Picture above: ‘Trespassing the Binary’ from the series ‘Unblocked: Beyond the Gender Normative’. Medium: Digital. Reproduced by permission of author/artist
Non-Binary Existences and Negotiations in a Pandemic-Ridden Binary World
Gender-Space Identities and the World as Binary
We understand ‘identity’ as an intrinsic part of our being, something we assert in different capacities, given our comfort, safety and surroundings. This forms part of the environment we interact with, be it the rhythmic harmonies within natural environments or the pulsating ticking of a clock. In the same breath, gender and space too interact with one another, producing experiences that are different for different social identities, depending on their standing in the world around us. For instance, certain public spaces become sites of male dominance and are instrumental in defining the levels of safety for non-male identities.
We even identify spaces, languages, objects, thoughts and most other things within an ‘either-or’ structure. Starting from an early age, we’re taught opposite words and asked to practice defining things as good or bad, right or wrong, real or unreal; spaces as public or private, safe or unsafe, physical or digital. This structure finds itself submerged within our lives to such a large extent that it eventually dictates our ideas of social existences, especially of those within gender.
What’s a Safe Space Amidst a Pandemic?
Within public spaces, everything is designed to cater to those who fall within the binary and those who don’t are asked to adjust. Frisking points, public restrooms, public transport or trial rooms are all locations where Trans Binary and Non-Binary identities are compelled to choose between two options. Even within ‘private’ spaces, expression and self-presentation is curbed, appearances, gestures and mannerisms are ‘read’ or ‘decoded’. And it’s even more trivial if done by those who they share private spaces with, within institutions like the family. And interestingly enough, reading gender requires only a few basic rules: one should look like, speak like, behave like, dress like, think like, and live like either a man or a woman. Anything outside those brackets is unnatural, and is deemed invalid.
This was also made note of in a design project currently being iterated, titled ‘Unblocked: Beyond the Gender Normative’, where participants expressed the urge to flee from the homes shared with their immediate family members on account of everyday events including misgendering, deadnaming and restricting expression of their gender through clothing, grooming or even the way of speaking. For many, their personal rooms became the extent of their world, outside which existed a completely different reality.
Furthermore, in a country like India, where privacy is a privilege enjoyed by only a few, a personal room is a far-fetched aspiration. Cut across caste, class, religion and language, even accessing digital queer spaces is difficult, especially in shared spaces requiring constant self-vigilance and precaution.
Being restricted to indoors during the nation-wide lockdown(s) along with subsequent advisories and suggestions, while seemed like a necessary course of action, ended up posing greater challenges to queer individuals who couldn’t truly be themselves within the places they must call home. For some who craved the public, the collective, the community got blocked inside their familial spaces where they have long been rejected, ridiculed, dismissed and invalidated. Living through this everyday trauma meant reliving their dysphoric pasts over and over again, sometimes dismissal homes becoming grounds for abuse, in effect, threatening their right to life.
How Can Design Position Itself?
Countering this structure needs to be done through acts of community visibilisation, forms of disruption to ‘Binary Thinking’ and extension of the discussion to those outside echo-chambers comprising the already aware. A constant resistance needs to be designed, given that ‘awareness’ alone hasn’t been able to take this fight head on.
This resistance, while, includes some psychotherapeutic methods that aim towards creating safe spaces within the unsafe ones, design would also look at long-term responses like creating nudges and provocations. The designer(s) should be guided away from solutionism and toward production of cultural lenses to view gender as not just a spectrum but a free-floating space. And hopefully through this, new discourses (larger social narratives one resonates with) can be built.
As art practice intersects with design, it gives birth to a sub-discipline called ‘Discursive Design’ where alternate cultures are iterated through the means of engagement, interaction, dialogue, art and expression. Some such approaches identified are:
- Journey Mapping: Oftentimes, the ‘ally’ and the ‘non-ally’ are polarized categories and movement between the two extremes is stated as impossible. This idea calls for illustrated, written or mapped journeys people would have taken to reach their ‘ally’ selves. When these are archived, our understanding of the ‘non-ally’ would be less polarized, devising more empathetic ways of engaging.
- The Non-Binary in Everyday Life: Even though language, cultures and social systems produce binaries in the world, individual experiences are interspersed with ambiguities and greys that create an incapacity to identify with only one extreme. For instance- tradition vs modernity, religion vs science, socialism vs capitalism. To memorialize these ambiguities, workshops could be designed where inner conflicts are expressed through art and words. Eventually, through these conflicts, a greater understanding of gender dysphoria could be established.
- Creating Nudges through Experiments: Design has the capacity to produce triggers or nudges that make individuals introspect, reflect and/or realign their viewing lenses. Experiments such as amending gender related choices in application forms, exploring anatomies of transsexual bodies or say, disabled trans bodies can produce these triggers.
- Negotiating Spaces (Physical and Digital Journeys): Within public, private and transient spaces, queer individuals are often compelled to make binary choices. The physical and digital journeys taken can never be shared by their Cis counterparts. But the idea is to design interactive physical journeys or recreate them on digital platforms so that a greater chance to understand these negotiations can be made available to the engager.
Finally, to begin our own journeys of seeing differently, here’s a trans voice that echoes through time and again, “Either give us space, or ungenderise the system”.
Natasha Chandhock is a graduate student at the School of Design, Ambedkar University, Delhi. Her interest lies in exploring the intersection of gender and dialogue-based design through art and literal expression. For her final project called- ‘Unblocked: Beyond the Gender Normative’, she is currently designing interventions to respond to the problem of the delegitimization of queer identities and their interplay with space as an element. www.natashac.me