The Nolan team based in Belfast are a group of BBC journalists well used to asking awkward questions. Nolan looks at the influence Stonewall has in public institutions across the UK. This 18 month investigation has already had significant impact behind the scenes in major public institutions. The podcast is the story of how it all unfolded.
A team of volunteers at Fair Play For Women have transcribed the main content from each of the ten episodes spanning over 6 hours of audio content. You can listen to the full audio here or read the condensed transcript below.
Episode 4: Being non-binary in the UK
The UK’s first non-binary mayor, talks about what it’s like to be non-binary in the UK.
Some women have penises. Some men have vaginas, some non-binary people have penises, some non-binary people have vaginas, and people can change that if they feel they need to.
It’s about having that conversation and that understanding that there are differences in the world, and you just have to respect that. And it’s not hurting anyone to accept that some men don’t have penises, and there are also non-binary people. It causes no harm.
But what is a male? If a male is not someone who has the genitalia and the physical characteristics of what society understands is male, then what is male anymore? Is it anything that somebody wants it to be?
Why is the label non-binary important then? And how do you define it?
It’s important simply because it communicates that we’re not male and we’re not female.
[00:00:27.370] – David Thompson
We’re talking to Owen Hercum today. Owen is a non-binary Mayor in Wales. Owen has a lot to say, and they’re going to have a chat with us about what it’s like to be non-binary in the UK.
[00:00:49.790] – Stephen Nolan
So Owen in this podcast, we’re trying to reach out to lots of different people, including people that might not have thought too deeply about this before. So you’re non-binary. Tell me what that means to you.
[00:01:00.770] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Yes. So non-binary will obviously mean different things to different people who are part of our community, because fundamentally, being non-binary means you’re just not a man or a woman. But within that, there’s lots of variations. So you’ll have people who are agender, for example, they don’t have a gender. You’ll have people who are genderfluid. You’ll have people who are genderqueer and things like that. And you’ll have people like myself who use a mixture of these labels to express our identity outside of the male and female binary. And that’s simply what it means. So it’s not one thing. It’s just the way that we describe being not male or not female and being something completely different.
[00:01:41.510] – Stephen Nolan
And how were you biologically born?
[00:01:43.850] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Well, in my personal view, what you’re identified biologically at birth really doesn’t come into it. You can’t look at somebody and know for certain. I mean, some people say yes, you can. What about genitalia? People can have different relations to their genitalia than you’d understand. Some women have penises. Some men have vaginas, some non-binary people have penises, some non-binary people have vaginas, and people can change that if they feel they need to. But equally, the other thing that people say is what about chromosomes? I don’t know my own chromosomes. Many people don’t know their own chromosomes. Really, when you are talking about gender, biological sex doesn’t really come into it. The only person that needs to know is any doctor you’re seeing, in case there’s health risks more commonly associated with one of the … ummm … well not that there’s only two biological sexes, because, of course, you’ve got intersex people as well. But that’s the only time it really comes into it. So it doesn’t really have any reflection on gender.
[00:02:43.290] – Stephen Nolan
I by no means want to in any way be offensive today. So the questioning is more based on, maybe I’m from a particular generation or whatever.
[00:02:52.890] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
No, I understand. And I’m not saying that I found that an offensive question or anything. I understand why you’re asking it, especially when we are doing the outreach.
[00:03:01.830] – Stephen Nolan
Sure. So what I want to understand from you is to help me understand how, if I look at a human being and they’ve got a penis, they’re a man. I know they don’t have ovaries. I know they will not grow breasts. So how is that not a man?
[00:03:17.490] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Well, it’s not a man because that’s not what being male means. There is lots of different ways of being lots of different things. And some men do have penises, and some men don’t. And it’s not about that. I mean to define gender as, do you have the capability of getting pregnant or, as some people do, do you sit down or stand up to pee? It’s just ridiculous. It’s so much more complicated than that. The way it works is how individuals relate to it. And I know that can be a concept that’s hard for people who haven’t ever questioned their gender to understand. People can often think, well, how can somebody relate to a gender that isn’t what they were assigned at birth? And I can understand that. I don’t know what it’s like to be cisgender, just as a cisgender person doesn’t know what it’s like to be non-binary. And it’s about having that conversation and that understanding that there are differences in the world, and you just have to respect that. And it’s not hurting anyone to accept that some men don’t have penises, and there are also non-binary people. It causes no harm.
[00:04:17.970] – Stephen Nolan
But if we are diluting the definition of what it means to be male or what it means to be female, then does that not by its very point, mean that there’s total confusion, that there’s no worth in the word male or female? What is a male? If a male is not someone who has the genitalia and the physical characteristics of what society understands is male, then what is male anymore? Is it anything that somebody wants it to be?
[00:04:53.310] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Yeah, pretty much it’s how you feel inside. And it’s how you express that to the world when you’re ready to come out if you are a trans guy and it’s not diluting anything, it’s simply meaning that you’re just not the stereotypical. I mean, more and more people in today’s day and age are coming out as trans and non-binary because we’re getting the visibility and the confidence and the safeguarding measures to do so. But the vast majority of the population are still going to be and always have been and always will be cisgender. And it’s not diluting anything to just accept that trans and non-binary people are a part of society and as a gender we tell you we are. For example, one thing that gets thrown at us a lot is by having these definitions and saying, rightly, that what gender you identify with is your gender. What about safeguarding issues? And every single country that has self-ID for gender has not seen an uptick at all in crimes that could be related to that. And I understand that you’re not really asking the question from that point of view, but it’s a common train of thought that if gender is immutable and genders have biological differences, then what about this, that and the other. And gender isn’t immutable. I mean, genders change, and there are multiple genders out there, and biological sex really doesn’t come into it. You’ll have cisgender people who are far more feminine, cisgender men, for example, who are far more feminine than certain cisgender women. And you also have trans men and trans women and non-binary people who explore their femininity and masculinity different.
[00:06:19.650] – Stephen Nolan
I’m really interested, if you’re comfortable, in talking about you because you’ve got the lived experience, so you make it real. So at what age did you start? You’re definitely born into societal norms. You’re born into a world where the societal norm is male and female. So at what age did you start challenging that in your own head?
[00:06:44.850] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Well, when I started challenging it in my own head, and when I started challenging it without realising it are quite different, and that’s often the case. So of course, young girls and young boys can present how they want. But I was messing around with gender expectations and gender dress-up from as young as five or six, I remember, and as my parents had told me, but it wasn’t until I was twelve, I started really questioning the fundamentals of my identity. And having not really heard about non-binary people at the time and knowing I wasn’t transgender in the sense of female to male or male to female, I was really just questioning my sexuality and squaring my more incongruence with gender moments to do with that.
[00:07:26.490] – Stephen Nolan
So what’s that mean? I don’t know what those big words mean.
[00:07:29.670] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
so I was sort of questioning whether the reason I traditionally did things that weren’t associated with the gender I was assigned at birth was more to do with a sexuality thing rather than a gender thing because I knew fundamentally, I wasn’t transgender. I wasn’t born female and assigned female at birth, and I’m actually a male, and I wasn’t assigned male at birth, and I’m actually female. I knew I wasn’t that sense of trans, but I still knew I was queer in some way, and I didn’t really understand that as a gender thing. I thought of it as a sexuality thing.
[00:08:02.610] – Stephen Nolan
Was it not a sexuality thing?
[00:08:05.070] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Yeah. So I was thinking that if I’m doing these things that are so not in keeping with traditional gendered norms, maybe that’s because I’ve got a queer sexuality – because I do, I’m attracted to people of all genders. And I just thought it was that. And then when I was 16 or 17, talking and doing research and then about the wider trans community, and then I started hearing about non-binary people, I was like, I didn’t know about this, this is kind of cool. Came to uni was talking about my experiences and people I know who are non-binary said, oh, maybe you should look into it more. And I was like, oh, my word! This community pretty much explains the dysphoria I’ve been feeling about certain aspects of my physical characteristics and the way society has gendered me. But equally, it explains the euphoria I feel when I mess around with those gender stereotypes. And it made me realise that everything I’ve been feeling from as long as I can remember, and even subconsciously doing, was related to the fact that I was born non-binary. It’s just nobody realised, and I didn’t realise until I was 18-19.
[00:09:05.730] – Stephen Nolan
But why does that not mean that you are bisexual? Why is it not as simple as you’re attracted to both sexes and you’re bisexual? Why does it go beyond that?
[00:09:17.310] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Well, because I’m attracted to all genders, because, as I said, you can’t determine somebody sex by looking at them. I don’t see somebody who’s attractive in a nightclub and go, I wonder if they have XX or XY chromosomes, or maybe they’re intersex. I don’t think like that. I see somebody, and if they’re pretty cool, I’ll be like, oh, I have the potential to be attracted to this person and that’s regardless of their gender, and that includes males, females, and also non-binary people.
[00:09:42.810] – Stephen Nolan
But the way the brain works… a large part of us in terms of sexual attraction is by physical appearance, not all of it, but a large part of it. So very few of us are attracted to chromosomes for goodness sake. We can agree on that, we don’t see them, but we’re attracted to the physicality of another human being. So why is it not as simple as you’re sometimes attracted to whatever characteristics a female has and whatever characteristics a male has? Why is it not that simple? Because when you have attraction, you’re attracted to what you can see.
[00:10:20.910] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
I mean, I can’t comment on how you form attraction, and it’s not my place to do so. And there might be very well people that do form their attractions based on that. And I’m not going to take that away from people, especially with a rampant problem of bisexual erasure. But for me, the reason I identify as pansexual is because whilst there is a certain element of physicality in the attraction, I feel you’re right. That to me, has never felt based upon somebody’s gender. I can be attracted to somebody and not even know their gender, because the way that they’re presenting might make me go… Have you heard of the term queer coding? So if you haven’t, it just means the way that somebody presents outwardly in a way that shows they’re part of the LGBTQ+ community. People do this in different ways, and you’ll get straight people and cisgender people who present in ways that might be mistaken for queer coding. For example, might be over-the-top dressing, green hair, just something that I like to do as an outward sign of, hey, I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community. So I could be attracted to somebody who is queer coding, for example. And because of that, I don’t really know what their gender is. I just know that I’m enjoying the conversation and that they look nice, and that’s why, for me, attraction isn’t based upon any perceived male or female characteristics, because it’s just based upon who that person is. And I am able to feel that attraction regardless of anyone’s gender, which is why I use the label pansexual for myself.
[00:11:45.330] – Stephen Nolan
Why is the label non-binary important then? And how do you define it?
[00:11:50.370] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
So it’s important simply because it communicates that we’re not male and we’re not female. It communicates that we are different from that. And of course, as I mentioned earlier within that community, there are lots of smaller labels, micro labels, as we call them, that can be more useful for talking to people who are quite knowledgeable about the community, so we can express the nuances of our gender. But as an overall term, non-binary is important because it encapsulates the broad spectrum of people who aren’t male and who aren’t female, and it’s useful to have that overall grouping term when we are campaigning for our legal rights and for legal protections. And that’s why non-binary is so important. But equally, you’ll have people who just use the term non-binary, and so it’s important to them because it is their fundamental label. They don’t need anything more specific than that because it fits and it works for them perfectly. So it’s about communicating who we are. And it’s also about using that label to form this group. And equally, forming a group of people, finding your people, can be life-saving for non-binary individuals because, as you said, we grow up in a society that does gender things strictly in the perceived two-gender model. And it can be very disheartening, stressful, and depressing to grow up in a system that you don’t think is ever going to recognise you, or you’re never going to be able to fit within. So finding a group of people who’ve had that shared experiences because you’re able to look up non-binary people, it can be literally life-saving for individuals when you consider the high suicide rates that unfortunately form a part of the trans and non-binary communities.
[00:13:22.350] – Stephen Nolan
Are there some days that you feel more male than female?
[00:13:27.450] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
For me, no. People who are genderfluid will have those experiences from the conversations I’ve had with people I know who identify as genderfluid. For me, I fundamentally never feel a gender that’s male or female. That’s why I use the agenda label within my non-binary identity. I’m agenda, genderqueer for me. And the reason I say that is because while I fundamentally never feel like I have a male or female gender, and I don’t have a male or female gender, and I don’t have a gender in that sense, I do have times where I feel like I wish to present more masculine or present more feminine or play up to masculine stereotypes or play up to feminine stereotypes. And this is just my way of doing it. And it’s not like there is the right way to do masculinity or the right way to do femininity. But for me, there is a certain fluidity in how I want to be presenting, but never how I want to be perceived, because no matter, even if I’m doing something that’s to me, really highlighting or celebrating the moments where I do feel that more masculine energy, I’m not a man. And equally, when I’m doing something that I’m celebrating my feminine energy, I’m not a woman. I’m just still me. So there is that certain smaller sense of fluidity, but fundamentally for me, because I’m not genderfluid, my gender is always completely agenda. And there’s never days where I wake up more man or more woman.
[00:14:44.670] – Stephen Nolan
So what legal rights do you think you should have that you don’t?
[00:14:49.530] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
One of the big ones fundamentally, is just the ability to engage in legal documents with our true gender status. Being misgendered can and does contribute towards suicide rates and depression in our community, and not being able to interact with the world legally with our true non-binary gender can be quite triggering for some people, but more than that, it’s about safeguarding. Now we’ve got the 2010 Equalities Act in the UK, and it does include people who have transitioned between the sexes as a protected characteristic. But the same Equality Act defines the sexes as male or female. So it can be argued that we are excluded from that Equalities Act. Now, various lawyers and people who understand the law a lot more than me, have argued both for and against, and tribunals have argued both for and against the fact that non-binary people are already included in the Equalities Act, or if we’re not. But the fact it’s ambiguous is scary. It means that if my university, that I’m doing my part time Masters at, turned around and expelled me on the grounds of my gender, I’d have a case to fight that I might lose. And so there’s legal protections there. But equally, the UK government has literally said it’s too complicated to recognise non-binary people, and that’s just huge because it means, like, how are we going to be protected in law? If somebody murders or attacks me, is that a hate crime or what is it? And UK government would be like, well, you’re not recognised as non-binary, so it can’t be. So those are safeguarding protections there, but equally beyond just the legal…
[00:16:12.330] – Stephen Nolan
But how do you define it? For the UK government to move on that they would have to define what non-binary means. So how do you do that? And Parliament has decided not to, by the way. Do you respect that?
[00:16:25.050] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
I think it’s a shambles that Parliament has decided that they can’t be bothered to respect non-binary people enough to accept our gender is legal and allow us to place it on our legal documentation. I think that’s a huge failing of Parliament. But it would be as simple as just defining non-binary people – as many non-binary people have – as simply, we are not men and we are not women. We are non-binary. And that’s all it would take. And in countries that have legal self-ID… now, I can’t off the top of my head think of any country that has legal self-ID for non-binary people, but the countries that have legal self-ID for trans people, they navigate that legal side fine, because you just tell them what gender you are and they’re like, cool, you’re protected, that gender is sound, yeah, we’ve got your back. And that’s what we want for non-binary people. I just want to be able to tell the government, hey, I’m non-binary. Can you please ensure that I’m not going to be abused because of that? And I want the same legal protections that people have for other protected characteristics and they could just turn around and be like, yeah, we can do that. The fact they’re not is very disheartening.
[00:17:24.030] – Stephen Nolan
But could they though, because for something to be protected in law, it needs to be clear what it is. I’m learning today… you’d have to be… what is it, genderqueer? There’s genderfuck. What’s genderfuck mean?
[00:17:40.650] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Yeah. So some people will use that expression and it will mean different things to different people. My understanding of it – not as a label I use and I actually haven’t personally met somebody who identifies as genderfuck – but simply that means it’s just a way of expressing that part of the non-binary identity. Again, as I said, I haven’t met somebody who personally uses that. But to me, it’s sort of…
[00:18:02.430] – Stephen Nolan
But should they be protected?
[00:18:03.750] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Well, yeah, they’re all part of the non-binary community. I’m not asking the UK government to individually go down the list of how people identify because there are people coming up with new micro labels all the time. And that’s good because it means we can express the nuances of our gender. But fundamentally…
[00:18:20.370] – Stephen Nolan
But come on Owen. You sound like an intelligent person, so therefore, you know that the vulnerability around that, then, if you could have a cohort of people who say we’re not non-binary. We don’t identify with that. We’re genderfucks. Where does the UK government draw the line? Why should they support non-binary and not genderqueer, for example?
[00:18:45.870] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Well, again, this is all about the language games that we play as a community to express the nuances of our gender. And is that a possibility? Yeah maybe. But I think fundamentally, people who identify with the micro labels within the non-binary community – and I know some people who don’t like the umbrella term non-binary – fundamentally, if the protection is written into law as, we will protect people who have gender identities outside of male and female, that covers all bases. It doesn’t need to explicitly say the word non-binary in any legal documentation. It just needs to broadly cover the same definition, and that could be written into law. Such as, we protect people by law whose gender identity is not that of a man or a woman, and that achieves the same thing, and would protect people who solely use, for example, the genderfuck label rather than non-binary. But it would also protect people who do use the non-binary label, and that’s how it could be avoided. I don’t think we’re going to be in a situation where people are trying to get specific protection for individual micro labels when such a simple workaround by using a definition like that is a possibility.
[00:19:47.250] – Stephen Nolan
Owen, I’ve really enjoyed the conversation today and you said that maybe there’s a wider, longer discussion to have and I’d be up for doing it if you are. And thanks so much for spending the time with us. Thank you very much.
[00:20:02.430] – Owen Hurcum – Mayor of Bangor
Thanks for having me on. It’s been a pleasure to provide some information about our community.
[00:20:10.090] – Stephen Nolan
Coming up in the next episode, an insider from the Tavistock Clinic who says he was side lined for his views. “I think there’s always a reason for it. I don’t think there’s any evidence that a child is is born in the wrong body.”
Want to read more? The transcripts for all 10 episodes are available
Nolan investigates: Stonewall. Episode 2: Stonewall’s Schemes and the BBC
Nolan investigates: Stonewall. Episode 3: Self-ID and Gender Identity
Nolan investigates: Stonewall. Episode 4: Being non-binary in the UK
Nolan investigates: Stonewall. Episode 5 – A gender clinic insider speaks out