By Cath Brew
Whether you’re relocating with an international company, as a diplomat or under your own volition, your family needs to make the same decisions – select a country, a home, schools, flights, visas, and a removalist company.
But what about when your child is non-binary?
Travelling and living internationally as a non-binary person has specific challenges that a cis-gender person won’t experience or necessarily even think about. It’s important for parents and guardians to be aware of these challenges and to consider them when preparing the next move. Your child’s challenges may vary depending on their age, but whether they are a preteen, teenager or a young adult who is coming home for holidays, they will be negotiating emotions and realities different to your own. These challenges are not likely to be obvious to you if you’ve never had to think about them – and that’s okay. Now is the time to learn. You’re in the right place.
Firstly, let’s look at some terminology. Gender is a social construct based on what a society believes are the behaviours and roles of that biological sex. If you’re living the gender that was assumed at your birth e.g., born female and living as a woman, you are cis gender. ‘Non-binary’ is an umbrella term that describes a person who doesn’t identify with the gender of ‘male’ or ‘female’. This includes people who are transgender, genderqueer, gender-neutral, gender-fluid or agender. Non-binary people have always existed, but as their history has largely been erased, many societies believe that there are only two genders. The reality is that all people are born non-binary. We learn gender.
So, what does this mean for a family living an international life?
As you prepare practically and emotionally for your move, you might have family discussions, but ultimately, it’s a parental decision. So how is it different for a non-binary child?
Selecting your new country
Every country treats gender differently according to its history and social values. As you weigh up your country choices, try to understand how gender is expressed in each country’s laws and what that means for your family.
Most countries only recognise ‘male’ and ‘female’ on legal ID documents such as passports, birth certificates and driver’s licences. As of December 2022, fifteen countries recognise non-binary or third gender identities (Argentina, Colombia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay, Iceland, Scotland, The Netherlands, Malta, South Africa, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand). In the USA, whilst not accepted nationally, twenty-seven States recognise non-binary genders, six in Brazil and one State in Mexico.
Why does this matter?
In countries that do not recognise non-binary genders, your child may be forced to tick ‘male’ or ‘female’ on official forms. This has implications for how your child is addressed, what they have access to, and whether they feel safe. Being misgendered repeatedly impacts mental health negatively and can make gender dysphoria more acute. If during your stay your child has the possibility of gaining a driver’s licence or passport, will male and female be their only options? When your main form of identification is at odds with your identity, the constant emotional negotiation around that is exhausting.
Further, some adult non-binary children who would normally visit during holidays, may be less inclined to if they feel unsafe or must hide who they are when visiting. Imagine entering a country knowing that you are not ‘not-valid’ and wondering why your parents chose to live in a country that does not recognise who you are.
Questions for you to consider
- Does the country legally recognise non-binary genders?
- If the country doesn’t recognise non-binary genders: Will my child feel comfortable accessing medical care and official services?
- Will they be protected should they face discrimination?
- What genders does my child’s passport country recognise? If we have problems, will the embassy really be a safety net for the family?
- What message will it send my non-binary child if we choose to live in a country that does not recognise their gender?
Some countries only recognise male and female gender in law, but culturally acknowledge other genders. There can be an unspoken rule, where non-binary people are ‘tolerated’. They live openly but should the Government/State decide their behaviour is contrary to accepted culture, that person is not legally protected. In other countries like England, non-binary genders are not recognised legally, but discrimination laws offer other levels of protection.
Why does this matter?
Being culturally tolerated rather than overtly illegal can be a harder life to live, because it is subject to the individual biases of others. This means that non-binary people live with the imminent threat that someone may take against them; this could be as simple as not wearing the ‘right’ clothing for their perceived gender. If they are reported to authorities for any reason, the non-binary person has no legal rights pertaining to their gender. Whilst this may not be a problem for a younger child, by living in that country you may be asking your older non-binary children to live with constant fear and uncertainty.
Questions for you to consider
- In this country:
- Are there safe spaces for non-binary people to meet?
- Is there a cultural expectation of gendered clothing and behaviour?
- What are the cultural expectations of gender?
- Will my child be safe on the streets if they’re out with friends?
- If the country only recognises ‘male’ and ‘female’, is it reasonable to ask my child to not express their gender?
- If non-binary genders are illegal, do other laws protect my child from gender discrimination?
Travelling to the new country
Travelling through airports can be a confronting and anxious time for non-binary people, especially for those who’ve gone through puberty.
Passports and Visas
The 10-year lifespan of a passport allows for a person’s aging, but not different genders without a formal change in identification. How your child looks today may not match their passport photo and may result in delays at the passport desk or even refusal of entry. Whether they have their own passport or are still on yours, be sure their passport matches them and can be used without problems. If they’re old enough, it may be easier to apply for a gender-neutral passport should their nationality allow it.
Body scanners can be an extremely uncomfortable experience for non-binary people. Staff are notoriously untrained outside of ‘male’ and ‘female’, which leads to awkward pat-downs and body checks. Furthermore, a body scanner makes our private bodies, relatively public. This alone can be highly stressful for non-binary people with gender dysmorphia. Likewise, older children who wear binding to flatten their chest or who ‘pack’ (an object placed to replicate male genitalia) may be deemed to be hiding an object through security and attract further scrutiny. Whilst a binder helps staff affirm your child’s correct gender, binders can be uncomfortable to wear on a plane for long hours. A sports bra might be preferred but may encourage misgendering. One might say, just don’t pack or bind, but that’s like asking a cat to be a dog. It’s not fair to ask someone to be who they aren’t.
Understanding airport stressors for non-binary children enables you to pre-empt challenges, support your child’s mental preparation and lead confidently in a way that engenders emotional safety.
In the new country
It’s important to understand how your child will have to live on a daily basis. How will they navigate a binary society?
How does the local language deal with non-binary pronouns? Some like Spanish, French, Arabic, and Hebrew use grammatical gender. Have you considered the impact of living in a language that only uses male and female gender? How would you navigate that for a child whose pronouns are they/them, xe/xir or ze/zir?
Out & about
- If your child is a non-binary biological girl/woman or a transgender girl/woman, will they need to cover their head in mosques?
- Does your child want you to stand outside public toilets to keep them safe?
- Are they drinking less so they don’t have to use gendered public toilets?
- If they’re an 18+ transwoman, is it safe for them to enter women-only spaces? Is it safe to shop and try on clothes in department stores?
- Will a single-sex or mixed-sex school be better for your non-binary child?
- Is the uniform gendered?
- What are the school’s policies around gender diversity, and are they reflected in the curriculum?
As an adult, being non-binary can be a constant stream of decisions to keep safe emotionally and physically. It’s no different for a non-binary child who travels and visits their family. At whatever age, they will continue to seek support from their parents. As you look to move countries, it’s important to understand what you’re asking your non-binary child to take on board, even if they don’t live with you. Being aware of their stressors goes a long way toward ensuring their safety and well-being.
About the Author:
Cath is an LGBTQ+ inclusion consultant, mentor and artist who supports LGBTQ+ allies to step into confident active allyship. She works with international schools on whole-school LGBTQ+ inclusion and helps global companies to navigate sexuality and gender inclusion cross-culturally.