Dr Wally Shannon MBASSI ELONG, Associate Lecturer in Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, London Metropolitan University
Non-Binary constitutes an umbrella term designating gender identities that do not (neatly) fit into the binary gender norm (man/woman). Non-binaries (NBs) can adopt different personal pronouns to refer to themselves, alter their given names, embrace a different gender expression that what their sex assigned at birth may suggest they adopt – or mix multiple ways of expressing their non-binarity. They can also, if they wish, add a medical transition to that social one. Sebastian Cordoba’s Non-Binary Gender Identities (2022) addresses the lack of recognition of and research on non-binary individuals across the (Western) world, particularly in the United Kingdom. Cordoba acknowledges that “gender from a binary perspective has been discussed ad nauseum” (p.92) first by pathologizing ‘transness’, secondly by positioning the gender/sex binary as being an unquestionable core element of the self (from a positivist standpoint), and thirdly by arguing that genders (as well as sex and sexuality) are socially constructed. However, according to Cordoba, the latter perspective (social constructionism) also creates binary tensions and operations thereby assuming that “the gender binary is the hegemonic force that allows people to move between masculinity and femininity” (p.92). Thus, Cordoba goes beyond both positivism and social constructionism and examines the linguistic as well as the material settings from which non-binary identities emerge.
Building on Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) assemblage theory – which argues that identity is not about what the self ‘is’ but about what they can ‘become’ or about how they assemble in fluid, exchangeable, and multiple ways – Non-Binary Gender Identities provides an understanding of “the different affects that contribute to the assemblages and the processes of becoming non-binary both online and offline” (p.94). Cordoba argues that non-binary gender identities assemble and produce various intensities that are neither essential nor entirely socially constructed. He develops the concept of ‘linguistic becoming’ to suggest that language constitutes a key affective intensity enabling NBs to become. He nonetheless insists that these linguistic becomings go together with material affective intensities such as bodies and social groupings which are part of the “multiple iterations of non-binary becomings” (p.259).
Non-Binary Gender Identities constitutes the fifth book of the Gender and Sexualities in Psychology book series edited by Elizabeth Peel and Elizabeth Stokoe. The series is an interdisciplinary one which covers areas such as gender, feminism, sexualities, and LGBTQ+ psychology. Sebastian Cordoba is himself a social and LGBTQ+ psychologist interested in research on how gender and sexual minorities apprehend and perform their identities in society. He clearly has expertise within the LGBTQ+ subject area which is in fact his niche. He uses innovative and mixed methods which fully correspond to the book series Non-Binary Gender Identities is part of.
In fact, to thoroughly capture and report on the (de/re) territorialisation of non-binary gender identities in offline and online settings within this book, Cordoba analysed and interpreted interviews, short writings, and a Non-Binary Corpus (NBC). He interviewed 22 NBs either face-to-face or online (through video conference) and questions revolved around non-binary discursive and linguistic usage, identity, and any discriminations they may have faced or are facing in their daily lives as NBs. Before these 22 non-binary-identified individuals’ interview, Cordoba asked them to write a 500 to 1000 words story about themselves. He encouraged them to use their preferred third person pronouns within a few sentences of their texts to index how they wanted people to refer to them. This short writing exercise was mostly unstructured which enabled participants to talk about any topic without being influenced by Cordoba. Finally, an anonymised non-binary online forum was turned into an NBC which was analysed using corpus linguistic tools. The latter generated a quantitative network of non-binary language that Cordoba then analysed qualitatively. The key factors impacting the territorialisation of the participants non-binary gender identities were linked to their assigned gender at birth, their exploration and discovery of the linguistic features that best index their relationship with their genders, their adoption of these features, and their embodiment. Several elements would allow (or otherwise) NBs to be safely out such as their class, education, race, and presentation. Misgendering was highlighted as one of the main sources of distress for the participants especially when it came from friends, immediate family members, and LGBTQ+ groups.
The crucial strength of this book is its methodological design which I found quite innovative. It was interesting to read a book tapping into gender and queer studies merging both linguistic and material realities thereby effectively addressing the binary operations social constructionism often claims to address. My only concern (which Cordoba himself highlighted as a limitation of his research) is the lack of diversity (class, race, education) of those who were involved in the interviews and short writings. Overall, it is nonetheless and important book which contribution and findings are relevant to academia (gender and queer studies, social psychology, linguistics, cultural studies, etc.), policy makers, and (LGBTQ+) communities.
Cordoba, S. (2022). Non-Binary Gender Identities: The Language of Becoming. London and New York: Taylor & Francis. Kindle edition.
Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). London: Continuum.