The Gender Binary: It’s Never Worked, and We’re Better Off Without It

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Photo by Marta Branco on Pexels.com

 

Note: the final touches to this writing were made September 24th 2018. The author had no idea the painful relevancy this would gain in just shy of one month’s time. October 21st saw the release of the Trump administration’s plan to effectively erase trans, enby, and intersex people from legal existence. This trans author’s best advice for cis allies is simply to listen to us, donate directly to us if at all possible; many of us are rushing to finalize or even just begin our transitions while we still can. As of the writing of this post script, nothing is set in legal stone, but that doesn’t mean this administration isn’t actively pushing to get us there. Make noise, get angry, do not let us be silenced more than we already have been. We can and will not stop fighting.

 

The struggle of a society defined by a binary is its own rigid structure, its innate need to define and categorize all that is within it.

The binary of gender and sex as defined by typical American society is among, to our Western civilization, the most prominently known to us within our college classroom. We are almost all of us raised to believe in and trust this system of male and female, to cast aside any thought of deviance as a natural abnormality, rather than one created only by the system set in place. The binary that exists in our modern society is an awful burden to our society as a whole, for both the cis and transgender people living their lives.

The gender binary itself is something so ingrained within society that many people do not think to question it unless the topic is purposely brought up, and even then, most carry a blind faith that it has worked for so many generations because it is so absolute and untouchable. However, the entire concept of gender is so much more complicated than that. Genderspectrum.org separates gender into three different dimensions– body, identity, and expression. The body is the physical form, which, though male and female are arguably the most common, are not the only options for a just-born child. Anywhere from 1.7%-2% of live births give an intersex child, those with bodies who are indistinguishable from either “main” sex, through body parts, hormones, or any number of factors that set them apart from the binary’s norm. They are only abnormal because the binary says so, and as a result, many intersex people do not even know of their status until their teen or adult years; many intersex people are subject to surgeries that “normalize” them soon after birth, further creating a stigma of “wrongness” around anything outside the “norm”. The binary robs these children of their identity, of the chance to come to terms with who they are and find comfort in it, as we all must eventually do. To treat them as an illness to be operated on and fixed out of existence is an inhumane practice that exists only out of necessity to protect the fragile state of the broken binary.

Identity is perhaps the more normalized of phrases one hears around college-aged people– it’s all about how people identify, that he identifies as a man, that they don’t identify as anything much. This phrasing is the most indicative that gender and sex are two separate entities; both, though, are impacted by the binary. And this phrasing is also often used to indicate deviancy, with the idea being one wouldn’t have to identify as anything they weren’t already. The final dimension of expression is perhaps the most vacant of being tied to “deviant” identities– this issue of expression is a choice that all must make, whether cis or trans.

Problems of seemingly incorrect expression plague our society and are transcendent of gender. Many cis men and women are shut down at an early age from engaging in behavior deemed too girly or manly respectively; young boys aren’t allowed to explore femininity without scorn, and girls of any age are deemed “undesirable” if they exhibit masculine traits to any extent. This problem extends out further to the trans youth, who face this typical scrutiny on top of a possible lack of recognition for the gender they do identify with, leaving them, for lack of a better term, feeling almost stateless. The concept of a non binary person has often been tied to white androgyny- indeterminate gender- which in effect alienates any person of size or of color who wish to exist within this category. Furthermore, because the binary doesn’t know what to do with those who do not fit into its predetermined molds, these “deviancies” are met with a constant and often public scrutiny.

The only example I can give in full faith is my own. As a just-beginning transitioning man, my day is full of choices I must make to avoid this probable public scrutiny, which can range from as little as a wrong look or as high as the risk of violence. I must make the choice of whether or not to bind my chest, to risk damaging multiple parts of myself or to risk my anatomy giving my “deviancy” away. I must make the choice of which bathroom to use, to hope and pray that the men’s room is empty, or to be safe and doom myself to the women’s room where I feel I equally do not belong. I must always make the choice of who I can safely connect with as a friend, as so often a probable candidate outs themself as a warrior for the binary, as someone who cannot begin to comprehend my or my friends’ transness. I must make the choice to coddle my family as they try to navigate my identity, as they swivel between overcompensation for past prejudice and total ignorance in the now. I must make the choice soon to come out yet again at my new job, make a judgement call if such an action could get me fired or harassed to the point where I quit for my own safety. Until then, I have made the choice to be forced back into my little box of deadnames and she’s. I must decide if I am ready to wait for the rest of the world to catch up to us, to learn that we are not as defined by the binary as we thought we were, and a “deviancy” does not equate the loss of a full human being. The gendering of our society is the reason why my mother had taken out a mourning period for her child who is still very much alive and in good health.

Ultimately, societies have existed without this gender binary for centuries, or have at least allowed it to exist with less harsh absolutes; even within the United States itself, Native Americans’ third and fourth genders and the concept of being “two-spirit” were documented, according to LGBT activist Will Roscoe, all over the country in over 130 tribes. Western, primarily white culture has done away with questions of more options outside of “man and woman”, and this insistence has likely done generations of harm to cis and trans people alike. A straight man could enjoy a feminine activity or expression, but he is not allowed to out of fear of emasculation. A straight woman who does not display feminine attributes might be deemed a lesbian as a derogatory, weaponized use of the term. Safe expression and identity is not possible within the bounds of today’s conditions.

In order for the former statement to become untrue, change to the binary is mandatory. While complete eradication should be an ultimate goal, baby steps over the course of generations to slowly phase it out of relevance might be just as effective. And who are we but college students, many of us on the dawn of witnessing this new generation entering this terrifyingly gendered world. As family and as friends, we have the power to implement the idea of an existence free of the binary’s restrictions. We have the voice to proclaim that it does not matter so much as we ourselves have been raised to believe. Within the campus of a college is so much diversity and knowledge that it is almost impossible to not reach out and learn; there is so much available that if you even scrape the surface, a well of information and insight will quickly be at your fingertips. All it takes is the basic urge to learn and better the world we have taken our shallow steps into, to improve it for the children who have not yet gendered themselves and can not yet comprehend what kind of society awaits them. If it is possible to educate the blissfully or knowingly ignorant on the harm of adhering to the gender binary, a safer place for all people can be possible, and that is all we desire.

 

– Logan Kisner, 2018

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