Mirrors, Windows, and Nonbinary Literature

Photo by Gustavo Spindula on Unsplash

A recent conversation about Jeff Garvin’s “Symptoms of Being Human” reminded me of the literary concept of mirrors and windows.

Two of my favorite TikTokers are @finngerhardt and @mx.deran, and these two illustrate the concept well.

The bulk of @finngerhardt’s TikToks are deliberate windows: The purpose is to educate cis folks about being allies to nonbinary people; these videos start with “I’ve been out as nonbinary for over a decade and I’m here to help you be a better ally.”

The bulk of @mx_deran’s TikToks, meanwhile, are mirrors: In these, they talk directly to her nonbinary viewers. Some of these are validation videos; others have a broader application but still have the general feel of talking among compatriots.

There are plenty of examples of both kinds of videos and articles on social media, because both kinds of messages are important. This is the root of the notion of mirrors and windows.

People in marginalized communities struggle with feeling alone. For us, representation is important. I have passed my half-century mark, and I’ve been told by younger folks that my simply being present and visible gives them hope for their own future. Jeffrey Marsh, in their 40s, has addressed the importance of older enbies being visible for this reason.

At the same time, it’s important for people outside of those communities to have an accurate depiction of reality. Mass media has a long history of grossly misrepresenting transgender people, and nonbinary people have been largely invisible until recently. So it’s important to have depictions that counteract those stereotypes with authentic images.

However, there can be conflict between those two goals. In social media discussions, when nonbinary people are asked if they’d rather read a story where the plot focuses on someone discovering their identity or a story where some characters just happen to be nonbinary, and the plot is otherwise irrelevant (such as Akwaeke Emezi’s “Pet”), enbies tend to overwhelmingly choose the latter.

We want mirrors, and that’s understandable. We don’t need to have the nonbinary experience explained to us because we’re already living it and, besides, nonbinary experiences vary widely from person to person.

At the same time, though, deliberate windows serve a definite purpose, and leaving them to cis people (like Jeff Garvin, as of this writing) to write can be problematic.

The ideal is for understanding and open-minded readers outside of a community to engage honestly with stories about, in this case, nonbinary people being nonbinary, but the reality in 2021 is that cis people still have lots of questions that won’t be answered through inference alone.

I’m writing this without a clear direction of my own. I’ve thought about writing fiction with nonbinary characters, and I’ve reflected on target audience. In 2019, I wrote a November Novel that was about a nonbinary person’s evolution of self-discovery; given my own place on the road at the time, as well as the nature of November Novels, it was rough and ugly and clumsy.

The present article is another paving stone in that road. No answers… yet. Time keeps unfolding.

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