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ARC REVIEW: Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity (3 Stars)

Cover of Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, with black and red text on a beige background

Rating: Three star rating represented by three bumblebees (3 out of 5)

What happens when your gender doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of male or female? Even mundane interactions like filling out a form or using a public bathroom can be a struggle when these designations prove inadequate. In this groundbreaking book, thirty authors highlight how our experiences are shaped by a deeply entrenched gender binary.

The powerful first-person narratives of this collection show us a world where gender exists along a spectrum, a web, a multidimensional space. Nuanced storytellers break away from mainstream portrayals of gender diversity, cutting across lines of age, race, ethnicity, ability, class, religion, family, and relationships. From Suzi, who wonders whether she’ll ever “feel” like a woman after living fifty years as a man, to Aubri, who grew up in a cash-strapped fundamentalist household, to Sand, who must reconcile the dual roles of trans advocate and therapist, the writers’ conceptions of gender are inextricably intertwined with broader systemic issues.

Labeled gender outlaws, gender rebels, genderqueer, or simply human, the voices in Nonbinary illustrate what life could be if we allowed the rigid categories of “man” and “woman” to loosen and bend. They speak to everyone who has questioned gender or has paused to wonder, What does it mean to be a man or a woman—and why do we care so much? — Goodreads

I’m agender. Sometimes I use the terms trans, genderqueer, or nonbinary for simplicity, to simply signal that I don’t want to be gendered as either male or female, and to emphasise that those are communities that I belong to. For the longest time of my life, I believed in the male-female binary and identified as a cis woman. It never sat quite right with me: I always felt a twinge of discomfort when people called me a woman, and I was upset at the changes my body went through during puberty. But I never wanted to be a boy, so surely I must be a cis woman, irksome and uncomfortable as that felt.

I can’t even tell you how mind-blowing it was for me to learn that gender wasn’t a binary, and that there were words for what I was experiencing. At first I struggled with a lot of doubt, but all of that dissipated the first time I came out as agender. It was euphoric to feel, for the first time, that I had found an accurate way to describe my gender and my experiences. So when I spotted Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity on NetGalley, I had to request it.

Nonbinary is a collection of autobiographical essays by nonbinary people writing about their individual gender journeys. I related very strongly to some of them, less so to others, but that was to be expected. Nonbinary people aren’t a monolith and we experience and navigate gender in myriad ways, not only depending on how we identify, but also on our individual surroundings, on age, class, race, disability, etc. Nonbinary takes this into account, making it a multi-faceted exploration of gender.

However, there are some things I wish would have been explored more deeply, in particular how disabled nonbinary people relate to their genders and bodies. As S. E. Smith notes in their essay, An Outsider in My Own Landscape: “Gender expression becomes a matter of cold cash realities.” But not only does it come down to money, it also comes down to having a certain body, an abled body that is relatively easy to clothe, that is able to undergo surgery or to bind, etc. For many of us who are both disabled and nonbinary, expressing our gender and presenting our bodies the way we want to is simply not possible by virtue of our particular disability, but this tends to be ignored by the community at large.

Additionally, some of the authors reproduced binarist and essentialist rhetoric, something that was rather disheartening to see in a collection specifically created by and for nonbinary people. I don’t mean to imply that people can’t identify the way they want to, like by reclaiming terms such as “transsexual” because that was the prevalent terminology at the beginning of their gender journey. Wrong and archaic as such terms may seem to a younger generation of nonbinary people, they have validity as individual labels.

What I cannot condone is the use of binarist phrases such as “male-/female-bodied”, “female hormones”, “female genitals” etc. Physical traits are not inherently gendered, and though my body may be perceived by many as a woman’s body, it is not. It’s an agender body. It was hurtful and upsetting to see such terminology from people who by all accounts should know better, and I wish the editor(s) had done a better job of catching and correcting this issue. The contribution by a parent to a nonbinary child was also wholly unnecessary. In a collection by and for nonbinary people, I don’t want to read about a parent grappling with their anti-trans convictions and their doubt in their own child’s assertions about their gender.

I was happy that a number of the contributors were POC, considering our community is often white-washed and racist. In that same vein, though, it made me uncomfortable that two white (I think?) contributors propagated Buddhism as a means to the end of understanding your gender. I would also be remiss not to add that this collection is overall quite US-centric and thus not always entirely relatable to those of us outside of the US.

In spite of these complaints, I still think Nonbinary is an important collection increasing the visibility of genderqueerness. It’s not the empowering statement I was expecting it to be, but there were moments when I felt deeply understood, or else felt a deep understanding for a nonbinary experience different from my own. And with that, I want to leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the collection.

We who identify as nonbinary spend so much time saying who we are not that we never get time to focus on ourselves, to celebrate and honor who we are. Nonbinary is only in relation to the colonizer, to White culture, to Western, mutually exclusive ideas of masculine and feminine. It still centers their experience as normal, typical, the true measure of gender. — Token Act, by Sand C. Chang

Even people who claim to be accepting of nonbinary gender still expect that our expression must deviate from the norms associated with our sex assigned at birth. — Token Act, by Sand C. Chang

I spent decades bouncing from identity to identity, looking for something that aligned with the real me. It’s almost impossible to form a sense of identity without the words to describe yourself. — What Am I?, by CK Combs

The problem is, “woman” has never fit me. I had bottomless depression as a teenager (…), plagued often by the idea of “woman” and adult womanhood. I could not understand who I would be in that context. — Coming Out As Your Nibling, by Sinclair Sexsmith

How could I explain that the woman in me doesn’t need me to perform gender for anyone, that she’s more than fulfilled to reside in this body just as it is? She says it’s her temple—she doesn’t need a knife to alter me. — Coatlicue, by Féi Hernandez

But I have transitioned. I have transitioned in the relationship with myself. — The Flight of the Magpie, by Adam “Picapica” Stevenson

I want to be alive. I want to live. And so this is my gender: a desire to live. — What Growing Up Punk Taught Me About Being Gender Nonconforming, by Christopher Soto

Please note that all quotes were taken from an eARC and might differ from the published version.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity? What did you think? Do you have any recommendations for nonbinary books, fiction or non-fiction? Let’s chat in the comments below!

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