Last year, the quietest part of my mind cheerfully announced my non-binary status. Once I knew, I gave a lot of thought to whether I would change my name and gender in an official capacity.
I’m a fat queer person with an auto-immune disease, so medical trauma has been a looming presence in life. When weighing things up, I often assess my safety. I looked at the risks of updating my passport, birth certificate and Medicare file, and decided to leave it for a year. That timeframe came and went during an unexpected and clarifying hospital stay.
I’ve ducked and weaved for two years avoiding COVID-19, so landing in hospital with double pneumonia was a rude shock. The drama of my situation was suitably bewildering for my ongoing dialogue with the medical institution.
Spicy cough wasn’t my style – I was all about glitter lungs.
On arrival at my local hospital, I was invited to provide a preferred name which was written on the whiteboard in my room. I didn’t offer any gender information. It was the furthest thing from my mind as reality began to sink in.
An IV was placed in my arm for fluids and antibiotics that would be pumped into my body round the clock for the next four days. As the border between my space and the outside world was demarcated by the full PPE station, I felt myself disappear and become a pile of rubble that needed putting back together. I didn’t leave that room for a week.
Dozing in and out of a fevered dreamscape for the first few days, every time someone said “she” when referring to me, it felt bothersome like a fly buzzing around my face.
When we lose our grip on health, identity distorts along with any existing feelings of safety
Hospital brings such a mixed bag of emotions. There’s gratitude and respect for the staff, an awareness that resources are stretched, knowing that everyone is doing their best. When we lose our grip on health, identity distorts along with any existing feelings of safety.
While being nursed back to health, my humanity had inadvertently taken a beating and my sense of self deflated. I doubted my right to speak up and clarify my pronouns, taking up space as a gender-diverse person.
Being non-binary is intensely personal, complex and individual. It can mean gender affirmation surgery, change of name, gender when self-identifying and pronouns. All these elements can play a part in expressing your identity, but none are compulsory – there’s no hierarchy or checklist.
It’s important to understand that if you are non-binary and identify as transgender, that no matter the changes you have or haven’t made, you are trans enough. Moving from the binary gender system of male or female to a separate gender – non-binary – is a transition.
Doubt crept in every time the words “she”, “her” and “lady” were used to refer to me. I didn’t have the physical or emotional strength to find my true north, my hard-won understanding of who I am. I was shocked that this was all it took to shake my sense of self. But with a compassionate gaze, I recognised that I was at the mercy of a system ill-equipped to value recognition of diverse genders and inclusive language.
If staff aren’t provided with the framework to understand why this matters, and if I’ve stalled while working out if it’s safe to update my records to reflect who I am, these misunderstandings are inevitable.
The limbo you may find yourself in between disclosure and acceptance is a nerve-wracking state
On the fourth day, I asked a nurse if he could update my file to reflect my gender and pronouns, and he thanked me for telling him, saying that he would take care of it. I’m not sure what happened but nothing changed.
The next evening there were two nurses in my room again, along with the “she”s and the “lady”s and my birth name peppering the conversation. One nurse left the room, and the other, wearing a “they/them” pin, asked me “how do you go being called she and lady?”
I must have flinched in a way that only another gender-diverse person would recognise. This person became my life raft. I felt comfortable confiding in them, because I knew I wouldn’t have to explain my reasons. That’s often the hardest part to articulate because you don’t know if the person on the receiving end will accept what you’ve said, if you’ll have to dig around for a reason that will make sense to them.
The limbo you may find yourself in between disclosure and acceptance is a nerve-wracking state. I mentioned how exhausted I felt at the thought of raising it again and I’m not sure if they put a flashing sign on my door or simply made a note in my file, but I was only misgendered a handful of times for the rest of my stay. This empathetic allyship along with the antibiotics and pulmonary physiotherapy helped me to breathe a lot easier.
How transformative it would be if every person interacting with patients held a basic understanding of why identity matters
I hadn’t anticipated any of this – the pneumonia, or the dysphoria brought about by the flurry of misgendering in my strange isolated hospital chamber. It would have been reassuring if I’d been asked my gender along with my preferred name on arrival – the question in itself making it clear that this was a safe space.
Being non-binary isn’t unusual in 2022, and I considered how transformative it would be if every person in the building interacting with patients held a basic understanding of why identity matters, and how the wrong pronouns can impact us. Ideally, staff would receive equally resourced training about inclusive practices as they do about medical procedures – both realms of updated knowledge are essential to adequate care.
The first hurdle I find to updating my records is that under Medicare, it’s not possible to lodge your gender as anything other than male or female – but you can request a note be added to the system. Echoes of the 2021 Census and issues with flawed data around gender come to mind, and it’s clear that the validity of genders outside the binary continue to be questioned, diminished and even erased.
My name on a piece of paper – something that didn’t matter before – is now more important than ever. At my lowest ebb, I felt anew how galvanising it is to have my gender accurately stated and respected.
*Jasper Peach is a freelance writer.