basic human rights.
This is not a niche issue. No minority population should have to justify its demands for recognition or rights based on numbers – but for reference, about 250,000 people in the UK identify as non-binary, roughly 0.4 percent of the population. That's almost the same as the Jewish population of England and Wales.
We spoke to non-binary people about how the fundamental fact of non-recognition translates into difficulties in their day-to-day lives.
Bucky: "Being non-binary makes it harder to stealth it into job interviews. Like, if I was a binary trans man and picked male on an application form – they would only clock I was trans at the interview stage.
We know that if people get passed over if their paperwork says anything other than ‘male’ or ‘female’. But if you can get to an interview, you might be able to convince them you’re talented – as non-binary it’s hard to even get through to the interview stage. This is a thing for so many non-binary people I know, and really affects people’s ability just to earn a living."
Dani: "As a performer, one of the main ways to find work is Spotlight. But, in the registration process the only options are: Actor or Actress. I sent an email about this and got one back basically saying, 'We’ve been made aware of this, it’s a really big job to change, but we’re on top of it.' But then I asked around other non-binary performers and got forwarded a screenshot of an email from two-and-a-half years ago, which was pretty much identical. So, they haven’t actually done anything.
Eventually they offered that if I sent my details, they would make sure that I personally could be on the site. But I was like, ‘how will you do that in way that respects my gender?’ But it’s also unethical because it would put me at a massive advantage over every other non-binary performer.
I get that it’s a legacy system there – but trans issues in the arts aren’t new, and Spotlight have had years to work on this. If I was binary trans, I could take action through the Equalities Act – but now I’m literally being denied work.
It’s definitely not just in the arts. I worked at a charity for years, and was routinely misgendered. I’d have senior management asking really invasive questions about medical procedures and hormones etc. I only learned later through my union that invasive questions constitute a form of sexual harassment."
Dani: "I’ve been on the waiting list for a Gender Identity Clinic for about 18-months. They’re meant to be a sort of a one-stop shop for any medical interventions as part of your transition – hormones, surgery, whatever.
I think there are eight clinics for adults in the whole of the UK. They’re all massively over subscribed. Waiting times can be three years – just for a first appointment – then it might be a year till anything actually gets done. People are becoming suicidal and attempting suicide in that time. People look down on the American health care system, with crowdfunding for basic needs – but trans people are doing that here regularly.
The process they put you through of having to ‘prove’ your gender is bad enough for binary trans people, for non-binary people, because sometimes we don’t pass as clearly, it can get really obscene. There’s this weird thing where people believe you more if you fulfil their prejudices about gender expression."
Cal: "I had three GPs refuse to let me sign up as a patient. One literally just told me to leave, to get out of his surgery. I eventually got a referral to the GIC through a sympathetic doctor at my GUM clinic. If you try and complain, there’s this ironclad retort that most of the medical paperwork doesn’t accommodate non-binary [people]. I’ve had so many comments like, ‘well, you’re already taking money from the NHS with your gender, how can you want more?’ – just about standard medical stuff.
I end up getting sent to women’s wards without my consent, so I’m always having to check, and even then it’s often ignored. I went to see an NHS psychiatrist about a separate diagnosis, but ended up basically being offered conversion therapy to ‘accept my birth gender’."
Sam: "I was assaulted in my home by someone I met through a dating app, who was quite unwell. I called the police and asked them to record me as non-binary. They didn’t really understand what that meant, so I had to go through this whole 45-minute explanation – still in total shock from the incident.
Later I found they had recorded me on the incident with me as a heterosexual man. I complained about that, so I ended up with these three CID detectives grilling me – and actually had to explain really intimate stuff, like what passive and active meant in terms of sex. Eventually I couldn’t do it, and a friend who had come down for support had to explain for me."
Robin: "I went to a single gender school and there was zero discussion about identity or what that meant. There was no real discussion about gender in school. I don’t think teachers really knew how to speak about it.
I was diagnosed with depression at around 15, but now looking back, it was actually all to do with my gender identity and gender expression. If I had been more aware, if there was information and a welcoming space, it could have really helped me.
I work in education now, and I know this is an issue for other young people. I think they feel like they can talk about it in my spaces, because it’s less strictly institutional environment, but their knowledge is things they’ve picked up from friends or the internet."
Cory: "I was talking to some Spanish friends the other day, who invited me to visit them. They were totally shocked when I was like, 'I physically can’t'. There is no facility in the passport office, you either have to be male or female. My old passport is still valid, but it has the wrong name and gender. Even using that at Tesco now, they think it’s someone else.
The right to travel, to leave your country, is a human right. But right now, I just want the country I was born in, and have lived in my whole life to recognise me as a person."
Dani: "I’m going to Poland for a conference later this year. I was really excited – then realised, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get through passport control in Poland, one of the most homophobic states in Europe, with my nine-year old passport with a complete different gender identity on it. The thought of ending up in some remand facility in Poland – in the wrong gender wing – is genuinely terrifying. It’s coming time to renew my passport, and I just have no idea what to do. There’s no recognition of who I am in the system. I guess I’ll have to leave it with my birth gender, but I really no longer present that way – so it could lead to serious problems."
Robin: "I played competitive netball when I was younger, but I found the gendered language very difficult. It was like there was a girl’s club and a boy’s club and I didn't feel like I fitted in either place. Now I play Ultimate Frisbee, and have been leading discussions about trans inclusion in international tournaments. I’m not taking testosterone, so I have to compete in the women’s league, and it used to be a lot of, ‘let’s go ladies’, or ‘let’s go girls’.
But there are quite progressive policies from both the US and the international federation. A lot of the debate in sports is that a trans woman might be physically at an advantage to the people she’s playing against. What they say in Ultimate is, ‘we place faith in the player’ – that they’re not doing this for athletic advantage, but this is their identity and we shouldn’t discriminate against people. In US tournaments they’ve been including pronouns in the player lists, so that commentators can state the pronouns of players when they’re announced."
Dani: "Grindr is actually quite good. You can customise your gender identity, and non-binary has its own section. The people on it are often another matter. I’ve had, ‘You are a man’ as an opening chat-up line. On the one hand I’ve had these crazy gaslighting conversations, where people really try and dictate what you are and accuse you of being ‘literally a fascist’ for requesting certain pronouns.
On the other hand, I’ve had hook-ups with cis gay guys who’ve never been with a non-binary person and are really nervous, but obviously had a wonderful time and have gone, ‘I feel like my whole sexuality has just been massively opened up’. I know this isn’t exactly to do with the state, and legislation doesn’t equal acceptance – but I think legal recognition would make the wider social conversation a bit easier."
Bucky: "I just think it’s an odd turn of events where I get more respect from Grindr than I do from the British government."