I’m going to step out of my comfort zone here and speculate on a topic about which I’ve little real knowledge, and no formal education at all: matters relating to the politically charged, hot-button issues of sex, gender, and identity. Partly, I’m hoping that others more knowledgeable than myself might point out where I’m off track, either a little or a lot. But also, I need a compact, go-to source to address the people who are even more ignorant – or, more frequently, just grotesquely and willfully stupid – than I. In particular, even with my lack of formal background, I believe I can address a few cogent words to what I will call “The Myth of The Binary.”
I perceive three primary axes along which to attack this myth, each of which demonstrates that “binarity” – a term I will also be using – is categorically a myth, and a myth that we are long overdue to reject wholesale. But, because I am an amateur playing in other people’s field, many of the terms I will be using are largely of my own devising, or that I have heard and am using to clarify my own thoughts. Consequently, if one were to do an internet search on these terms, it is anyone’s guess if anything would show up at all, and what (if any) relationship such “hits” would bear to what I’m saying here. However, It is sufficient that the terms I use be treated as “technical” ones, so that my burden is simply to use those terms in a consistent and coherent fashion. “Binarity,” for example, is just a short hand for the Myth of the Binary. The three axes that I will employ to critique the myth are what I will call (1) physical presentation, (2) sexual orientation, and (3) gender identification.
The myth of the binary states simply, but categorically, that we are all either male or female. This is, according to the intransigently right-wing dogmatists who assert it, a matter that is physically established at birth; a binary (hence my terminology) either/or “fact,” that is a matter of direct and immediate observation, and subject to no “possible” dispute. This putative “fact” is typically insisted upon (by those who insist upon it) with an enthusiasm that will range from the aggressive to the murderously violent. While indefensible, this insistence is understandable, since it is predicated upon an absolute refusal to learn anything about the matter being insisted upon. This is where our three axes of critique come into play, and I will engage those axes in turn.
Physical Presentation: This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, the physically observable characteristics of a person’s body that are associated with sexual reproduction. This is at once the foundation and the keystone for the right-wing authoritarian argument for absolute binarity. You are either born male, or you are born female, and that binary division is built entirely upon the dogmatic assertion that this is fundamental, irrefutable, undeniable biology. And that biology is all just “right there,” presented up-front (as it were), a physical, indisputable “fact.” Crack this nut, and the whole thesis of binarity falls down around the right-wing dogmatist’s ears (not that they’d be honest enough to notice).
Which is almost funny, since it is not as though hermaphrodism was one of those arcane secrets that people hid away in books, so that the conservatives would never learn about it.
Hermaphrodism is not common amongst humans, but it is hardly unknown, and that it exists at all suffices to utterly falsify the thesis of binarity at its strongest point, physical presentation. Moreover, the condition is not such that it always presents itself to naked eye observation at birth, especially given the 1/3 of a second (or less) glance a doctor will typically afford the subject upon first examination of a newborn infant. (This issue becomes even more pressing with “intersex” persons, mentioned and linked to below.) A human being has scarcely even begun its physical development by the time of birth, so expecting presentation to be finished and on full display is patently absurd. Yet it is that glance which legislates which one, of only two, boxes get checked on the birth certificate.i
Sexual Orientation: By now there is greater willingness to accept that heterosexuality is not the only reality in human experience, but there remains considerable ignorance of, and resistance to, the acceptance of bisexuality, and other possibilities. I am told, by a person I consider a credible source, that in the ’60’s there was a large bloc of the homosexual community who looked upon bisexuals as gays who lacked the courage to commit. This is an anecdotal report, but I include it that others might compare their own experiences as well as the experiences of people they know. I also invite others to examine their and other’s experiences when I state (again, without any real evidence) that being bicurious is quite a bit more common than many “strictly” hetero- or homosexual individuals might publicly admit. Some evidence for this latter claim can be suggestively discerned in the statistics regarding consumption of “non-traditional” forms of pornography: trans, bi, and other streams are scarcely “fringe” elements in terms of online popularity. So the thesis of binarity in sexual orientation must be rejected as stuff and nonsense by any thinking person.
Gender Identification: This is the trickiest issue of all, since it is the most “internal” aspect of the three, and even its outward expressions are less readily open to direct or unambiguous observation. Self-identity, as this is recognized and expressed by and within a person, is a complex relational whole. However, this complex bumps up against the dense and unavoidable expectations of social norms. For heterosexual, cisgender persons this “bump” doesn’t even qualify as the merest puff of a breeze, because such persons are completely in sync with those social expectations and norms. As a result, such persons are rarely if ever confronted with the need to understand the complexities of their own internal dynamics. For persons whose gender identity (which is a major part of self-identity) does not fit within the “cis-normative” expectations of society, their very existence is exposed to the grate and grind of a culture that seeks to, at best, passively annihilate them through denial and disregard, and often enough seeks to actively exterminate them via direct violence. And all of this vicious hypocrisy – that both denies the violence they face as non-cis-normative persons, and the dismissal of the reality of their non-cis-normative identities – flows from the fact that non-cis-normative persons radically fail to be shoe-horned into the Myth of the Binary.
Non-cis-normativeii persons will include those whose gender identity does not fit (or does not fit well with) the squishy-bits they were born with such as trans persons. But it will also include that constellation of individuals who stand out as “intersex”, whose squishy-bits don’t fit the binarity of physical presentation at all, as well as many of the other letters in LGBTQI, whose self-identity fits into neither the male nor the female normative mold. In the sense in which I am using the term (← important qualification), many persons whose sexual orientation is either Lesbian or Gay may not qualify as non-cis-normative, since they will often identify as EITHER male OR female, and thus fit the thesis of binarity at this specific level. Let me remind everyone that I have no dog in this fight, so if the immediately preceding use of terms seems to be wrong, then understand that it is an honest misunderstanding – and not a malevolent misrepresentation – by someone who has already admitted to being a hetero, cisgender male.
So, what are those of us who do fit the cis-normative, binary expectations of our society supposed to do? Well, the first – and hardest – step is to not be stupid; but that’s true of everyone, everywhere, and all the time. Breaking that out into slightly smaller steps, the first sub-step is to listen to others and to their experience. The next thing to do, and the first full step toward understanding, is to take in what we are being told with the same constructive intelligence that we use when we are reading a novel or studying mathematics, and then ask ourselves: What must be true for this to make sense? Because it does make sense, and the irrefutable truth of that fact is right in front of our eyes. So the above is a first step on my part, like a novelist or mathematician, to make sense of what is obviously true.
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iThere are some indications that medical professionals are becoming more careful and astute on this point. The reality of intesex persons, for example, has obliged the medical community to take a much more nuanced approach to the definition of gender.
iiI’ll just go ahead and agree with you that the term “non-cis-normative” is a bit intimidating at first glance. But in reality, it rolls off the tongue easily enough, with only the tiniest bit of practice. And after all, only the most inflexible of bigots would use the unfamiliarity of the word as an excuse to justify their viciously indefensible opinions.
Excellent post, Gary.
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Gary Herstein said:
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, w/o doing anything so exotic as studying the scholarship. After a while, I wanted to avoid the scholarship, because I was curious to see what I could get to “on my own” — ignoring the enormous amount of input and feed back I’ve received from friends and the news over the years, of course. But my challenge to myself was: what can a person figure out w/o drilling into the in depth studies?
Also I needed a single link where I could just point people, because the above is too much to type into a FB comment.
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