by Cecilia Righini
Editor’s Letter: A very Special Edition of The Non-Binary Times
Welcome to this edition of The Non-Binary Times. I am the Editor, and I am really excited about this issue. As usual, we are keeping all the content strictly related to everything gender non-conforming, but this edition is quite special for us. These past few months have been hard on everyone, with Covid-19 spreading panic around the world and many trans and queer people forced into isolation with trans and homophobic families. Our thoughts are with you. But to give you a break from this disease, which is inevitably always in our minds, we decided to keep it ‘normal’ and publish the issue we originally planned, with the only difference being that it will be available online and not in print. This helped us find a way to focus on something productive, and we hope it will help you too, dear reader.
Therefore, moving on to the content, in this special edition you will find four articles: in It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s (and Binary) World you are introduced to gendered – and binary – symbols. Of course, you must already know that the situation does not look bright, but is there any hope for the future? Next, we decided to talk to our readers to understand more about non-binary practices when it comes to selfies in Practices for Non-Binary Selfies. This article will also engage with some discussion on technology: we are sure you will like this one. Our Collage Artist had a lot of fun creating images for our next entry: Do your clothes have agency?, which will discuss – and prove – the vibrancy of matter through gendered apparel. Our last article engages with the theme of surveillance masked under the concerns of safety and well-being. Out & Proud is the concept for a platform that educates hospitality and retail workers to be gender-affirming so that their business can be listed in a queer-friendly search engine. We know we are all in lockdown right now and this software might not seem particularly helpful at the moment, but we see this as an opportunity to collect your feedback and improve our services. Who knows, maybe it will be ready by the time we can go out again!
I sincerely hope you will enjoy reading this issue, and from the whole Non-Binary Times team, we hope it will ease at least a small amount of your time at home. Stay safe!
the Editor (they/them)
It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s (and Binary) World
We have been asked by many readers about the ways gender might be constituted through media. ‘Media are systems’, writes W. J. T. Mitchell: ‘[i]t is possible to describe their structural features, and to differentiate them more or less rigorously’. In this sense, anything ‘can become a medium under the right circumstances’ and ‘[a] ll we need to ask is when and how does something count as a medium’ (2017). We reflected on how icons and symbols are forms of media and how they are particularly crucial in the constitution of gender stereotypes.
Think about binaries and labels. We love them, we hate them. Some people need them so badly that there is an International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) which outlines a set of ‘universal’ icons and symbols like the ones seen on toilet doors, street signs, information points etc. However, as outlined by designer and researcher Ruben Pater, ‘they are by no means “universal”. The icon for restaurants is a knife and fork, hardly a standard in every country. The parking symbols use the Latin alphabet “P” of an English word’ (2016, p. 139). And if disregarding cultures other than the Western one is not enough, these symbols are also sexist. The ‘male’ symbol is used to indicate men and gender-neutral, while a skirt is added to the symbol to identify women, which are often accompanied by a child. It is now necessary to find a new way to represent genders: why do we feel the need to draw a skirt on the adult icon representing a child changing station? Why are these ‘gender-neutral’ icons portrayed with wider shoulders than hips, if they do not want people to assume that the symbol represents a male – and therefore the assumed normality?
Some designers have already tried to change this, and sometimes in front of a gender-neutral toilet, we see a symbol of half man and half woman. But what about those people who do not identify as either male or female? These icons claim to be ‘universal’, so we cannot leave anyone behind. What if, instead of a stick man or a stick woman, they would start using an icon of a toilet? Maybe not very flattering, but it would represent something we all need to do and can do in the very same way.
Another way used to represent gender is through the icons of Mars, Roman God of War, for men and Venus, Goddess of Love and Beauty, for women. Are you thinking what we are thinking? We believe that it is not a good idea to keep holding on to symbols that promote toxic masculinities or hypersexual femininities, but we do not dislike the idea of combining the symbols to create a ‘gender-neutral’ one, as we ideologically imagine a merge of all types of masculinities and femininities. We are sure you know this one already, but if you don’t, connect the dots in the following page to uncover the gender-neutral symbol.
In the process of achieving ‘symbols equality’, some people are working towards awareness, at least. For example, in 2007 the Austrian capital launched the campaign Wien sieht’s anders, ‘Vienna sees it differently’, to raise consciousness around gender stereotypes. Between the campaign images, they used symbols of women in the signals for emergency exit and work in progress, while adopting the gender-neutral or male symbol for a child changing station sign.
We are aware that we have not proposed a solution to this problem, and this is why we need your help. We are trying to design the perfect symbols to help in the elimination of binaries – yes, we are aware of the oxymoron – and we are open to submissions. Head over to our website to find more information: you could be even featured in the next edition of The Non-Binary Times. Until then, beware of gendered symbols!
Practices for Non-Binary Selfies
the century. In 2001, New Media author Lev Manovich wondered whether ‘our society is a society of spectacle or of simulation’ but, even in a pre-smartphone era, declared ‘it is a society of the screen’ (p. 94). In 2015, Americans alone took more pictures every two minutes than the entire globe produced in the whole 19th century (Mirzoeff, 2015). The fact that we live in a visual culture does not come as news, but narcissism seems to be particularly enhanced by the not-new selfie trend. Thanks to websites dedicated to the analysis of this phenomena, The Non-Binary Times gathered some interesting data about the gender of selfies-takers (Selfiecity, 2015). Let’s see what we found:
As established in the previous article It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s (and Binary) World, we found an issue. Where is the gender non-conforming data? We do know that identifying as non-binary always comes with some fighting, but we would expect a young trend such as selfies to finally be analysed in its diversity. Yes, we know it’s not the data analysers’ fault, but perhaps the AI technology’s which is created by… DING DING DING! Humans. Surely, technology has completely transformed the way we live in and engage with the world. However, it is worth asking: is it for the better? To what – or whose – expense is technology improving our daily lives? We might assume that AI cannot be racist or homophobic, but AI is nothing more than code and data picked up from human behaviour – which can definitely be discriminatory. In fact, according to sociologist Ruha Benjamin, ‘tech fixes often hide, speed up, and even deepen discrimination, while appearing to be neutral or benevolent when compared to the racism of a previous era’ (2019, p. 8). Furthermore, as explained by Judy Wajcman, ‘we have begun to conceive of mutually shaping relationship between gender and technology, in which technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations’ (2004, p. 7). In other words, we also need to consider the gender specificity for which technologies were created in the first place – for example, which binary gender is more likely to use a washing machine, and which one a drill? Clearly, technology reinforces gender binaries, and every day we see ads for selfies apps such as FaceApp that propose filters to transform you from female to male or vice versa. Did anyone think about a gender-neutral filter? Why do they all need to look so gendered?
We wanted to learn more about our non-binary readers’ selfie-habits, so we asked a few friends to send us a selfie and respond to a few questions:
- Do you often take selfies? Why/why not?
- If you do, what do you do with them? Are there specific practices or processes that you go through when taking selfies and deciding whether or not to keep them?
- Which app did you use to take this selfie and, if applicable, which filter? Is there any specific reason for your choices?
Our first interviewee told us they take selfies every day: ‘Taking selfies is part of the process to create opportunities for gender euphoria, to remind myself that I am starting to look more like myself’. They disclosed that they post on Instagram and Facebook without any filters as they care to show their reality of being a ‘brown trans masculine person’ with acne scars from HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy). They then explained that there is no real process involved in the selfie-taking, and they hold on to the smiley photos because ‘the more [they] see [themselves] smile, the happier [their] inner image is’. We asked our next interviewee the same questions, and they explained that they do not take selfies on a daily basis and they do not use any filters, as they cannot find any they like. ‘I take selfies pretty much every day’, admitted the last non-binary person we talked to, ‘to express my mood, to show off how cute or gross my hair looks, to make my girlfriend smile’ – cute. Similarly to the other two participants, they clarified they take a few shots before sending an ‘acceptable’ selfie, and they ‘rarely use filters as [they] feel it sort of cheapens the shot’.
There is a way to read these interviews that allows us to better understand these practices in relation to the technologies we use. In fact, if we interpret our phone screen as an interface, we will be able to acknowledge how there are no clear boundaries between our bodies and the platforms/ apps we use, while trying to separate the image from our ‘reality’ is pointless, since they are intertwined. As otherwise described by cultural theorist Meredith Jones, ‘[t]here are profound tensions and ambivalences as well as synergies and intertwinings between two-dimensional and three-dimensional modes of being’ (2017, p. 45). Understanding how bodies become through their relationship prepares us for the next article: turn the page to read more about it.
Do your Clothes have Agency?
As much as we’d all love to live in a warm country and walk around naked the whole time, we’re stuck in ‘civilisation’ and we need clothes every day of our lives. Jokes aside, clothes are really necessary: not only to cover our private bits and keep us warm but also to show our personality before even introducing ourselves. Apparel complements the way we move and act, forming what we colloquially call the ‘vibe’ of a person. Legends tell that you could even identify the gender and sexuality of someone just from looking at their clothes. Do we believe that?
Our most practical readers might find our findings quite theoretical, but please bear with us, we promise it will be worth it. Are you aware of that saying some folks use to show they’re smart, cogito ergo sum? Surely, you also know its meaning: ‘I think, therefore I am’. We have to thank Descartes for making us believe for around four centuries that having a consciousness makes us exist in the first place, and therefore we are superior to anything else, say, matter. We really don’t fall for this theory: everything we experience in our daily lives, every emotion and action, is embodied. Or, as brilliantly put by feminist new materialists Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, ‘in light of this massive materiality, how could we be anything other than materialist? How could we ignore the power of matter and the ways it materializes in our ordinary experiences […]?’ (2010, p. 1).
Clothes are an example that can prove this concept. We asked our Editor to give us a prompt to demonstrate this, and they brought us a bunch of skirts and dresses that they are not comfortable wearing anymore, as they quite easily get identified as a woman when doing so. We reflected on the interactions between them and the clothes, or as defined by feminist author Karen Barad (2003), intra-actions. The word ‘interaction’ assumes that two elements exist and they are limited before the relation between them, ‘intra-action’ expects the two elements to be defined by their relationship, meaning they could not be quite the same without each other. And this is exactly what we imagine our Editor’s relationship with their clothes is: an intra-action. A skirt made them who they were while they were wearing it, but it still intra-acts with them now as they feel they cannot wear it anymore. From this, we draw that even things without a conscious mind have agency and vibrancy.
We understand that these concepts are difficult to grasp, so we asked our Collage Artist to put together a collage that would explain the theory. They got carried away, and they produced three images that could visually demonstrate this.
These pictures could be directly analysed from a semiotics perspective, as they are clearly showing how an object taken out of its ‘natural’ context alters completely the meaning of the new image produced. However, another way of interpreting the collages is by reflecting on how they made you feel. Did you laugh? Did you feel uncomfortable? Did you try and imagine how the photos were originally? Did they remind you of something/someone you know? In this sense, these images are transmitting something to you, something that goes beyond the original meaning they were created for by humans, and have an agency of their own in the way they produce affects – or emotions – in you. Otherwise, as described, by theorist Jane Bennett, all things have a ‘thing-power’, a vibrancy of their own, or: ‘the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic
Out & Proud: Discover Gender- Affirming Hangout Places
Have you ever walked in a restaurant with friends and been welcomed with a joyful ‘Hello Ladies!’ or ‘Good evening Sir’, to then uncomfortably stand there while deciding if you should point out that you’re no Lady or Sir? Would they understand? Would you make the situation awkward? The worst part of this situation is that this is not their fault: the waiter/waitress – there you go, binaries – has probably been raised like the rest of us, learning that there are either boys or girls. You could educate them on the spot, but we all know how (A), it might be uncomfortable and not always safe; and (B), although you are experiencing this, it is not your job to teach people about inclusive language. What if there was another way? The Non-Binary Times partnered up with Out & Proud, a new platform that will soon start educating hospitality and retail workers and provide a list of safe spaces for gender non-conforming people. The advert on the next page shows how it works.
Although we are extremely excited about this idea, we are also concerned about privacy and surveillance issues for both businesses and customers. We surely don’t like to be monitored at all times, and we have quite enough of tech companies telling us they need specific data to provide us with a service. You might often be asked to enter some sensitive data that you may now be willing to disclose– e.g. your gender, or if you are lucky, gender identity. We know companies make big money targeting products and services to men or women specifically, we would be naïve to think they would just stop doing it just because it is ‘the right thing to do’. But what will it take them to stop asking people about their gender? Some companies – e.g. Facebook (Fae, 2014) – let you choose between more than 50 genders. Why complicate things trying to mention every possible label? This is not to say that the history of inequality can be forgotten and we can just hold hands in a circle laughing and singing, but it would spare the pain to the increasing number of people who do not fit in the labels ‘male’ or ‘female’. Out & Proud is implementing this strategy – along with a few more important privacy protection ones, see their advert for more information –, and we hope many companies will follow their example.
We want you to be aware of how surveillance operates, especially when it comes to technology and data, so we prepared a little crosswords puzzle that will hopefully make you learn something new – we surely did while designing it – and perhaps make you reflect on these issues.
List of References
IT’S A MAN’S MAN’S MAN’S (AND BINARY) WORLD
Mitchell, W.J.T (2017) ‘Counting Media: Some Rules of Thumb’, Media Theory Journal, 3 August. Available here (Accessed: 26 April 2020)
Pater, R. (2016) The Politics of Design. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers
PRACTICES FOR NON-BINARY SELFIES
Benjamin, R. (2019) Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge: Polity Press
Jones, M. (2017) ‘Expressive Surfaces: The Case of the Designer Vagina’, Theory, Culture and Society, 34(7- 8), pp. 29-50. doi: 10.1177/0263276417736592
Manovich, L. (2002) ‘The Interface’, in The Language of New Media. The MIT Press
Mirzoeff, N. (2015) ‘In 2014 we took 1tn photos: welcome to our new visual culture’, The Guardian, 10 July. Available here (Accessed: 22 April 2020)
Selfiecity (2015) Selfiecity London. Available here (Accessed: 22 April 2020)
DO YOUR CLOTHES HAVE AGENCY?
Barad, K. (2003) ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(3), pp. 801-831. doi: 10.1086/345321
Bennett, J. (2010) ‘The Force of Things’, in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press
Coole, D. and Frost, S. (2010) New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Duke University Press Books
Piepmeier, A. (2008) ‘Why Zines Matter: Materiality and the Creation of Embodied Community’, American Periodicals, 18(2), pp. 213-238
OUT & PROUD: DISCOVER GENDER AFFIRMING HANGOUT PLACES
Bauman, Z. and Lyon, D. (2013) Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation. Malden: Polity Press
Fae, J. (2014) ‘Facebook should remove all gender options instead’, The Guardian, 16 February. Available here (Accessed: 26 April 2020)
Foucault, M. and Sheridan, A. (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books.
Lyon, D. (2007) Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Cambridge: Polity
Mann, S. (2013) ‘Veillance and Reciprocal Transparency: Surveillance versus Sousveillance, AR Glass, Lifelogging and Wearable Computing’, IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS), Toronto, 27-29 June. IEEE
Murch, D. (2015) ‘Crack in Los Angeles: Crisis, Militarization, and Black Response to the Late Twentieth-Century War on Drugs’, Journal of American History, 102(1), pp. 162-173. doi: 10.1093/jahist/jav260