Not Another Gender Binary: A Call For Complexity Over Cis-Readability

Why a nonbinary/binary trans dichotomy is counterproductive to gender liberation by T.J. Jourian and Z Nicolazzo

Z Nicolazzo
Jun 8 · 9 min read

This piece has been cross-posted through both author’s Medium accounts, as well as the account for the National Center for Institutional Diversity

As trans people, not much makes us crankier than the insistence of a nonbinary/binary trans dichotomy, or the arbitrary dividing of trans people into two camps based on someone’s idea of who is and is not conforming to masculine men’s and feminine women’s presentations. As trans scholars and educators, we understand the importance of making trans realities accessible, especially to those out there searching for someone “like them.” But this is not achieved by surplanting one gender binary with another — by making some trans people more like cis — or nontrans — people and others less like cis people. Spoiler alert: it’s not about cis people!

Beyond conveying a lack of understanding of what trans is, does, and can do as a way of being and thinking, the supposed nonbinary/binary trans dichotomy relies on normative judgements about who/what is “trans enough” and/or “really trans.” We don’t reach gender liberation by prioritizing cis understandings of trans and gender nonconforming identities and experiences. Rather than push for more fluid, dynamic, and intersectional notions of gender expansiveness, the “binary v. nonbinary trans people” fallacy keeps our most simplified and palatable narratives front and center. This is yet another practice of cislation, or the translating of seemingly illegible (i.e., not understandable) genders for cis recognition.

“We don’t reach gender liberation by prioritizing cis understandings of trans and gender nonconforming identities and experiences.”

What is Cislation?

Simply put, cislation is what happens when trans people feel compelled to create narratives about our transness in the simplest, most reductive of terms. The “trapped in the wrong body” narrative is one such example. We do this not because we lack complexity, but as a way to be legible (i.e., understandable) to cisgender people, and as a recognition that we live in a world and in an academy that lack the ability to know us and our transness. Some of y’all can’t even deal with “they” as a singular pronoun! Cislation signals cisgender people’s lack of understanding, and the omnipresence of a cultural gender binary discourse (explained below) through which we as trans people must wade.

There are various problems with cislation, especially in relation to the oversimplification of trans populations into a nonbinary/binary trans dichotomy. For a population of people who specifically move across binary constructs of gender, this unnecessary dichotomy rings false, counterproductive, and dangerous. Below, we articulate five arguments for why the creation of a nonbinary/binary trans dichotomy is problematic and why we need to move beyond these manifestations of cislation.

#1: The “Binary = Bad” Ascription

As we have articulated through some of our own scholarship, gender binary discourse — the archaic notion that gender consists of two and only two “opposite” genders, between and amongst which there is no movement, overlap, or fluidity — limits the livability of trans peoples’ lives. We and other trans scholars pose gender binary discourse as a negative ascription; a way of thinking that we should avoid and unlearn. So when one poses a question about, writes about, or consolidates any group of trans people under the banner of being “binary trans individuals,” the negative ascription carries over to that group. For example, if one is posed as being a “binary trans person,” they are perceived to be upholding dominant notions of gender, and thus, are positioned as not doing “trans” right, correct, or well. Our insistence that we avoid and unlearn a way of thinking turns into a suggestion that we avoid and unlearn a way of being. Meaning, there is the accusation that some trans people — the “binary” ones — are not doing trans “right” or “correctly.” In this equation, those consolidated under the heading of “binary trans individuals” are living a life framed by negativity. Ironically, this is the flip side of the not doing trans “right” or “correctly” coin that has also been flinged at gender nonconforming and nonbinary people by assimilationist elements of trans populations, who are surrendering to a desire of acceptability by cis society — our own brand of respectability politics. Thus attempts to be easily explainable to cis people marks all trans people as not “enough” in one way or another.

#2: There is Nothing Not Radical about Moving Across Genders

Susan Stryker articulated that transgender “refer[s] to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain gender.” In whatever way we as trans people express our genders, however we practice this radical act of self-determination and reclamation in a world constantly seeking to erase us, there is nothing not radical about this movement across genders. To produce the supposed nonbinary/binary trans dichotomy suggests some trans people — again, the “binary” ones — are somehow opting into that gross gender binary (il)logic, thus (re)producing societal forms of gendered hegemonic violence, or how gender is posed as always and only binary, thus limiting gender self-determination. The suggestion that “binary” trans movement reproduces gendered hegemonic violence strips our gender-based movement of its radical potential. It suggests some of us — the “binary” ones — are invested in hurting and harming the trans community, because in the end, we are all just (re)producing dominance, albeit in new morphological ways. This (il)logic is trans-antagonistic at best, and violent at worst.

#3: What Even is “Binary” Transness?

In thinking about the cislation inherent in the creation of the nonbinary/binary trans dichotomy, we ask: who is assuming that “binary trans” is a mode of being in the world? How is this dichotomy limiting? What does it even mean to be a “binary trans individual”? Who determines whether someone is “binary” or “nonbinary”? Is it based on biomedical transitioning? Does it matter if one “passes”? On whose standards of beauty does one define “passing”? What about trans people who are biomedically transitioning and claim a nonbinary identity; are they just confused or living a sense of false consciousness? Or nonbinary trans people who do not desire to biomedically transition and do not “pass” based on nontrans people’s standards of beauty? How are racism, ableism, classism, and settler colonialism encoded into notions of “passing” and who is able/desires to biomedically transition in the first place, thus framing all of the aforementioned questions?

The creation of “binary” transness is foisted upon trans people by the inherent desire for cislation by nontrans people as they try to make sense of our lives. And yet again, that sense-making is (less directly perhaps) based on cis people’s “preoccupation with transition and surgery [which] objectifies trans people”, as Laverne Cox put it. In this way of thinking, trans people are posed as gender guinea pigs to be picked apart and prodded, to be judged by standards of beauty and notions of “passing” we never asked for, nor do we have much say in. Simply put: “binary” transness is a cage into which some of us are placed by nontrans people’s desires for cislation, and it needs to stop.

How are racism, ableism, classism, and settler colonialism encoded into notions of “passing”

#4: Transness Extends beyond Embodiment

Suggesting a nonbinary/binary trans dichotomy defines transness as being always and only about bodies. However, as trans and queer scholars have been writing about for years, transness is also an analytic, a method, a politic, an epistemology, and a lens through which to do research. To affix transness to the body via this false binary limits the expansiveness of the notion itself. While trans may well have started off as a way of making meaning of embodied realities — as Stryker’s earlier quote highlights — it has very quickly proliferated in a wild abundance of divergent possibilities for thinking, being, researching, and activism.

#5: Trans is Both Capacious and Specific

There is no good, logical argument for segmenting off notions of transness. Yes, we all experience our transness differently, and everyone should be cautious not to create monolithic understandings of transness based on categorical claims. We are certainly not calling for a singular and reductive notion of transness. However, we do not have to sacrifice honoring the complexities of transness to honor each of our specificities. We can do both; we can have our specific understandings of self while also aligning ourselves politically, socially, and ethically with broader trans communities, or communities of trans experience, or various other signifiers that resonate with who we are. The imposition of an “opposite” or binary between/among trans peoples need not exist, and only serves to sever connections across experiences, politically and otherwise.

Don’t Cislate Me Bro, Or a Call for Complexity Over Cis-Readability

Who we are as trans people is often complex, always beautiful, and infinitely boundless. As we have shown, to have our transness codified and limited through the phenomenon of cislation, which substitutes our limitless natures for cisgender peoples’ coherence, is problematic on multiple levels. We also understand that our arguments may be challenging for readers in that we stray from easy solutions and digestible understandings of our trans selves for others to consume. This is intentional, lest we fall into the traps of cislation. Thus, we close our essay with a call for people of all genders — and especially cisgender people — to embrace complexity over a false sense of readability of trans realities. Embracing our call means focusing not on cis-readability via cislation, but on trans humanity via centering transness in all its boundless potentialities and possibilities. If we care deeply about trans lives, then we need to recognize that the promotion of a nonbinary/binary trans dichotomy does more harm than good.

T.J. Jourian is an assistant professor in the department of Organizational Leadership at Oakland University and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Dr. Jourian’s research interests involve trans* and queer student, staff, and faculty campus experiences and leadership, particularly those of queer and trans* people of color, justice-centered curriculum and pedagogy, and student activism. He is also the co-founder of Trans*forming Higher Education (formerly T*Circle), the only collective by and for trans educators in higher education and student affairs.

Z Nicolazzo is an assistant professor of Trans* Studies in Education and Co-Chair of the Transgender Studies Research Cluster at the University of Arizona, and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Dr. Nicolazzo’s research is focused on exposing and exploring critical gendered perspectives of education. Her first book, Trans* in College, is the first full-length monograph focusing on trans college students through an affirmative-based lens.

Z Nicolazzo

Written by

Assistant Professor, Trans* Studies in Education, Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Arizona

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