'Non-binary' just got added to the dictionary, but there's more to change

Although small, the decision to include the word ‘non-binary’ in the Collins Dictionary is definitely a step forward for non-binary representation.

It’s good to celebrate these wins where we can, instead of always harking on about the fight and the struggle for non-binary identities to be recognised.

However, it’s also important that we acknowledge that the inclusion of ‘non-binary’ in one of the English language’s biggest institutions isn’t great because being non-binary is anything new.

A lot of the rhetoric around non-binary people over the past three years has focused on our identities being a new thing. We frequently see the argument that our cisgender counterparts are not educated about non-binary identities because it’s a ‘new phenomenon’, brought about by the creative industries and ‘snowflake culture’.

The truth is, people have existed outside of the binary for centuries. It’s a conversation that is absolutely ancient – this latest development just reflects how we are talking about it now. The inclusion of ‘non-binary’ in the dictionary simply shows that the way we talk about people who exist outside of gender constraints is evolving. 

With the Hijras of India, and the two spirit communities of Native America, the language has always been there to identify our community.

However, colonialist practices across the commonwealth meant that the indigenous terminology that these sacred communities used was dismissed, and binary systems of gender were introduced as a way to police our bodies. 

So the decision to include ‘non-binary’ in the dictionary doesn’t signify that non-binary people only just appeared. Rather, it’s an affirmation and reclamation of our already brilliant existence. 

We need to be moving on from this conversation around language. Instead, we should be tackling the institutional problems

It’s a meaningful gesture, but realistically, I’m sure if you asked a gaggle of non-binary people whether or not our inclusion in the dictionary is one of the top priorities for our safety in society, they’d all give you a collective head shake. 

This fascination with language when it comes to non-binary identities is something we should definitely all be engaging with. Language is important – for example, in the case of using the correct pronouns for people. It’s significant to see gender neutral pronouns finally being accepted in the mainstream.

However, debates about language are also used as a smokescreen for right wing commentators and members of society to ‘disprove’ that we are actually what we say we are. 

We need to be moving on from this conversation around language. Instead, we should be actually tackling the institutional problems with accessibility that non-binary people face within our NHS, our job market, our transport systems and our social housing groups. 

Although seeing ‘non-binary’ in the dictionary is a small win for our flourishing community, it’s important we don’t allow incendiaries like Piers Morgan to get this between their teeth and use it as a catalyst for a ‘debate’ about our identities. 

We can appreciate this as a moment of historical change, while also continuing to actually talk about the issues and real life challenges that non-binary and gender non-conforming people face every day in society. Let’s not let this be a distraction. 

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