5 Truths that Bust the Gender Binary
by Terra Anderson
What is all this talk about busting the Gender Binary? Why is it so important and why now? This past June we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, a critical event in the history of LGBTQ2SIA+ community when transgender women of color (among others) stood up and demanded basic decency and human rights, that propelled forward the movement to end discrimination based on who we are and how we love.
Transgender rights have finally become a national conversation in a way they have never been before. Why now? Because this conversation is overdue. Because people who don’t fit neatly into society’s boxes of heterosexual men and women have existed without visibility, rights, or a voice in the social or political conversation for too long, and our voices are finally loud enough in a unified front to get heard. The tide of social consciousness is rising, and the rising tide lifts all boats.
You’ve clicked on this blog post and read this far because something in you is responding to this rising tide. Something in you is leaning into this conversation. Even if that part of you is small and unsure, THANK YOU. Thank you for following the twinge of curiosity that got you here.
The truth is that busting the gender binary is all about you, and everyone else, reclaiming the truth about identity that was hijacked by out-dated, incomplete information about gender identity and biological sex. This article is meant to highlight those fallacies and help you regain your truth. Society has survived through major thought changes like this one many times in the past, and we will do it again. We once thought the Earth was flat and at the center of our solar system for instance. We can do this y’all.
So hold onto your hats my friends, and get ready for blast off. You are about to get a download of the 5 basic truths that are determining the future of gender in our society. Hold onto your seat, squeeze your but cheeks and get ready for your your mind to be blown!
#1 Gender is Different than Sexual Orientation
Whaaaaat!???? I know… for some of us, this may be the first time we have really thought this distinction through. Gender refers to an internal sense of identity that informs how we comprise our sense of self, where sexual orientation refers to who we are attracted to sexually and/or romantically. The genders that most of us will think of off the top of our heads are men and women. The mainstream school of thought around gender in the western world has seen men and women as “opposites” creating what we refer to as the gender binary. We have been taught a fallacy that the gender binary is a given, that without question every single person falls neatly into one of these two categories based on their anatomy (this argument is unfounded… but hold your horses, we will get to that next). In reality, the human sense of self is far more variant and complex than these two gender categories give us credit for. Numerous societies across the planet acknowledge more than two genders, and have for centuries. It is time we do too.
Here is an analogy to ponder: The gender binary is like only acknowledging that there are only two kinds of food, meals and desert. I know, silly right? But hang in there. These distinctions may have value in some limited contexts such as, “I want desert before my meal!” However these two categories are simply too broad to articulate important nuances of nutrition and certainly don’t encompass all the ways we can consume digestible nutrients and utilize our elaborate palette.
The same is true for the gender binary – it is simply not a functional enough way to categorize all people, especially when these distinctions are integral in writing laws and policy, determining rights, health care, education, etc. We are colorful beings with rich, bright diverse experiences. We need to start acknowledging them so that our social experience can start to celebrate the pure brilliance of the diverse human experience.
So, to sum this point up, when you see the acronym LGBTQ2SIA+ you can confidently say that these letters describe both gender experiences and sexual orientations that are different from the predominantly acknowledged categories of men born with penises, women born with vulvas in heterosexual relationships. If you don’t know what all these letters stand for, its a quick and easy google search to find out, which I strongly encourage you do when you finish reading this article.
#2 Gender is Not Anatomy
The most common and harmful widely accepted fallacy is that genitals determine gender identity. This is simply not true, and the science proves it. First, we must understand that gender identity and biological sex are two different things entirely.
Like stated previously, gender refers to an internal sense of self, where biological sex refers to a person’s biological sex characteristics. Examples of sex characteristics are genitals, where hair grows on the body, presence of an adam’s apple, body-fat distribution, hand size, breast tissue growth, chromosomes, hormone balances, internal reproductive organs, etc.
Are you starting to see how these characteristics cause problems in identifying sex? There is so much variance in human bodies regardless of the sex designation on your birth certificate, we simply can’t boil all of this down to what’s between a person’s legs! I know, I know, genitals are important and amazing and bring us lots of pleasure, but they aren’t important enough to base the foundation of our society on, our policies, education and healthcare – certainly not when there are 80+ sex characteristics in total, and genitals are the only one considered when the doctor puts the letter M or F on your birth certificate.
In fact, the ISNA states that 1.7% of individuals are born with some variance in sex characteristics that do not align with our current understanding of the binary. These folks are considered Intersex. The horrific truth is that the majority of babies born with androgynous genitalia go through a purely cosmetic genital mutilation surgeries shortly after birth to construct what doctors think is aesthetically acceptable genitalia. Quite often this surgery yields a vulva because it is somehow “more convenient.”
Then, our current system assumes that because of this doctor-constructed vulva, these intersex kiddos should grow up to identify as women. That is simply horrendous, unjust malpractice that happens all the time. Intersex people deserve rights. They deserve visibility. They are whole, healthy, valuable contributors to society, they were born that way, and they are many. PLEASE LET THIS SINK IN.
If you are getting caught up on any of this, here is an amazing article that elaborates more fully on the gender-sex fallacy.
So now that your brain is likely melted and you’re questioning everything you thought you knew, can we agree that we’ve been fed an incomplete story up until now? Let’s stopping the conflation of gender and anatomy, okay? How about we ground with some terminology:
Men are men regardless of what is between their legs, just as women are women in the same right. And the people who don’t identify with the binary are whole, healthy, worthy individuals and their body parts do not determine their gender, ever.
Cisgender refers to someone who’s letter on their original birth certificate is in line with their current understanding of their gender identity. A cisgender women was born with a vulva and a small clitoris for example. She has an F on her birth certificate.
Transgender refers to anyone who was assigned a letter on their original birth certificate that does not align with who they are. For example, a transgender man is a man who’s original birth certificate has any letter on it other than M.
Take a minute to do your mental gymnastics. Which of these terms describes you?
#3 Gender Identity vs. Expression: What’s on the inside and what’s on the outside
How a person identifies their gender and how they present to the world are also different things! What!? Yes, indeed. Gender expression refers to how you communicate your identity to the world around you. Expression comes in many forms such as how we dress, accentuate or minimize our visible sex characteristics, how we talk, our hobbies, and our affinities.
Our society has done us a major injustice and “gendered” different forms of expression. Things like pink balloons for “its a girl” baby showers, and blue for boys, dolls vs. trains, dresses vs. pants, all the way down to some professions that are “suitable for women” and some professions that are a “man’s work.” But really, how we express ourselves is does not determine our gender at all (or our sexual orientation for that matter). Plenty of women wear pants and played with trains as children. Plenty of men loved playing with dolls as children and go into female-dominated professions. Gender expression is not something that can be pathologized and indicates nothing about a person’s mental health. Your gender expression is healthy and worthy no matter what clothing makes you feel most like yourself and what activities light you up.
Hi, I’m Terra. If we haven’t met by now, it is time I introduce myself. While I am a very multifaceted person and my gender is only one aspect of who I am, for the relevance of this article I’d like you to know that I am a non-binary person. This means that my gender is neither man nor woman. I love lipstick, but that sure doesn’t mean I’m a woman or a man. I love power tools, but that sure doesn’t mean I’m a woman or a man either. My gender identity and my gender expression are two totally different things and are completely unique to me, just like they are unique to you and everyone you know and love.
#4 Language Matters
Language is a very powerful tool that humans rely on to communicate and connect our experiences. If we can’t verbally describe something, it goes largely unacknowledged in society. Unfortunately, our language to describe gender has been largely informed by these gender fallacies. For instance, we use the word women to describe people with vulvas, but as we have established, not all women have vulvas, just like not all men have penises. That is a misnomer in our language. Oops, guess we’ve gotta address that… and pronto!
Pronouns are at the crux of the gender inclusion conversation. Pronouns are words used to refer to a noun when you don’t want to use the name of that noun. The pronouns we use for people are gendered in the English language and in many others. For instance the gender of the person being referred to is assumed when you use “he/him/his” pronouns and “she/her/hers” pronouns. I use “they/them/theirs” pronouns because I am neither a man or a woman. There are many other pronouns that are being adopted by non-binary people, which can be learned about with a simple google search.
“Um, excuse me, Terra… I don’t understand. They refers to more than one person. That is grammatically incorrect.”
First of all, no. Actually they/them/theirs pronouns have historically been used in singular contexts for centuries (see https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/singular-nonbinary-they) Second of all, a small pronoun has the power to communicate whether you see and respect a person for who you they are. What is sexier than that!? Using the wrong pronoun for someone is the equivalent of misgendering a person which can be very hurtful to both the person you are missing and your relationship.
Trans and non-binary people have had it hard in the language front. Honestly, when it comes down to the root, language is at the very core of many assaults on people who are not cisgendered or heterosexual. Language has the power to speak someone into existence. Language determines our rights, our policies, our ability to use public restrooms, our education, our dignity.
Don’t know what language to use? Afraid to miss-speak? These are not reasons to stop the conversation. Start doing research. The internet is an amazing thing, and so are books by trans and non-binary authors. When you goof up, apologize, hold yourself accountable to do better, make sure the people you are speaking to know your heart, mind and soul are engaged in recovering from the incomplete truths we were all fooled into believing for so long. Ask them what reparations are needed so you can both feel good about your connection again. You can do this.
#5 Intro to Allyship
Yay! If you made it this far in this article, you are ready to step into a new, more savvy, sophisticated and sexy reality. Becoming an ally to the LGBTQ2SIA+ community isn’t done overnight, and certainly isn’t accomplished by reading one, or even ten articles on allyship. Furthermore, allyship certainly isn’t achieved by simply calling yourself an ally. Rather allyship is about action. It is about how you behave in your day to day life, not about the information that exists in your mind. Here are a few easy actions to get you started in becoming an ally.
First, adopt a beginner’s mind. Accept that you don’t have it all figured out because none of us do. Stay curious, humble, and engaged in learning.
Second, adopt a pronoun etiquette. This means ask people what pronouns they use, assert your own when you introduce yourself, and listen intently to the pronouns used by others in conversation to clarify your assumptions about them. It is ALWAYS better to ask than assume. If you notice someone using the wrong pronouns for another person, correct them!
Third, adopt gender inclusive language. Instead of saying “Hey, guys!” Say “Hi, folks.” Instead of saying “Ladies and gentlemen,” say, “Welcome everyone.” Instead of saying, “men and women,” add, “men, women, and all other genders.” Its easy once you get started!
Fourth, get disruptive. This isn’t limited to disrupting extreme instances of violence. I’m talking about being disruptive in small, every day interactions. Use your voice to speak up when you notice someone reinforcing a fallacy about gender. When someone one is making a generalized statement about women, asking if they are talking about all women, or just women with vulvas. Start asking the owners of public establishments about their restroom policy and when they will change the signs to allow everyone a place to relieve themselves. Tell your friends, your parents, your teachers about what you’ve learned in this article. Start the conversations that will lead to social change!
Fifth, vote with your dollars. This means support businesses with inclusive practices, bathrooms, and products. Find and promote the work of LGBTQ2SIA+ people. Give to charities that are working for gender inclusion in the mainstream.
And finally, make sure you are doing these things when no body is looking, or congratulating you for a job well-done. Keep yourself accountable to the person you want to be and the change you want to see in the world.
Please, please, keep learning. We are in the midst of a gender revolution which means none of us have this all figured out. Commit to continued education. If you want a trans or non-binary person to teach you, offer to pay them or compensate them in some way for their efforts. Otherwise, check out the internet, follow trans and non-binary people on social media, buy some books by trans and non-binary authors.
Thank you for clicking this article and reading it thoroughly. I invite you to check in with yourself and see how you feel after all of this. If there are parts of you that are experiencing feelings that aren’t pleasurable, I invite you to allow space for those feelings and get curious about them. Stay in the conversation with your resistance rather than letting it take over. This is the foundation of real change. The fight for rights, human decency, and safety is far from over, and it isn’t an us vs. them ordeal in the slightest. Rather, the fight is in overturning the fallacies that undermine the truth of human identity and human connection. That means you, every part of you, has an instrumental role to play.