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November 10, 2020

Living with colonialism: thoughts on the gender binary

The gender binary creates one way of being ‘man’ and ‘woman’ that doesn’t exist in reality. We are judged according to our proximity to these made-up binary models. And there are zero winners. Because none of us have one absolute identity that satisfies the binary system. Not even cis-het white men.

As a Tamil queer person, I’ve started to uncover the impact that the gender binary has had on my struggle with self-identification and power. Mostly, ‘agender’ and sometimes, ‘non-binary’ are words that make sense for me. 

When we force people to map themselves onto the gender binary, the consequences are sexism, queerphobia, anti-blackness and toxic masculinity.  Our marginalisations are rooted in colonial patriarchy. This oppressive system works by compartmentalising our experiences – not just by gender and sexuality, but by race, class and disability too. 

Trans activist, Alok Vaid-Menon says, ‘I was not born cis. I was born. Cisness is not the origin – it is a particular experience made universal as a project of dominance.’ 

In the 1800s, British colonialists set in motion a global, anti-queer ideology by criminalising non-binary existence and ‘same-sex’ acts throughout its colonies. 

In my experience, South Asia’s sex-positive and queer-usualising history has been all but erased. Colonialism is our ‘history’ – but it isn’t historical at all. It fuels the abuse and isolation of queer people throughout the South Asian diaspora today. For the same reason, in my parents’ home country, Sri Lanka, ‘same-sex’ sexual acts, remains criminalised. 

In 2014 and 2018 respectively, India recognised  transgender identity and homosexuality as lawful. However, evidence shows us that changing the law is not a complete solution to queerphobia. 

Decolonising, that is, to acknowledge and seek to undo the damage inflicted upon our cultures by colonialism, needs to be a lens through which we approach all work – including education, health and politics.

As a relationships and sex education (RSE) facilitator with Decolonising Contraception and the School of Sexuality Education, I’ve seen the impact a decolonising and non-binary approach can have in the classroom. It’s life affirming – literally affirming all variations of human life. And it’s the only way to meaningfully address inequities that persist. 

The government’s statutory guidance for RSE is an example where the need for decolonisation has been ignored. Released in 2019, it states that ‘LGBT identities should be taught when schools deem it appropriate.’ This is deeply queerphobic and at once hypersexualises and invalidates queer existence. It’s also  important to note the absence of the ‘+’ which would recognise all variations of sexuality and gender.  

The guidance  fails to mention words such as ‘queer’, ‘non-binary’ ‘pleasure’ and ‘sex-positivity’, but does include information on marriage as an ‘important relationship choice for many.’ And unbelievably, the only appearance of the word ‘oral’ is in the six uses of the word ‘moral’. Ultimately, if we’re not talking transparently about different types of sexal touch, then we’re failing to give young people the language and rights-based information they need to have consensual sex and relationships.

All in all, the guidance is at best inadequate, and at worst, judgemental and damaging. 

Indeed, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ 

Taking a decolonsing approach to sex and relationships education, means it neccessarily includes and centers narratives outside of the colonial, monogamous, cis-het, white framework. 

This year we also saw the Government’s response to the Gender Recognition Act consultation. There was barely a change made to the queerphobic, medicalised process in place for a trans person to have their gender legally recognised. And legal recognition is still not possible for non-binary people and those under the age of 18. If children are considered old enough to know they are cis, they are old enough to know they’re trans or non-binary.

That this country is holding onto its colonial construction of the gender binary in this way, and at the same time failing to include all queer identities in the RSE curriculum is not a coincidence. These are just two examples of the legacy of colonialism at play today. Recognising them as such is the first step towards decolonisation. 

Another example of colonial power at play is in gender pay gap reporting. The gender pay gap for UK employees in 2019  was 17.3%. This means that on average, women earnt 17.3% less an hour than men. Every year, this compulsory reporting receives substantial media attention. 

Overlooked however, is the fact that this ‘gender pay gap’ does not take into account gender non-conforming people. Employers are not required to report on trans and non-binary peoples’ wages.  Advice from the Government Equality Office to employers is to ‘omit these employees’ earnings from their calculation.’ Literally, to delete their information. 

As ever, if someone doesn’t fit neatly into the colonial framework, they are to be erased. 

But there’s been some life-affirming stuff too…

Over our first lock down in June 2020, I found myself in a life-changing Zoom workshop. It was facilitated by ANBU UK, a Tamil-led charity providing support to Tamil people impacted by childhood sexual abuse. 

This workshop focused on celebrating queer Tamil histories and for the first time, I wasn’t required to compartmentalise the ‘Tamil’ and the ‘queer’ parts of me. The importance of this intersectional space which platformed our Tamilness and queerness as co-existing and valid cannot be overstated. 

What followed from this was the formation of Inclusive Tamil Arts (ITA.) ITA is a community space for people of all sexualities and genders, to create and celebrate inclusive Tamil arts and culture. It’s a space for queer Tamils and their allies to meet and continue discovering our queer histories and futures. ITA works towards healing from the consequences of colonialism, including displacement, queerphobia, anti-blackness and gender-based discrimination. 

Working within explicitly decolonising spaces has and will continue to be a process of challenging our own assumptions and uncovering long hidden truths. The aim is that all work will eventually become decolonising in its approach – because our liberation is bound together and  no one has one single identity. 

Support organisations: 

https://switchboard.lgbt/
https://londonfriend.org.uk/
https://www.hidayahlgbt.com/
https://www.anbu.org.uk/
https://www.mindout.org.uk/
https://mermaidsuk.org.uk/

Gayathiri delivers decolonising and intersectional Relationships and Sex Education across the UK. They aim to queer up spaces through making visible the stories of gender non-conforming BPOC who have been silenced and erased throughout history.

Find Gayathiri on socials – @unembarrassable @inclusivetamilarts