My Gender Is Not Binary, and Neither Are My Politics

A paradox of progressive posturing

Pax Ahimsa Gethen
Nov 14, 2018 · 5 min read

Last Tuesday I went to cast my ballot, as I have in nearly every general and midterm election since I first became eligible to vote in 1988. However, I had never been more unenthusiastic and resentful about voting as I was in this election season. It wasn’t because I thought my vote would make no difference. Having seen my fellow Californians take away the rights and dignity of same-sex couples with Proposition 8 ten years ago, I felt that at least voting on local and state ballot measures was important.

But when it came to the candidates, I refused to obey the orders of my fellow progressives to ignore my values and back Democrats. I have not been a member of the Democratic Party since the mid-90s, and since that time I have heard in every single election that “this is not the time” to support progressive third party or independent candidates because the stakes are too high. Since 2016 in particular I have been told that refusing to vote for Democrats — or not voting at all — is an act of privilege and oppressive toward women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

Here’s the thing. Unlike some far leftists, I do understand and respect the choice of progressives to vote for Democrats, even if I disagree with that choice. What I don’t understand or respect is the vote shaming and the presumption that our current two-party system is sacrosanct. The insistence that there are really only two political parties is particularly puzzling when coming from trans people like myself, who understand that life is simply not that binary.

Most trans folks and our educated allies acknowledge — correctly — that there are more than two genders. Some trans people do see being trans as strictly a medical condition, and deny non-binary identities just as strongly as conservatives do. But overall our community has evolved to be inclusive of many gender identities beyond woman and man, female and male.

We acknowledge and embrace this gender diversity despite loud insistence from much of U.S. society that there are exactly two sexes, which correspond to exactly two genders, and that any deviation from this goes against the natural order of things. We can point to evidence of gender and sexual diversity in pre-colonized societies, intersex humans, and other species, but offering this information does little to sway those who are convinced that non-binary people like myself are attention seekers, mentally ill, or are simply acting on political agendas.

Despite recent advances, such as several states issuing non-binary identification cards, the overwhelming presumption in modern U.S. society is that everyone must be either a woman or man, girl or boy. While the trans-antagonistic rulings of the Trump administration do not help in this regard, I place much of the blame on churches for reinforcing this false binary.

So if we can acknowledge that there are more than two genders — which is considered by many to be a radical and transgressive position — why can we not acknowledge and respect that there are more than two valid political parties in the U.S.? The current Democratic and Republican parties obviously did not exist when this country was first founded — which, as a reminder, was done by and for the benefit of straight cisgender white Christian male landowners. Some marginalized people who choose not to vote at all point to Audre Lorde’s declaration that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Joshua Allen and CeCe McDonald speak on their Black Excellence Tour. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

On the day after Donald Trump was elected president, I attended a talk by Joshua Allen and CeCe McDonald, young trans activists visiting San Francisco on their “Black Excellence Tour”. CeCe, a trans woman who was jailed in a men’s prison after defending herself from an attacker, said that she was “not bothered” by the election results. She recognized that people in our community have faced, and continue to face, far worse threats. She and Joshua are choosing to participate in different kinds of activism rather than “getting out the vote”; Joshua, who is non-binary, is currently helping LGBTQ migrants in Mexico get necessary supplies for their journey while they face racist and transphobic harassment on the caravan.

Telling me that if I don’t vote for Democrats then I am supporting Republicans sounds as wrong to me as telling me that if I’m not a woman, then I must be a man. Some may counter that gender identity is (or should be) personal, whereas voting affects other people. But when I vote for independent and third party candidates, I’m doing so specifically because I feel their policies and positions are better for marginalized people — including people who live in other countries — than those of the Democrats. I don’t make “protest votes”; I don’t write in my own name or Mickey Mouse. But if someone else chooses to vote that way, or to not vote at all, I’m not going to focus my efforts on shaming or stopping them.

The Constitution does not mandate that there are only two parties, and the Constitution itself is not a fixed document. Indeed, the entire government can (and maybe should) be overthrown if we so choose. Insisting that we stick with the Democrats instead of voting for other candidates who want to advance a more progressive agenda strikes me as unacceptably limiting our options.

Equally patronizing are those who say that it’s fine for me to “vote my values” since I live in California and the Democratic vote (at the federal level, at least) is secure here, so my third-party vote has no effect. I vote for the candidates I want based on my evaluation of their positions, not based on where in the country I happen to reside. You can’t say “every vote matters” and then dismiss the wishes of a sizable minority of the population.

Besides, in the overwhelmingly Democratic city of San Francisco, where I’ve lived for the past 15 years, our homeless crisis is so severe that the UN has characterized it is a human rights violation. Democrats may have helped make the Bay Area more friendly to queer and trans folks, but they have not adequately addressed the stark income inequality that has blighted the residents of my adopted city. That same inequality disproportionately affects the LGBTQ community; numerous trans people of color sleep on the sidewalks of the Tenderloin while wealthy white gay men enjoy cocktails in the Castro.

Regardless of who is running for president or Congress in the next election cycle, I will continue to vote, or abstain from voting, how I see fit; my vote belongs to me and me alone. I only ask that my fellow progressives respect that choice, and not tell me that my actions are harming marginalized people like myself. If you can see beyond the gender binary, surely you can imagine a country that isn’t defined by a binary political system. You might not have the energy or desire to change that system yourself, but you can make room for those who will.

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