The Mainstream Dehumanization of Nonbinary Characters

A translucent human figure made of stone, the face crumbling to dust and cracks in the torso against a black background

I’ve always known that I was nonbinary, though I lacked the language for it until I became a teenager. I can remember being in kindergarten or so when I realized that I hated being called a tomboy. It was inaccurate to what I was feeling, essentially calling me a boyish girl when neither felt right. My mother said something about me not being a tomboy, but being anti-girl. That fit better, but still, I believed myself to be what I had been told I was until I entered high school.

I started learning more LGBT+ terminology as I got more involved with social media. I began to look into various identities, searching almost desperately for a way to describe what I was feeling. At this same time, one of my closest online friends was coming out as agender. I got to better understand what I was feeling through them, and along with my new vocabulary I finally had my word. Nonbinary.

But I hadn’t expected to be so thoroughly dehumanized along the way.

One of my favorite mediums is video games. The magic of getting to be someone else in a different world has always appealed to me. It’s why I was such a voracious reader as a child and why I’m so quick to fall in love with fantasy. The game in which I met my agender friend is Guild Wars 2 (GW2). Coincidentally, this game is also where I got my first taste of queer representation.

In GW2, the player can pick from five different unique races to play from, ranging from human to giant horned felines with four ears. The one I gravitated towards, however, were the Sylvari. Sylvari are basically a race of sentient plants who ‘awaken’ from pods fully formed. They are not born and while there is dimorphism present in their body types, every member of this species by nature is queer. They are the most open with how they love freely (the mentor character for the Sylvari is WLW) and have the least amount of judgement for others. They’re eternally optimistic and I found myself readily identifying with them.

But needless to say, there was little human about them.

I finally came out to myself when I was 15 years old, but it took almost another year for me to settle on nonbinary as my identity. In that time I continued to hyperfixate on this game and remained utterly obsessed with the Sylvari. I found more people who shared similar identities with me on social media, but for the most part they were the skinny, traditionally androgynous AFABs with flawless makeup and short, colored hair. They weren’t like me, and most eventually began transitioning to masculinity. Which was fine for them, but I felt pressured into conforming to the standards that they’d established, as they were my only outside representation of nonbinary identities. Their standards didn’t fit who I am as a person, though I found myself feeling as though I needed to bind my chest and try to mimic their androgyny. Those standards wrecked my journey of self acceptance early on, because I didn’t have representation of what my identity looked like as I present it.

Then along came Steven Universe! A delightfully upbeat cartoon that manages to be surprisingly deep, starring a young boy and his three nonbinary moms. The Crystal Gems, as they’re known, are feminine presenting nonbinary aliens. At the time I rejoiced at the newly explicit representation. Finally, there were characters that mirrored how I felt and how I presented myself. Characters that could be strong and powerful, femme and queer but yet… they weren’t human.

Making nonbinary characters nonhuman in fiction is a long running trope, and yet creators still think that they’re being progressive for giving an alien or a robot a genderqueer identity. For example…

  • In the Mass Effect video game series, there is a feminine presenting race of monogendered aliens known as the asari who are canonically agender/nonbinary.
  • In the popular sitcom, The Good Place, a feminine presenting heavenly computer program constantly reminds the cast that she is not a girl, to the point of their misgendering her and her correcting them being played as a running joke.
  • In a comic for the video game Overwatch, the writer said that the omnic character (a robot) in it used They/Them pronouns.
  • In the Netflix She-Ra series, the genderqueer character is a shape-shifting alien.
  • In Good Omens, a vast majority of the characters are genderqueer; however, they are all either angels or demons. They aren’t human and are essentially alien.
  • In the video game Borderlands 3, their nonbinary representation is a robot called Fl4k.

These are just the examples that I can list off immediately from the media that I either consume or that I have read about as an outsider. And while there has been some amount of progress when it comes to respectful representation of nonbinary characters, I’ve had my identity dehumanized to the point where I don’t feel like I’m supposed to be human sometimes.

The phrase “nonhuman dysphoria” comes with a great deal of baggage. Usually, the only people who experience it are those for whom it is a tool to deal with trauma, such as the nonhuman alters of those with Dissociative Identity Disorder and the coping mechanisms I know some people with PTSD use to process what happened to them.

I don’t have any of that. And yet, because of the lack of representation for people who identify as I do, I’ve continually found myself absolutely hating the physical body that I inhabit. At 21 years old I have found myself feeling as though I don’t belong as I am, dehumanizing myself inadvertently as a result of what little representation I’ve found. Being aware of what is causing this and why I’m doing this to myself isn’t helping to get rid of the idealized picture that I have of in my head of what I should be; in which I am a tall and lanky creature made of earth and moss with stark white hair and glowing gold eyes. Being hyperaware of the fact that society doesn’t think that I’m supposed to exist as I try to hasn’t helped. I already have to deal with gender dysphoria and the effects of that on my mental health and body. Nonhuman dysphoria has only made my day to day feelings of absolute wrongness much worse.

I have been vocal about the dehumanizing representation that nonbinary people have been given on Twitter since I became active on my account. Even before my internalized dehumanization fully kicked in I have spoken up about my wish for decent representation in mainstream media. And now I’m doing it formally with this post.

As it stands, I personally know of two instances of respectful nonbinary representation, and both are played by the same individual. Asia Kate Dillon is a nonbinary actor known for their role in the show Billions and more recently for their role in the movie John Wick 3. While writing this, I checked out the Wikipedia page, List of fictional non-binary characters, and had to have a laugh about the number of dehumanizing examples listed on it despite the claim, “Not listed are characters with non-human gender experiences…”

Normalizing the nonbinary identity and making it less othered would be a huge step in the right direction for fixing this fallback to dehumanizing us. To that end I want creators to really think about what their representation looks like. We’ve always existed. We’re human. We’re people, most of us pretty mundane and boring. And I absolutely want boring nonbinary characters.

My experience with dehumanizing representation has affected my mind in a way that I’m not sure can be changed at this point in time. And I feel as though I’ve cut myself open by admitting what’s happened to me in order to write this. But I feel that it’s important to know what improper representation does to people. The Bury Your Gays trope reinforces the notion that we aren’t allowed to have happy, lasting relationships, and queerbaiting is an abuse of trust between writers and consumers. The lack of non-stereotypical POC representation does its own damage, while the glut of movies about the Civil War tears at the inherited wounds inflicted upon Black Americans. Marginalized people should be allowed representation that makes us feel strong and gives us hope. And most of all, it shouldn’t make us feel as though we don’t belong in our bodies.

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Socialist and queer. Player of video games, writer of stories. Hedge witch and avid lover of space. They/them pronouns.

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Kyla Elena

Kyla Elena

Socialist and queer. Player of video games, writer of stories. Hedge witch and avid lover of space. They/them pronouns.

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