Trans People Are Here to Save the World from the Binary
As a trans woman, I often hear people say that to be trans is to “reject the binary.” Generally, this is a reference to the gender binary, which some say is a purely societal construct, while others adhere to the theory that the it is a fundamental component of our biology. This type of rhetorical polarization is in fact common to just about every conversation taking place in the socio-political sphere. We organize so much of our existence into these oppositional relationships, in part because they are observationally convenient. After all, we have night and day. We have the sun and the moon. We have life and death. We succeed or we fail. So it seems obvious to organize information and human society in similarly convenient and simplified ways.
It’s admittedly easier to narrow many of the aspects of our society down when we put our world through the filter of a binary perspective. They manifest in society in such dichotomies as Male/Female, Young/Old, Rich/Poor, Liberal/Conservative, Rural/Urban, Legal/Illegal, Science/Religion Right/Wrong. These distinctions exist for the sake of convenience. But such simplifications do nothing to enhance accuracy, precision, or truth. What may seem intended to help us more easily perceive the world around us, can act to obscure the truth. All these binaries I mention would be much better represented in the analog rather than the digital. These qualities are all quite spectral, yet the terms we use tend to define them by the extremes, without regard for the overwhelming vastness of the spectrum between those extremes. These black/white distinctions create an illusion of mutual exclusivity. More to the point, it creates a tendency in us to ignore the gray areas altogether.
So why do we do this? It seems like we shoot ourselves in the foot with such absolutism. It also seems like many people are perfectly happy with this dynamic. It seems as if we unconsciously apply binary logic to situations where it truly makes no sense. Ice cream shops have dozens of flavors, but we still manage to speak of chocolate vs vanilla. Pizza places have toppings galore, but we still like to ask people what they like better: pepperoni or sausage. Coke/Pepsi… Burger King/McDonalds… National League/American League… etc.
Something about these “and/or” distinctions is comforting to us. I tend to believe it comes down to the natural development of our cognitive processes, where our brains are essentially binary computers that have evolved to process information as quickly as possible (oh yeah… creationism vs evolution is yet another binary). The quicker we are at processing the information we perceive, the better chance we have for survival. The binary fight-or-flight decision is considered one of our most basic instinctual processes, so it’s no surprise that our overall cognitive abilities follow a similar structure. We crave the yes/no true/false element in our thought processes, as a result. Simpler processes in our cognition means we can think faster, so when we encounter ambiguity, our brains are naturally geared to resist it for efficiency’s sake. Cognitive dissonance consequently causes a kind of feedback loop in our thought process, and so people find their binary brains returning to more instinct-generated reactions. Ambiguity can make us so uncertain, we literally resort to a fight-or-flight decision, so it quickly causes reactions of anger or denial.
In the socio-political world, we see this tendency causing division on so many fronts. It is so hard for people to avoid this way of thinking, we end up allowing the minor distinctions to seem larger. For example, racism is an act of deciding that a singular difference in pigmentation or geographic origin outweighs the myriad of congruency among all humans. We look for the first answer to “how are they different from me?” long before our brain can even ask the question of “how are they similar?” And further, that one distinction becomes a fundamentally illogical element in our perceptions, allowing people to create self-reinforcing attitudes about those who are different. It translates into a self-fulfilling prophecy of fear. Fearing the unknown in our fellow humans creates reciprocal fears in them in turn. But both reactions are rooted in that ignorance rather than in knowledge. There is no logical truth there.
Our binary brains are just doing their best to enable quick instinctual decisions, but we can be sure our humanity CAN overcome this. In children, we see their ability to look past differences because children still haven’t organized their reactions along those rigid binaries. In essence, our instinctual brains are working against the more logical concepts of tolerance and understanding for the sake of cognitive simplicity. It’s easier for the brain to use fight-or-flight dynamics than to develop complex mental processes, because for most of our history as a living organism, such inefficiencies slow down our threat-assessment capabilities and thus could lead to death. So when ideological concepts come up, where there’s a high level of messy ambiguity on every front, there is a tendency in all of us to make it easy on ourselves and “pick a side”. It makes us very susceptible to that one-difference mentality, particularly when there’s also an unknown element.
As I mentioned at the top, I’m a trans woman, so there is a fundamental ambiguity to my very existence. I have experienced reactions that reflect that fight-or-flight dynamic, coming in the form of anger or disgust. Tolerance is difficult for those who can’t get past this element in their thinking. Even those folks who are capable of compassion and understanding still backslide into elements of binary definitions. They still seek to define where I fit in their spectrum of definition. “So are you gay or bi?” “Are you having the surgery?” “Are you a drag queen then?” “Do you consider yourself a woman?”. It can be a bit maddening at times, because, personally, I’m past the need to consider such distinctions. I HAD to get past it as a part of understanding myself, and frankly, rejecting the binary. But the irony is that if I expect others to see the world the way I do, I’m creating yet another binary about how people perceive the binary. It’s almost impossible to avoid. It’s part of how we think, but can we fix that?
This would seem to be a long-standing conflict in our way of thinking. Certainly at some level, empathy and acceptance of those who are different had to work its way into our consciousness, or civilization could not exist. Further, I would suggest that this conflict has been fundamental toward our ongoing societal development. One must overcome the illogical self-fulfilling prophecy of fear in order to effectively coexist with others in society. It therefore distresses me to see how often leaders will weaponize this fear, in order to herd the populace into groups based on binary opposition. Whether it’s through religion, political ideology, race, sexuality, gender or class, they seek those divisions that enable them to further their agendas. Vote for whomever will keep the people you fear from hurting you. And while it goes both ways, to be sure, the arc of civilization seems aligned with the side that promotes tolerance, knowledge, and compassion. That side of the binary perception binary is the one that is able to accept me without requiring me to adhere to the same set of assumptions under which they’ve lived their lives. That side is capable of putting themselves in my place.
I’m a trans woman. Some people can’t wrap their minds around the idea. For them, it just overcomplicates the world. To me this is the problem. The world is complicated. Allowing people to continue under the delusion that the world should be simple is a fundamental threat to the freedom of thought that is the basis of all freedom. It lends itself to a regressive and primitive mentality. And the more primitive we allow the mentality of our society to be, the more easily such animalistic reactions can be manipulated. It’s the intellectual equivalent of the abandoning agriculture for the sake of a nomadic existence. Yes, the elements of that existence are much simpler, but we would lose everything else along the way.
Did I mention that I’m a trans woman? I might have. Have you spent the time reading this wondering when I’m going to start demanding the right to use the bathroom of my choice? Or have you been waiting for me to demand you call me a woman? It’s a piece that is focused on “the binary” after all, so you may have expected the logic to angle back toward my personal trans-rights agenda by now. Sure, it’s related, but I believe the issue I’m addressing is much broader. There’s so much more at stake than my own rights or even trans rights. It’s about recognizing free thought as a human right. This past election season, the very existence of the trans community was weaponized as a wedge to divide Americans. We were presented not just as a threat to women (unjustly), but the truth is that there was a distinct agenda to use the ambiguity and cognitive dissonance in order to create an irrational fear of us and what we MIGHT represent to the future.
The lure of simple answers is admittedly difficult to resist, but we must encourage everyone to fight against it, lest we continue to be two distinct flocks of sheep being herded toward the same slaughterhouse. We should encourage everyone to see the broad spectrum of similarities between us first, rather than those bright shiny pinpoints of tribal difference. Our binary animal brains will fight it, it’s true, because they are instinctively geared toward individual survival. But it is the very nature of our humanity to overcome fear in such moments, and to choose curiosity instead. It is our ability to pursue knowledge that pushes us collectively forward, and maintains the ongoing functionality of our civilization.
Do I really believe trans people are going to single-handedly save the world? Not really, no. But I do believe we ALL can try harder. Trans people challenge binary thinking, in and of itself. We act as one example, among many, of how often something that we presume to be simple is truly much more complicated. Consequently, as with the past election, we are an illustration of how our digital way of thinking can be easily manipulated, particularly when ignorance and fear are put in play. Through our intrinsic defiance of the gender binary, we show how those seeking power over us can take the relative simplicity of our reproductive process, and weaponize it into rigid gender roles designed to maintain the status quo. We represent a cautionary tale of how it’s important to avoid being divided arbitrarily. We are the living embodiment of perceptual ambiguity. No, we can’t independently save the world, as we’re the exception rather than the rule within the present society, but perhaps we can help change people’s tendency toward binary thinking enough and empower them to save it themselves.