The week starting the Sunday or Monday preceding 14 July every year since 2012 is celebrated globally as non-binary awareness week. This year is no different.
14 July is International Non-Binary People’s Day, observed each year and aimed at raising awareness and organising around the issues faced by non-binary people around the world.
If you ask most Nigerians – which we did so you don’t have to – they are likely to swear ignorance of the idea of gender expression outside binarism.
Non-binary gender expression is as indisputably African as Fufu and Tuwo.
Nonbinary gender expression is simply one of a number of terms used to describe a gender identity that falls outside binarism and is neither exclusively woman nor man, is in between or beyond both genders.
Nonbinary persons may identify as genderfluid (people whose gender changes across time), agender (people who do not identify with any gender), genderqueer (those who fall outside of, in between or fluctuate between the binary), bigender (people who have more than one gender) and other-gendered (those whose gender is not part of the man/woman categories.)
While the language we know these things as in our cultures may differ, the reality of the presence of non-binary people in Nigeria cannot be erased.
The ‘Yan Daudu, effete men – some of whom fully embody femininity in everything from mannerisms to clothing and gender roles – of Hausa land were, until a recent violent erasure by a conservative Islamic reform, a visible part of society.
Igbo spiritual and cultural tradition is also littered with an exploration of gender that goes beyond the binary. We have written here about the most publicised example of this in the 20th century – Area Scatter – an Igbo man, said to have been a civil servant before the civil war, who disappeared into the wilderness, only to reappear seven months and seven days later, reborn, spiritually and physically, as a woman.
Non-binary gender expression is not alien to Africa. Also, the discomfort that comes with the inability to immediately categorize people into something fixed – like a man or woman in the binary sense – is as ubiquitous as air.
Researchers of gender and gender norms have known for a long time that seeing transgression of gender norms makes people uncomfortable.
This may explain why despite knowing our shared history, even current reality, of gender diversity, most Nigerians choose to deny non-binary gender identity.
Kehinde*, whose understanding of Yoruba language allows her to accept the absence of mark of gender in the language nevertheless feels the idea of the nonbinary expression of gender is pretentious and frankly needless.
“It is perfectly fine to be anything, but I don’t see the need to insist on unique pronouns. Yoruba language, as equally manifest in the culture, is all about respect. There are no strictures on pronouns. All this they/them thing that we are taking from western culture – which they by the way came to recently – is needless in our context. The language already addresses everyone without binarism,” she said.
Jeffery*, who views everything from a globalist viewpoint sees no harm in recognizing and according to non-binary people the respect of addressing them as they desire, but still contends that it is a bit much.
“It is all about respecting a person’s wish for me. I understand, vaguely the idea of nonbinary gender identity, the importance of respecting people’s pronouns, and the potential we have to grow towards inclusion as a global human community. It still feels overwhelming sometimes,” he said, “I panicked the other day after I misgendered a nonbinary friend, and I know it is self-centering and terrible to worry more about my feelings over this than respecting their pronoun, but it still feels a bit much.”
It shouldn’t be, however. It is okay to stumble, the key is to rise from it with humility.
A recent occurrence comes to mind.
In a heated conversation with a group of non-binary friends – one of whom is nonbinary trans – some weeks ago, someone referred to another while enunciating their point as ‘she.’
The flow of exchange was so fast-faced it took a minute for the misgendering to register even with the person who did it. And when it did, they immediately acknowledged it, and the person they misgendered extended enough grace to dismiss it as one of those things that happen sometimes. The friend that did the misgendering reaffirmed their commitment to being more intentional about using the right pronouns going forward and our heated conversation was back on track.
It is that easy.
Commit this International Nonbinary Awareness week to do the same, and take it from there.
We are all deserving of dignity.