By Fiona Walker
Reporter, BBC Scotland Investigates

25 July 2015

From the section Scotland

Female and male toilets
Two teenagers speak to BBC Scotland about their experience of being non-binary, people who do not identify as male or female.

“What you have between your legs doesn’t make you what you are,” says ‘J’.

J and another Scottish teenager, who we’re calling ‘Fionn’, were both born female. They have spoken anonymously to the BBC about being non-binary – someone who doesn’t feel male or female.

The two are part of a support group run by LGBT Youth Scotland, which represents lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people. The charity says a rising number of young people in Scotland feel neither male nor female.

Fionn identifies as “gender fluid”. The 16-year-old remembers very clearly the first conversation they had about gender identity.

“I was talking to a friend, and said I don’t know if I’m a boy or a girl. She told me there’s a word for that. I think I was 12 at the time, and it was a fairly new concept.

“My gender can vary, from identifying as a mix between a boy and a girl. I’ll wake up and I’ll be like, ‘I feel like this today’.”

◾Transgender – Umbrella term for people whose gender is different from their “assigned” sex at birth. Transgender can be shortened to “trans”.
◾Transsexual – A term used by some people who permanently change their bodies, usually, but not always, using hormones or surgery.
◾Non-binary – Those who don’t feel male or female. They may feel like both or something in between. They may not relate to gender at all. Some prefer to use the pronoun “they” rather than he or she. Other gender neutral pronouns are zhe, zher and zhim.

J never had traditional female interests as a child and didn’t fit neatly into a gender box: “I was having sword fights and kicking a ball about, I was more rough and tumble. And I hated skirts, much to my mum’s dismay.

“When it comes to how I like to be identified, I’m a mix of things.”

J entered the male-dominated world of engineering after school, which made the 19-year-old feel they “stuck out like a sore thumb”.

“Females in an engineering environment are not that common. People think you shouldn’t be here, or you’re only here because someone wants to tick a box, instead of earning your place.

“But also walking around, people sometimes look at you like, ‘are you a boy or a girl’? I’m neither. Both. Whatever.”

J identified as non-binary last year, and has been coming to the group since then.

It’s an outlet for someone who hasn’t divulged their true identity to their parents or colleagues.

“It’s a hard thing to explain to people and sometimes you just don’t have the energy for it.

“Sexuality-wise, my parents knew I liked women before I did, and eventually came to terms with that.

“If they could understand non-binary genders, I think they would probably not see it as much of a surprise. But it’s just the fact they don’t know, and it’s draining to try to explain. I’m not going to at the moment.

“I feel like I can’t be myself in my own home because I’m having to dance around certain things and try not to grimace at certain words or terminology. There’s no polite way to pull up your parents and say you’re wrong when you’re 19 and they’re your parents.”

‘Man in a dress’

Fionn has told a family member: “I’ve told my brother, and he’s quite an open person. He actually knew what it was, so I didn’t have to go through all the rigmarole of explaining it to him. He was just like ‘cool – do you have a pronoun that you prefer’.”

“I’ve tried to explain it to my mum so I can eventually tell her, without her questioning what it is. But she doesn’t understand. I remain positive that maybe one day we’ll get there.”

Two months ago, Scotland was rated the best country in Europe in terms of legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

However, in a survey by the Equality Network, published earlier this week, 89% of those polled said they continued to face inequality.

And transgender respondents generally reported greater levels of prejudice, discrimination and disadvantage than lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Fionn believes that wider society will become more accepting of transgender people, but J believes there’s a still long way to go.

J said: “Quite a lot of time they don’t get taken seriously. The phrase that always gets me is “a man in a dress”, or “a woman trying to be a man”. They’re not trying, they are.

“It’s because it’s so visual and people are so judgemental over how you look. The biggest worry is that kids get bullied, because quite a lot of people do realise that this isn’t me when they’re young.

I think once you change legislation that really helps to change a culture
Michael Richardson, LGBT Youth Scotland

“Some don’t realise until later, when they’re in adulthood, and again they can face a backlash. People say: ‘I’ve always known you as this, so that’s what I’m going to call you’.”

The Scottish government says there isn’t an official figure for the transgender people in Scotland, let alone non-binary, because it’s not something that has to be recorded if people aren’t seeking gender reassignment.

The Equality Network and the Scottish Transgender Alliance are campaigning for a third gender to be recognised in Scottish law. And the National Records of Scotland says it will seek views on questions to be included in the next census – the last one only allowed people to register a male or female gender.

J says: “I’ve filled a lot of forms and it is quite often male/female and you feel just stuck. You feel I am neither of these boxes – I don’t come under either of them – not accurately. And I feel so uncomfortable with that.

“So if there was another box, it would be fantastic. It would be a relief to think I can tick that, and not feel very uncomfortable with it.”

Fionn believes a change that like would also have wider benefits: “It would be a good place to start, because the government would be aware that these people do exist. It would give Scotland more of a view of how many non-binary people there are. We would be able to be more informed.”

Suicide rates

Michael Richardson, a development officer for LGBT Youth Scotland, is involved in the support group for non-binary people.

He says the numbers of young people coming to the group have increased, but it’s difficult to quantify.

“There’s been about 100 young people (in the west of Scotland) in the three years since the group’s been running, who have been in and out of the service.

“That doesn’t account for the young people who can’t come to a group like this for geographical or personal reasons. It also doesn’t account for the number of people we support through our online youth groups and online chats, and the young people who call up to get advice.”

The charity says outcomes for all transgender and non-binary people are lower, from success at school and college right through to getting a job. They say suicide and self harm rates are also higher.

Michael Richardson says policy makers are trying but such a huge shift is required.

“We have really good legislation in Scotland in terms of equal marriage, hate crime law and the Equality Act. I think once you change legislation that really helps to change a culture.

“There’s a huge amount of work to do in terms of work in schools on LGBT awareness and breaking down gender stereotypes. We’re a long way away from a perfect society for trans people and LGBT.”

You can hear J and Fionn speak about their experiences on Good Morning Scotland on BBC Radio Scotland on Sunday at 09:30.