When I attend events, I’m often the first out non-binary person that the organizers have ever invited. Many times, I am the first out non-binary person they have ever met.
Image: graffiti on a wall that says “Gender Queer” in black text with pink and green highlights. CC-BY 2.0, Charles Hutchins.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer some guidance for a host who would like to make an in-person event (like a conference, meet up, or panel) more welcoming to non-binary folks. These steps may also make the space more inclusive to other trans folks, as well as potentially folks from other historically marginalized or underrepresented groups, but I am going to focus on interventions around non-binary inclusivity. Of course, this is drawn from my own experience – different people might have different suggestions or requirements.
This stuff is important because non-inclusive events are difficult to attend. At the most basic level, it costs me time and emotional energy when people fail to think about how to make their events more inclusive. Every moment I spend educating a fellow attendee or speaker is time I cannot spend doing the work that I was invited to do.
My general advice can be summed up in three rules:
- If you don’t know, ask.
- If you can’t control, acknowledge.
- If you screw up, apologize and take steps to fix it.
If you don’t know, ask.
Part of being welcoming to non-binary folk is to let go of assumptions about how to understand or treat people’s gender. I would almost always rather be asked beforehand about something rather than have the organizer make a guess. This can range from simple stuff, like what things would make a conference more welcoming to me, to more complicated and delicate topics.
As a positive example, when an organization had to book a flight for me, the organizer realized that in order to book they had to provide a binary gender marker. They asked how to proceed and if I had a preference about which one they chose. To me, this was incredibly affirming – they needed binary identification information from me, they made clear why, and they let me tell them what I wanted them to do.
This was much better than just guessing which one to pick, even if they probably would have guessed the gender marker that I chose. Their ask made me feel like I had agency, even in the face of a bureaucratic process that doesn’t allow me to opt-out. Also, said flight was vital for participation in the program in question, and airlines are not known for bending rules. They really did need the information. (It’s not appropriate to ask if you don’t need it.)
If you can’t control, acknowledge.
Sometimes you as an organizer don’t have an option to make a particular part of your event more inclusive. The contract was signed on the space and there are no gender-neutral/all-gender restrooms. The conference chair could not be budged from an introduction style. The sponsorship required use of a space that forces participants to show government ID.
If you have had to make a choice that you know is not inclusive, acknowledging it can help by making clear that you realize the outcome is not good. At the very least, you can say this to invitees who you know are non-binary. You probably also should consider saying it to everyone, but I’m aware that can feel like a big ask.
“Hey, here’s your welcome packet. Also, I’m not sure if this is relevant to you or not, but we were unable to secure space that has gender-neutral restrooms this year. It’s in our requirements for next year, for sure. I’m sorry if this causes you any inconvenience, and please let us know if you have any trouble.”
This script doesn’t assume that the person needs a gender-neutral bathroom, but makes clear that you are thinking about it and will fix it in the future. Do not say you will fix it if you won’t.
If you screw up, apologize and take steps to fix it.
Unfortunately, American society is incredibly reinforcing of the gender binary, so it likely that all of us will screw up at some point. When someone screws up in a way that makes me feel othered or unwelcome at an event, I want at least two things from them: an individual apology, that makes clear that they realize why what they did was bad; and an explanation of the steps they plan on taking to fix it.
“I’m so sorry I screwed up your pronouns when I was introducing you to our sponsor. I realize that probably have put you an uncomfortable position. In the future, I’ll practice beforehand to make sure I get them correct.”
“I realized when we divided the room up into men and women, I included you with the men because you are masculine presenting. I erased your non-binary identity. I’m sorry. In the future, I’ll divide the room in half in some other way.”
Location, space and logistics:
- Default to not collecting gender information from people at registration. If you do collect it, make it non-mandatory, explain what you need it for (e.g., “to track the gender makeup of the conference over time”), and use a text entry form as opposed to radio buttons or checkboxes.
- Gender-neutral restrooms are necessary. It is 2018. It is well past time to make your restroom situation more friendly for everyone. Choose restaurants and event spaces that have gender-free bathroom options, ideally including single occupancy. Or add gender-neutral bathrooms yourself by converting binary-gendered bathrooms. (Some folks prefer the term “all gender”, some folks prefer “gender free.” Personally, I would suggest “gender-neutral.” Frankly, it’s more important that you have them than what you call them.) If these restrooms are not easy to find, or located in a different place than gendered restrooms, include where they are in any printed materials.
- Avoid locations that require showing government ID to enter. I’m aware that there is an unfortunate trend for tech companies to require government IDs to sign into buildings. See if this requirement can be waived for your event.
- Also avoid locations that require a binary sex identification in advance in order to attend. Unfortunately, that can mean that some government buildings that require pre-registration/a background check will not be open to you. However, if you avoid these activities up front, you can avoid putting a trans or non-binary person in a position where they have to choose whether attending is worth submitting such an identification or accidentally outing themselves.
- If offering schwag, identify t-shirts as fitted and straight cut, not men’s and women’s! Don’t make assumptions about which style someone wants. (And offer both.)
Language and people:
- Bare minimum: have a Code of Conduct that includes harassment based on gender identity and enforce it.
- Non-binary people are not necessarily women. Femme non-binary people (people who present femininely) are not all women. Grouping non-binary folks or femme folks in with women is erasing. If you are hosting a women-in-X event, make clear whether non-binary or femme folks are welcome. Do not expect that the term women includes femme folks. (For more information on this, see Kat Marchán’s amazing post on the design of women spaces.)
- Skip the phrases “ladies,” “girls,” and “chicks.” Don’t use biological parts as stand-in for gender: “pussy”, “xx” to mean a women’s event, etc.
- Try not to use binary-reinforcing statements like “ladies and gentlemen” or “we’re dividing the group into men and women.”
- When calling on people whose names you don’t know, avoid gendered assumptions, like “the lady on the end” or “the man in the red shirt.” Instead, use “the person at the end of the row with short hair” or “the person with the beard in the red shirt.”
Everyone’s favorite topic, pronouns:
- Have nametags and politely suggest people write their pronouns. Everyone. Not just people who look gender non-conforming. Or, alternately, have pronoun stickers, and point them out to folks if at registration. Include a “just use my name” option, and an option for people to write in their own information.
- Don’t guess people’s pronouns. Look for an indication (like a ribbon or them written on a nametag), check their online profile, or use they/them as a default. Some in-person events may have to explain to their attendees that this should be the norm. It is better for this to come from people in positions of authority rather than making individuals who want their pronouns respected do it.
- If introducing a speaker, ask them to send you introductory bio, then read it. Ad-lib only if you can nail their pronouns. It is much better if someone just straight up reads a bio then if they attempt to improvise and get pronouns wrong. This happens to me regularly and it’s fucking horrible.
- If someone’s pronouns are uncomfortable or unfamiliar for you, it is your job to practice them and get them right. If you screw them up in front of that person, apologize briefly and move on. Do not just ignore them. If they correct you, take this an opportunity to do better. It is inappropriate to explain to them how uncomfortable it is for you.
Trips and travel:
- Going through TSA screening can be dangerous and traumatic for many trans and non-binary folks, especially those who have had surgery or otherwise taken physical transition steps. Some non-binary and trans people can face significant harassment on public transportation, and may prefer to take a ride-hailing service or a cab. So generally, being flexible around travel and especially around travel reimbursements is a good way to make your event more inclusive.
- Provide individual lodging for people. Do not make people share rooms. Do not make gendered assumptions about lodging. Do not split up people into a “girls” floor and a “guys” floor.
- Many non-binary folks may face discrimination or hostility in their workplaces, making it more difficult for them to receive paying jobs. So the best practice of reimbursing people as soon as possible for travel (ideally after booking, not waiting until they complete the trip) or providing non-reimbursement options for booking may make your event more inclusive.
Are you a non-binary person and there’s something that would make you feel more comfortable at events that I missed? Please let me know so I can add it! email@example.com or KendraSerra on Twitter.
If you’re an event organizer and you’ve found this content useful, I encourage you to make a significant donation to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence. If you would like to have me consult about making your specific event more inclusive, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.