Non-Binary Feminism: The personal is still political

Content Note: There’s mention in this article of the heated debates around feminism and trans, of societal gender inequalities, and of gender-related bullying in schools. I’m using non-binary and genderqueer interchangeably here to mean genders outside of the male/female binary.


Tensions between trans and feminism rarely seem to be out of the news these days. The so-called TERF wars (where TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) smolder on and on, flaring up again every so often, as with the latest spate of articles about Germaine Greer’s inflammatory comments about trans women. The TERF wars fit well into the tired old media trope of feminist infighting, where conflict between feminists tends to be reported far more than, for example, areas of agreement between feminists, key developments in feminist thought, or campaigns about continued societal gender inequality. Unfortunately this kind of reporting seems to be a rather good way of discrediting feminism and keeping people’s eye off the ball of social injustice more broadly.

Over the last couple of weeks attention has turned to non-binary trans with Laurie Penny’s article on being a genderqueer feminist and Suzanne Moore’s response. This is interesting/challenging timing for me as I agreed to speak to my feminist reading group at work about non-binary gender this week. I had already been wondering what wider debates were likely to be swirling around us as we had our discussion, and how I could articulate my own thoughts clearly through all of that. I decided – as I often do – that blogging about it first might help me to figure out what I wanted to say.

What’s at stake here?

Reading Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore’s articles helps to get to the heart of some of the deep feeling that’s in play in these discussions. This can aid us in understanding why they become so fraught, and why there can be such a temptation to polarise into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – mapping those onto other perceived divisions (e.g. older and younger, authentic and inauthentic, natural and unnatural, etc.)

As I’ve said before, I think it’s useful to recognise the ways in which these kinds of tensions echo and reverberate up and down our multiple levels of experience: in our wider culture, in our communities and organisations, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our internal conversations. I’m struck by the looming, potentially explosive, cloud of emotion which seemed to be present as I read the social media responses to these two articles, and which has also been there each time I’ve been at a feminist event where these kinds of tensions have played out in person. I feel the same roiling, sparking thunderhead settling over one-on-one conversations when these issues come up. Also – like Laurie and Suzanne I suspect – I feel it inside myself as I try to make sense of my own experience of these matters, and to articulate it. This fact was underlined for me by the fact that I just spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin the next paragraph!

I think that one of the main things at stake here is the concern that non-binary people – particularly those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) – are somehow betraying women and/or feminism in their rejection of the category of woman. Laurie explicitly addresses this in their own retaining of the political identity of woman, in additional to her identity as genderqueer (whilst acknowledging that any genderqueer folks who don’t do this are equally legitimate). Jack Monroe – who also recently came out as non-binary – reports that they have been called a ‘traitor to women’. Suzanne hints at the sense of betrayal with her concerns over young ‘sexual tourists’ adopting ‘pick and mix’ and ‘hall of mirrors’ identities. She questions why AFAB genderqueer people could not use identity terms that retain their womanhood (e.g. butch dyke) or recognise that no women feel ‘at one’ with all of what being a woman entails (physically and socially).

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What have I been doing? All of the things

Many blog posts are brewing at the moment but none quite ready to bottle and serve. However I did spend this afternoon collating some of the things I’ve been working on recently into the resources space on my blog, so here’s some links to what’s going on at the moment by topic.


I spoke at the launch of the Purple Prose crowdfunder a few weeks back. This book is an awesome collection of British bisexual experiences, with excellent chapters on race, coming out, relationships, and many other topics. I co-curated the chapter on gender which includes a wonderfully diverse range of bi people’s voices. Please do considering supporting the project here.

Non-binary gender!

I was really privileged to be asked to join some other trans activists to go and talk to the Ministry of Justice about gender recognition policies recently. You can read CN Lester’s account of what happened here, and I’ve put up a page including the factsheet that we put together for the occasion: hopefully a really useful resource about non-binary experiences.

Non-monogamous relationships!

Recently I went to a great conference on non-monogamies and contemporary intimacies. It was wonderful to see what had changed a decade on from the first such conference back in 2005. You can see the keynote talk that I did there here, plus some other amazing talks on intersectionality, privilege and oppression, islamophobia, the refugee crisis and more.

Also I’m really proud of the guidelines for academic/activist spaces that I helped to develop for the conference, given how tricky past events have been when trying to be properly inclusive, so I’ve put up a page about them here.

Kink and consent!

I’ve been working with some colleagues to put together some guidelines for kink/BDSM party and event organisers and community members around consent. You can see what we came up with here.

LGBT+ mental health!

Last year I was part of a group writing good practice guidelines for health practitioners and services around LGBT+ people and mental health. These have recently been published, along with some guidelines for LGBT+ people seeking support – links here.

Also Pink Therapy’s Dominic Davies and I published a couple of articles aimed at improving therapist knowledge and skills around Gender and Sexual Diversity, included here. And we’re working with awesome people at Gendered Intelligence to bring young trans people together with clued up therapists. Please do consider supporting Dominic’s sponsored silence to raise money for GI here. One of the blogs I’m hoping to write is about gendered bullying and silence – in support of this campaign.


The book based on the Enduring Love project is with the publishers and due to be published in early February. My queer theory introduction is with the fabulous illustrator, Julia Scheele, being turned into comic form (do buy Julia’s collection of comics on identities in the meantime). And Justin Hancock and I are writing about sex together once a week for our sex advice book. Along with an edited collection on non-binary genders, both of these are due out in late 2016. Meanwhile check out Justin’s piece in the Guardian, and the amazing new sex and relationship eduction resources which he’s produced with Durex (which I had a small hand in).

New vids: Key ideas in therapy

The excellent folks at the Open University have just helped me and a couple of colleagues – Naomi Moller and Andreas Vossler – to put together these three animations of key ideas in therapy.

We all teach on the counselling course at the OU, and we wanted to capture some of the most important things about this topic for people who don’t know much about it. When we’re struggling many of us turn to a counsellor or psychotherapist, but often without knowing much about what they do, or why.

The research that has been done on counselling has found that the most important thing in determining how successful it is is the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t matter so much what approach the therapist takes, or what training they’ve had, but whether there’s a good rapport between them and the client. That’s why it’s always a good idea to shop around for a counsellor you feel you could develop a good relationship with.

Another thing that research has found is that clients who do well in therapy often pause and check in with themselves before telling the counsellor what’s going on for them. This is a kind of being present with their experience. Approaches such as mindfulness and focusing try to help us to cultivate the capacity to be more present to what is going on with us, and to stay with difficult feelings rather than running away from them, or acting out of them.

Finally, a lot of western psychotherapy has focused on individual people: working with clients one-to-one. One problem with this is that it can give us the impression that any difficulties or mental health issues that we have are completely internal: caused by problems within us that need to be fixed. Systemic therapists have pointed out that many of our struggles are much more about the dynamics between us in our relationships, families, and communities, and about the messages that we receive from wider culture.

I hope you enjoy the videos and find them a useful way in to understanding a bit more about counselling and psychotherapy.

Coming out day: Non-binary gender Q&A

Today is international coming out day. I wasn’t planning to write anything for the occasion because I’m in the extremely fortunate position of already being out about everything about myself that matters. It’s a real privilege that I don’t face any threats to my employment, relationships, or physical or mental well-being for being out about my sexuality, gender, relationships, and emotional struggles.


That hasn’t always been the case for me, and it’s also vital to remember that it very much isn’t the case for everyone. Part of the reason that it’s important that people are out about their experiences in these areas (and others) is that it helps to create the circumstances in which it is safer for other people to be open about all that they are too. Nobody should ever be pressured to be out when it doesn’t feel safe enough for them.

However, I have noticed recently that – despite me being open about it – some people seem to struggle to remember, and to understand, my non-binary gender. So here’s a Q&A to make it clearer.

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Bi Visibility Day

September 23rd is bi visibility day: something I’ve written about here before. This year I thought I’d post a Q&A I did recently on the topic of bi visibility to say why I think it’s still so important. You can also read a lot more on this topic over on the BiUK website and in The Bisexuality Report.


Why do you think that most research shows that bisexual people are struggling compared to lesbian, gay and straight people?

It seems highly likely that a major reason for this is bi invisibility. Bi people are marginalised in similar ways to lesbian and gay people, for their same-sex attraction, but they also experience something additional to this which is their invisibility – or erasure – in popular culture. Lesbian and gay people are rarely questioned as to whether they are really lesbian/gay. Also generally, once they have come out, people accept that their sexual identity is what they’ve said it is.

For bisexual people however, the experience of coming out is one of continued questioning, suspicion and even re-closeting (people assuming they must really be gay or straight). Bi people also experience double discrimination (from both straight and gay communities) which can lead to a sense of isolation or having no home or sense of belonging. Often bi people turn to LGBT communities when they have experienced biphobia and homophobia, only to find that they are rejected there too.

These things all tap into a couple of major elements of common mental health difficulties: self-criticism and alienation. Bi people are encouraged to doubt and criticise themselves, and they often feel very alone.

Of course the wider reasons for bi invisibility are the binary assumptions our culture has about sexuality and gender: that people are seen as gay or straight (and male or female).

What do you think the goals of bisexual activism and the bisexual movement should be?

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Sex and gender beyond the binary

This week Ladybeard magazine published a piece that a wrote for them on thinking in non-binary ways about sex, sexuality and gender.

This seems particularly relevant this week given that the papers have been full of the YouGov survey findings that nearly half of 18-24 years-olds consider themselves as something other than straight or gay.

Here’s the Ladybeard article

Why are trans and bi generally so invisible in mainstream media, and so problematic when they are represented? One major reason is that they trouble the binary ways in which we are encouraged to see the world: people are male or female, straight or gay. They are born that way, and they stay that way. So we are told.

Of course bi and trans experiences differ greatly. However, research in these areas has highlighted the common ways in which these groups suffer in light of a mainstream binary perspective. There is the consistent media erasure of each experience, and the suspicion (‘you must really be X’, ‘you can’t really be Y’), and double discrimination from either side of the binary toward such groups that can mean they have no real sense of community. Read more…

Polyamory book reviews: Useful ideas for all relationships

(Also published over on Polyamory in the News)

I was excited to be asked by the excellent people at Thorntree Press to review two new books about polyamory: Franklin Veaux’s memoir – The Game Changer – and Elisabeth Sheff’s edited collection of poly lives – Stories from the Polycule. These books are particularly interesting given that the authors – Franklin and Elisabeth – have previously been responsible for two of the most important books on polyamory in recent years: One is probably the best self-help style book on polyamory currently available, and the other is the most in-depth academic study of polyamorous families to date. The former is More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert – the same title as Franklin’s successful blog. The latter is The Polyamorist Next Door by Elisabeth Sheff who writes the Psychology Today column of the same name.

So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read the latest outputs by these two authors. On reading them I found that they were just as interesting as the books that preceded them. To summarise briefly, The Game Changer is an in-depth exploration of one person’s experience of shifting from a fairly hierarchical to a more egalitarian version of polyamory. Stories from the Polycule is an accessible collection of all kinds of experiences of open non-monogamy.

Together these books provide both a rich description of one person’s lived experience of polyamory, as well as a sense of the diversity of experiences that are possible within open non-monogamy. This is important because many popular accounts of polyamory tend to focus on rather similar narratives. As with many marginalised groups, poly people generally tell a public story which challenges common prejudices against them. So, for example, we often hear poly stories that contradict the stereotypes that polyamory is all about sex (by focusing on love), that it’s doomed to failure (by focusing on long term relationships), and that it’s weird (by focusing on the kinds of poly that are closest to monogamy).

This is very understandable in a world where poly people are still stigmatised and afforded few legal rights. However it means that the accounts we hear can be rather shallow, sterile, and samey. It was very refreshing – therefore – to read Franklin’s story of both the pains and pleasures of polyamory and alternatives to more conventional forms of poly; and to read about the ups and downs of poly, the sexual side of relationships, and the multiplicity of possible constellations, in Elisabeth’s collection.

These books offer exciting alternatives to the ‘one true way’ versions of polyamory that can be found in some poly communities, and the search for a universal explanation for why people are poly that are often found in academic work on the subject.

I’ll now go on to say a bit more about each book in turn, with a particular focus on why I think they offer something to our understanding of all relationships, not just polyamorous ones.

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Why be normal? Podcast goes live

Earlier this year I spoke at a panel at the SICK! Festival about normal sex: why people want so much to be normal, and why the struggle to be normal often makes people suffer more, rather than less.


I wrote an article for SICK! on this tpoic which you can read here (and which may soon be developed into a short book – you heard it here first!)

Also the festival have now published the podcast of our debate including some very interesting discussions about same-sex marriage and sexual ‘dysfunction’, amongst other topics.

Inside Out: Getting in Touch with Our Emotions

This weekend I saw the new Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. I’m a big fan of Pixar already, particularly because their previous films have explored huge existential themes like death and the meaning of life, and because they often celebrate friendship and chosen families rather than the romantic relationships and biological families that so much mainstream media focuses on. That’s a big deal in a set of films that are also massively accessible and entertaining for children and adults alike.

When I saw that the main characters in Inside Out were a person’s emotions I knew that I absolutely had to go see it. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact several times I was moved to tears by how familiar the experiences were, and by this hugely important, complex, and rarely-expressed message being communicated so simply and profoundly in a ‘kid’s film’.

If you’d rather not be spoilered for the movie then please do go see it before reading the rest of this post. Also do be aware that it may well tap into lots of different emotions as you’re watching it – if you’re anything like me – not just the joyful ones. As we’ll go on to see that may not be a bad thing!

The rest of this post is divided into three sections:

  • Experiencing all of our emotions
  • Shutting down our emotions
  • How to sit with our emotions: A practical guide

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New Zine! Social suffering and social mindfulness

I’ve made my first attempt at a zine!

For the last few months I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the social side of mental distress. It feels really important to me to recognise how our suffering is embedded within our relationship dynamics; our workplaces, communities and other institutional systems; and our wider society.

I often notice what a relief it is for me – and my friends and clients – when we realise this social element to our suffering: particularly how the self-criticism that we do so constantly is something that everybody else does as well, because we’re all in this self-critical culture. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with us. It’s understandable.

This week I’m speaking at a few conferences which touch on themes of inequalities, individualising and intersectionality, and on mental health and mindfulness. So I thought – instead of the usual stand-up presentation – I’d make a zine that captures my experiences of these things, and makes some suggestions about how we might creatively engage with them.

It was also a good opportunity – for me – to get back into making comics: something I’d love to do more of, especially now I’m working on a comic introduction to queer theory with a professional artist. Here’s one of the comics I made for the zine. You can download the whole zine at the end of this post if you’d like to read it more clearly.


For my zine, the comics really helped me to understand how intertwined all these social levels are – as are the inequalities that we suffer from, and benefit from, and the ways in which we are individualised and individualise others.

You can download the zine as a pdf by clicking on the link below. I’d suggest printing it out as a booklet to get the full zine experience – or just reading it online. There’s also a whole book on mindful therapy by me here (including more comics!) if you’re interested in reading further on the topic.



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