Fashioning Nonbinary Normalcy

Illustrations of three nonbinary individuals alongside a hand waving the nonbinary pride flag, all against a purple background.

While each person’s identity exists at the intersection of many truths about themselves, the inescapable reality is that we live in a society obsessed with binaries: straight/gay, white/Black, able-bodied/disabled. People in customer service gender people by sight or ear. Having one’s assigned gender hammered into them as a child preps them for the overt and subtle ways it will be reinforced in our gendered world later on: Pink or blue? Sports or baking? Whiskey or wine? This division and its hallmarks are woven into cultural messaging from TV shows to K–12 curricula. So, too, are the consequences of divergence from these established norms. Despite this, the unforgiving spotlight on gender roles and gendered expectation is waning. As eyes adjust, players previously circumscribed by memorized lines and the sudden, stark drop off the stage’s edge have come to realize the vast, open space that has been there to explore all along. 

More Americans generally, but particularly young Americans, are questioning what it means to identify with their gender as assigned at birth, or claiming identities they have long connected with but felt they had to hide. A 2022 study from the Pew Research Center found that 1.6 percent of Americans surveyed identified as a gender other than that which they were assigned at birth. For respondents between the ages of 18 and 29, three percent identified as nonbinary. The Gender Census, a global gender survey that has been conducted annually since 2015, shows the incredible growth of nonbinary identity. No fewer than 60 percent of respondents have self-identified as nonbinary since the survey’s inception. In 2023, the majority of respondents indicated identifying beyond or outside binary gender with 63.1 percent identifying as nonbinary. 

We can liken this dramatic increase in young people embracing queer sexuality and identity to the increase in left-handed children over time. As religious superstition around left-handedness decreased and the importance of right-handedness was de-emphasized in public schools, the United States saw a marked surge in left-handed children that ultimately plateaued at around 10 percent of the population. In both instances we see the direct correlation between decreased stigmatization of inborn traits with a rise in their expression in the population.

As librarians, how might we play a direct role in helping to destigmatize nonconforming gender identities? As the rigidity of gender roles is enforced less and less, both legally and socially, in the United States, librarians have a role to play in facilitating the acceptance and affirmation of gender diverse people, and in the exploration of the vastness of gender for the faculty that teach them and the allies who are their advocates. An important step is working to ensure that our library spaces are safe and welcoming for people of all identities by cementing trans inclusion as a cornerstone of our DEIA policies. We can and should reexamine our library policies to pinpoint areas in which we might improve, for instance by introducing gender-neutral language where appropriate or diversifying our collections. Internally, we must also ensure that our libraries are safe and inclusive workplaces for our nonbinary colleagues. Further, as stewards of public knowledge, librarians can and should educate our academic communities and the broader public to become more understanding and accepting of the full diversity of gender identities through LibGuides, exhibits, archives, and reading lists. With a wealth of information now available on the history of nonbinary gender identities, there is plenty of knowledge out there for people to learn from, but our patrons and community members may need help accessing it.

People who cannot help but be themselves, even if it breaks established rules and social norms, have historically been pushed to the fringes of society, where the lucky ones find community with others who have been similarly marginalized. But instead of continuing to banish nonbinary people to the fringes, what if we learn from society’s failed eradication of left-handedness, stigmatizing a trait and pretending that will make it disappear? We can choose to counteract that stigma by learning and educating others about nonbinary and gender-nonconforming identities, and as librarians we are especially well positioned to help foster better understanding. We must investigate the ways we (wittingly or unwittingly) reinforce and reproduce a set of cultural norms that cause significantly more harm than good, and we must work to undo these harmful standards. 

Profile photo of Sam Berry-Sullivan

About the author:

Sam Berry-Sullivan is a white, nonbinary, neurodivergent academic librarian who leverages their privilege and unique experience of the world to advocate for diversity and equity in librarianship, higher education, and health sciences, for which Sam is subject liaison.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.