From Iceland — Being Nonbinary: In Iceland And Everywhere

Being Nonbinary: In Iceland And Everywhere

Published August 6, 2021

Being Nonbinary: In Iceland And Everywhere
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
John Pearson & Art Bicnick

The existence of nonbinary people is gaining slow but steady recognition in many Eurocentric countries—Iceland included. While we celebrate the fact that Iceland officially allows for a third legal gender marker—X—and has somewhat relaxed their naming laws, most of the challenges nonbinary people face have more to do with the reality of living in a society that only accepts a binary view of gender.

In this feature, we spoke with three nonbinary Icelanders—Ari Logn, Regn Sólmundur Evu and Reyn Alpha Magnúsar—about their experiences with their gender identities, the challenges they face and what needs to change and how.

What does ‘nonbinary’ mean anyway?

Simply put, nonbinary is an umbrella term for a set of gender identities that do not adhere entirely, or at all, to the binary male and female. As it is not a “third gender” but a category in itself, many nonbinary people can have very divergent gender identities from one another—agender people, bigender people and fae gender people are a few examples. Far from being a recent trend or fad, nonbinary gender identities have existed in many cultures around the world for millenia, with examples of such including the ‘Yan Daudu of sub-Saharan Africa, the Nádleehi of the Navajo people and the Fa’afafine of Samoa, to name just a few.

The “recentness” of nonbinary gender identities in Europe and North America is only relative to most Eurocentric cultures. For many cis people in these countries, and even for many binary trans people, nonbinary people are a “new” concept that they are just now beginning to know.

In Iceland, nonbinary people are legally recognised, at least as far as gender markers in the National Registry are concerned. Naming laws have also been slightly relaxed; names are no longer relegated to only for men or only for women, and some gender-neutral names have made it into the lexicon. Still, legal and societal challenges persist. In the course of our interviews, the patterns that emerged include the challenges of living in a community that sees gender in purely male or female terms, the desire to not want to make anyone uncomfortable by simply being yourself, the gendered nature of the Icelandic language and the lack of representation of or education about nonbinary people.

Let’s talk gender

When asked what nonbinary gender identity they abide by, Regn and Ari Logn described themselves as agender—that is, lacking any gender at all—while Reyn was not entirely sure.

Photo by John Pearson

“I describe myself as agender,” Ari Logn says. “I just don’t feel like ‘woman’; it never fit me, it never belonged to me, in the same way ‘man’ didn’t either. Everyone around me sort of linked in with ‘womanhood’ and ‘manhood’ but I just didn’t. That’s the only way I can describe it. I just dress how I think is nice and that’s it. I don’t feel like I have a masculine or feminine spirit, I just… am.”

“I also describe myself as agender, in a way that I don’t feel a connection to womanhood or manhood,” Regn told us. “But I tried out different gender identities that go under the nonbinary umbrella. I had tried genderqueer, which is itself a pretty big umbrella, but it wasn’t exactly on point. I thought I was trans masculine for a while; like maybe a feminine trans man or even androgynous trans man, but that didn’t fit, either. So I landed on the agender term, but it doesn’t really reach all parts [of me]. I feel like I have a gender of some sort, but it’s just really not connected to femininity or masculinity. It’s more like something very different. I haven’t found a term yet. The closest I got was aporagender [a gender identity that is neither male, female, nor “something in between”] But I go with agender because people understand it a bit more. I don’t feel any connection to traditional femininity and masculinity.”

“I don’t really have a specific label for my experience of gender,” Reyn says. “I originally landed on agender. At the time I thought I didn’t really care about gender expression or how people saw me. That changed pretty soon and I felt ‘agender’ wasn’t appropriate anymore. Since then, I haven’t really been able to come to a conclusion about it. I don’t have much of a strong gender identity, which would point to agender, but still I’m not completely sure. It’s a tough call to make. I sometimes use the label ‘trans feminine’ because I think it describes me well most of the time. But otherwise I’m just comfortable with ‘nonbinary’.”

“You see around you society putting expectations on you. It puts in your head that you have to do things a certain way to be a successful human.”

When asked to describe what gender even is, things begin to get more nebulous. Ari Logn describes themselves as a gender abolitionist, citing how the concept “seems to completely control what we are ‘allowed’ to do or be.” Regn believes that “each and every person on this planet has their own gender,” as no two people will have the same understanding of what their gender—whether assigned at birth or discovered in time—means to them. Reyn, for their part, takes a whimsical approach, saying, “I always think of this sign I’ve seen in pictures from some Pride parade which said: ‘People think gender is male and female, when actually it’s just a big ball of wibbly-wobbly gendie-wendie stuff’. I agree with that.”

Getting to know you

If you’re raised in a binary community, how do you even come to understand that you’re nonbinary? For many, it comes from either chance representation, or simply meeting other nonbinary people.

“I never heard the word ‘nonbinary’ until I met other nonbinary people,” Regn says. “I was a really androgynous child. People wouldn’t mistake me for a boy but I felt like a boy most of the time, since I was like 8 or 9. I also realised really young that I was pansexual. I came out in 2018, when I was 20. I was working with children at the time and there was this tiny little child who pointed at me and said, ‘You’re a woman!’ and I never felt so confused in my entire life.

“Then I went into this self-reflection, asking myself if I was being a misogynist, like, do I hate women? Why don’t I want to be a woman? I was a really big feminist, I was the president of the feminist committee at MH [Menntaskóli við Hamrahlíð, a secondary school]. So I thought of course I don’t hate women, I love women. What is this? Why am I reacting like this? This sent me into a spiral of an existential crisis, and was really reflecting.”

Photo by John Pearson

They continue: “Then I met a queer person at [the nightclub] Gaukurinn during the summer, and they were like ‘how do you identify?’ and I said ‘I think I identify as nonbinary’ and it felt so good to say that. I let people use whatever pronouns they wanted, so I was always ‘she’ for like half a year after that. After I came out, I became so much more confident in myself, so I started asking people to use they/them, or hán in Icelandic.”

“I have this memory of seeing Boys Don’t Cry as a kid,” says Ari Logn. “I was just amazed. There was something in my brain that was like ‘I connect to this’. I watched a lot of things as a kid and I hadn’t connected to anything like I did to this. I didn’t even really know about gender at that age; I just saw it and thought ‘this makes sense.’ Having that experience as a really young person, It took me some time to realize how transness related to me, though.

“My life hasn’t really been very traditional, so I really didn’t have gender expectations put on me by family, apart from ‘you have a vagina so you’re a woman’. If there had been pressure I never noticed it, anyway. I feel good about that. But you notice society putting expectations on you, which subconsciously puts in your head that you have to do things a certain, very ‘traditional’ and capitalistic way to be a successful human. That has definitely had an impact on me, and that’s why I felt such relief when I realized I could just be ‘me’. I’d say that in the last five years since coming back to Iceland I’ve definitely settled a lot more into being comfortable in my skin as a nonbinary person. I would say it’s definitely safer for me to be who I am here, compared to the UK. I have a lot of privilege as a white Icelander.”

Not wanting to bother anyone

A common theme that came up in these interviews was not wanting to make binary people feel scared or uncomfortable when confronted with the reality of nonbinary people. This desire to spare the feeling, real or imagined, of binary people can keep many nonbinary people in the closet, months or even years after understanding their own gender identities. Another closeting force is growing up in a binary culture and having societal expectations based on one’s assigned gender at birth foisted upon you.

“I always think of this sign I’ve seen in pictures from some Pride parade which said: ‘People think gender is male and female, when actually it’s just a big ball of wibbly-wobbly gendie-wendie stuff’. I agree with that.”

“When I hit puberty I had a lot of guy friends, and they sort of expected me to become a woman,” Regn says. “They kind of all slowly evaporated around me, which was really hard, so I became preoccupied with male approval, which is really bad for anyone. I became really obsessed with becoming as feminine as I possibly could; I wore dresses all the time, I did a lot of traditionally feminine things even though I didn’t really care for them. That led to eating disorders, depression, I was just very sad all the time.

“Then I went to MH, which is a school that has a reputation for [allowing students] to be whoever [they] want to be. When I figured out that I was nonbinary, everything just fell into place and made sense in a way that I could actually feel comfortable with myself. Being my whole, true self, which is so liberating and I still feel so blessed that I actually came to this conclusion. I’ve never looked back.”

Adds Reyn, “I think if there was any external pressure, it would have been from society as a whole, media and maybe some friends—most of my friends for most of my life have been straight cis boys, who have a tendency to maybe think more about these things than some other groups might.”

“I wasn’t really bound by these things at all, but I did start to notice after I realised I was nonbinary that these expectations are everywhere. Continuously being labelled by gendered terms by other people. You can never just be a person. I think that’s what bothered me the most, because I wasn’t following gendered expectations. Coming out helped with that, because I could finally have a reason for not wanting people to address me in certain ways. I think also, to some extent, it alleviates some of the pressure to conform to societal norms. It was mostly just a relief to be able to stop pretending that there was nothing going, so as to not rock the boat before I was ready. People understand better now why I feel the way I do and why I’ve been the way I am.”

Photo by John Pearson

“I think a lot of people are scared of nonbinary people, because we’re not comfortable,” Ari Logn says. “We’re outside of society’s comfort. I’ve sensed in people that I’ve encountered this uncomfortableness. I don’t really know how to address it though. I’ve tried, like ‘hey these are my pronouns, no big deal, if you want information I can give it’. And I try to give information but some people will just make you feel bad about even stating and asserting your pronouns or identity. Funnily enough I’ve encountered a lot of well meaning people who think that because I’m not woman, I’m automatically ‘man’. It’s the other default. I will have men, more of the time, asking if it’s OK to use ‘he’ instead. I’ll say ‘hán’ and they’ll hear ‘hann’. It’s like they realised that it’s ‘not woman’ so they go to ‘the other one’. But there’s more than just man or woman.”

Confronting misconceptions

Even after coming out, nonbinary people will very often find themselves having to continuously educate binary people on who they are and what their gender identities mean.

“A lot of the time when I tell people I’m not a man or a woman, some people assume that I’m intersex,” Regn says. “And that’s if people know what intersex is, which is not common. I’ve also had people tell me ‘you can’t be nonbinary; you’re wearing a dress and makeup’. I feel like they don’t understand that even if we look at the binary, there’s no right way to dress a man or a woman; you can be a man in a dress or a woman in a suit, so I can be nonbinary in a dress with makeup. When I’m wearing more masculine clothes, people are like ‘so are you a man today?’ Also when I tell people I’m nonbinary, some people think that nonbinary is just one gender, like a gender in itself. But it’s an umbrella term. You can be just nonbinary in itself, but there are so many other identities under there. A lot of the time people can’t get their head around that there’s no connection to the binary there, because people have been taught that there is a binary and nothing else so it’s really new to people. I get that, and I always approach this topic kindly and gently, because I don’t want to scare people off. I want people to understand more than they’re scared.”

“I think this thing treating nonbinary as a third gender option right next to man and woman is pretty common,” Reyn adds. “Sometimes they’ll think this third gender is called by its pronoun, like ‘There are three genders: karl, kona and hán’. I’ve also had people say something to me in masculine language terms, correct themselves, but then switch over to feminine. It’s still wrong; it’s just a different wrong.”

Icelandic challenges

Like many languages, Icelandic is heavily gendered. This applies not just to pronouns, or the genders of certain nouns, but even adjectives. Fortunately, Icelandic does recognise a gender-neutral case, which has made the language more flexible for nonbinary people than languages that may recognise only two gender forms. However, Icelandic still has plenty of room for change to accommodate everyone and some neologisms have been invented—most notably, hán, a gender-neutral pronoun.

“Because I love the language so much, I acknowledge the need for change, because languages are supposed to serve the people using them; not the people using them serving the language.”

“I am a language enthusiast, and I have such a big love for Icelandic,” Regn says. “It’s such an amazing, beautiful language. Because I love the language so much, I acknowledge the need for change, because languages are supposed to serve the people using them; not the people using them serving the language. Languages are supposed to be accommodating. So I think all the new words that we’re seeing right now are all such powerful words that I can’t wait to hear being used regularly. When I first started wanting people to use hán, I also felt a bit uncomfortable with the gender-neutral ending because it’s used mainly for objects. I got used to it, but I feel other people are still uncomfortable with it and I understand it totally, but other people are just going to have to get used to it.”

“There’s plenty of room in Icelandic for gender-neutral speech,” Reyn says. “I think the efforts that have been made so far have been very successful. Hán of course being the most popular gender-neutral pronoun for referring to people. To me it’s just very natural sounding, easy to say—in fact I sometimes use it accidentally for everyone.”

What needs to change

When it comes to what needs to change in our society that might make it more inclusive of nonbinary people, representation plays a big role.

“What I feel is that there is a huge lack of nonbinary role models,” Regn says. “I don’t see myself anywhere, except [in] these very fringe culture spaces deep on the internet. Not being able to see myself in any role models is pretty hard. I think that’s the reason why I didn’t come out until I was 20. I probably would have realised sooner that I was nonbinary if there were a discussion about it.”

But even within the context of representation, the kind of representation also matters.

“We’ve definitely gotten better at nonbinary representation, too, but I think it lacks diversity,” Regn says. “Almost every nonbinary person who gets represented is a thin, white, androgynous person, or a thin, white, AFAB [assigned female at birth] person. There’s not a lot of representation of AMAB nonbinary, or those who are disabled, fat, or people of colour. It’s this white, very slim, Eurocentric people in black shapeless clothing. And I hate that.”

“It was mostly just a relief to be able to stop pretending that there was nothing going, so as to not rock the boat before I was ready. People understand better now why I feel the way I do and why I’ve been the way I am.”

“I think it’s got a lot to do with societal attitudes,” Reyn says. “Visibility of nonbinary people plays into that because, traditionally, if nonbinary people are covered at all, it’s about how special they are for being nonbinary. It’s slowly changing, for the better. But I’ve also been seeing more and more…nonbinary stories [in traditional media]. It’s not much, but it’s a big improvement. People still are very clueless, so they need to be exposed to this more. People have to learn—that’s the root of most problems, because they don’t know what to say to you, how to treat you, how you want to live your life, and that just makes it really hard for everyone. Especially for people who are marginalised and aren’t understood, it’s exhausting to continuously have to explain yourself, every time, to everyone.

“There’s also the naming laws in Iceland. I only have half of my name legally recognised due to them. I think it has more of an effect on people than people realise. Official organisations and companies, everywhere you go, being called something that you do not wish to be called. The laws don’t control what people are named; they only control what people are named officially, so effectively, it’s just making the National Registry inaccurate. It doesn’t serve us as well as it should, because of these senseless limitations on people’s names and gender markers.”

Ultimately, nonbinary people just want the same as any other human being might: the freedom to be their authentic selves, to have the same rights and representation as anyone else, to be included in the language of the community—and most of all, to feel free to be happy just the way they are.

Photo by John Pearson

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