Thoughts from an Uncategorized Non-Binary Person on Invisibilia’s Bigender “Categories” Story
I finally got my iPhone to successfully play Invisibilia, a much-lauded new podcast from the producers of This American Life. Overall, I really like the show, but I was disappointed and even a bit disturbed by the story in “The Power of Categories” focusing on Paige, a bi-gender person. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why I feel this way. The hosts cover Paige’s story sympathetically, and seem to have done their research. It’s for the most part a scientific take on the topic. But maybe that’s why, as a genderfluid, genderqueer, non-binary person who can’t quite even pick one word to describe my gender, it rankled me.
The scientific approach put the tone of the show firmly in the realm of “look at this weird medical curiosity,” rather than talking about bigender people (or non-binary people more broadly) as a large and diverse group, a population of people with various takes on gender and their own lives. While they seemed to do a decent job with the facts of Paige’s story, often letting Paige speak in the first person, they also hold tight to that one story, and a linear narrative of one person’s particular gender experience. The story has ups and downs but ultimately clings to a narrative where categorization–particularly, categorization along gender lines in the system of the dominant culture–is a success. Paige feels relief when she ultimately settles into a female identity, and I imagine the unfamiliar listener is called back to the point earlier in the episode where the opinion of some medical professionals that bigender people are really just “regular transgender people” (i.e., binary folks) is mentioned.
I don’t want to cast aspersions on Paige’s personal story. I don’t blame her for feeling relief, particularly in a world that so firmly pushes against non-binary experiences of gender. But it bothers me that the hosts chose to wrap the story up neatly with a bow in that way, noting how hard it is to live outside categories, without even mentioning those who do live outside the typical gender boxes and the fact that we also have needs.
The medical, scientific bent of the piece casts non-binary people in a very, very strange light. We become part of a broader psychological commentary on how categories work, without much emphasis on how categories are often cultural, or how the human mind has an enormous capacity for re-categorizing, developing different sorts of categories, or shifting from one realm of categories to another to meet actual experience. Speaking on categories in general, one of the hosts notes that when things aren’t organized into legible categories, “they’re in a shape we don’t recognize.”
This, I think, is where Invisibilia missed an opportunity. Because the hosts actually have the pretty powerful ability to reach thousands (maybe millions) of people and offer that recognition. The hosts could have allowed multiple non-binary people to speak on the importance of recognition, and to offer ideas on how those who are unfamiliar with this experience can recognize us. Many of us don’t want to change, because we recognize ourselves. I know myself, as an individual, as a person named Avory who has a gender that perhaps can’t be easily described in categorical terms. I invite the people in my life to get to know what that gender is, and in turn who I am. This is recognition at a level beyond the surface, something that we all fundamentally want. This kind of recognition is crucial to our mental health. It is no wonder that without it, many trans people, many women of color, many First Nations people, many people with disabilities, experience mental illness and disease. Lack of recognition can literally be deadly.
When the hosts of Invisibilia talk about bigender experience, they talk about something that “happens to” Paige. Maybe in Paige’s experience, this is accurately how her journey felt. But it was the hosts and producers of this show that made a decision to feature, in a piece about the invisible population of non-binary people, this one triumphant story of a woman who came with relief to fit into a category again. Something about that decision feels, to me, like a glaring case of misrecognition.