Breaking the Binary

This post is part of my 2019 Pride Month series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity,” exploring present-day issues facing the LGBTQ+ and allied communities.

“Male or female?” The form is generic–it could be anything–but the question is as particular as it could get. Just two options. No room for black or white or grey. Just male or female. Or. The “either” is implied; the “both” is inconceivable.

For me, it doesn’t matter. I check the first box (because, after all, the male box always goes first) and carry on with my day without giving it a second thought. That’s because the sex I was assigned at birth is the sex I identify with. It’s a privilege often taken for granted, that when the doctor overseeing my birth wrote “male” on my birth certificate, it ended up describing me pretty well. Just like how the magazine printed on cheap newspaper in the checkout aisle looked at my birth date, said I’m a Gemini, and then stuck me in a box forever. Thankfully, that descriptor ended up pretty on point, too.

But all that means is I’m just one of the lucky ones.

Growing up, I met two kinds of people: Those who said astrology’s legit (“I’ve never met anyone who isn’t their sun sign, it’s freaky how accurate it is”) and then those who said astrology is hokey and self-fulfilling (“You only believe the parts that make sense–if I read you the horoscope of any other sign, you’d still say it describes who you are”).

Which side do you fall on?

Personally, as an avid astrologer in my youth, I’ve yet to meet anyone who truly has nothing in common with the way their astrological birth chart describes them. Is everything going to be perfect? No, it won’t be, but even then, with some of these same friends, I’ve read them the descriptions of other signs and even though they could say a couple things sounded like them, it wasn’t nearly the same percentage that they identified with when I read them the sign they’re actually supposed to be.

Back in my first semester of college, astrology came up in my sociology class. I asked my teacher why she thought astrology would seem accurate to this extent if it’s only self-selective confirmation bias: She said it’s socialization. We as a culture hold up astrology as accurate, so when we’re told “our” signs and what “our” signs are supposed to be, we internalize those descriptions and act on them. And if we tend to spend our time with people who say things like “That’s such a Sagittarian thing to say” or “I knew you’d be caring–every Cancer is” then we’re also socialized by our peers to match our signs.

Except no one is “just a Sagittarius” or “just a Cancer.” In fact, even though I’ve got a heavy dose of Gemini in my chart (it’s not only my sun sign but also my ascendant), I’ve also got my moon in Aquarius, Mars in Cancer, and Saturn in Capricorn. All of these interplanetary factors come together into who “I” am. It’s not an even sort into one of twelve houses; most of us belong to many in multiple ways… and then we just reduce ourselves to a single identity (“I’m a Gemini”) because it’s easier that way.

Astrology is a lot like gender: We’re assigned one at birth; we’re socialized to fit the norms that, again, someone else decided for us; and even though we’re told there are only a finite, distinct number of options, the reality is no one is ever just one of them.

So if we can be so nonchalant about laughing at the absurdity of astrology, why do get so up-in-arms the moment somebody says maybe gender is just as absurd?

Let that sink in for a moment. Reread the sentence. Swallow the words one syllable at a time. Swirl them around in your mouth. What’s that distaste for? They’re only words.

But words have meaning, and things that have meaning tend to matter to us: And things that matter to us tend to be things we want to protect. So if we’ve grown up constantly told that sex and gender have meaning, that perhaps they hold more meaning than any other single thing about us, then the suggestion that sex and gender might actually be less meaningful (or, gasp, even meaningless) is going to make us feel uncomfortable.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to say that gender itself is absurd; it isn’t. More so I’m trying to demonstrate that our reliance upon gender can be absurd, meaning “wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate.” Is it reasonable to think of gender? Sure. Is it logical to use gender as a classification system? Definitely. Is it appropriate to make gender the Holy Grail of categorizing humans so much so that we persecute anyone who acts or thinks or does anything outside the norms of a singular notion of gender? Hell no.

And so, in that regard, in the context of how we use gender culturally, it is absurd.

Let’s be honest, though: a binary gender system is convenient.

After all, being able to sort things into categories not only makes things easier to interpret, but also immediately gives us a broad awareness of the things we’re dealing with. Just take a quick glance at American politics: Chances are, if I said a member of Congress is a Republican or Democrat, you could probably list out an essay’s worth of policy positions based upon that single fact without considering the state they represent or the district within that state or even the demographics of that district.

If we swivel our attention back to sex and gender, it’s an identity marker that attaches to us before we’re even born: The first question we ask a pregnant person is always, “Is it a boy or a girl?” And let’s not ignore the rising trend toward over-the-top gender reveal parties. But they should really be called sex reveal parties, if I’m being honest.

I’ve been saying sex and gender like they’re the same thing, but in reality, they’re not–kinda like how my sun sign and moon sign interact with each other, but are still distinct. Sex is a biological fact–but it’s not based upon external anatomy (that is, your “junk”), but upon internal chemistry: your sex chromosomes.

Random tangent time! (If you’re bored by linguistics, skip the next paragraph.)

I’ve been calling myself cisgender throughout this series, but I haven’t paused to actually define what it means yet–and I’m doing so here because it also comes from chemistry. Decades ago, people who wore the clothing of the opposite sex were called transvestites–“trans” being the Latin prefix for “across” and “vestite” meaning “someone who wears clothes” from the Latin “vestis,” meaning “garment.” Later, people realized that being transgender is more than just dressing in the opposite sex’s clothes (and today clothing is far less gendered anyways), but related to a person’s self-conceptualization of their gender identity–thus, transgender. However, there wasn’t a word in our lexicon to describe people who aren’t transgender, so creative individuals found that, in organic chemistry, some molecular compounds with two methyl groups on opposite sides of a double bond are called trans, while those with both groups on the same side are called cis. Therefore, trans and cis are opposite, so cisgender is the opposite of transgender.

Now where were we? Ah, yes. Sex is based upon chromosomal chemistry–and fun fact, there are people who appear male or female but are biologically not. I’m not a biologist, and the science underlying sex and the development of external sexual organs is not my forte. In fact, aside from remembering that some people can be born with XXY chromosomes and even XYY chromosomes (and that some of these combinations lead to deathly genetic complications), I don’t really know much of the science at all. But for the sake of a strict biological definition, sex isn’t what’s in our jeans, it’s what in our genes.

Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct. If that sounds too academically liberal for you, let me break it down a bit: It’s something constructed by society. You know, like buildings and roadways and broadband internet and clothes and food and so on.

If sex is what’s imposed on us from the inside (literally), then gender is what’s imposed on us from the outside–and where do sex and gender meet? Our junk.

Allow me to elaborate: The Jordan Curve Theorem states that every simple closed surface divides a space into an interior and an exterior. The converse should also be true: if a space is divided into an interior and exterior, then there is a simple closed surface between them. This “simple closed surface” would then be our body, and the only parts of our body that logically relate to both sex and gender is our sexual organs.

So, yeah, everyone gets tizzied up because we can’t stop thinking about what’s underneath the clothing of the person next to us. It’s so dehumanizing when we think of gender this way, and so silly and stupid, and yet here we are. Still talking.

Mathematical humor aside, if you’re a cisgender person, more than likely your inner biology and your outer socialization have existed in equilibrium throughout your life. There are, in fact, very few gender norms that arise exclusively from biology, so when we think of what makes a boy “a boy” or a girl “a girl,” we’re usually thinking of behavioral factors and cultural or societal norms: Women must stay at home to watch the children and mop the floors, while men must go to work. Boys must have fist fights and girls must play with dolls. Men should be smelly and women should wear perfume.

These things, taken as normal, are only normal within the context of the cultures that created them. If we fly from the United States halfway around the world, we’d likely end up in a place that has very different notions for what the proper roles of men and women should be and how men and women should behave. We’d also likely encounter a culture or two (or more) that has historically acknowledged a third gender that is neither male nor female. Unfortunately, due to the proliferation of western opinions during colonial periods, many of the gender norms we consider today originated from only a few related cultural systems and the power and control they imposed upon others.

So when I say gender is a social construct, I mean that we as a society have agreed upon what it means to be a man or a woman. This isn’t like a business contract that we’ve had time to review and recommend revisions upon before adopting it. It’s more like a subprime mortgage, written by someone else just to swindle us, stripping us of our individual agency and never giving us an option not to sign the dotted line.

There are lots of social constructs, not just gender. Consider color for a moment, salient on my mind because of the following interaction I had with students on Monday.

As I was walking around checking homework, I overheard one student say to another, “It’s really dark brown, not black.” I turned in their direction, and the perplexed look on my face prompted them to fill me in: they were talking about hair color, not skin tone.

Feeling devious, I said, “Maybe your definition of black is too narrow.”

“Mister,” the other student said, “I don’t get your vocabulary!”

I chuckled and set down my computer. “At some point, we as a society collectively agreed what the color black looks like, but we don’t treat other colors the same way.” I pointed to one of the classroom chairs, a muted brick color, and then to marker writing on a nearby poster that’s vibrant and bright, the color of raspberries. “These are both red, and they’re not the same color, yet at some point we all agreed to call them the same color. If we can accept different shades of red, why not different shades of black?”

The second student again, “But if it’s a lighter shade of black, then it’s just grey.”

I shrugged. “Or maybe dark brown.”

Yes, there’s a scientific definition of color, if we look at the wavelengths of light rays, but when my waiter asks my order, I don’t request a glass of 625 nm–I just call it red wine.

Likewise, when we talk about sex and gender, what we’re really talking about are gender norms, the behaviors that we feel should (or shouldn’t) be performed by people based solely upon their physical anatomy. And, last I checked, physical anatomy has very little impact upon whether you should be an elementary school teacher or a college professor, a nurse or a doctor, a secretary or the president. And yet, again, here we are.

Because gender norms are societally imposed upon us, just like sun signs in astrology, it’s impossible that anyone is going to perfectly align with what we’re being told we should be. No one’s going to get on me if I’m not communicative enough to be a Gemini, or not humanitarian enough to have a moon in Aquarius, and yet if I wore lipstick or put on a dress or decided to do something “feminine” in public, hordes of people would hound me because I’m not being “man enough.” Furthermore, my simply wearing a dress could cause such a prolific response that others would literally attack me because of it.

Maybe even kill me.

I’m not joking. Have you read the news?

The life expectancy of ciswomen is 78. The life expectancy of transwomen–women who were assigned male at birth–is only 35. That’s horrifying.

All because breaking someone else’s gender expectations threatened them so much. Because if I wear a dress or make up, your life is in danger. It doesn’t make sense.

I came here with a mission, to break open the gender binary, and instead I’ve spoken about how society constructs gender, and mainly in a theoretical manner without discussing any modes of socialization. That’s okay, of course, because if we can see how society imposes gender upon us from the inside and the outside, then it becomes easier to see how gender is, after all, a spectrum, not only two endpoints.

Not to mention, someone else decided what your gender is supposed to be–maybe even before you were born! Where’s the individual liberty and justice in that?

The loss of individual liberty and justice is especially relevant for intersex people. I read somewhere that maybe as many as 1 in 10 people are intersex, a broad term referring to a range of genetic variations affecting a person’s physiological sex. Some intersex people are born with ambiguous genitalia (that is, they don’t neatly fit “male” or “female” anatomy), and it’s not uncommon for doctors to arbitrarily decide which sex to assign the child–and then perform irreversible surgery to make the newborn’s body match! And some intersex people, not showing any outward indicators, might not know they’re intersex until puberty or adulthood, if ever at all. Finally, while some intersex people identify as trans, others do not. Point being, even physical sex isn’t a perfect binary.

Anyways, I want to end this with one last example about how gender is socialized.

Imagine stepping outside in the springtime when all the world is alight with pollen. The yellow and green flecks are flying through the air, swirling all around and pummeling right toward you. Is every bit of pollen going to stick to your clothes? Probably not. Gender norms are like that: some’ll stick to you, and some won’t.

Now imagine that pollen comes in two colors, let’s say pink and blue for the sake of analogy. If a doctor decided, when you were born, that you should be male, then before you leave in the morning, the weatherman would give a message: “Hey there, little guy. Avoid the pink pollen–only the blue pollen is for you.” So once you step outside, you’d follow the paths furthest away from the pink pollen plants to minimize the amount of pink pollen that attaches to you. Then, when you get home, you’d painstakingly pluck off all the pink pollen you picked up because, as a boy, pink pollen is bad for you.

But what if you like some of that pink pollen and want to keep it? Then keep it.

The problem is that everyone else has decided the pink pollen isn’t for you, but that decision was arbitrary and so should therefore be meaningless. Sure, some people like to keep their pinks pink and their blues blue (I sound like a laundry detergent commercial), and that’s just fine for them–but pollen is a spectrum. I mean, gender is a spectrum, and even though I’m male, I can still do and enjoy things that others might say aren’t male.

This comes down to something my friend Cole told me: It’s about asking the world to see you as you are. That means changing others so that they see your truth.

I will never have the experience of being transgender, just like I will never have the experience of being black or straight or Christian. But my lack of firsthand experience doesn’t mean I can’t change myself to recognize the truth of another person. Just because I know what it means for me to be male, doesn’t mean others have to meet that same definition. There are men who will and men who won’t; some of these men might have been labeled as men from birth and some of them might not have been, and some of them who were may choose to identify as a gender other than male. There are also people who don’t fit neatly into two exclusive categories of gender, and I can continue to broaden my awareness to make space for them, too, whether they call themselves genderqueer, genderfluid, nonbinary, or another term I don’t know yet.

Of course, to broaden my awareness, I also have to face my own self-conceptualizations of gender, and as a cis person, a cisman especially, that’s something I’ve never done.

And yet, once again, here we are.

3 thoughts on “Breaking the Binary

  1. I also just want to mention that intersex people exist, and that saying that is important — especially since you take the time to mention XXY and XYY and genetics. There are people whose genitals are ambiguous, or whose genitals present as classically ‘male’ and then go through a ‘female’ puberty (or the reverse). Sometimes doctors surgically alter their genitals to fit into the narrow female/male boxes. Sometimes they have no idea until puberty.

    Some of those people identify as trans. Some of them don’t. All of them are worth mentioning, in a post that talks about not just the gender binary, but about societal definitions and how doctors assign sex/gender at birth.

    I am not intersex, nor am I knowingly friends with intersex people who choose to share intimate details of their lives with me, but I do consider their lives important, and I want to be sure people are educated to the minimum knowledge: Intersex people exist, and that’s another binary broken.

    (fun fact! the term for ‘not intersex’ is perisex. I don’t know how they decided on that, but I know it to be true.)

    • Thank you. Not mentioning intersex people was an oversight I’m ashamed I missed in the four times I proofread this post. :(

      I don’t normally edit posts after publishing, but I think this is an instance in which doing so is not only justified, but incredibly meaningful.

      • Another fun fact: I did some digging, and it seems that peri- is the Greek prefix meaning “surrounding,” while inter- is the Latin prefix meaning “between.” Assuming “perisex” is a more recent addition to the lexicon, it makes sense to me by thinking that “not intersex” could imply “the external matches the internal,” which could be taken as a form of “surrounding” something.

        For an extra bit of fun, I found that the origin of the word “sex” is believed to be the Latin “secare,” meaning “to separate,” implying cutting something in half. So sex was first conceptualized as a binary measure. The problem with any natural binary, however, is that there aren’t many: nature prefers a continuous spectrum. It’s why calculus works so well–because change is continuous, not discrete.

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