The dangers of the gender binary
Gender infiltrates our awareness even before we are born — pink for girl, blue for boy. But the notions of the gender binary are not only damaging to those who don’t believe in it, but those who do.
We fight for gender equality because there is at least a perceived difference between the genders. But actually, that sentence is problematic for a simple reason: between should be among.
Humans like categories: cat or dog, Wars or Trek, girl or boy. And often, we can fit into these categories. Some XX individuals are girls. Some XY individuals are boys. Some XX individuals are boys, and XY individuals are girls, and we understand that to be within the same umbrella and an unfortunate matter of circumstance. But whether we can accept it or not, there is a “none of the above,” too.
I. W. Gregorio’s debut novel None Of The Above is about a girl with Androgen Insensitivy Syndrome, or AIS. AIS individuals are intersex, which used to be called herm*phroditism. (Please note: this term is often used as a slur, hence its censor.) The term has since fallen out of use and favor, since it’s laden with a history of discrimination, phobia, and disgust. (It’s also inaccurate: scientifically, herm*phrodite is an organism with both male and female reproductive systems — think plants — while an intersex individual can have ambiguous genitalia but .)
The narrator, Kristin, grapples with her new-found chromosomal knowledge that calls into question her gender, making high school more of a living hell than it already is. The book shows Kristin’s struggle to validate herself as a girl when everyone around her begins to see her as otherwise. She doesn’t see it, though, doesn’t believe it. Was she really supposed to be a boy because of something that’s supposedly in her cells?
Gregorio was inspired by one of her patients who came to her already knowing she was intersex. And Gregorio was fair to write this book about Kristin, seeing a lack of diverse narrators and characters, especially in YA literature. (Gregorio was actually one of the founders of the “We Need Diverse Books” movement.) What if her patient had read a book like it when she was first grappling with this new information? Would she have found solace?
As the reader, there is no doubt that Kristin is a girl. Indeed, Kristin’s story is about reconciling the differences between gender and sex — understanding, first, that there are differences between gender and sex. Separating out the two gives autonomy to anyone who’s not on the binary. But sex isn’t so straight forward, either.
At first glance, it is naïve to say there aren’t sex differences. The presence of external genitalia seems to confirm that. There are studies that show sexually dimorphic areas in the brain, meaning areas of the brain that are different between the sexes. Here is where the confusion begins: even in talking about biology, between should be among.
In the animal kingdom, there are plenty of examples of three or more sexes. (There’s even an example of an organism with seven!) But in humans, we’re taught that your chromosomes, whether XX or XY, deem your biological sex and, more often than not, gender. Intersex individuals throw that for a loop. Let’s discuss what is often a “typical” case of an intersex person. (Note: some people prefer person-first language, i.e. a person with intersex characteristics; others prefer identity-first, e.g. intersex person.)
A fetus develops with XY chromosomes. In our world, that would indicate they are “sexually male.” (More on those suspicious quotes later.) Incomplete apoptosis, or programmed cell death, of the Mullerian ducts, which form much of the “female” reproductive system (vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes), causes an inability for the Wolffian ducts, which leads to the “male” reproductive system (testes, penis, vas deferens), to descend.
In simpler language, the “female” reproductive system usually from does not completely die off, which means the “male” reproductive system can’t fully form. Therefore, there is a partial formation of both, and a baby girl is born.
Or is a baby girl born? It’s obvious to anyone who believes in the existence of binary transgender individuals (more on this later) that external genitalia do not a gender make. The presence of a penis does not mean the person is a boy. The presence of a vagina does not mean the person is a girl.
At the smallest estimate, 1 in 2000 people are born intersex (due to a variety of biological causes, not just AIS). This means that at the smallest estimate, 1 in 2000 individuals are born with genital that are ambiguous. (Devastatingly, these babies usually undergo surgery to “correct” their genitalia.) The tissues that form the penis and the clitoris are the same in utero. That means that whatever “decides” whether we are male or female is given the same basic body structures to begin with.
That “whatever” isn’t unknown: it’s the presence of testosterone and estrogen (forms of androgens) in varying levels, determined by different genes. That means levels of androgens that are different from the “norm” can create an atypical sex. And what are commonly called disorders of sex differentiation are called as such because many individuals’ bodies develop as their chromosomes would seem to dictate. (This type of language is one way that the medical system and medical professionals malign intersex characteristics.) It seems, for the most part, that people with the XX karyotype are women, and that most people with the XY karyotype are men. Right?
1 in 2000 seems like an insignificant number. But most specialists think that’s too conservative. At the largest estimate, the number of intersex individuals is 1 in 200.
That means intersex individuals are as common as redheads.
The reality is that our perceived sex at birth, judged by genitalia, dictates our early gender realities. That’s because there are real gender differences in this world — that is, real differences that people assign to us. The difference in socialization of girls and boys is no secret. It happens even before many of us our born, with blue and pink nurseries, with gender reveal parties. What’s dangerous is when these differences become a part of our society and how we treat each other.
Too late; that’s already the case. Gender differences are so ingrained in us that stereotypes and expectations have caused (white) women in the US to earn 77 cents to the man’s dollar. (Women of color are treated far, far worse, earning 10 or even 20 cents less.) A woman negotiating her salary is seen as pushy and aggressive, while a man doing so is seen as proactive and a self-advocate. These are the stories we hear spin out ahead of and behind us. Women are expected to balance kids and career or else choose. Subverting these roles, whether male or female, is still a surprise to even the most progressive of us. Stay-at-home dads, at the kindest, cause an eyebrow raise.
Would this be the case if we didn’t, for some reason, care about gender?
After the 2015 State of the Union address, The Washington Post did a story about transgender Americans and started with this detail:
“We still don’t know how many Americans identify as transgender.”
How can we even begin to discuss and deconstruct the gender binary if we don’t know how at least many people attempt to subvert it? The limited stats we come mostly from a 2011 study by The National LGBTQ Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). With even such a small sample size (n = 6450), this survey gives us sobering facts.
Gender identity is so important that 78% of trans and gender non-conforming kids from grades K-12 report some sort of harassment. 63% of trans individuals experienced an act of serious discrimination, meaning it had a significant effect on their lives. 41% of trans individuals attempt suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general US population. These rates rise drastically for people of color. Trans individuals were four times more likely to live in extreme poverty — meaning in a household making under $10,000 a year. These are just some of their findings, which also cover public housing discrimination, health disparities, and even resilience in sentences or small sections.
I wish the story stopped there, but there are many not covered by even this inclusive survey. The NCTE estimates that there are 15,000 trans individuals serving in the US military today, and over 130,000 trans veterans. (Here’s to you, Chelsea Manning.) That’s 15,000 individuals whom, for “health reasons,” are not allowed to disclose their gender identities. That’s 15,000 individuals who face all of the issues that other trans individuals face, while having to also hide their identities.
For a long time, I thought that being transgender affirmed the gender binary. When I first wrote this article, back in January 2015, I thought being transgender meant switching from one side of the binary to the other. This came from chemistry: we were taught in O-Chem that cis meant “on the same side” and trans meant “on the other side.”
That’s an elementary understanding of the word. Most trans activists understand the word to mean not identifying with whatever gender you were assigned at birth. That means that some people are binary trans, switching from identifying as man to woman or vice-versa. Others of us are non-binary trans, meaning our genders don’t conform to either man or woman. Being non-binary can mean being both, neither, a variation, fluid, and/or all of the above at different times.
In the core of it, neither groups are really accepted.
Radical feminism rages against trans individuals (hence the term trans-exclusive radical feminist, or TERF), either because they “abandon” the female gender or try to embrace it “when they’re men.” They often hide behind sex: they claim that the use of “female” and “male” is only biological, and because those differences exist, well. Sucks to suck. (Yes, this is a direct reference to Laci Green, whose insistence on using biology is outdated at best, TERF-y at worse, and awful nonetheless.)
The reality is, queer individuals are still being persecuted. Trans individuals are still killed, especially trans people of color. At its best, SCOTUS’ momentous Obergefell v. Hodges decision is being met with defiance. Many insurance companies don’t cover the cost of top surgery, let alone bottom surgery, for trans individuals who wish to medically transition. These stories often go unheard. In light of Caitlyn Jenner’s public transition, many trans individuals have noted the differences in reception with her story and theirs: for one, that there was a reception at all.
The truth is, even within queer and trans communities, there are examples of transphobia.
Laverne Cox, while supporting Jenner, noted that as a trans person of color, her story was often received differently and she did not have access to the opportunities that Jenner does. Janet Mock has similar feelings. These are brave women who stood up for their identities and have been — at kindest — harassed for it. Would people’s disgust with Jenner be louder if she weren’t white? Trans people of color are more likely to be the target of harassment, violence, and transphobia/antagonism.
We cannot ignore how other factors, especially race, play into perception of gender. While it’s not the subject of this essay, it would be irresponsible not to note it. Black girls are treated as women whereas Donald Trump, Jr., is “just a kid.” People of color, especially Black people, are disproportionately targeted by police, but we often forget that this also happens to women and girls. The “Angry Black Woman” and “Scary Black Man” tropes cause people to be killed. To talk about gender without race is to ignore Kimberle Crenshaw’s seminal work that informs so-called “third wave,” or modern, feminism. Race kills. The gender binary kills. Combine the two, and you never stood a chance.
I want to end with my beginning point — that the notion of the gender binary is not just harmful to those who don’t identify with it. The gender binary is what tells young boys that they can’t dress up as a princess for Halloween, or like musicals, or ask for dolls as presents. The gender binary tells girls that they’re doomed to fail in math, that love often comes in the form of abuse, that sexual assault is their rite of passage into womanhood. The gender binary tells us that queer-coding is an acceptable way to show villainy, that being gay is a mockery of manhood. Teenaged boys are taught that a no means yes and a silence means yes as well. Young people are told to keep it within the family.
The gender binary has a symbiotic relationship with kyriarchy, the extension of the patriarchy to encompass other forms of oppression. The gender binary therefore has a hand in oppression, discrimination, and the biases that are the undercurrents of our society.
The gender binary is harmful to everyone, not just those of us who are in conflict with it. It’s time we take a serious look at our discussions — and perceptions — of gender.
Note: this story has been updated as of July 20, 2017 to reflect a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the gender binary, sex binary, being transgender, and binary-breaking. In fact, some of the things I said in the original version were downright harmful. Some further clarifications regarding the language around intersex characteristics were added on July 20, 2020.
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