The Measure of Our Lives Gender and the English Language

Gender is a complex system that has more to do with society, culture and time periods than it has to do with biology.

October, 2019: Aké Festival, Mike Adenuga Centre, Lagos. There I was sitting in the audience in that elegant air-conditioned hall. The lights were dim. Behind me, the crowd seemed to stretch into infinite darkness. Four people sat on the stage, bright and pretty, with rays of light glistening softly off their skins and clothes. They were talking about gender for a panel titled, ‘The Gender Binary and Everything in Between.’

It was midday. Before the hour was over, I would be out as a non-binary person in this gathering of about a hundred people.

Coming out was not a difficult decision to make. In the months leading up to that moment, I had begun to map an identity outside of the binary—outside of the limitations of man and woman—determined to represent myself more honestly. That was why I had been excited to attend this discussion about gender, thinking that, finally, I was being seen.

But I was disappointed. I admit, too, that I was slightly annoyed. A well-meaning panel, without quite meaning to, had failed to include me.

The aim of the panel was to explore less mainstream gender identities. Two intersex persons, one trans man, and one cis woman who served as moderator sat on the stage to speak on thisquite a diverse group but not one sufficiently inclusive, for it failed to include a non-binary person. Through the entire length of the conversation, the non-binary gender was conspicuously absent, not explored, not cited or even vaguely alluded to. I thought, how can you talk about ‘gender binary and everything in-between’ and not have a non-binary person present in the conversation?

The only explanation I could gather for the blatant omission led me to blame the contraptions of the English language, which fails to adequately capture people like me. English practises a general othering (at best) and erasure (at worst) of the non-binary gender. I knew this, being a student of language, and it occurred to me that perhaps language may have a part to play in this erasure, since it largely determines how we think and talk about gender.

And so, at Aké, when it was time to take questions, I deployed my own language to assert my presence. I, seated in the audience, raised my hand and said, inserting a tiny tinge of hurt into my throat, that I was non-binary.


One day in the kitchen earlier this year, as I was trying to make spaghetti for my friend who was visiting, he bemoaned his inability to cook. Then, my mother made a comment about how in this house there were no men, only women, meaning that everyone in the house could cook. It was true, of course—all of me and my brother and sister, my cousins (two of them male) can cook. But what struck me about what my mother said that day, more than the improper assignment of gender roles, was how casually what she said participates in and fosters the binary way of thinking about gender.  For her, there were men and there were women; and women could cook but men could not. And the most radical reality she could imagine was one characterized by playing around or switching between those two genders, where men who can cook are women. It is so casual, so natural-seeming that it could never occur to her that there is something problematic about this; that there are people who are neither men nor women. It is literally impossible. She cannot imagine it, because the world she lives in is created by a language that approaches gender strictly as either/or.

Many of us Nigerians have taken on the English language as our primary language, but English is steeped in the binary. It fails to provide the necessary tools for its users to imagine such a gender that exists outside the binary as the non-binary gender.

And therein lies perhaps the greatest issue that non-binary people face in English: erasure. Cis people—people whose gender identities match their birth-assigned sexual categories—do not have this problem because they are the centre anyway, the most visible. Transgender binary people do not have this problem because they still exist within legible and intelligible binary structures: ‘male-to-female’, ‘female-to-male’. In a 2020 feature for NewsWire Nigeria, writer, Vincent Desmond, explains, ‘…for many Nigerians, trans-ness is usually equated to being a transwoman, and…the concept of being non-binary typically exists outside the mental reality of many Nigerians.’

So, yes, this erasure is a problem painfully specific to non-binary people, and it is serious because how can we even begin to talk about our rights if we cannot even convince you that we exist, if no one, not even our language, sees us?

I have always thought that the common functional assessment of language as a tool of communication and reservoir for culture is incomplete, since language enables us, first of all, to create the world and situate ourselves within it. Language is how we understand the world; without it we would not be able to conceive of the world, to simplify it, to rationalize it, to piece it all together. That is why it is hard to imagine that life exists outside of language, or that there are certain things our language simply does not make provisions for.

Take the colour blue, for example; its history illustrates this constructive function of language. In about 2200 BC, Egyptians invented the colour dye and the word for it when they started making blue pigment, which is considered the first synthetic pigment. They ground copper, lime, silica, and alkali, then heated it to up to 900 degrees Celsius. They called it ‘irtiu’, and held it in high esteem, using it to symbolize fertility, birth, and rebirth. Before this period, there was no word for blue in any language, which is also a way of saying it did not exist for humans.

In 2006, a team of four researchers published, ‘Colour categories and category acquisition in Himba and English’, a study on linguistic relativity from the perspective of colours. They visited the ancient Himba tribe of Namibia whose language had no word for blue but several for different shades of green. The researchers showed the Himba people a blue square along with eleven green ones arranged in a circle and asked them to pick the different one. They could not. To them, there was no difference between the blue and green squares. Since the Himba did not have a word for blue, they quite literally could not see it. Their reality did not include the colour blue because their language did not provide for it. Learning this, for me, was instructional: our reality is constructed, and the tool for that construction is language. I began to think in a new way about complex human systems—like gender and its construction through the English language.

I am also interested in how sex and gender are used interchangeably. The two words are often taken as synonyms, even in professional settings where one would think that the people working there should know better—like a hospital. Surely, the hospital, which is a scientific institution, should know the difference between the biological sex and the sociological gender. But the last time I was sick and went to the hospital, I filled a form that asked for my gender and it required me to tick the ‘male’ box. This was not particularly frustrating for me. I was already used to the general conflation of the two words, a lazy conflation that overlooks the significant difference between them, making us think, when we use them interchangeably, that we are talking about the same thing when we really are not.

Sex is biological, but gender is sociological. We assume that gender follows naturally and logically from sex—that, for example, men must be provider-protector since they are more likely to be physically stronger than womenbut this is not necessarily true. Gender is a complex system that has more to do with society, culture and time periods than it has to do with biology. I am interested in this complexity, and in how we use the English language to simplify it, to reduce it to a binary. Especially as a people for whom the English language is not entirely primary, but a relic of colonial history that we now use to make sense of our cultures and society.


I first learned about the non-binary gender in January 2018 when author, Akwaeke Emezi, came out as non-binary in their essay on The Cut, sparking online and offline conversations about gender. My learning, followed by a brief spell of research, was important to me because for the first time, I found felicity: the language with which to think about something I had always felt. Before that, I had only thought that I did not fit within the constraints of the binary genders.

For as long as I could remember, people had always said I was ‘acting like a girl’, which worried me immensely when I was younger, because it made me stand out when all I wanted to do was blend in. And for many years, I tried to blend in, to become more masculine. I deepened my voice and forced my gait, tried to enjoy football, did push ups. It was an ever-conscious effort that left me timid and mentally exhausted. It took a while for me to understand that when people said that I was acting like a girl, what they meant was not necessarily that any of my behaviours or mannerisms were particularly reminiscent of femininity, but that none were recognizably masculine. Realizing this, I did away with the binary and tried to explain myself with what soon became a tedious rejoinder: ‘I’m not behaving like a girl, I’m behaving like me.’

But Emezi’s coming out provided me with the specific linguistic tool to put my feelings into perspective. Suddenly, my struggle with the binary, which I had thought was separate and unique, was given a name ‘non-binary’, a history, became linked to the struggles of many others around the world. Still, it would not be until the year was winding to a close that I finally began to deliberately map out an identity outside of the binary. It happened one day during lunch with my friend, Zee. We had been talking about gender and labels and I had told her about my struggle with the binary and my frustration with having to live within a gender that felt alien to me. Zee listened calmly to me, and when I was done said, ‘Maybe you should come out as non-binary.’

It was a profound moment for me, because despite all my research, I had never considered the possibility of living as a non-binary person in Nigeria. The thought had simply never even occurred to me; it would take a while for me to realize that rather than this being an indictment of me, it was an indictment of the country whose cis-heteronormative structure compounded by acute queer-phobia made it impossible for me to aspire to my truest self. But that afternoon, when Zee suggested I come out as non-binary, I took it as permission to explore my truest self.

So, in 2018, on a WhatsApp group for queer people living in Nigeria, I came out for the very first time as a non-binary person. The group members responded to the news well—no one asked me to explain myself or justify my decision. Everyone hailed and congratulated me and took note to begin to address me correctly.


The gender binary is a system of classifying gender into two categories—man and woman. This classification, which has little to no basis in biology, holds these two categories in opposing, mutually exclusive relation. Usually, what happens is that a child is born, its genital area is observed, and based on the result of that observation conclusions are reached about how the child should be treated, what it should look like, or like. If the child has a penis, for example, its clothes are carefully selected to exclude the colour pink, which would be the dominant colour if it had a vulva. And children with vulvas are promptly initiated into the process of feminization. This process may differ slightly according to societies—in Nigeria, it includes practices like keeping the child’s hair long and well-tended, giving it baby dolls to play with, teaching it to sit with legs closed, to clean and cook and have a knack for caring for things. But whatever cultural peculiarities differentiate one culture’s construction of femininity from the other, all are recognizable for their contrast with masculinity. In other words, masculinity is the ideal, complete, fully realized category against which femininity is defined, and all that is not man, that is not good enough to be man, is woman.

The gender binary, despite having no real basis in biology, is linked to sexual binary, since gender is a set of expectations, roles and preferences assigned to a particular sex. In her book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, American gender theorist, Judith Butler, explains, ‘gender can be understood as a signification that an (already) sexually differentiated body assumes’.

But what is interesting to me is that sex, which is also constructed and conducted as a binary (male/female), is hardly that at all, since every once in a while, a child is born that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, does not ‘appear to be clearly male or female’. In other words, a child is born that is intersex.

The lesson to take away, then, is that as a system, the binary is not sufficient to cover the complexities of human nature, and despite our blind insistence on maintaining it, reality continuously presents itself to us daily in an attempt to dissuade us from the binary. And if, finally, we take heed, we may actually stand a chance to eradicate gender inequality. It is easier, after all, when people have been classified separately, to capitalize on the difference and introduce a hierarchy. That is where gender roles come from—they are an attempt to push meaning into the meaninglessness of the classification. But if we are all an undifferentiated mass, there would be no need for this, and we can all, finally, be equal.

The binary is a system of opposites, of being ‘either/or’, and we understand it because the English language makes provision for it: there are the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’, and beyond that, the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ to reinforce them. But there are more diverse realities than the binary, which English does not provide for. There are identities that are neither masculine nor feminine; bodies that are neither male nor female. Like intersexuality, which we often overlook, because the English language does not make provision for it. Yes, there is the word ‘intersex’, which signifies the natural state, the sex, but there are no corresponding pronouns to reinforce that state in our society. And so, it is tucked away behind the stiff curtains of the binary, present but not seen, never considered equally legitimate, forever maligned. And this translates into how intersexual realities are treated in society. Most children born intersex are made to go through sex-assigning surgeries, so they end up either as man or woman, he or she. So much work to make reality correspond with language.

Even so, concerning sex-assigning surgeries, ‘gender-assigning’ is a more accurate term, since what is in question is really gender, and ‘sex-assigning’ implies wrongly that there is an absence of sex in the first place. And, in any case, the term ‘gender-assigning’ is interesting, because it says something about how we ought, but fail, to think about gender.


In her Nobel Prize lecture, Toni Morrison writes: ‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’ I wonder, what does Morrison mean when she says, ‘we do language’? Perhaps that language is an activity? A system all on its own, immensely central to how we live and how we will die? A living thing, like a little bird, that can take ill and die? —for it is possible for language to die. According to Morrison, a dead language is one that has no ‘desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance’, all of which can be observed in how mainstream English speakers conceptualize gender. But the death of English, characterized majorly by the hegemony of the binary pronouns, is not accidental. It is systematically orchestrated, necessitated by its very own nefarious benefits, for, as Morrison sagely writes, a dead language ‘is not without effect, for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences.’ Putting this in mind, it becomes easy to see that a generally patriarchal, cis-heteronormative world, through a vicious blend of carelessness, hate, and ignorance, is responsible for bringing the English language to this dire condition.


Morrison’s Nobel lecture can be read as an impassioned call to salvage language from the hands of those who wish to throttle itin this case, the cis-heteronormative world. To save language, we have to start from a place of acceptance. And this is what we must accept: that gender is too complex to be reduced to a binary system. It is experienced and expressed in such various and multiple ways that it is asinine to box it up. Trans rights movementsand the queer community in generalcame into this awareness a long time ago, bringing more efficient and specific words like ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ into usage. But, popular as these words may be within the queer community, they have little recognition, much less acceptance, outside of it, in the mainstream.

A potential solution is to bring the non-binary gender into the mainstream. I have often said, half-jokingly, that I think everyone should be non-binary because I believe that the non-binary identity offers a unique position from which to tackle the problems of the binary. Think of the non-binary gender: as an identity that has not been constructed in the way that binary identities have over centuries; as still open, still flexible, capable of being moulded into various and multiple shapes. It is truly, genuinely free. Inside it, you can be whatever you want. There are no worries about boundaries and restrictions because there are no boundaries or restrictions. There is only freedom. And even better, the language of the non-binary identity reinforces this freedom.

On the semantic level, the word ‘non-binary’ signifies a reaction, a rejection of the binary, as the prefix ‘non’ is used to establish a relationship marked by negation or opposition to its subject. It does not establish a new monolithic addition: the non-binary gender is a large umbrella that contains multiple identities. Also, the most common English pronouns of the non-binary gender are ‘they’ and ‘them’, gender-neutral pronouns that have in fact been used as singular pronouns for centuries, long before the current gender-sensitive adoption. One of the benefits of this is that there is less focus on binary specificity, and thus on stereotypes and expectations. In other words, if the categories of man and woman are abolished, or at least considerably decentralized, all the psychological and social baggage that come with these categories will cease to exist.


We must ask certain critical questions of gender as it is understood in the mainstream. Like, why do we continue to construct gender as a binary when that simply is insufficient? How much better off would we be without the binarywould we be freer, happier? Would we, at long last, have created a world that more accurately reflects the human condition, where people are people first before they are gendered bodies? And, finally, how can we use language to do gender better? If, as Achebe once said, history has forced the English language down our throat, then we must use English in a way that ensures the violence of that relationship is not deliberately more generously distributed to one group of people (black, African, non-binary) than the others.

That afternoon at Ake Festival in 2019, when someone passed the microphone to me, I chose to assert myself in that space that had excluded me. I said, ‘This has been a very interesting discussion, but I am a little disappointed because it did not include the non-binary, and this is hurtful for me because I am a non-binary person.’ The hall was quiet for the brief moment it took to figure out the appropriate reaction. Then, the moderator, genuinely apologetic, said that I was right, they should not have excluded the non-binary gender, and could I take one more minute to talk a bit about being non-binary? I did not have much to say, because I had not planned to say anything. But it was a truly empowering moment for me. I had deplored my own language to assert myself in that space, and I had been welcomed. It felt nice

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