- The invisible obstacles of the non-binary
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Being queer and identifying as part of the LGBTIQA+ community in Sri Lanka can be a challenge and at times even dangerous. Our country still famously criminalises homosexual activity and there’s very little protection from the arbitrary ways of discrimination those in the community face on a daily basis.
For the uninitiated, the generally-used evolving acronym LGBTIQA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, and asexual while the plus stands for the many other genders and orientations of the spectrum that fall under the umbrella term.
While the conversations about being LGBTIQA+ are growing and awareness about it is encouragingly increasing, there are some identities on the spectrum that continue to be invisible, even in queer spaces.
There is plenty of discussion about the LGBT parts of the spectrum. In terms of queer representation, we have lesbians, gay men, and trans folk. While they may be less prominently discussed, even bisexuals tend to have a platform when it really comes down to it – at least in theory, people know what the B stands for.
However, what about those identities considered to be non-binary (NB or enby)? Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, sociologist and LGBT activist Thushara Manoj referred to the those who were non-binary as those who typically rejected notions of static categories of gender and embraced a fluidity of gender identity and often, though not always, sexual orientation as well. He noted that anything that fell outside of the binary system would typically come under this particular identity. Here we finally see the remaining ‘IQA+’ of the larger spectrum.
Before we delve further into the matter, it is necessary to address why identity and these ‘labels’ may be important, when in reality we are advocating for the elimination of labels. It can be partly attributed to the importance of language; language can be really powerful in helping to affirm your identity, feel confident, and share your authentic self with others. In many cases, the labels that we give ourselves can help us connect with others who share the same identity and integrate into a larger community.
Being non-binary in Sri Lanka
Considering all of the above, what is it actually like to be non-binary in Sri Lanka?
Navoda Bennett (20), or Benny, as they are affectionately known, is a non-binary feminine identifying person who falls under the trans umbrella. Benny’s pronouns are she/they and they will be referred to as such as we continue to share their story.
To Benny, non-binary is where “you don’t identify as male or female; you identify as yourself or something in between”.
“How I behave and how I like to dress – that is my gender expression. I would say I identify as feminine,” they said.
Through Benny, a young non-binary person living in Sri Lanka, we can see a glimpse of what it means to be faced with the challenge of identifying yourself, particularly as a young person, in a context where it is almost always required to conform and shove yourself into a pre-determined identity box.
“I have always felt that I was different, even when I was much younger. I did not know the exact terminology but I always knew,” Benny shared, noting that they had always been rather feminine despite being assigned male at birth. They had soon begun to realise the truth as they began integrating with society, especially as they moved from primary school, which was a mixed school, to an all-boys State college.
They shared that as a young person, it had felt as though they were being silenced due to the lack of awareness and information for themselves and those around them when it came to identity, especially in the case of non-binary identities, which even to this day are not prominently discussed.
“I want to highlight just how traumatising and toxic it feels when identifying as non-binary as a young person when it comes to basic needs of love, connection, sex, or otherwise and how difficult it is to let a person know who you are or what you are and what you identify as, because that is, after all, a key point when it comes to attraction,” they said.
Learning who you are
Many under the trans umbrella may relate to Benny’s experience, as a young person not knowing about the broader spectrum of LGBTIQA+ and assuming the identities as they learned of them.
“At first, I only knew of gay and lesbian identities and I thought, ‘oh, maybe I am gay’. Then I learned about bisexuals and thought maybe I was bisexual, but as I continued to learn about the different identities and the differences in identity and expression, I began to realise that I am none of these things.”
As Benny shared, they had begun to recognise their true identity as they became exposed to popular media: “I saw Bhoomi [Harendran] on YouTube, and thought maybe I was transgender, but even then it didn’t sit well with me. However, that was the only identity I knew that best suited me, so for a while I thought I was transgender but gay, due to my attraction to masculine-identifying persons.”
Benny shared that as they had continued to further integrate into society while pursuing their passions – fashion designing – they had soon been able to come to terms with their non-binary identity.
While the role of identity plays a prominent role in finding companionship and in social interactions, identity also comes into play when engaging with society, especially when it comes to one’s security and enforcing one’s rights.
Benny shared a particularly poignant incident where they had experienced an unfortunate run-in with the Police; a Police officer had demanded to search them. When it comes to a Police search, a woman has the right to demand that a female Police officer conducts the search. However, as a non-binary-identifying person, Benny had faced a complicated and incredibly uncomfortable position.
“I understand that it is a complex situation. That day, I thought, what would happen if I were taken to the Police station? I was wearing a dress and underneath I had a pair of tight pants to cover my bulge, so what would they have done? Who would search me and where would they place me? I was very scared. I myself have no solution for this,” Benny said.
In sharing Benny’s story, we hope that our readers may be encouraged to educate themselves about these complex identities. To share Benny’s story was not an easy thing and on many occasions during our conversation Benny was overcome with emotion. Understandably so, as they were relaying their personal journey riddled with obstacles. We thank Benny for their contribution to this conversation.
Perhaps we could all keep in mind that while it is normal to have a tendency to stereotype people so that they become more palatable to us, people are different; they are individual and there’s simply never going to be a box that is a perfect fit. It can be assumed that it will only be beneficial to us when we abandon this futile effort to categorise, group, and label and instead simply accept people as they come.