Winning as a non-binary person
Being non-binary is absolutely the best. It’s fun, it can be really weird, and it’s a playful identity you can continually mould. But the thing is, not a lot of people know what it is. They know what women are and they know what men are, but the rest of us remain a mystery.
Generally speaking, non-binary people are people who are not men or women; we identify outside that binary. Sometimes we can identify as both, or neither, or any combination inside or outside those two labels. Non-binary people also fall under the transgender umbrella, but not all non-binary people identify with the word transgender. There are infinite possibilities, and it’s a wonderful, diverse community.
By writing non-binary characters and being a non-binary author, all I really want is to increase visibility and understanding. I did consider pretending to be cis – that is, basically not-trans – and maybe if my book had come out when I was younger I would have. But I know that it would be stifling. Being visibly non-binary can be scary, and there is a lot of harassment that comes with it. Being one of very few non-binary Australian authors is scary. It can be very rewarding, too – people are learning a lot just by our existence.
I was worried that I wouldn’t find a publisher for my young adult book, Ida. It really only has six characters in it, and four of those characters are transgender. Three of them are non-binary. I did find a publisher in the end. Working with my editor, Angela Meyer, and Echo Publishing has been perfect and I was extremely lucky.
Very few reviews have been transphobic. I’ve read lots of reviews by teenagers saying that this was the first book they had read where they had come across non-binary characters and that in them they had seen themselves. Interviewers have remarked that the characters have changed the way they think about the language they use, and that they’re being more inclusive.
When Ida was nominated for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards recently, I could hardly believe it. Ida was nominated alongside two other beautiful books, Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren and Because of You by Pip Harry. The audience for these awards is massive, and to have so many people aware of my book and its characters – its non-binary characters – is amazing. The book has had a bigger chance of finding its way to someone who really needs it, maybe a teenager who is having a lot of feelings they have no words to describe.
Last week, my book won the People’s Choice Award. On the morning of the ceremony, all the winners did a photo shoot. The other winners are women and so the photographers kept calling us all “ladies” and “girls”. To a lot of people, I look like a woman. A lot of my work is trying to get people to realise that you can’t tell what someone’s gender is when you look at them, but I know most people assume I am a woman.
I had a moment of panic: I was imagining everyone that night calling us all women. When I accepted my award, would the premier call me a woman? I asked one of the awards staff if they knew I was non-binary. They assured me they did, and they could correct the photographers if I wanted. I knew the photo shoot wouldn’t be that much longer, and I let it slide. Often trying to explain these things is tiring and a lot of people won’t understand the first time you tell them. The awards ceremony wouldn’t refer to me as a woman, and that was enough.
In my acceptance speech, I talked about how thrilling it was to be a non-binary person winning such a big award. Especially when my book featured a whole bunch of trans people.
The next day, the media uniformly wrote about how all the winners were women. A lot of people reading this might not understand exactly why this was so humiliating and hurtful. I am constantly misgendered in everyday life. Unless we know each other, most people I encounter will call me a woman. But the media should know better. I know the Wheeler Centre, which administers the awards, didn’t tell them I am a woman. Nothing on my internet presence says I am a woman. I write constantly about gender identity. My entire body of work deals with gender. In my speech, I spoke about how I am a non-binary person. To know that I was not listened to, or to have people listen and not care or try to understand, was awful. Other writers were saying I was a woman as well, and this hurt the most. These people are my peers, and I wanted them to see me for who I am.
It felt as if everything I had done up until that point was for nothing. I could talk about how I was non-binary for days, but no one would listen.
One of the authors was Benjamin Law, who had seen an article and then tweeted about how great it was that women writers were being celebrated. Several of my friends let him know that I was non-binary, and he quickly wrote a public correction and sent a private apology. He acted perfectly, and I thought that was that.
Soon after, I started to get a few trolls in my mentions. At first it was just a few, and then an influx poured through. I quickly realised that the British tabloid editor and broadcaster Piers Morgan had shared an image of Law’s tweet with his six million followers, mocking the sensitivity of his apology and calling my gender a “farce”. From here, the trolls poured in, desperately trying to persuade us we were deluded and mentally ill and that we were all manner of non-human scum.
I put my Twitter on private and a lot of the trolls stopped, because they got no satisfaction: they couldn’t see any replies that they imagined I might type out.
The Australian literary community is tightly knit and incredibly supportive, especially the young adult community, and they pulled through immediately. A few people tweeted about what was happening with Piers and the retweets began to roll over, and despite me being on private I gained about 250 new followers in the space of a few hours. Two major book retailers, Readings and Booktopia, sold out of Ida that night.
This could have been a terrifying time, but the people around me made it a safe, comforting few days. The hopelessness I felt with media reporting me as a woman vanished, replaced with people realising who I actually was. I don’t know how many people didn’t know about non-binary genders before this, but I know that because of Piers’s tweets trying to ridicule Benjamin and me, more people are educating themselves and listening to people like me.
Of course, I reported Piers’s tweet to Twitter. Of course, they replied saying there was “no violation” of their rules. They helpfully suggested I block him and ignore the people in my mentions, effectively telling me to stop being a baby and move on with my life.
I’m sure Piers has forgotten he even tweeted about me, but I do wonder how he can justify this behaviour to himself. Sending his six million followers after me when my life literally has zero impact on his is baffling. This is not the first time I have been attacked by trolls, but it is the largest scale.
So, it has been a strange week. I went from feeling completely hopeless and wondering if I would ever get people to actually listen to me about being non-binary, to being attacked by a very influential man and realising that my existence scares him. If who I was didn’t mean anything, he and his followers would leave me alone. But, clearly, I must be doing something right to get such a response from people I don’t know and will never meet.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "A jury of Piers". Subscribe here.