Dismantling the Gender Binary System
I dream of a future in which the gender binary system--the system that forces all people into one of two strictly defined gender categories, man and woman--will no longer exist. Regardless of how they identify in terms of sex or gender, regardless of how they express themselves, all people will be treated equally as human beings. Diversity of gender will be respected instead of being ignored or forced to conform to rigid binaries. However, we have a long way to go before that can become a reality. This change cannot happen until society is changed dramatically. People must be educated about how socially constructed gender is; it is only when people realize that the gender binary is not innate that they will realize that it can be changed. People must be aware of the ways in which the gender binary system hurts all people, not only those who do not identify with the category in which they have been placed. I believe that the most lasting change will come about through education. It is only through education that we can change people’s hearts and minds, and it is only through that change that people will come to respect differences in gender identity and expression. Without people seeing gender outside of the binary as legitimate and acceptable, society cannot change.
The gender binary system is deeply entrenched in US society. There are serious consequences--morally, politically, socially, and legally--for those who transgress gender norms. Because there are only two legally recognized genders, people who cross gender boundaries cannot exist, in a legal and social sense, without denying a fundamental part of themselves. Gender, as Riki Wilchins writes, is like “a continuous nonverbal dialogue with the world, saying, ‘This is who I am, this is how I feel about myself, this is how I want you to see me’” (12). Although gender is deeply personal, it is also political. Gender, and biological sex because it is often tied to gender in US society, affect all parts of our lives. Our sex and gender affect how other people treat us, and they determine our legal status. Our legal status as either male or female “matters for marriage, divorce, adoption, child custody, inheritance, immigration status, employment; for access to services such as shelters, clinics and centers, health benefits; and for identity papers and personal records” (Girshick 146).
For some people, their internal sense of themselves as gendered beings does not match with the gender society as determined for them, based on their biological sex. Not acting as one’s legally determined gender is the biggest act of transgressing gender norms that there is. For other people, neither side of the gender binary fully represents how they see themselves. Society is particularly confused about them because there is little awareness on a large scale about the concept of gender outside of the gender binary. People who identify as neither men nor women, and people for whom the categories of man and woman do not adequately encompass all of their gendered identities, are made invisible in society. The legitimacy of their identities is ignored, and they are not represented in society. Legally and socially, their genders do not exist.
As an ultimate goal, I believe we should aim for dismantling the gender binary system entirely. Although I am not in favor of eradicating gender completely, I believe that the binary of men and women should be overturned. I believe in allowing people to identify, in terms of gender, however they will, and in allowing people to express that gender however they choose to do so. No gender should be more legitimate, or more worthy, than another gender. I also believe that one’s sex should not determine one’s gender, and the sex one was declared at birth should not determine the rest of one’s life. However, I acknowledge that fully ridding our society of the gender binary system will take generations. It cannot happen overnight. Furthermore, I realize that I cannot truly imagine what it would be like to live in such a society. As it currently is, our society is strongly based on the idea of two genders that follow from two sexes, and that message is too deeply ingrained in all of us for anyone to fully grasp what it would be like if those societal pressures no longer existed. Nevertheless, I believe that my dream of a society without a restrictive gender system will someday be realized.
However, we cannot focus all of our energy toward a radically different, ideal future, if that means ignoring the present pain of all of the people we are working to help. Gender-nonconforming individuals are still being harassed, discriminated against, and legally treated as less than citizens. “[T]rans people face severe discrimination in the job market and are routinely fired for transitioning on the job or when their gender identities or expressions come to their supervisor’s attention” (Spade 219). Girshick reports that, “murder based on the victim’s gender expression outnumbers every other motivation category tracked by the FBI except race over the last ten years” (142). She continues by saying that hate crimes affect more than their victims:
"When any transgender person is attacked, verbally and physically, because of being transgender, the message is that something is terribly wrong with all transgender identities and behaviors. Continue to be this way, the message goes, and all of you face this type of punishment--humiliation, pain, or death" (Girshick 143).
This treatment must be stopped. At the same time, if we only respond to society’s injustices as they happen, we will never change society. It is not enough to solely focus on making situations marginally better by giving gender-nonconforming individuals some of the rights and protections that everyone else takes for granted. There must be a balance between dealing with the present and planning for the future.
I believe that education is the answer to both problems. I believe that through educating people in order to enact change now, we can pave the way for changing society as a whole. There are a variety of legal issues that must be addressed, and legislators must be educated as to why they are important issues. Federal anti-discrimination legislation must be amended in order to protect gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. That legislation should also be amended in order to protect people on all levels; these levels include, but are not limited to, employment, housing, medical care, and access to education. Sexual orientation must be included because homophobia is based on adherence to gender norms and ideas about how men and women are to act. As of July 2007, twelve states and the District of Columbia “ban discrimination based on gender identity and expression in employment, housing, and accommodation” (Girshick 128-129). Anti-discrimination legislation on a statewide level could also be a start.
We need to eliminate the legal structures in place that force people into one sex and gender, determined at birth. Changing gender and birth sex on documents should be made a far easier process. People whose gender presentation does not match with their birth sex “cannot freely access services (employment, housing, health care, travel, etc.) dependent on identification that indicates one’s sex (passports, driver’s licenses, social security cards, etc.)” (Girshick 146). Currently, “a letter from a surgeon stating that the individual has gone through irreversible sex change surgery” (Girshick 149) is generally required in order to change the sex designation on birth certificates, in the states where it is even possible to legally change the sex on a birth certificate. I believe that surgery should absolutely not be required to change the sex/gender designations on birth certificates, which are the basis for most other documentation. We need to rethink the reason why so many documents, including driver’s licenses and plane tickets, need to include one’s sex or gender. There also needs to be some way to distinguish between sex and gender on such, depending on which is actually appropriate for the document and whether either is needed at all.
There also needs to be change on an everyday level. While change is being enacted on a larger scale, gender-nonconforming people need to be able to go about their daily lives without facing discrimination, harassment, or fear of violence. Public restrooms are a serious source of anxiety, and potentially dangerous places, for many people who do not fit societal gender norms. For example, “cj (transgendered) had his wrist broken in junior high by two girls he didn’t know who told him he ‘didn’t belong’ in the girls’ bathroom. At that point cj identified as a lesbian” (Girshick 135). As a beginning step, all buildings with separate individual bathrooms could replace the current signs, typically marked “men” and “women,” with signs that simply read “restroom.” More important than any individual change, however, is a change in people’s attitudes. People need to be educated about the legitimacy and existence of both non-normative gender identities and expressions. They need to be made aware that transgender people and people who do not fit neatly into society’s expectations of what a man or woman should look like are simply people. They are no more a threat than anyone else.
Of particular importance is educating the police force, emergency response workers, and all medical staff at hospitals and clinics. The police are in charge of enforcing the law; any legislation that may be passed will make no difference if the police will not enforce it. Transgender people, and other gender-nonconforming people, have died due to hatred and bigotry at the hands of people who were supposed to help them:
"On August 7, 1995, Tyra Hunter, a black transgender woman, was struck by a car. As the emergency medical technician at the scene began to administer aid, he suddenly exclaimed, “This bitch ain’t no girl . . . it’s a nigger, he’s got a dick!” and walked away. Witnesses later reported that, while Hunter was possibly still conscious, the EMT stood “laughing and telling jokes” with his fellow technicians for several minutes. Hunter would subsequently die of her injuries at Washington, DC, General Hospital" (Juang 25).
Even in cases without such extreme transphobia, “[h]ealth care providers may not be well informed about transgender issues, and their low level of cultural competence may result in stigmatizing behaviors, insensitivity, or denial of needed services” (Girshick 143).
People also need to be educated about gender on a broader level. Students should be educated about the difference between biological sex and gender and the diversity that exists within both categories. The social construction of gender can be explained, and the existence and legitimacy of gender expression and identity outside of the binary of men and women should be acknowledged. As “[t]he media both establish gender behaviors and exaggerate gender roles and manifestations” (Girshick 28), people involved with the media, both in terms of the news and entertainment, should also be educated about proper respect for varying gender identities and expressions of gender.
Ultimately, I believe that change will only come about if people are willing to work for it on an individual level, one conversation at a time. Organizations like Translate Gender, a “collective-based consensus-run nonprofit organization that works to generate community accountability for individuals to self-determine their own genders and gender expressions," can help people to learn more about gender in a non-binary sense. Through conversation, people can learn that the gender binary system that currently influences our lives should not, and need not, do so any longer. Once people open their minds and accept gender nonconformity as a legitimate option, grassroots organizations can organize them to effectively lobby their congress people to enact legislation to protect those who transgress gender norms. Furthermore, once enough people change their minds about people who do not fit into the gender binary, society itself will change. One day, I hope, such legislation protecting gender identity and expression will be a mere formality because society will no longer treat people differently based on gender.
Girshick, Lori B. Transgender Voices: Beyond Women and Men. University Press of New England: Hanover, 2008.
Juang, Richard M. “Transgendering the Politics of Recognition.” Transgender Rights. Currah, Paisley, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 242-261.
Spade, Dean. “Compliance is Gendered: Struggling for Gender Self-Determination in a Hostile Economy.” Transgender Rights. Currah, Paisley, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 217-241.
Wilchins, Riki. “A Continuous Nonverbal Communication.” GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Nestle, Joan, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins, eds. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002. 11-17.