Additionally, I have moved to a new, improved site at bi-gender.com! The old site here, JamesBethMerritt.wordpress.com, is no longer being actively updated, but there’s fresh, intriguing material being posted at the new one. See you there!
Trans Book Reviews has a unique proposition going on at their site. It’s not just that they review only books and stories that are non-cisgender (so transgender, non-binary, agender, or anything else that isn’t strictly cis); they also have a cisgender and a non-cisgender person review each one and post both reviews together. In terms of fostering understanding and support, I think that’s fantastic. Check out their site at https://transbookreviews.wordpress.com.
This past weekend, I had the very unusual opportunity to connect with other non-binary people as part of a larger event, in a closed discussion that didn’t include any mono-gendered people (well, except for one woman who wandered in, not knowing what the discussion was about. Once we realized she wasn’t non-binary, we had to send her on her way, which felt rude, but which was absolutely necessary).
There were about a dozen of us, sitting in a circle and just asking and answering questions. Most there were younger–college age or early twenties–but there were also three or four forty-and-up people, myself included, and age seemed to be no barrier in the discussion. There wasn’t anyone else there who definitely identified as bi-gender, but that didn’t really matter, either. The uniting experience was of being neither strictly male nor strictly female.
It seemed to me that it was a relief and an empowering experience for everyone there to be able to talk to other people who shared something of their experience. The other opportunity I had to participate in a group like this, the experience was very similar: mostly younger people, no one else who identified as bi-gender, and everyone delighted to be there.
To follow up on this, I’m going to look into organizing a one-day non-binary conference, perhaps in Massachusetts this summer. I don’t yet know exactly what we’ll do apart from having open discussion, but that will develop over time. If you’re interested in this conference, please drop me a line. If you’re interested but wouldn’t be able to make it in person, please still get in touch: I want to look into ways that it might be possible to include people remotely through some kind of private videoconferencing.
If anyone has suggestions for the conference or (better yet) is interested in helping plan or organize or staff it, I’m enthusiastically interested in hearing from you. I don’t know that anything like this event has happened before (though I’d love to hear about it if it has), and regardless, this has the opportunity to be a singular event for those of us who feel a little marginal sometimes.
By the way, this site is now also accessible through the address bi-gender.com. I may do more with that domain in future, or create a more broadly focused non-binary site.
I’m late finding it, but an article in the March 27th issue of Time Magazine, “Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’: The Changing Meaning of Gender and Sexuality” (also available online at http://time.com/magazine/us/4703292/march-27th-2017-vol-189-no-11-u-s/ ) offers research and individual accounts on the changing understanding of gender and sexuality. They don’t mention bi-gender people (but then, hardly anyone does), though they do make note of one person who identifies as gender fluid and describes a bi-gender-like experience of life. They also pretty much ignore non-binary people older than their mid-twenties. Still, it’s a well-written and informative article that answers some questions about how widespread non-binary genders and sexual preferences are, how younger people tend to regard them, and how they’re changing in our culture: well worth a read.
My friend Kristin passed along a recommendation to me for Jeff Garvin’s YA novel Symptoms of Being Human (Balzer + Bray, 2016), which tells the story of Riley Cavanaugh, a genderfluid teen. It’s the first book I’ve read where a major character could really be considered bi-gender (though Riley never uses that word, and “genderfluid” is probably a better description of who they are). Riley moves back and forth on the scale between male and female, feeling more boy one day and more girl the next. The story deals with their experience trying to walk a fine line of being themself and not drawing unwanted attention. That line, it turns out, is too thin: as in real life, there are people who take real exception to anyone crossing gender lines or trying to mix genders.
In terms of entertainment, if like me you enjoy YA (young adult) fiction, as more and more adults seem to do these days, Symptoms of Being Human is a good read. Some of the positive attention Riley gets doesn’t feel realistic to me: without giving away what goes on in the story, Riley seems like a realistic teenager with realistic gifts, but some of those gifts are received as though they’re amazing and exceptional, and I found that a little hard to swallow. Garvin also chooses to never let Riley reveal what sex they were assigned at birth, and I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, as Garvin must have intended, it keeps the focus on Riley’s actual gender instead of letting us get hung up on Riley’s assigned sex. On the other hand, while being non-binary is very tricky regardless of your assigned sex at birth, the challenges are a bit different depending on what that assigned sex is, both socially and physically, and this story glosses over those differences. Still, it’s refreshing to have a character whose assigned sex at birth is simply beside the point.
In terms of gender experience, Garvin does a great job, especially since nothing in the public information I’ve seen about him suggests that he’s anything different than a straight, cisgender male (he describes himself in this article about gender identity as an ally). Evidently he spent a lot of time reading and talking to transgender and non-binary people before he began to write, and it shows in characters who feel true-to-life in their gender non-conformity.
For a contrast, consider Lauren McLaughlin’s enjoyable but unrealistic YA novel Cycler, in which the main character inexplicably flips back and forth between being physically male and physically female: it’s a good read, but it has no wisdom to impart about being non-binary–though to be fair, I doubt it’s meant to.
Symptoms of Being Human is mainly preoccupied with the difficult question of whether to come out, and how much, and to whom, and how to try not to give your gender identity away before you’re ready. These are important and interesting question, though it was a little disappointing to me that they ended up being the ultimate questions in the book. From my point of view, coming out is a secondary issue, and the main thing is how a person lives and figures out who they are when they don’t fit into the gender binary we’re all taught is basic to our identity.
But Symptoms is a badly-needed and rewarding read, and my hope is that that it’s only the beginning for Garvin and for Riley, that before long we’ll see the continuation of Riley’s story and what comes of them facing these deeper issues.
Andrea James is an actor, teacher, voice coach, producer, director, and transgender activist. If you’ve seen the film Transamerica, starring Felicity Huffman, you may recognize her from the opening scene, where the main character is working on her voice with a voice instruction video. She offers resources for people assigned male at birth who want to achieve an unquestionably female voice at genderlife.com. She also offers one-on-one tutoring via Skype or other means at http://www.genderlife.com/free-transgender-voice-resources/voice-consultation/.
If this post comes across sometimes sounding like a cheering section for Andrea as a personal voice guru, that’s only because I think she provides a tremendous service. I had been working on developing a full female voice for months before I came across her work, and as I’ve discovered since, all of the resources I was using were leading me down a path that would not be successful. Andrea’s videos made a big difference for me, and then some personal coaching made an even bigger difference. I’m not prepared to show off a complete female voice yet, but I’m getting closer every week, and there have been a few situations already where my voice has passed. (Note: I’m not receiving anything for posting this. I honestly do think she’s that great.)
Unfortunately, this post won’t be of much use to people assigned female at birth who want to achieve a male-sounding voice. For those taking hormones, this isn’t a great problem, as their voices will change like teenage boys’ voices do. My apologies that there’s nothing here in this post for those not pursuing hormones.
Andrea kindly consented to talk to me about developing a female voice.
JAMES BETH: When and how did you first discover that it was possible to find your female voice through training?
ANDREA: A pioneering figure in transition resources is Melanie Anne Phillips. She had put together some great materials on transgender voice, and she had an audio cassette and VHS tape available for sale. I used her techniques to good effect, but I felt I could make things a little simpler with a more streamlined approach based on techniques developed by Arthur Lessac and others. I taught a few people using these new methods, then eventually filmed it all 15 years ago in 2002.
JAMES BETH: It sounds as though you put some concerted effort into developing the method you teach. What drew you to doing this work yourself?
ANDREA: I initially planned to teach as a career, so helping others with transition goals has always felt like a nice substitute for that. I’m always happy when my students get results like these:
How long does it typically take someone who’s practicing regularly to develop her female voice? Is it much easier for some people than others, or factors that make a big difference in how easily (or whether at all) a person develops her new voice?
ANDREA: Most people take 3 to 6 months to get a good working voice. The biggest factor for success is age at transition, with younger people far more motivated and more likely to succeed. Older people are more likely to have a mental block about it, afraid to push past the point where it does not sound good yet.
JAMES BETH: So motivation seems to be key–which translates, I would guess, into amount of earnest practice? From your point of view, can anyone at all can develop an identifiably female voice if they’re motivated enough, or are there some barriers that can’t be gotten past?
ANDREA: Anyone at all can do it if they can push past the mental barrier of imperfect progress. I have taught non-trans people these techniques, so it’s possible for anyone who is motivated. Here’s an analogy: some people say they’d like to get in shape, but what they mean is they’d like to BE in shape. They don’t want to do the work to be in shape. You have to want to GET in shape, and there is no quick solution. You have to do the work.
JAMES BETH: Does a person have much choice over the character of her voice as it emerges, or is there a particular female voice that tends to emerge for each person? To put it another way, is a female voice created or uncovered?
ANDREA: Most people have the same vocabulary, accent, inflection, enunciation, vocal tics and general tone. Those who achieve a voice that most listeners take to be female sound as if they have a twin sister. However, it’s important to note that there’s not a good voice, or bad voice, there’s your voice. If you like your voice and don’t want to change it, that’s great! It’s an important part of how you express yourself, and it’s up to you whether it’s worth changing it. Be loud and proud!
Until I dove into being bi-gender, I’d never realized that different romantic orientations and gender identities had their own flags. It also never occurred to me why you’d want a flag for such a thing until this week, when I’m planning on attending my first Pride event. (Yes, I know, it’s ridiculous never to have been part of one before.) Suddenly, I realize that there’s a bi-gender flag, and I could wave it around, and there would actually be a chance of someone seeing me with it and pretty much fully understanding my gender identity just by looking. Boy, is that a novel thought!
Unfortunately, since of course there’s no central authority of queer people (what would that look like), it turns out there are more than one bi-gender flag. It’s going to be hard enough just to get people to recognize one flag on sight, so more than one design is a problem! Because of that, I’m going to only show the most common/popular/widely-accepted bi-gender flag here.
I love this flag: I picture myself bouncing up and down from the top to the bottom, with some other bi-gender people hovering in the middle, where the lavender is.
Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, nobody actually sells these flags. I am looking around, and I’ll update the post if I find a place that sells them. I don’t have a use for a big banner, but I’d love a flag on a stick I can wave around.
One fairly common mistake seems to be to use the Intersex flag. For anyone not familiar, Intersex means having physical characteristics of both male and female sexes. This is of course completely different from being bi-gender, which is having two genders (often, but not always male and female), taking turns and/or in some mix.