Have you ever thought about what it means to be male of female? Many of us define male or female as having a penis or a vagina, and with each is associated with specific traits. Our society is based on a system of binaries: systems in which there are two parts or sides. For instance: good and bad, liberal and conservative, cops and robbers, sex and gender, male and female. The notion that there are only two biological sexes is also binary and as a result, our society also believes there is only one correlated gender for each sex. The sex binary distinguishes between male and female based on biological sex organs, where as the gender binary is the “classification of male as masculine and female as feminine,” (Gender Binary). As a society, we have the habit of associating feminine traits with the female sex, and vice-versa. The experiences of those whose sex and gender identity conflict with normal societal expectations (transsexual and transgender) can be incredibly emotional and at times difficult to understand. While its uncommon for most people to stay within the boundary lines all of the time, it can be exponentially more difficult for people whose gender and biological sex don’t align with societal norms. The sex and gender binaries affect those in conflict with norm standards by creating feelings of disenfranchisement, fear, and anxiety. Through utilization of our own experiences in combination with the personal accounts of transsexual and transgender authors, we can make this conflict visible, and begin to understand how it shapes the experiences of those fall outside of it.
The gender binary is created through a process of social construction. This means the categories that compose the binary, male and female, were created as a result of the interactions and language in our culture. That is, there is no institution that created the binary i.e. the government, but that you, your friends and family are the enforcers of these cultural norms. Did you even realize that you are a part of the system of oppression? The way we enforce the gender binary is through elements of social control, which rewards those who conform to gender scripts and sanctions for those who do not. For example, have you ever called someone a “pussy” or “faggot” because he didn't align with the masculine stereotype? Or ever made fun of someone because they didn't look like a stereotypical man or woman?
As products of our society, none of us should have any difficulty thinking of a time when you or someone you know acted as the gender police, intentionally or not. But how does gender enforcement create conflict for those whose sex and gender don’t coincide? By viewing the binary from the perspective of someone who falls outside of it, we can better empathize and understand how they feel as a result. In “Twenty Passings” by Stacey Montgomery, she tells of her feelings and experiences as a male to female transsexual. As an adolescent, she recounts not fitting in with any group, hetero or homosexuals, men or women. “Normal” teenagers already experience a multitude of emotions, but can you imagine how overwhelming her loneliness must have been without anyone to identify with? The most difficult to deal with must have been the anxiety of passing, or being seen as a woman. If she didn't pass, at times she literally feared for her life. Reflect upon how much thought you give to your daily wardrobe. Now imagine that “the whole subject of dress and appearance is politically loaded,” like it is for Montgomery. How would you feel if the way you dressed and presented yourself made you a potential target for violence and ridicule? At another point in “Twenty Passings,” Montgomery is on the phone with her presumed partner, indulged in a conversation about how an acquaintance has identified her as a man. The fact that she was read as a male comes from a judgment based on Montgomery’s physical characteristics that come from her biological sex. When attempting to convince the acquaintance that she was in fact a woman, a conflict arose because her biological sex and gender didn't fit with that of societal norm.
Allie Lie presents the problem created by conflicting sex and gender identities again in her personal narrative, “Passing Realities”. As a male to female transsexual, Allie tells of her struggles passing with herself. Aside from dealing with the perceptions of those outside of her, she also explains that she “is seldom happy with what I see,” in reference to her own appearance. All humans can understand not liking something about their body, but imagine the inner turmoil that results from not reconciling what is on the inside with what we see in the mirror. This inner turmoil is a latent result of the societal belief that for each biological sex, there is one corresponding gender. The problem arises because Lie has come to accept those beliefs as fact, and in turn has difficulties understanding herself. Her despair and isolation becomes tangible when she is reminded of a story about “a man who imagines that a stranger who looks not even remotely like him is his virtual twin,” (Lie 168). But, the perceptions of those outside of her are prevalent in the story, especially from recollections of public restrooms. At one point, Lie asks for the key to use a restroom in an office building. Upon her failed attempts to open the women’s restroom, she turns the key over to discover that she has been given the key for the men’s restroom. This situation is another example in which Lie has been negatively affected by conflicting sex and gender roles. The fact that her gender identifies as different from her biological sex has created an extremely stressful and embarrassing situation.
We can see other emotions present in the lives of those who fall outside the binary in the short memoir Vision, by Aaron Link. Link gives us insight as to what its like to be invisible in relation falling outside the gender binary. If you were asked to draw a picture of yourself twenty years from now, it would probably be you, just aged twenty years. Now imagine that what you feel on the inside is different from how you look on the outside. Now try and draw what you’ll look like in twenty years. Difficult right? In one example from the memoir, Link is honest about his inner feelings, and tells a friend. He tells how he watched himself disappear (Link) in this person’s eye. Because he didn't have a normative gender role to fall into anymore, he became anonymous, invisible. Can you imagine the pain that comes from pouring out your inner truth, only to be victimized?
We have nothing to blame except our own society for creating the categories of male and female. It is our fault that these categories exclude and marginalize those that challenge them. In nature, there is no such thing as masculine and feminine, no specific traits that can be absolutely applied to one sex or the other. Its time we stop classifying each other based on the gender binary, and begin embracing the differences between us. And the first step to equality is making visible the sex and gender binary correlation and realizing the effects it has on everyone, whether they conflict with it or not.
- Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary
- Emotional Issues for Transgender and Transsexual People
- Frequency of Mental Health Problems in Transgendered People
- The Fractal Nature of the Gender Binary
- What Transsexual Is
Nestle, Joan, Clare Howell, and Riki Anne Wilchins. GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Los Angeles: Alyson, 2002. Print.
Wade, Lisa, and Gwen Sharp. "The Fractal Nature of the Gender Binary: Or Blue vs. Turquoise » Sociological Images." Contexts. Sociological Images, 07 Jan. 2010. Web. 16 Mar. 2010. <http://contexts.org/socimages/2010/01/07/the-fractal-nature- of-the-gender-binary-or-blue-vs-turquoise/>.