Nationality and the Myth of the Gender Binary
Note: I am a mere human. I do not know all. If I say something egregious, please tell me.
I’m a cisgender male. And I don’t question that.
Two years ago, I assumed sex was analogous to gender and that there were two.
A year ago, I learned that transgender people existed.
A few months ago, I started thinking of gender as a spectrum, something one could describe in the same way as hex code colors, but instead of #RRGGBB (Red, Green, Blue), there would be #MMFFOO (Male, Female, Other).
Now I’m starting to think that even the spectrum concept is limiting. Because let’s be real here: a spectrum with “male” and “female” at each end implies there’s a concrete definition of “male” and “female.” But if your gender is not tied to your body, your clothes, your personality, or your romantic or sexual relationships…
What even is gender?
But that’s all abstract for me. I’m a cisgender dude, I have been that way all of my life, and I’ve had no problem with that.
But I’m also an immigrant.
I was born in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh, India. It’s a pretty quiet place. My parents grew up in that town. I spent about two months there, then moved to Singapore until I was two, and then moved to Massachusetts, USA, where I have lived since.
So, pop quiz:
Am I Indian or American?
So what defines Indian-ness or American-ness? What defines nationality? What do I say when someone asks me, “Where are you from?”
If my nationality — actually, let’s call it national identity* — is defined by where I was born, my “mother tongue,” or my skin and hair and facial structure, and then I’m Indian. I was born there. My parents grew up speaking Hindi. And my brown skin and slightly wavy black hair are characteristic of someone native to central India.
(* “national identity” is not the official term. But bear with me here.)
According to my body and the circumstances of my birth, I am Indian.
However, I’m an American citizen. I speak English with a light New England accent, but I can only speak a few fragments of Hindi. And right now I’m wearing jeans and a T-shirt — not traditional Indian clothing.
According to deliberately edited legal documents and my outward expression of identity, I am American.
So that makes me a transnational* person: the national identity I was assigned at birth is not the one I identify with today. Therefore, I took steps to alter my outward expression to better match my national identity.
(* “transnational” is also not the official term. But there’s a point to this, trust me.)
Naturally, there are some societal issues with being a transnational person. People frequently screw up my name, even though it’s really not that hard to say. Some folks in my extended family are kinda pissed that I’m not particularly Indian anymore. And there are some contexts where coming out as a transnational person might not go over well with the people around me. (Trump rallies come to mind.)
But I lucked out in my national transition: I transitioned early, I chose to entirely transition, and I transitioned only into American-ness.
If I had transitioned from Indian to American later in my life — say, after high school — more pieces of my past as an Indian would linger into adulthood. I, for example, would keep an ever-so-slight accent or a general discomfort with certain things Americans do. I would consider myself an American, but some people would be a bit confused when I say that — or worse, they would deny that I’m American at all.
If I had mixed my Indian-ness and my American-ness — say, if I put a statue of Ganesha in a Silicon Valley hoodie in my house or made a career out of Bollywood-inspired hip-hop — I, as an international person, would probably throw off people even more. In fact, I would probably garner confused, vaguely confrontational questions from both Indian and American people.
And if I moved to a completely different country (like Sweden) or a state not everyone agrees exists (like Palestine) while still being born in India and raised in America, or if I renounced national identity and traveled the world, well…this gets complex quickly.
And let’s not forget that all of this can be fluid, and all of this can remain an open question. When I went to India a few weeks ago, I picked up a slight Indian accent and started throwing scraps of Hindi into my speech, and that went away when I got back to the States.
But hey, I’m comfortable with who I am — a transnational American, assigned at birth as Indian.
But all this back-and-forth about about national identity opens up a much bigger question:
What defines national identity?
Language? Well, Americans speak a language lifted from England (hence “English”), and India has ten bajillion languages.
Religion? Well, India (or at least that general area) birthed both Hinduism and Buddhism, the United States did not start Christianity. And besides, isn’t the United States supposed to be secular?
Culture? Well, is the American culture living in a Manhattan apartment? Raising a family in an Ohio suburb? Driving a lifted Ford F-150 with machine-gun mounts in Texas? Yes. Same deal in India. You might think the sari is quintessential Indian dress, but each little community in India wears saris with different fabrics, weaves, patterns, styles of wearing, embroideries on the edges, and so on.
Borders and governments? There was a time when eleven American states weren’t in the Union. There was another time when Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India were all India. And even today, India and Pakistan can’t agree on their borders around Kashmir. Borders are vague and ever-changing.
Ethnicity? Look at this ethnic map of Africa and see how nothing lines up. Also, if America is fundamentally white, where were all the white people in 1491? (Or before the 10th century, when the Norse temporarily colonized bits of Canada?)
Yeah, yeah, I just said I’m transnational, but thinking about national identity enough results in the conclusion that national identity isn’t…real. You think have an idea of who “an American” is, but all you really have to define a given national identity are some frankly restrictive stereotypes.
So let’s recap:
- Your national identity is not necessarily the national identity you were assigned at birth.
- Your national identity can be a mix of two or more “traditional” national identities, you can have no national identity, etc. etc. etc.
- Your national identity can be fluid.
- Your national identity has no concrete definition.
Hey, doesn’t that remind you of how many people treat gender?
Semantically, gender and national identity have a lot in common. You think they mean something, but upon closer examination, they’re both too vague and riddled with asterisks to mean anything.
So why do gender and national identity exist? And how have they become so ingrained in society that entire systems of oppression exist on top of these ideas? Because..
Gender and national identity are both heuristic filters by which people shape their identities and their perceptions of others.
If you imagine “a person,” not a lot pops up in your mind. But if you imagine “an American man,” all of the sudden, you have a few archetypes to frame your perception of that person. And you can point those filters at yourself to instantly make yourself part of a community. And why stop there? You can start talking about race, religion, sexuality — more fuzzy, heuristic filters by which people shape their identity and their perceptions of others, all with their own archetypes.
These filters make life easier. It’s easier to imagine people if you have a basic idea of what it means to be American, or female, or Buddhist, or bisexual. The filters are biased, and that’s both why they work and why societal discrimination exists.
And the main task of being an open-minded human is acknowledging that those filters are fuzzy and learning to look past them.