Martin Eggleston takes one for the team and reviews Owen Hurcum's manifesto
Our society is binary. From ‘girls and boys come out to play’, and sexed language like ‘chairman’ and ‘manhole’, through different designs for boys’ and girls’ t-shirts, and male and female changing rooms, this is our reality.
Our mammalian binary existence is determined by science and reflected in many aspects of how we navigate the world.
Therefore ‘non-binary’ - a neologism, relatively speaking - is a fascinating phenomenon, and one worthy of investigation. How does a non-binary individual navigate a binary world? What does it mean to be non-binary - is it a diagnosis? A mental state? A physical feeling? Does it come and go? How can it be measured, assessed, incorporated into legislation? How do sports incorporate a non-binary athlete?
I had high hopes for Owen Hurcum’s Don’t Ask About My Genitals (Black Bee Books, 2022). The sudden advent of “Non-binary-ness” in the last few years as a social phenomenon means that there is quite a void when it comes to explaining how it came about - and, indeed, what it actually means.
So this book is welcome and timely.
Chapter 1 attempts to define ‘non-binary’, after which Hurcum takes on a tour of his ‘lived experience’ - pronouns, genitals, bathrooms (nb not toilets - Owen allows several Americanisms to creep into the text), porn, passports, sex, relationships, education and even feminism.
Pretty comprehensive, hey?
Ignoring the cover art (a rather odd choice of six poorly articulated twitter slurs, which do nothing to enlighten or engage but just suggest the author’s victim status), the problems really start with the definition of non-binary.
Namely, that there isn’t one. “A non-binary person is someone who is neither male nor female” is the closest we get. But this fundamental epistemological problem, that you are defining yourself as something you aren’t, leads to an incredibly insecure foundation for everything that follows. A banana isn’t an apple or an orange. Ok then, so what is a banana? Not apple or orange. It goes nowhere.
Well, does your ‘lived experience’ help explain what it is?
“For me having sex with a guy is quite masculine and I feel like in those moments I want my partner to see and focus on my masculinity. Yet on the flip side of this, when I am having a glass of wine and a gossip with my gal pals my femininity is what I feel strongest in those moments and what I want perceived about me. Equally, to use sex as an example again, when I am having sex or being intimate with a girl or a non-binary person it is my femininity that also feels strongest and what I want my partner to focus on. […] Simply, being non-binary is knowing that regardless of how you like to express yourself, or what aspects of yourself you wish to highlight, you are fundamentally neither a man nor a woman.”
Not an apple or an orange. In fact, orange with Joe and apple with Josephine. So both apple AND orange, ie bisexual? No, banana.
From here on in the chapter just spouts Stonewall-isms with little logic. “Some people are assigned either male or female at birth but are not actually male or female, they sit somewhere on a spectrum between these two binaries”. In terms of character, personality, hobbies etc - don’t we all? Or if this is a medical statement, what does it actually mean, in terms of biology?
When we get to genitals Owen addresses the titular imperative: “I am the owner of traditionally male genitalia, this primarily being a penis.” Phew. But also, “this has literally zero bearing on what gender I am.” Unfortunately, Owen goes on to undermine this by using the (rather masculine) term ’junk’ to describe both male and female genitals for the rest of the chapter. There is a lot of autobiographical detail - buying his first dress from Primark, late-night drunken discussions with friends - that adds little if anything to our understanding. But maybe that’s what ‘lived experience’ means, that it must be important because I say so.
An interesting line of thought that doesn’t get explored much is the internal debate between various factions inside the Queer Community. Discussing people who have had surgery vs those who haven’t, they write “People who are fine with transgender people but think non-binary is a fake gender, some of whom are themselves part of the LGBTQ+ community and even the transgender community will say […] ‘OK so you have changed your physical sexed characteristics to that of the gender you were not assigned at birth, therefore you are not *really* non-binary, but binary trans’. They think that you are either just a boy-ish transwoman or a feminine transman because, to them, there are only the binary genders determined by genitals.” A theological schism waiting to happen I fear.
But still, we really are no closer to understanding truly what ‘non-binary’ means. Employers would surely benefit from a proper definition in law, and advice on appropriate integration of non-binary individuals into the workforce, so too would schools. None of that is forthcoming in this ‘introductory manifesto to trans and non-binary equality’; in fact, it is more of a sixth-form whinge than a political statement of intent.
Let’s try the chapter on the cinematic presentations of non-binary people. Owen says these have been around pretty much for as long as the movies themselves have, suggesting Meet Me At The Fountain (1904), A Florida Enchantment (1914), The Masquerader (1914), The Sea Squawk (1925) and Boy! What A Girl (1947). I am fairly well acquainted with the history of cinema, especially in Hollywood and I can’t say I have heard of any of these. I doubt many non-binary people have either.
So what more modern evidence do we get? Owen is very angry at the way the character All (Benedict Cumberbatch) is presented in Zoolander 2.
“The depiction and handling of this character can only be considered incredibly offensive. [...] Owen Wilson’s character asks the question that you would expect: he asks All what they are packing. The fact the script chooses to have a character ask this question of All is not in and of itself offensive, but in a big blockbuster they could have had other characters, or All themselves, chastise Wilson’s character for asking such a question. A scene like this could thus educate its viewers that such a question is not appropriate; it could stop its audience members from asking someone such a thing in future.”
Yeah, ‘cos that’s hilarious Owen. Sure, I go to the movies to be warned about not asking inappropriate questions, doesn’t everyone?
We continue to be hectored throughout the book; the default is always: do more. “If you have a school peer or work colleague who is trans or non-binary, and you aren’t really a friend of theirs, still make sure you are gender affirming and supportive.”
I don’t know about you, but this feels as odd as holding up some rosary beads in front of a Catholic colleague - look, I support you!
Of course a lot of this stems from Owen being convinced that a large percentage of trans people think about suicide all the time (possibly because they are always being told they should?). Suicide, and suicidal thoughts are complex responses to a variety of mental health situations. It is very unwise - indeed dangerous - to attribute any incident of self-harm to one cause.
Owen supports sex workers, hardly even bothering to hand-wave away questions of coercion and poverty, let alone exploitation. Sex or rape by deception, thanks to one of the participants not disclosing their trans status? Not mentioned, sadly.
Porn? Is good. But not the category names - Tranny and Shemale are also incredibly offensive. Don’t worry, that is outweighed by the good porn does: “Even if people aren’t explicitly searching for us in an attempt to educate themselves, porn might well be the first introduction to the community for many. As such it is important to understand the effects it could have on somebody who sees a transgender or non-binary person for the first time through the medium of porn.”
Ok, well, I’m up for it… I’ll google non-binary porn, purely in the interests of research you understand. And do you know what? Remarkably, It looks exactly the same as gay porn and straight porn. Weird hey? Occasionally you get a little story, for example, a boy falls asleep and wakes up a girl. You know they just gave a female actor the same clothes, don’t you?
Owen is disingenuous in his logic too. “The fundamental rebuttal to bigots [who don’t think non-binary or trans people exist] is simply that fact that we exist - I mean, if we didn’t exist how would you even be reading this book because how could I have written it as a non-binary person who doesn’t exist….? Spooky, no?”
Legislation and public opinion in this area is changing rapidly, and the nature of a book like this means that many of the views Hurcum espouses around the 2010 Equality Act, Self-ID and so on are fast unravelling. Recently the EHRC have clarified the legal position, and Employment Tribunals such as those of Maya Forstater and Allison Bailey are changing the cultural and employment landscape. The chapter on Feminism paints TERFs, SWERFs and Fair Play for Women as the most egregious of villains. Owen is absolutely furious with logical, softly-spoken women, but aims none of his ire at real transphobes and bigots. He still manages to end the chapter with “I am fully a feminist”. The rest of your book Owen will mean that others beg to differ, I’m sure.
I do long for someone to properly define the characteristic of non-binary, not least for the purposes of civil administration, like passports. Owen reminds us that Christine Jardine MP introduced a private members bill in 2020 to introduce the gender marker X on British Passports. “Having a suitable gender identifier on our legal documents will feel incredibly validating for members of our community, that is for sure” (Passports are supposed to ease the passage of the individual between national borders, I fail to see how this X will help…).
The notion of ‘validation’ is ever-present in the pronoun chapter too: “We don’t use our pronouns just to be different, we use them because when people correctly use them it signifies that you respect and accept us. Further, when getting correctly pronounced [yes he really used this word] the feeling of validation is incredible, especially the first time it happens”. Yeah, wave those rosary beads at me!
The lack of a useable definition, and the ethereal nature of ‘non-binary’ - you could theoretically dip in and out as you please - just means we are left with the impression that ‘non-binary’ is oppression cosplay. Mayor of Bangor, yet from Harrow, and only in Wales as a student.
He withdrew from running for the Senedd in 2021, and stepped down as Mayor: “because of a change of circumstances in my personal life. After (sadly unsuccessful) attempts to get onto the local property market I have found myself with an alternative offer I simply couldn’t refuse - to move onto, and do up, a 1940’s wooden boat and make it my home.” Any bets on whether the boat remains un-done-up?
The whole movement is the latest iteration of rebels looking for causes; young people on a mission to seek meaning and purpose, and finding it within the headache-inducing colours of the ever-mutating rainbow flag. Stonewall’s children. But this desperation for meaning blinds them to the flimsy logic, misogyny and homophobia - and even danger - at the heart of their belief system.
And Owen? Well on the evidence of this book he remains desperately trying to convince himself of the lie being sold by Stonewall. Don’t ask him about his genitals, or anything else, because he/they really aren’t that interesting.