Defying the Gender Binary

Are you a male or female? This question seems simple enough, and most people could probably answer in a split second without hesitation, but for a small population this question is one that challenges them every day on both physical and emotional levels. I had never considered the gender binary, a system that categorizes gender into only male and female, to be a problem until I began reading accounts and hearing stories about people that fall outside of the lines. For these individuals instead of making life easier, the gender binary tears them apart. By discussing examples of how the binary system makes it challenging for intersexed and transgendered people to find their own identity and place in society, I am hoping to inform you about the struggles faced by this unique population. By looking into their unique situations I encourage you to consider the possibility that things aren’t always black and white as the gender binary system makes it seem.

The first group I want to look at is the intersexed population. Intersexed individuals, formerly known as hermaphrodites, are born with genitalia that cannot be specifically classified as male or female. Looking into Cheryl Chase’s personal account of being an intersexed person, one can get a picture of what the process would look like had you been born intersexed. When infants are born intersexed, it is usually up to the doctors to make a decision about which biological sex to label the baby for the birth certificate. After making this decision, doctors then advise the parents to raise the child as the appropriate gender that traditionally coincides with the chosen sex. Living in our society, “being intersexed is humanly possible but (in our culture) socially unthinkable” (Chase, 207), so once a sex has been assigned, parents are encouraged to have the child undergo surgery to clarify the genitals so they can fit into the gender binary.

Until recently parents had little say in the process of determining the gender of their intersexed infants. Fortunately as we are now aware how psychologically damaging the effects of incorrect gender reassignment can be, many more options have become available to families. Parents are now encouraged to wait before performing drastic genital reassignment surgery that might remove parts of the body, until the child is older and together they can make the decision based on the best fit the individual child’s personality. In puberty, hormones might kick in and help distinguish the genitalia, but if parts of it are reassigned or removed before and individual gets a say, it might be too late to correct or change.

To show us the challenges intersexed individuals face, we will look at Cheryl Chase’s personal account told in “Affronting Reason.” In the shocking story, Cheryl decides to investigate a hospitalization that occurred when she was just a baby, only to find out that Cheryl had once been Charlie, and the surgery had been a clitorectomy (removal of the clitoris because of its abnormally large size) to reassign ambiguous genitalia to make her look female. Cheryl’s explains her reaction to the procedure by saying, “I knew that I had been mutilated by the clitorectomy, deprived of the sexual experience most people, male and female, take for granted” (Chase 206). Because of the decision her parents made to remove her clitoris, Cheryl will never have the ability to orgasm and fully enjoy the sexual experience.

Due to the fact that anything outside of the gender binary is considered shameful by society, Cheryl’s parents quickly covered up the mistake of their temporary son. Once the clitoris was gone, so was Charlie. As Cheryl describes in her story, “I know now that after the clitorectomy my parents followed the physicians’ advice, and discarded every scrap of evidence that Charlie had ever existed. They replaced all of the blue baby clothing with pink, discarded photos, birthday cards” (Chase, 205). If the sex binary was expanded to include intersexed individuals, the dramatic move from blue to pink would not have been necessary.

The harmful effect of not having a third option for intersexed individuals to identify as not only scars them physically but emotionally. Even though “one in 2000 infants is born with an anatomy that refuses to conform,” (Chase 208) intersexed individuals feel alone in the world because they have no official way to be socially recognized as part of their own group. Cheryl Chase describes that “the feeling of being utterly alone may be the most damaging part of what has been done to us” (Chase 216). How can we continue to let these individuals feel so alone? If bodies can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, maybe we should consider that only two options of categorization aren’t enough to make room for intersexed individuals and as a society we should incorporate a third option for an intermediate sex.

The second group of people that has trouble fitting into a specific category of gender is the transgendered people. To be considered transgendered, an individual identifies as one sex, but does not want to be stuck being either masculine or feminine all the time and likes to switch back and forth, or have more of a blend of male and female traits in everyday life.

A story that illustrates transgender life and the stress added to it by the gender binary is “Courage by Necessity” by Mr. Barb Greve. In this story, Barbara is born a girl, but always felt like she would become a man. Even now, he doesn’t feel one hundred percent comfortable identifying with either gender as he explains, “Alone, I struggled with how to describe what I knew inside was a truth: I was not going to grow up to be either a man or a woman” (Greve 249). Living in our society, Mr. Barb is not allowed to make peace with that truth, because even if he is okay with keeping an open identity, the gender binary system is not.

This is a problem of the binary system because it forces people like Mr. Barb, to choose which side of the binary they feel most identifies them, even if that side is neither side. What is someone like Mr. Barb suppose to do when they find themselves on the line? To understand how this forced choice makes transgendered individuals feel, we can look at a quote from Mr. Barb describing his feelings: “society’s need to make gender one or the other sacrifices the life experiences of people like me. We are forced to choose between a man and a woman. For me, this would mean denying a large part of who I am” (Greve, 249). Changing the ways of society and the binary system would allow transgendered individuals to make peace with who they are and not have to force themselves into an identity that doesn’t fully belong.

Occasionally an individual tries to defy the binary system and push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. Mr. Barb does this when he decides to request that he to be referred to with male pronouns while keeping the name feminine name Barbara. This seems like such a simple formality, but it makes a world of difference to Mr. Barb while causing quite the confusion amongst society because it falls into the grey area of the gender binary. Mr. Barb recognizes that what he is doing is strange to others but states “I’ve come to the realization that in order for me to be comfortable with myself, I may need to confuse others” (Greve 248). We need more brave souls like Mr. Barb to defy the gender binary and cross these lines to force us as a society out of our comfort zones.

Looking at all these unique individuals and their personal stories, I feel that society needs to consider expanding the gender binary by adding a third option to include these people as are, rather than making them try and force themselves into a wrong fit. Whether we are talking about intersexed individuals that cannot be classified, or looking at transgendered people that want to float in between, the gender binary system is limiting to their life styles and sense of self. If people need to go outside of our definitions of male and female to identify their true self, we should be willing to accept their decision, or consider creating another option for them to define themselves and find a place in society. Individuals outside the binary are “challenging the rest of us to completely change our mind-sets, to step outside our safe boxes and see the world completely different from what is as ingrained in us as responding to our own names” (Greve 248). As society we have to decide how to respond to this challenge; are we going to let our own fears and confusion hold us back, or will we push ourselves to expand the gender binary.

+ Other Resources to Check Out

This website was fascinating to me and had a bunch of statistics on suicide rates, violence, harassment, and abuse of youth identifying as LGTB. These shocking statistics point out how damaging the gender binary can be to these individuals self esteem and safety.

This article from the Georgetown Law Journal in 2003 is very detailed in explaining the history of genital-normalizing surgery and talks about the challenges it has faced from recognizing the psychological damage the surgery can do. It also talks about how things are shifting to give parents more of an option in the decision making process to decide what to do with the child.

This article is great because it is set up in a simple question and answer format with common questions of defining transgender directed towards an expert on the subject. If you are still confused about what transgendered means exactly, this is a great cite to learn from.

This story is a personal account of a little boy that knew at only 18 months that he felt like a girl. I think hearing this story about a child helps put into perspective how transgendered people feel about themselves because children are so innocent they don’t know that is socially unacceptable to feel this way, they just go with their instincts and can teach us a lot about the transgender perspective.

Works Cited

  • Chase, Cheryl. “Affronting Reason.” Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary.

Ed. Nestle, Joan, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. New York: Alyson Books, 2002.
194-201. Print.

  • Greve,Barb. “Courage by Necessity.” Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary.

Ed. Nestle, Joan, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. New York: Alyson Books, 2002.
194-201. Print.

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