Non-binary: Real or Rebellion?

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.

Non-binary Explosion