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Gender Blur

How nonbinary identity became a brand

In an essay for The Cut about their relationship to nonbinary identity earlier this year, Brock Colyar, the magazine’s party reporter, bemoans how they/them pronouns have become “just another dead end.” Like so many others, Colyar initially gravitated to a nonbinary identity out of a desire to disrupt the gender binary and assert a distinct personhood; what they were left with was disappointment and ambivalence. The scenes they describe are familiar, and familiarly off-putting: anyone who’s ever participated in a group pronoun-sharing exercise or read “she/her” in their extremely cisgender boss’s email signature can attest to how silly and patronizing the whole process often feels, especially if you’re the only trans person in the room.

“If this is a step toward some other utopic, gender-blurred society,” Colyar writes, “when did it start to alienate me?” It’s a good question, and I share Colyar’s irritation with how nonbinary identity feels like it has become little more than grist for human resource exercises and marketing decks. But Colyar’s impulse to pin these shortcomings on the very concept of pronouns themselves, on the campus social justice warriors who championed them, or even on conservatives, misses the mark. We got stuck with this particular version of nonbinary identity—singularly focused on pronouns, clumsy corporate integration, and iconoclastic affect—because nonbinary identity has become a brand. It is both a way of being in the world and an empty signifier, one that companies, advertisers, and influencers alike can take on and off at will in order to pantomime radicalism, even while remaining largely uninvested in material political change. The disenchantment arises from the dissonance between these idealistic aspirations and these limited political demands.

This is the first essay I’ve written in 2022. I’ve been taking a break from freelance writing. Back when I was first trying to make it as both a writer and as a trans person, it became both necessary and expedient for me to actively name and frame my point of view as specifically transgender. This perspective, though accurate and genuinely felt, became the only way to be seen and heard as someone with anything to say in a crowded freelance ecosystem. It was my life, but it was also my capital-I identity, my POV, and ultimately, the position that I was entrusted (demanded?) to represent.

I imagine that I’m not alone in this experience. Roughly a decade ago, as established media companies scrambled for a foothold with Gen Z adults—one in five of whom reportedly identify as queer—they began launching LGBTQ-focused publications. Within a few years, Huffington Post, Slate, BuzzFeed News, and NBC News all started their own LGBTQ content verticals. In 2017, Grindr launched INTO, a “digital magazine for the modern queer world.” That same year also saw the launch of Condé Nast’s them; new ownership and brand refreshes for Out Magazine and The Advocate; and, infamously, Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik’s “gender-fluid” Vogue photoshoot. A new generation of queer writers and “content creators” was, allegedly, being given the chance to establish itself.

Language that embraced “fluidity” and eschewed “labels” became a handy way for these outlets to dabble in transgressive aesthetics without staking any claim to material politics

Many of these new verticals and publications adopted the same strategy: churning out “identity-driven” narratives that remained, first and foremost, palatable to advertisers, investors, and search engines. Anything hostile to these forces was uniformly edited out—or never considered in the first place. Endless listicles, sponsored content, and analysis of queer representation in the latest Netflix offering prevailed instead. Nothing truly rebellious or groundbreaking ever made the cut, even as the tonal thrust of these publications was self-consciously politicized to the point of polemic. Language that embraced “fluidity” and eschewed “labels” became a handy way for these outlets—and the celebrities who appeared in their pages—to dabble in transgressive aesthetics without staking any claim to material politics. All the while, tech platforms like Meta, Google, and Twitter were mining every interaction for profit.

This context is important because it helps to explain why nonbinary identity’s major influencers have such difficulty articulating a set of demands beyond mere representation and inclusion, and struggle to locate a stable “community” beyond their own followers and subscribers. Whereas gender transition is heavily policed and often prohibitively expensive, the image of nonbinary identity as seen through the eyes of legacy media and their advertisers is unencumbered by the political, economic, and social burdens associated with changing one’s sex, and it entails little more than securing a nail polish sponsorship. Though trans and nonbinary identity obviously go hand in hand in real life, in the world of media and influencer marketing, “transgender” on its own has too many political hang-ups and too-high stakes to appeal to broader audiences beyond spectacle. But “nonbinary” was new, it was uncomplicated, and even though it gestured toward a “utopic, gender-blurred society,” it mostly came with only one real demand: they/them pronouns.

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson theorizes the development of early nationalism as due in part to the phenomenon of “print-capitalism.” Beginning in the sixteenth century, the increased production of printed works facilitated greater literacy in official state languages (at about the same time as overseas linguistic communities were established through colonialism). Previously isolated and disconnected communities came together through common languages, stories, news, and ideas; a market coalesced around printed works. In Anderson’s words, “The convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation.” In other words, a public that saw itself as united, and could speak of itself as such—with not only a common language  but a common label—was born. These were real people, brought together into an imagined community by the material forces of the market—and that production continues to shape how we understand them today.

Just as print capitalism contributed to the formation of national imagined communities, digital capitalism has helped produce and solidify contemporary identity communities on the basis of shared terms and affinities, even as the interests of capital impose limitations on what those communities can realistically claim to achieve. In the world of tech giants and Condé Nast, everything is optimized for clicks and profit, including our identities. To succeed in this bleak new world, we are encouraged to become both distinct and representative, paradoxically collective and self-interested, in ways that ultimately overstate the existence and coherence of any such “community.” The result is that it becomes possible, and often desirable, to experience and express one’s community as a brand. This is not particularly new; the trend toward commodification has long plagued the queer community. What is new, though, is the relatively porous and instrumental nature of “nonbinary” as an identity, as well as the speed and ease with which it’s been taken up by everything from Gucci to Raytheon to Jonathan Van Ness.

In her review of Jacob Tobia’s memoir Sissy, Harron Walker notes that the author tries to straddle an obvious contradiction. Sissy is an exemplary text in the genre of self-styled revolutionary memoirs of nonbinary identity discovery: in it, Tobia, like many other nonbinary authors, views their identity and writing as rebellious and groundbreaking. However, as Walker points out, it’s unfair to expect a memoir to catalyze a “rebellion”: as she notes, that’s “just not the function of books published for profit.” The same argument could be applied to print and digital media more broadly. Maybe there is a version of nonbinary identity that could be a conduit for genuine transgression. But I doubt we’ll encounter it in spaces, real or virtual, that are created for the pursuit of profit.

To be clear, arguing that the explosion of nonbinary-branded “community” content as the result of a particular set of economic circumstances is not the same as saying that these communities don’t “exist.” I am nonbinary myself, and I came to understand that, in part, through online engagement. But the validity of my identity doesn’t mean that it is not also socially constructed, influenced by the socioeconomic interests and mechanisms that prevail at its time and in its context. There is a necessarily close relationship between material production and cultural products. The problem with nonbinary identity is that it was—to outsiders at least—the newest, youngest, and edgiest community on offer at the start of the latest boom in self-consciously progressive digital marketing, before the bubble burst.

The reasoning is kind of straightforward. Western consumer culture is predicated on exploited, racialized labor, which automatically limits any private corporation’s willingness to take up anti-racist messaging, as the vapid platitudes of 2020 illustrate; plus, the late Obama years were still too early for companies to figure out the right empty words to effectively pander to non-white audiences. The women’s market had already been plundered for all it was worth. Sex change and social change are too costly and too criminalized to rally around; after all, it’s much easier for employers to normalize workplace pronoun circles than to cover facial feminization surgery. If there was any audience worth tapping into, any demographic that could work as a handy signifier for youth, transgression, and unconventional consumption, it was queerness, epitomized by the imagined nonbinary “community.”

There are many things that nonbinary identity “does” well. The term is sufficiently broad and expansive to encompass a wide range of experiences, offering lots of space to negotiate and explore different forms of gender expression. Calling myself “nonbinary” has given me the necessary breathing room to negotiate my gender presentation in a way that’s generally legible to everyone from colleagues to partners to parents. It works as a valuable shorthand for articulating a break from traditional gender norms. In these ways and more, it is a worthwhile and validating label.

All that said, I think we have to recognize the ascendance of nonbinary identity as correlated with a major uptick in anti-trans violence and legislation. Obviously, the popularity of nonbinary identity doesn’t cause trans antagonism. But it also doesn’t prevent it. We live in a strange moment where, in many contexts, nonbinary identity seems so commonplace as to become boring, as Colyar’s essay suggests, even as transgender people continue to be disproportionately incarcerated, brutalized, and evicted. That so much of the conversation around nonbinary identity remains fixated on gender-neutral signage and pronouns proves that there’s a clear disconnect between identity as it’s sold by Condé Nast and as it’s experienced in real life.

We were sold, and in many cases, reluctantly participated in the selling, of a way of thinking about our subjectivities that was inevitably a dead end.

If nonbinary identity was truly as revolutionary as it imagined and marketed itself to be, then perhaps its most prominent mouthpieces would be united with the wider transgender underclass in advocating for a concerted, collective counteroffensive—and not stumping for gender neutral nail polish. Nonbinary identity, signaled and expressed primarily through they/them pronouns and fashion, is both something that must be integrated into mundane workplace policies and also, allegedly, advance us toward the undoing of gendered society? It’s a difficult balance, one not unfamiliar to the gay rights movement of the late twentieth century, which found itself torn between abolishing the heterosexual family and demanding the right to recreate it. Ultimately, the side that was more amenable to capital won out. What makes us as nonbinary people think we’d fare any better?

But that’s part of what makes “nonbinary” such a marketable label. Its very utterance obscures the market itself. Calling something “nonbinary,” in a similar manner as calling something “queer,” positions it as inherently transgressive and “authentic.” A fragrance campaign for a “perfume not assigned to a gender or a time” or “queer space” appeals to a potential consumer’s assumed political sensibilities by speaking to them at the level of affect or aesthetic. It saves advertisers from having to sell consumers on actual ethical practices in the world. Perhaps this is part of why people often react so strongly to the perceived suggestion that they are not “really” queer or that their nonbinary identity is not “valid.” We have so deeply internalized the notion that these labels connote an inherent moral and political orientation that the assertion that we might in fact live outside them is seen as a direct attack on one’s character.

Colyar’s essay is an earnest attempt to negotiate these tensions in the wake of the mess created for and around nonbinary identity by corporate branding and digital media. The failings of “nonbinary” do not belong to Colyar, nor Tobia, nor to any one individual—far from it. Rather, the frustration that many nonbinary people now feel at the concept of they/them pronouns and even nonbinary identity more generally, myself among them, is to be expected when the terms and demands that coalesced around this identity did so in a context of market-driven self-aggrandizement. We were sold, and in many cases, reluctantly participated in the selling, of a way of thinking about our subjectivities that was inevitably a dead end. It was promulgated for profit. If the emphasis on pronouns alone is alienating, then we should recognize this alienation as rooted in a larger contradiction between the interest of our collective communities and the interests of capital.

The task today is to look this problem in the face: if we want our identities to mean something—not just in affect but in substance—then the onus is on us to articulate a material, collective politics that goes beyond pronouns and perfume ads. Only then can we make the changes we want to see, and form coalitions based on common aims and common experiences, not just common labels. That’s what creates community. That’s what wins against alienation.