Challenging the Binary

“I hate school. HATE it! I can’t go back, they were so mean to me I don’t get it. I didn’t know which side of the room to go to and then they made me cry. I’m never going back. Ever.” Imagine this is your child’s reaction after their first day of kindergarten. During an exercise in class, their teacher instructed all of the boys to go to one side of the room and sent the girls to another. Your child has identified in different ways with both genders since birth, and you have tried your best to let them express themselves however they have desired. After school they explain to you through sobs that when they chose to join the group of girls, they were teased relentlessly for “looking like a boy.” This has always been a fear of yours because you know how mean children can be to one another without any real intention for harm. This is especially true concerning the narrow definitions presented by society of “acceptable” men and women, also known as the gender binary.

Without being aware of it, each one of us has interacted at some point in our lives with a person who identifies as transsexual or transgender. Transsexualism can be defined as “a condition in which an individual identifies with a physical sex that is different from their biological one” (Transsexualism). This actually involves altering an individual’s body and/or life in order to identify with a different sex than the one they were defined as at birth. Identifying as transgender on the other hand is a “general term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups involving tendencies to deviate from the normative gender roles” (Transgender). This definition and identity is more fluid than transsexualism.

The majority of the people in our world live their everyday lives without ever thinking about or questioning their gender. Waking up every morning and feeling with conviction that their gender coincides with their physical body is something most individuals take for granted. Society is structured around the gender binary in countless ways. All restroom areas are clearly labeled for only men and women; there are women’s magazines and men’s magazines. Even the food we eat is constantly being sized up in comparison to our gender. But what about those individuals whose gender is not as clear-cut as society wants it to be? What about those who challenge the gender binary? As a result of the way society supports and perpetuates this binary, those who cannot fit into the accepted gender categories experience hurtful every day interactions and unnecessary violence.

On a subconscious level, we all go throughout our daily lives constantly defining the people around us. Upon meeting a new person, or even passing someone in the hallway, we immediately define them as a man or a woman. This is only brought to our attention when we cannot place an individual into a specific category. We are quick to judge those who fall outside of the binary, but rarely do we as a society wonder what it would be like to actually live a life that others consider abnormal.

Allie Lie shares her experiences with challenging the gender binary in her essay, “Passing Realities.” Lie phases in and out of identifying with both genders. While working and attempting to avoid confrontation, she presents herself as a woman or as she describes, en femme. She has two young boys who seem to be well aware of the anger nonconformity sparks in many people. Lie describes how the manager and clerk refer to her as she checks out after buying ice cream for her two sons,
“Her total came to _.”
“And she wrote a check?”
“Yes but he wrote it for $30 over the amount.”
“Does he have a card?”
“Yes, she does” (168).
The clerk and manager switch between using “he” and “she” in reference to Lie more than once during their brief exchange. Her two sons are obviously confused about other people’s inability to define her gender. Unless you have lived in a physical body that others fail to understand or even recognize, it is difficult to imagine how hurtful simple interactions like this could be. It is the routine every day interactions such as this one that make life more complicated for those who transgress the gender binary; awkward situations become an every day reality. Once again, this experience is tough to relate to or imagine unless you have lived it, but in no way justifies how difficult it can be for those who fall outside of the binary to simply live their daily lives.

Society has an underlying need constantly at work to classify all beings into the categories of men and women. As shown in Lie’s experience while checking out, the need to place all individuals into clearly defined categories is a crucial reason for the increased complexity involved in the every day lives of those who transgress the gender binary. He and she are two of the most commonly used words in language; without being aware of it we are constantly using these two pronouns to define the people we interact with. As we progress as a society however, an increasing need for a category that represents individuals who do not associate with “he” or “she” has emerged. When someone comes out as transgender or transsexual, society still feels the need to place them into a category. There is no in-between male and female identity currently accepted or recognized by society, as shown in Lie’s story. If you are a man transitioning into a woman then you must still chose to define with one side of the binary, and vice versa. Social categories are highly static and it would certainly be a daunting and difficult task to alter the way we define those who transcend gender definitions. Nevertheless, altering our current system of gender categorization seems to be one of the only ways to help individuals such as Lie, who others fail to place into a clear category based upon physical characteristics.

Sadly, violence is another every day reality present in the lives of those who transgress the gender binary. There is a unique level of anger and hatred directed towards transgender and transsexuals because of how deeply ingrained “acceptable” definitions of men and women are within society. Avoiding danger and hate crimes is the most extreme way their daily lives are different from those who clearly conform to the binary. Stacey Montgomery was born as a boy but has since transitioned into defining primarily as a woman. In her essay, “Twenty Passings,” she reveals how constant the threat of violence is in her life because of her uneasily definable gender.

In one account, she describes how a routine stop at a convenience store suddenly took a turn for the worst. As she turned the corner after buying her essentials, she noticed a group of young men standing on the sidewalk. She was aware of the danger her walking past them could present because of her unclear gender. At first one of the men called out to her addressing her as a woman, but then they saw her under a light. Lie describes how traumatic this experience was for her, “He would say more but I am suddenly under a streetlight, and he sees me more clearly. He is suddenly silent. My stomach turns icy, but I keep walking…His mates hear the tone of his voice, though – he is angry” (241). Montgomery did absolutely nothing to these men besides go about her every day life, yet her physical body sparks anger within them. Similarly to Lie’s story, this reveals the tendency nearly everyone has to classify people into gender categories based upon their physical body. When an individual cannot be immediately placed into a category, such as Lie and Montgomery, others often react with anger or violence because nonconformity is so deeply unsettling for so many. For those of us who have not experienced this type of violence first hand, it is difficult to image how it would feel to be afraid to go to the store, or to even venture out in public. Violence and hate crimes towards those who cannot be defined using the gender binary are also painful aspects of daily life.

The way in which others attempt to place both Lie and Montgomery into categories based upon their physical bodies reveals the need society has to place all individuals into a gender category; this is a result of how deeply ingrained the gender binary is within society. The relationships we choose, the careers we attain, and the bathroom door we choose to open all depend heavily on conforming to or challenging this binary. Daily life is far from simple when your gender is not easily definable and sadly, this often leads to unnecessary violence. Society must begin to recognize those who transcend the gender binary through the emergence of new categories and an awareness that gender is far from static.

Additional Readings

Gender Binary Normativity

Is it possible to raise a child outside the gender binary?

Transsexual Bathroom

Deconstructing Difference

Works Cited

Lie, Allie. “Passing Realities.” GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary.
Eds. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002. 194-201. Print.
Montgomery, Stacey. “Twenty Passings.” GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary. Eds. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002. 194-201. Print.
“Transgender.” Wikipedia Online, 2010. Web. 4 Apr. 2010.
“Transsexualism.” Wikipedia Online, 2010. Web. 5 Apr. 2010.

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