What's it like to be non-binary in Europe? Euronews spoke to citizens from across the continent

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By Emma Beswick
What's it like to be non-binary in Europe? Euronews spoke to citizens from across the continent

British singer Sam Smith brought the issues facing non-binary people to the fore when they announced their preference for they/them pronouns.

"Non-binary gender" and "genderqueer" are umbrella terms used to describe people who do not experience themselves as being male or female, according to the All About Trans project, a UK organisation which seeks to improve the portrayal of trans people in the media.

Non-binary people fall under the wider definition of transgender given that they have not remained in the gender they were assigned at birth, it added.

Since Smith's announcement, the Merriam-Webster dictionary has recognised the use of "they" as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. The new definition clarifies that "they" can be "used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary".

While the singer has opened up the topic for discussion in the UK, what challenges do non-binary people face elsewhere in Europe? Euronews spoke to three people from different countries to find out.

Loki, Ukraine

Loki is a Ukranian model who prefers to be referred to by the pronoun "he".

"People don't know much about non-binary people, even less than about binary transgender people," he told Euronews about life in Ukraine. "That is why we need to work to increase the visibility of non-binary people in order to raise awareness."

Loki made the choice to live his life in the public eye for this reason – to increase the visibility of non-binary people, in order to raise awareness.

He underwent hormone therapy, for which he said there was no medical support at the time in Ukraine. "We didn't have any doctors to deal with this issue. In principle, we have very few friendly doctors, even in the binary system," he added.

The model's parents are accepting of his decision, but find it difficult to understand. "They are unlikely to ever understand it. They just accept the situation because they love me," he said. "Some relatives don't respect it."

If you are different, it can be dangerous. Of course, they can kill, beat you up, or rape you...

In terms of acceptance within society, Loki said life can be dangerous for non-binary people and that bullying can happen at school, university or in work. The harassment faced by the community can even be physical. "Of course, they could kill, beat you up, or rape you... Take you to a psychiatric clinic if you are a minor," Loki explained.

Loki initially found it difficult to find work in the fashion industry as "they needed either boys or girls" and people thought his name was a joke. He said at first he was scared of people commenting on his gender or finding out about his past.

But he added: "When I became more confident and realised my inner strength ... the importance of my work, the usefulness of my actions, I did not care. Then I decided that I was ready to fight for myself and for my personality."

Harmik, Armenia

Harmik, 20, from Armenia refers to himself using the term "queer" and prefers the pronouns "they/them" in English.

"I'm saying 'no' to the norms there are for someone like me. I'm not quite going against it, I'm just not acknowledging that if you're assigned male at birth and you have a beard, then you're a man," they told Euronews. "Even though in society I'm looked upon as a man."

The situation is different in their native Armenia, as the country's language has no distinctions of grammatical gender and no requirement of agreement between nouns and associated pronouns, adjectives, articles, or verbs.

In languages such as Spanish, French and Italian, which are markedly gendered, existing terms cannot be employed in the place of masculine/feminine words, as they are in English where the pronouns they/them are often used and plural nouns are not all gender-specific (e.g. colleagues, friends).

In Spanish, non-binary people use the letter "e" in order not to imply gender, where usually an "a" would be used for a feminine word and an "o" to denote a masculine word. For example, the word for "colleagues" is "nosotras" for a group of females, "nosotros" for a group of males and "nosotres" for a group of colleagues when the speaker does not want to refer to their gender.

In written Spanish, "@" (or in some cases other symbols) is used as a mix of the masculine "o" and feminine "a" letters.

Growing up in a very homophobic country and being attacked on a day-to-day basis by men, I didn't want to have anything to do with masculinity

While the Armenian language is non-binary, Harmik told Euronews this is not mirrored in society, which they said is extremely "heteronormative".

"Men generally get away with doing a lot of things. Unless you're a feminine man, unless you're gay or bi, or trans, that's another issue," they explained.

For this reason, they came out as a gay man, which brings its own risks – they said daily life for LGBT people can be dangerous, leading many members of the community to avoid public transport and plan their routes according to places they know are safe.

"In societal norms, I was a very feminine kid, and now I understand why I was expressing myself in that way," Harmik said. "Growing up in a very homophobic country and being attacked on a day-to-day basis by men, I didn't want to have anything to do with masculinity. Over the past couple of months, I've slowly started to accept my masculine part."

Jake, United Kingdom

Jake Edwards from the UK charity Mermaids is a YouTuber and musician who was assigned female at birth and now goes by the pronouns he/they.

Jake told Euronews that – aside from encountering some ignorance at college "because I was people's first encounter with the idea of people being trans" – their experiences in UK society have been mainly positive.

"Once I settled in and found my community and found support groups, aside from dealing with medical transition and the anguish of that, it has been quite a positive experience," they said.

Jake said one area in which life could be improved for non-binary people in the UK is administration. While they don't mind defaulting to male pronouns on forms with no gender-neutral option, this is not the case for all non-binary people, and that with most official administration male or female is the only choice given.

They think members of the LGBT community in the UK should look beyond the country's borders and extend a hand of support to those in other European countries.

"No matter what is going on in our countries, we have very similar experiences when it comes to gender and the changes we want to make."

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