Updated: Aug 23
Hello Readers! Sorry I have been away for so long. I had a severe infection and no help from doctors. But, despite the deplorable state of American “health care” I’m back!
In the last two months since I have been away, I have been thinking a lot about gender. I had the great opportunity to chair a panel about trans women and privilege at CatalystCon in Los Angeles this year. My three panelists and I talked about gender and culture and it gave me a lot to think about.
Gender is socially constructed. Most people use the term “social construct” without really understanding what that means. Often, the general public uses the term “social construct” as a synonym for “meaningless” or “unimportant.” The reality is, social constructs are deeply meaningful and important for people in the culture where the concepts are constructed.
Things which are socially constructed cobble together physical characteristics and behaviors, then attach a meaning to them. Race and gender are both socially constructed. We attribute meaning to things like skin color, genitals, nose width, and lip shape and attribute a meaning to them. On their own, there is little meaning to many of these physical things. Just knowing someone has a wide nose or wide hips tells you nothing about them other than the dimensions of a body part. Culturally we attach meanings and enforce them.
Something which is socially constructed can also have great value in a culture. Both race and gender are amazingly powerful as explanatory variables in a wide variety of social circumstances. For example, when doctors see me as a woman, they assume pain and illness is being made up for attention. When you look across all doctors in the United States you will find the consistently devalue women and under treat pain and illness. While the concept of gender is a social construct, it is also an incredibly powerful variable for accounting for shitty treatment by folks in white coats.
Most of us remain unaware of how much of our lives are shaped by social constructs. Cultures attribute so much value to these constructs that they may appear and feel “real” and immutable. It can be difficult to escape the meanings and significance of gender or race within a culture. We are raised to respect and perform these constructs and the are often punished for breaking the defined parameters of the constructs.
At the core of it, however, we are talking about something that is forever changing as a response to cultural pressures. For example, we can look at who is considered “white” in America. During the mass immigration wave of the early 1900s, Italians and southern Europeans were not considered “white.” As these groups moved into jobs associated with being white, we changed our cultural definition to include Italians and Greeks in the “white” category. [See David Roediger’s TheWages of Whiteness for a great explanation of the labor theory of race.]
Gender as a Construct
Gender is a social construct which feels very real and meaningful but can evolve and change over time. Right now, the concept of gender is under a great amount of pressure to evolve. For a very long time in the United States, gender has been reduced to what your genitals look like. Americans are taught if you have a penis, you are a man. If you have a vagina, you are a woman. If you have some other combination, you are a medical abnormality and generally your parents choose your gender for you at birth.
The reality is, secondary sex characteristics (genitals, breasts, etc.) do not determine gender. They can determine sex in terms of the medical meaning of what your genitals look like (and that is what the question “What is your gender? Male or Female” means when you are are asked) but gender is much more complex.
Gender is about how you see yourself and experience yourself as a gendered (or agender) person in your culture. Many people are lucky enough to feel a connection between what sex their genitals conscripted them too and what their culture says that means. Some people feel a strong attachment to the gender that is “opposite” (language is still stuck in the binary here) of what some doctor assigned the person at birth. Those folks are often identified as “transgender.” There are people like me who feel no connection to the concept of gender and find it wildly odd how obsessed people are with what your genitals are supposed to have the power to do. And now we have people who identify as “non-binary.”
What is Non-Binary?
Non-binary includes an enormous swath of folks who feel like the current gender binary is insufficient at describing the experience of gender. It includes trans folks. It includes gender fluid folks who move between identifying as male and female. It includes people who feel they possess both male and female traits at all times. It includes people with no attachment to gender. And pretty much anything that is not someone who feels completely at home in the binary.
The concept of non-binary has evolved very quickly. When I was working through my initial questions on gender identity twenty or so years ago, there was no such term. It has only appeared in the past decade. However, people who are non-binary have existed as long as male and female people have been around. Other cultures acknowledge non-binary folks but we never did in American culture.
Because people finally have a word that is closer in describing their experience of gender than male, female or trans, there has been an explosion of individuals gravitating toward the non-binary identity. In the past two years, there has been a call to recognize these identities by changing singular pronouns to include “they” again (it was common to use “they” as a singular pronoun two-hundred years ago but it fell out of favor). The insistence that “they” is a singular pronoun and that individuals should get to use the pronoun which reflects their identity drives people who are hellbent on enforcing the concept of a binary gender crazy.
Another result of the logarithmic explosion of people identifying as non-binary has also meant that many people deeply attached to the binary system of gender belittle and mock non-binary folks as “performing gender” or that non-binary is somehow a trend and that non-binary folks will “wise up” as they age and “choose” one of the binary genders.
I have come across several critiques of non-binary identity as just “young people” using gender as some type of performance art. The belief of these binary gender police is that non-binary is just a trend that “young people” grab on to in order to be popular and “cool.”
All Gender is Performative
What these critiques miss is that all genders, binary and non-binary, are performative. Many people do not feel like they are “performing” gender when they choose to wear something, or style their hair, or wear make-up. Most people feel they are making a natural choice to wear what is gender appropriate according to their cultural norms and it really feels like the clothing is in line with their being.
A simple overview of fashion history will quickly make clear that over time, what is defined as “male” and “female” changes radically. High heels were originally a men’s shoe. Make-up was once commonly worn by both men and women. Pink was masculine and blue was feminine for an extended period of fashion history. Men wearing make-up and heels felt perfectly masculine doing so when that was the style.
Today, we attribute gender to the most absurd things: the side of your shirt which the buttons are sewn, the location of a zipper in pants, the material and shape of a bag. Think about it. If your buttons were reversed on your dress shirt you would be wearing the shirt of the “opposite” gender. To me, this is absurd to put any meaning or value on this beyond what is better suited to your dominant hand!
Non-binary and Gender Definitions
Since all gender is performative (regardless how “real” and “natural” it feels to you) this led me to a question. How many non-binary folks are identifying that way because they do not feel connected to the dominant cultural portrayals of men and women?
Since gender is a social construct, and the meanings of gender are constructed through the portrayal of the construct in society, is there a percentage of non-binary folks who identify as non-binary simply because the dominant portray of men and women does not include people like them?
For me, I identify as agender because I have no attachment to the concept, I go through periods of time where I feel my body is “wrong” and does not reflect my gender, and I have never felt like a “woman” or a “man.” Non-binary folks have told me that they feel like they are “both male and female” or “swing between male and female” or are “beyond male and female.” But since male and female are social constructs, would changing the social construct make some of these non-binary folks feel more included?
Our gender binary is very limited in what is included in the definition of “male” and “female.” Men have a much more narrow options for being “men” than women do for being a “woman.” For example, while “tomboy” girls have found some acceptance in sports and the lesbian community, “sissy” boys don’t really have any safe, accepting community. Heterosexual men who like to craft, wear make-up, extensively groom their face and body hair, and dislike sports have a hard time finding a community which widely accepts them. Would expanding our definition of what is “male” make some non-binary folks feel more “male” and identify as male?
I know plenty of non-binary folks who would say “absolutely not!” They feel their non-binary status is a perfect representation of their gender. However, many have not looked closely at how our culture has defined gender and who the ham-fisted insistence a person fit into the binary influenced their own concept of what a man or a woman is.
Gender is a huge spectrum. I actually think it is two spectrum: Masculine and Feminine. I have long envisioned gender like the equalizers on a stereo. There is a level for masculine and one for feminine. The dials move for each person. You can be high or low on both scales or a mix. Over a lifetime, the levels can move for us, either consciously or unconsciously.
As a culture, we have not had the conversations we need to have about gender. We still largely accept that gender is somehow innate and still remains tied to what lies between your thighs. Most people cannot divorce themselves from the cultural representation of gender to see how what they do is performative and a way of enforcing gender norms. Until we have this conversation, non-binary will be an option for people who do not fit cultural norms.