Gender Isn’t Binary, and We Shouldn’t Act Like It Is

13 Feb

by Erin Riordan

Gender is a spectrum. It is not binary, it is not man or woman, he/him or she/her, and we need to stop talking about gender like it exists only in these two small boxes. Gender is complex, and exists in infinite possibilities. Yet our society hides and ignores the complexity of gender and gender identity. From birth we are assigned a gender and told that is all there is. But that is not all there is, and we need to start acting like it.

I am a cisgendered woman. I have cis privilege, and for much of my life I did not recognize the infinite ways in which my gender identity was validated while others was not. It starts at birth, when we label babies as “boy” or “girl”, and with the medical standard of immediately “correcting” the genitalia of intersex children (“correcting” in quotations to acknowledge how horrific this practice is, and how it ignores that not even sex is binary). It is reinforced with standards of gendered colors, and gendered toys, and with words like “son” and “daughter,” “sister” and “brother.” It continues with gender-specific bathrooms, and with gender-specific sports teams.

As we grow older, the ways in which gender is constricted to a binary multiply. There are boy’s schools and girl’s schools. There are sex-ed classes that present sex as binary, gender as binary, and both as the same thing, indistinguishable from one another and thus reinforcing cisgender as the norm and the acceptable standard. There is the way we talk about romantic relationships- we teach teenagers that they can have boyfriends or girlfriends but we don’t talk about partners or people we can be in relationships with. We teach heteronormativity and gender normativity. There is the college housing process that asks us to identify as “male” or “female” and leaves us no other option, and pairs us up with our presumed sex/gender matching roommate. There is every form, from medical to legal to Facebook, that asks us to check off as a gender box: male, female, and if you are lucky, other. Even “other” is problematic, as it lumps together infinite identities into one vague checkbox, meant to be a gift of gender diversity. There is medical care that is centered around cisgender norms, with no standard practice of treating non-cisgendered patients.

And then there’s the media. Recently in my Women’s and Gender Studies class we examined the ways in which gender is presented in the media. Our conversation largely revolved around the ways in which women are objectified in ads, movies, magazines, etc. and the consequences of this; body image issues, professional/workplace struggles for women, and of course, the perpetuation and normalization of violence against women. What struck me most in viewing all of these ads though was not the ways in which they represented women, but that they only represented women and men. In all the dozens of media images we looked at there were no images of non-cisgendered individuals. In the public sphere, non-cisgendered people do not exist. They are not seen or acknowledged or represented.

Even more pervasive than this is the way gender is represented in our language. So much of our language is gendered, and we lack a standard way to speak that is nongendered. There are non-gendered or “third gender” pronouns, but their use is not widespread. They, them, ze, zie, zir, hir and many other options exist as third-gender or gender-neutral pronouns, but outside of genderqueer communities their use is not common or normalized. It is considered grammatically incorrect to use gender-neutral language like “them” or “themselves” in much writing, or so Word’s grammar correction program tells me. When I write cisgender or binaried or transmen or transwomen Word’s spell check program tells me these aren’t words, and spell check certainly doesn’t recognize any of the gender neutral pronouns mentioned earlier. We teach our children gendered language that they continue to use throughout their lives. We presume cisgender gender identities in almost all that we do, and it shows up in our language. I have been in only two settings where the group has been asked to introduce themselves not only with their names but also with their preferred gender pronouns. The very language we speak reinforces the gender binary, and invalidates the identities of people who do not identify as cisgender, and sustains a norm that is exclusionary and harmful.

This gender normativity also creates a culture of discrimination, transphobia, and prejudice against non-cisgendered people. The prevalence of the gender binary and discrimination of non-cisgendered people influences almost every area of public and private life as well. Non-cisgendered individuals experience double the rate of unemployment, and 97% of people who are employed experience harassment at work. This discrimination and mistreatment contributes to the high rate of poverty for non-cisgendered people, which stands at 15%, double the rate for the general population. Experiences of housing instability and homelessness are also higher amongst non-cisgendered people than the general population as a result of this widespread discrimination.

Yet there are even more serious ways in which cis privilege and transphobia exist in our society. Only 13 states have hate crime laws that include gender identity or expression, and violence against transgender and genderqueer people is widespread, especially here in D.C. Many community groups have documented police and health care discrimination against transgender and genderqueer people who experience hate violence and assault. Statistics indicate that non-gender conforming people are at a significantly higher risk of experiencing hate violence, yet much of this violence is underreported, and the federal government collects no data on violence against transgender and genderqueer people. In our communities and as a nation we need to dramatically improve the ways in which we handle violence against non-cisgendered individuals, including (but not limited to) treatment, care, safety, awareness, and prevention.

Even though I recognize all these ways in which discrimination and double standards and violence are inscribed into our culture and into our society, I am still ignorant of many issues affecting non-cisgendered people. I am still ignorant of so much of my privilege. My experiences as a ciswoman make it harder for me to see the myriad ways in which I have privilege and others do not, and to see and understand the experiences of people who are non-cisgendered. But this privilege is not an excuse for ignorance or inaction. I have a responsibility to educate myself, to push myself to be more aware, and to be a better ally. I also need to recognize that this is a process, and that I am going to mess up and get it wrong. Even though I am aware of the cisgendered nature of our language, I still struggle to use gender-neutral language in my own writing. I still have to check myself from making assumptions about people’s gender identities. But this is not cause to give up or to complain that it’s all just “too hard” to worry myself with. It simply means that I need to consistently push myself to check my privilege, and act in ways that acknowledge and support the variety of gender identities and gender expressions that exist in our world. It means that I need to strive to be more aware and to be a better ally.

And thankfully there are so many resources out there to help in this process, and so many examples of non-cisgendered activism. There are community groups and advocacy organizations. There is the fantastic DC campaign for transgender and gender identity respect. There are blogs and gifs and all sorts of awesome online communities. There is the decision of Girl Scouts to be inclusive of transgender children. There is the dad in Germany who wears dresses and nail polish to support his son’s gender expression. There are the schoolchildren in Baltimore who began using ‘Yo’ as a gender-neutral pronoun. There are films and books and more. There are so many ways to be informed and to be supportive of non-cisgendered issues. There are so many ways to challenge the gender binary, and it is time we step up and do it.

So let’s all take action, and start by recognizing the complexity of gender and by acknowledging gender as a spectrum. Let’s check our own actions, and educate ourselves when we need to. We need to not presume our knowledge of an issue when we are uninformed, or the nonexistence of an issue just because we don’t see it. And at places like Georgetown we need to advocate for the adoption of gender-neutral housing and gender-neutral bathrooms. In our communities we need to challenge and combat violence against non-cisgendered individuals. We need to call upon our government to establish national standards preventing discrimination in the workplace, in healthcare, in housing, and in all other areas of life. We need to recognize that gender isn’t binary, and we need to stop acting like it is.

2 Responses to “Gender Isn’t Binary, and We Shouldn’t Act Like It Is”

  1. ACD July 11, 2014 at 5:25 pm #

    I feel as if you might be unwittingly reinforcing the tyranny of binary gender by using the phrase “non-cisgendered.” By labeling those who don’t identify with their birth-assigned gender as “non-cisgendered,” you tacitly suggest that such individuals are outside of the norm; you define them as a negative of what the existing norm already is.

    This sort of thing is disheartening. Get your shit together, lady.


  1. A Father’s Guide to Raising a Feminist | Feminists-at-Large - June 16, 2013

    […] in our culture is based on a socially constructed notion of gender as binary and rigid, and while children will learn quickly in school, from their peers, and on television, […]

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