From Nonbinary Lives to Nonbinary Science
Last summer I was in the antechamber of the gender-neutral bathroom at my favorite club in Chicago. It’s a gender-diverse haven. In that bathroom I’ve discovered gender expressions I didn’t even know possible and connected with people who continue to inspire me aesthetically and personally. On this particular night, I ran into someone whom I’d looked up to for so long—someone who lives their genderqueerness out loud and is too fabulous for words. I told them I recently starting identifying as genderfluid (Genderfluid! I haven’t said that in too many contexts yet, so it still thrills me to say it.). They smiled, then asked me the best question I could have been asked in that moment: “How does that feel?” I said it felt like freedom.
My journey to my gender fluidity has had countless influences. I’ve been a drag performer for the past 3 years, which has allowed me to explore my femininity out loud. I’ve embedded myself in gender-diverse communities, which has populated my imagination with arrays of gendered ways of being. And I’ve had best friends come out as nonbinary, giving me courageous models of how we can live authentically and publicly claim our truths. I think these are all ways many nonbinary people find themselves, but I also have had one less common influence: my own scientific research.
I am a gender and sexual diversity researcher. That means that I’m interested in all the different ways people experience and describe their genders and sexualities, and how we might represent this diversity in psychological science. My Master’s Thesis work (also described in an earlier blog post) involved asking people of all kinds of gender identities to describe their gender, sex, and gender/sex (the umbrella term we use for womanhood, manhood, and gender/sex diversity) using diagrams from sexual configurations theory (SCT), which my supervisor created a few years ago. People drew on these diagrams and wrote descriptions of why they marked the diagrams the way they did. We aimed to explore people’s gender/sex and show how SCT’s diagrams can allow for the often messy, complex ways people relate to their gender/sexes, but also provide the systematicity necessary for scientific research.
And wow did our participants deliver! They gave so much of themselves to us in their insightful text descriptions of their gender/sexes and inventive use of the diagrams. Some wrote full paragraphs describing their bodies, social identities, and internal experiences. Others drew creative shapes on the diagrams. Of particular interest to me were those who covered entire swaths of the diagrams or located themselves at multiple places. These participants saw their gender/sexes embodying a range of identifications, something I realized resonated with my own identity.
As might be expected, throughout the process of designing and conducting this study, I was continuously thinking of where I might place myself on SCT’s diagrams. Something about the physicality of the diagrams, the fact that there are literal spaces to occupy, made something click for me. And seeing the diverse ways our participants used them incited my imagination even more.
Then, I was asked several times in quick succession to account for my gender by friends who were also figuring out their identities. In having to articulate how I felt, and inspired by my contemplation of SCT and my participants, I began to say that I have a “gender portfolio.” In other words, I have several gendered ways of being that I move through and are within me. In work and casual settings, I’m comfortable expressing an identity that is femme, queer, and male. In LGBTQ contexts, I often express myself in more of an androgynous, genderqueer fashion (emphasis on the fashion!). And in drag, I feel more womanly, or at least like a larger-than-life feminine character. These are fairly distinct ways of being for me–my body actually feels different when I don makeup and heels–though they overlap and constantly influence each other (e.g., my drag persona has taught me the power of embracing my femininity in all aspects of my life. Thank you Ariana Grindr!).
Being able to name my gender portfolio and its fluidity has been immensely helpful in clarifying my relationship to gender. And, seeing the nonbinary people in my community and having a way to say “I’m like you!” has been profoundly fulfilling. But beyond personal fulfillment, this revelation has also informed the research I conduct. My Master’s Thesis work aimed to create a new way of describing and understanding gender/sex, which in part, I hoped could allow my participants, and anyone else who might use SCT, to better understand themselves. But in so doing, my participants helped me better understand myself. So, my life and my work, my work and my life: I see them in a feedback loop or a Mobius strip. My research and my identity are continuously informing each other. I can focus on one side of the equation, but the other side is still there.
I’ll admit, when I realized this, my initial reaction was a bit of fear. In my undergraduate science training, I’d been taught to “remove” my bias, to strive for “objectivity,” to not become too invested. In the dominant model of science, the researcher and the researched are positioned as distinct entities, with data being extracted from participants by the scientist for objective examination. This is a binary, one-way street model.
But what if we envision a new science? A nonbinary science? One in which the distinction between scientist and participant, subject and object, becomes permeable, enmeshed, mutually constitutive. A science that serves to foster the two-way exchange of knowledge that ultimately works to better represent reality.
Now that’s my kind of science.
van Anders, S. M. (2015). Beyond sexual orientation: Integrating gender/sex and diverse sexualities via sexual configurations theory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 1177-1213.
Stachowiak, D. M. (2017). Queering it up, strutting our threads, and baring our souls: Genderqueer individuals negotiating social and felt sense of gender. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(5), 532-543.
Will Beischel is a third-year PhD student in Psychology at the University of Michigan and a member of the van Anders Lab. Their work focuses on the diverse ways people think about and experience their gender/sex and sexuality and how to capture that diversity in psychological research.