PART 2: What Makes Gender? – Beware the Gender Binary Boogeyman

BY STEPHANIE HALL

[ “Read PART 1: What Makes Gender?” ]

Gender Binary BoogeymanMany Transgender advocates, activists and columnists rail against the so-called gender binary as if it were a prison preventing them from expressing themselves and their gender as they feel and believe they and other Transgender persons should be free to do. These voices continually drive home the idea that human beings should not adhere to the gender binary; a black & white concept without any shades of variation and seek to eliminate such a rigid and inflexible classification. The truth is that the gender binary does exist, but does not constrain the freedom of expression of gender. It is not a boogeyman, lurking in the shadows to stop you from being free to express your gender as you see fit. It is a biologically-based scientific fact against which a fight is destined for failure. In actuality, it is misguided.

While the country and the world do recognize and obey a binary system of gender identification as dictated by science, it should not be confused with the individualized expressions of masculinity and femininity, a concern to the LGBT community. It is inarguable that scientific evidence identifies all biological life forms as either male or female based upon chromosomal makeup. Thus, the argument made by some in the LGBT community to expand gender identification beyond the scientific binary is misplaced. Any effort to expand the binary by adding a third, fourth or even more additional genders — or to erase any distinction altogether — is scientific fantasy. The proper argument to be made is not to manipulate or reject the binary gender identification system, but to redefine our understanding of what we term gender.

Transgender individuals know that gender is much more, or even something entirely different than, a cold clinical chemical makeup, or sex. Take for instance, when we speak of determining whether a plant or animal is male or female, no one speaks of the gender of a bird, snake, orchid or fichus — they speak of the sex. The term used by a veterinarian or botanist is not to “gender” but to “sex” the organism. For human beings however, sex and gender have taken on additional meaning, and have become commingled and used interchangeably over the years, leading to the confusion we are now experiencing and with which we struggle in modern society.

Those who speak and write in opposition of the confines of the gender binary have created a faux boogeyman, and have consequently had as much success fighting against it as Don Quixote tilting at windmills. When biologists or others in the scientific community speak of the gender binary with its given chromosomal makeup, they are really discussing primary sexual characteristics, or those aspects in males and females that are necessary for reproduction.

Secondary sexual characteristics make up the balance of the aspects in males and females and are typically used to indicate masculinity or femininity, but are not related to reproduction. A recognizable example would be the ovaries in a peahen and the plumage of a peacock. It is the secondary sexual characteristics that speak to gender as understood by, and of concern to, the Transgender population. The difference between sex and gender is the key, and therefore the appropriate focal point for change.

Contrary to the position expressed by the gender binary warriors on the unjust constraints of the gender binary identification system, human beings have always pushed boundaries and explored variations of gender expression, unfazed by the confines of the biologically-based gender binary classification. Throughout history, human beings have consistently crossed the gender barrier in the quest for expression through appearance, in direct opposition to the perceived strictures of the gender binary straw man. During ancient times in Greece, Rome, and Egypt, there was comparatively little distinction in the manner of dress between men and women by which  today’s standards would be viewed as predominantly feminine. As the years progressed, and nations rose and fell, even the people of other countries in all parts of the world expressed themselves through their physical appearance in a more masculine or feminine manner than the more modern strictures regard as customary for the present time. Through the 15th and 18th centuries, in both Europe and what became America, men adopted what would today be thought of as distinctly feminine styles and manner of dress.

The more modern incarnation of the United States and the Western world has a spirited history of pushing the boundaries of gender expression in appearance. In the 1940s, after Katherine Hepburn first did so in the movies, women began to wear pants in popular fashion statements, which at the time was unheard of, being a strictly masculine article of clothing, grew to become a standard article of clothing in the closets of both men and women. In the 1960s, some women began to resist customary female grooming standards, and chose to grow out body hair and reject feminine undergarments, thereby blurring the lines between feminine and masculine norms.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, musicians and rock stars pushed the limits of gender normative clothing and appearance at the time when male rock stars regularly wore women’s tight low-cut bell bottom jeans, frilly feminine blouses, women’s bangle jewelry, and grew their hair long. In the disco era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, men began wearing very tight, high-waisted pants and high heeled shoes. In women’s fashion, suits began taking on a distinctly masculine appearance, first in the 1960s, and today women’s pantsuits featuring the “men‘s wear“ look are a widely accepted alternative fashion statement. Glam rock made its appearance in the mid 1980s when male musicians began wearing feminine makeup, including lipstick, eyeliner and mascara, in addition to very feminine clothing styles. Women in modern western society regularly engage in activities and work in professions that are seen as predominantly or even exclusively masculine. Women compete in motor racing, where they excel, as well as in boxing and even as MMA fighters. Similarly, men engage in what were once seen as predominantly or exclusively female activities and professions. Men compete in aerobics and cheerleading, once seen as distinctly female activities, and work as flight attendants, nurses and even midwives, Similarly, Transgender men and women clearly are not constrained by the gender binary boogeyman.

An honest survey of the modern world around us, including human sexuality and gender expression, will immediately reveal there exists a wide variation of gender expression throughout the world, in spite of and astride the biological gender binary. What we see in even the most cursory examination is an almost limitless variety of gender expression on the continuum between the two extreme ends of the gender spectrum. While it is true that a small minority of individuals reject such freewheeling gender expression as not in conformity with the strict definition of proper masculine and feminine forms of expression — a la the cliched 1950s Americana ideals. Any perceived confines of gender presentation are largely the work of human expectations and societal norms. Although they do change over time, at any given point in time they are more-or-less fixed. If you plan to operate within present polite society, certain rules must be obeyed. Society has guardrails, ever-changing and expanding guardrails, but guardrails nonetheless. At any given time in history, those guardrails exist with a little give here and there. Push too far in one direction or the other and you will suffer societal consequences.

A perfect world would see human physical presentation as irrelevant, but we do not at present live in a perfect world. If you are a 35-year-old man with hair down to the middle of your back, a neck tattoo, and facial piercings, chances are slim that you will be scoring a job in corporate management at a Fortune 500™ Corporation, regardless of qualifications. In the end, we are all free to some degree to express ourselves through gender and other manifestations of appearance as we see fit, largely dependent upon the station in life we occupy as well as those to which we aspire. However, personal expression of appearance is not free from consequences. To the degree you wish to or need to interact with established society and become involved with previously established structures of custom and convention, a certain degree of conformity will be necessary. Things may change and be much different in the future, but this is the price we pay for living in this time.

The nearly hysterical focus on the evils of the unseen gender binary overlords working behind the scenes to curtail the freedom of gender expression begs the question; for whom and where is expression being quashed in a wholesale fashion? Biological sex is undeniably binary, while gender is an outgrowth and derivative of biological sex, existing in almost infinite variety through expression based on human emotion, unknown biological imperatives, and creative impulse.

Gender-based identity expression has been expanding for many years, and will continue to do so as human beings seek out new and different ways in which to present and express themselves to the world around them. There will always be individuals who disapprove of anything but a strict adherence to the conventional gender stereotypes, casting unfriendly glances, commenting, or even attempting to deny access or engaging in other forms of discriminatory action. However, there is no conspiratorial effort on the part of science or society at large to confine your gender expression, and any such limitations, real or imagined, have nothing to do with the gender binary.

Transgender people have a built-in hypersensitivity to any perceived constraint, which clearly does not affect, nor impact, the non-Trans population in the expression of their gender, in most cases. To expend emotion and energy fighting against the specter of an omnipresent gender binary enforcement entity is a fruitless activity. Instead, reject the reactionary vilification of the so-called gender binary as an unjust prison restricting your freedom of expression, and live your life through an expression of gender that makes you happy, as there is little to stop you. Yes, the gender binary does exist for purposes of science and biology, but does not extend beyond to constrain masculinity, femininity, or any expression of gender at any point between. Some within the Transgender community are deeply invested in the gender binary straw man of their own creation, working to recruit allies in their battle against those unseen forces constraining their freedom of gender expression. Unfortunately, these well-meaning but misguided individuals have fallen prey to the imprecise and rampant misuse of language. Biologically-based gender binary classification, of no concern to the LGBT Community, does not negatively impact the Transgender community. Buying into the boogeyman of the gender binary and the extent to which you obey its confines, is the extent to which you voluntarily surrender your freedom to express yourself in gender, and any other manner, as would a prisoner in a cell without bars.

STEPHANIE LYNN HALL is a California Attorney whose practice is focused on representing Transgender individuals in the legal issues uniquely related to transition and other matters of non-conforming gender identity.

 

[ ADAPTED FLAG GRAPHIC: Eoghan Fleming ]

 

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