Hen is a non-binary person: what does that mean exactly?

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The sweetest sentence from The story of my sexuality, the debut novel by Tobi (Sofie) Lakmaker, is a footnote. He is covered in an anecdote about Saskia Ketting, the ‘epicenter of the lesbian community’ in Amsterdam. ‘I know Saskia Ketting quite well – they belong to my inner circle’, writes Lakmaker, followed by the footnote: ‘Saskia Ketting is non-binary and anyone who thinks it’s ridiculous is even ridiculous.’

Well, of course it is. But often the spotters are ignorant, maybe they just have no idea what “non-binary” is and therefore do not understand why one should use a plural form of the personal pronoun for someone who, after all, is clearly one human being.

You could start a mini-lecture on the concept of non-binary from biology. But just as well from sociology. Or from history. Or of course from the language. As a rule, language is the best starting point for those who want to find out what a word stands for. But when it comes to ‘identities’, language is much more likely to cause noise and nonsense than to clarify and understand.


It is probably no coincidence that one of the more interesting books on floating identities, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, begins with some remarks on the impotence of language. Nelson dedicates the book to her lover, the artist Harry Dodge, whom she also addresses in her lyrics. Dodge is neither male nor female. ‘They are non-binary,’ Lakmaker would say (and de Volkskrant recently also), but in the Dutch translation of The Argonauts, from 2016 the word non-binary will not be displayed. Nelson also does not refer to his beloved by ‘them’ but by ‘he’ and ‘him’.

When Maggie Nelson and Harry Dodge met, Nelson believed that words can express everything, while Dodge says that words are not only inadequate, but even “subversive of everything that is good, everything that is real, everything that flows. . ” They eventually found each other somewhere in the middle, as often happens when people take the trouble to listen to each other quietly, which in any case suggests that language sometimes clarifies.

So let’s start with the language. The first thing you notice about “non-binary” is the negation that the word begins with: does not is Latin for ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’. So non-binary is non-binary. Neat and troublesome: To discover what something is, you must first find out what it is not. Anyway, what is binary? According to Van Dale: an adjective meaning ‘twofold, twofold, division into two’. Binary is about couples, and that’s where we already have biology, because biologically, the arrival of couples has been crucial to the origin of species. An organism that reproduces itself without interference from another, Other things organism, changes does not. Each new generation is so identical to the previous one. Evolution depends on change and variation, on the merging of the gene packs from two parents, resulting in a unique new copy. The majority of the species on earth therefore have a binary division, namely in he and she.

But: not all people are born in a body that fits perfectly with one’s identity. With which we move on to sociology and the difference between gender and gender. In short: your gender is determined by your gender characteristics. You decide what your gender is (at least in an ideal world, in the real world the environment likes it too). A person can biologically be a woman and still feel fully man. A person can be a man biologically and still feel completely woman.

A person who feels like a man (whether born with or without penis and balls) is called binary. A person who feels like a woman (whether born with or without a vagina) is also called binary. We call someone who feels neither man nor woman, or as much man as woman, non-binary. Of course, it is not always as black and white as it is now: in terms of gender and gender, each individual occupies a different place on the axis of the great continuum. But the vast majority of humanity is – or feels – predominantly male or predominantly female. And for a minority (by the way, still quite a lot of people: 3 to 6 percent of the Dutch) this is not the case.

That it’s quite ironic to put a mark on people who do not fit in a box is another story. Maggie Nelson: “I’m not going anywhereHarry sometimes says when someone asks about it. How can one explain, in a culture that shouts for a position, that sometimes things just stay a mess? I do not want the feminine gender assigned to me at birth. I also do not want the masculine gender that transsexual medicine can give me and that the government will assign to me if I behave properly. I do not want it all. ”

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Picture Atlas Contact

Maggie Nelson: The Argonauts (2015). Forged into a long collection of essays in which Nelson describes the relationship in her life, especially that of her non-binary lover Harry Dodge. Atlas Contact; € 15.

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Statue of Prometheus

Maxim February: The Makeable Man – Notes on transsexuality (2013). Cheerful and instructive considerations about much more than transsexuality. Prometheus; € 13.25.

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Picture Atlas Contact

Andreas Burnier: The Boyhood (1969). For those who think that fighting with gender is modern whining about annoying big city types: the story takes place in World War II, in the countryside. Atlas Contact; € 14.99.

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