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July 24, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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The Binary is History

Note: This text is provided as is, with a glossary at the end for definitions of uncommon terms.


Two hushed and expectant couples wait in adjoining ultrasound rooms, watching their future children wriggle and kick on the screen. Two doctors look closely at the fuzzy images and declare their genders. Two happy declarations ring out: “It’s a boy!” and “It’s a girl!” The two couples feel jubilant — a son, a daughter, a healthy firstborn child.

Most of us began life with a similar scene, and for better or worse it shaped our upbringings and affected our entire life trajectories. We’re all familiar with the endless fanfare of gendered toy marketing. Pretty pink princesses, dolls, and jewellery for the girls, and tools, trucks, and action figures for the boys. We’re taught that boys are adventurous, rough-and-tumble, and don’t cry when they fall over. Action over talk. Girls are gentle, nurturing, and enjoy sharing. Talk over action. Cisgender at work. Though these “gender roles” have arguably become much less rigid now than they have been in the past, they nevertheless continue to permeate most aspects of our social lives.

Recent years have seen the common understanding of what it means to be transgender shaped by a narrative of “the child that always knew.” It goes something like this: ever since early childhood, this person has felt like they have been trapped in the wrong body. All they want to do is wear the clothes and play with the toys of the “opposite” gender. Though there are feelings of great shame, they do so anyway, and when others find out they are bullied and ostracised. They go through intense feelings of depression, which finally abate when they come out as the man/woman they always truly were and get the treatment that they need.

Although this narrative applies for many transgender people, it is certainly not the only one, and is massively simplified. Other trans people figure themselves out much later in life when they discover the tools to unpack their life experiences and interpret them through a trans lens.

The “always knew” narrative also focuses primarily on the gender binary, which is a cultural script that says that there are only two kinds of people — men and women — each with distinct expectations. People can and do cross the divide to become the “other” kind of person, through social and/or medical transition, but this erases those that don’t fit neatly into one or other of those boxes — what about those who are intersex, or nonbinary?

Gender is an amalgamation of many different concepts — socialisation, expression, sex, and above all identity. There are many people who do not express themselves in the socially “acceptable” masculine or feminine roles, but do feel comfortable saying “I am a man” or “I am a woman.” Gender identity is a core component of the self that says ‘I am X’, that can lead to a profound sense of rightness or wrongness depending on whether or not it is authentically expressed; we can say, then, that being transgender is an umbrella term for those that fall into the latter experience.

There seems to be the impression in some circles that nonbinary gender identities are a new thing that teenagers have latched onto in a politically correct backlash against the “establishment”. Supposedly spawned from the likes of Tumblr as a new way for teens to differentiate themselves from the mainstream, the idea that nonbinary constitutes a manufactured, ephemeral identity that they will shed later in life has spawned a term of its own: transtrenders. Just a phase.

Though there may be elements of truth in this assessment from a macro-scale historical perspective, it ignores the fact that there is a rich and nuanced history of nonbinary genders both across history and various cultures. Such a breakdown would require an entire thesis to even scratch the surface, but rest assured that conceptualisations of gender beyond a masculine-feminine alignment are far from new.

And honestly, who cares if it’s a phase or not? By and large that should not matter; how nonbinary people are treated should (and hey, you can argue that life is a phase, anyway). I wrote about genderfluidity earlier in the year for a similar reason — to make sure this narrative is simultaneously out there and being complicated so as to better reflect the full complexity of what gender is. Hopefully, this piece continues that work.


Glossary of terms:

Cisgender — A person who is largely comfortable with the sex (and corresponding gender) they are assigned at birth. The majority of the population is cisgender.

Gender binary — A primarily Western gender construct which claims that only two genders exist.

Intersex — A person of indeterminate sex characteristics that do not fit neatly into categories of male or female.

Nonbinary — A person who is uncomfortable with both binary gender options and actively disidentifies with them.

Transgender — A person who is not comfortable with the sex (and/or corresponding gender) they are assigned at birth; an umbrella term for a variety of experiences that stem from this fundamental concept.

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