Binary Rule: Rise in transgender identity questions need for two genders

Photo credit: Connie, “Fork in the Road, Loring Park,” Flickr

By Francesca Gaiba

Transgender issues recently have consistently made news.

The announcement of the Boy Scouts allowing transgender boys in its ranks. A Texas mayor coming out as the first transgender mayor in that state. The new administration’s withdrawal of federal protections for trans students.

Yet myths and misunderstandings remain.

While many people reportedly believe that all transgender people want to transition from one gender to another (male to female or vice versa), the truth is this is the case only for about two thirds of transgender people.

For the other third, gender is a spectrum and the goal is not to “get to the other side” but to find the gender that best defines one’s sense of self. That could be transmasculine, gender-fluid, gender non-conforming, androgynous, gender-queer, non-binary, or simply trans, to name some of the gender identities on the spectrum.

Many trans people advocate for society to recognize more than two genders. As Associate Director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing and an anthropologist of gender and sexuality, my concern is why we automatically insist on the notion of gender as binary. Male or female.

Surely as humans we recognize that bodies come in a multiplicity of ways and on a broad spectrum of degrees: people are very short, somewhat short, average, tall and very tall. They have black, brown, white, gray, blond and blue hair. They are fat, chubby, skinny, gaunt, athletic.

That gender has to have only two discrete categories when other human domains are on a spectrum seems absurd.

The reason we insist on binary definitions for gender answer is likely political-ideological, rather than strictly chromosome-XX-XY biological.

For instance, racial categories in the U.S. have been increasing in number in the Census, from 3 in 1790 to 18 in 2010, proving that our racial distinctions are cultural artifacts rather than biological facts. A comparison of racial categories between the U.S. and, say, Brazil, shows that categories are in the eye of the beholder. While Americans categorize race by ancestry, Brazilians classify by looks and can name 134 or more racial categories, with regional differences and even different terms for children.

What is perplexing is why the government officially categorizes people as men or women at all. My gender is not necessary to be revealed when I fly, or when I drive, or when I apply for a loan.

To be sure, women have better driving records or are more likely to repay loans, and that could affect insurance and interest rates. But likely we would find similar results by different non-gender categories such as rural/urban, high/low income, height or reflex speed. Even the fact that I am left-handed might be of more interest to my car insurance company.

Perhaps one of the reasons for a binary gender system is that it is linked to reproduction and government’s interest in controlling it. All human societies are organized around categories that regulate the way people relate to each other, and the way power is distributed.

Depending on the society, these categories include race, age, income, nationality, caste, and also gender, the only category organized around people’s reproductive abilities. From a demographic perspective, the government has an interest in knowing and regulating how many children are born to each family for census reasons, to budget for schools and future healthcare, to plan the size of its military and count on its future taxpayer base. For some women, this government interest feels intrusive and unwelcome.

This is why debates rage over who controls women’s reproductive rights, abortion, contraception, and alternative ways to conceive.

As an anthropologist, I understand the need and logic for societies to organize people in groups according to reproductive abilities. I have also studied societies that have organized gender in other ways; cultures that acknowledge or officially recognize more than two genders, like hijras in India, kathoeys in Thailand, Nadleehi and Dilbaa in Navajo culture, to name just a few.

I know that a binary gender system is not inevitable, immutable or necessarily the best or only system.

In Western cultures, things have changed dramatically in the past 50 years in terms of reproduction and its relation to the female body. Reproduction can now be delinked from the male-female couple. Single people have children. Same-sex couples have children, and may soon have biological children from both parents. Sperm banks exist. Many couples have no children at all. Dividing humans into men and women for reproduction purposes seems archaic and outdated.

It is possible that the rise in our awareness of trans identity is linked to this change in reproductive technology.

There have always been people who didn’t identify as either men or women. At different points in history on this continent, they were accepted and revered (like the berdache in some Native American cultures), ignored, discriminated and oppressed, denigrated as deviants, perverts, cross-dressers, criminals, labelled unfit for parenting and more, tortured and killed.

But the day may have come when our need to categorize people into men and women has been rendered obsolete by new technologies. A time when one of any number of gender categories is listed on our driver’s licenses and our passports — or not listed at all — and we pair up and fall in love according to how much we like and desire someone and their gender presentation, not based on whether they can provide sperm or eggs to the relationship.

In life and love, the choice is not limited to one or the other.

Francesca Gaiba, PhD, is Research Associate Professor of Medical Social Sciences and Associate Director of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing at Northwestern University and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.