Gender Binary: Problematic

I had two best friends when I was younger, Buck and Brandon, both boys. We played four square and football everyday at recess together. When our gym class would go outside and play kickball I could kick further than most of the boys. An accomplishment, right? Not quite. In the third grade I got sent to the principal’s office for playing “tackle” football with my friends. I was the only girl; all of the boys got warnings, but I wasn’t allowed to go outside for recess the rest of the month. When it was my turn to talk to Mr. Machale (our principal) he told me that I should play “more with girls” and that any kind of football (not just tackle) was “dangerous for a little girl.”

I may have been little, but I was tougher than half of the boys in my class. I didn’t cry when I fell down and skinned my knees, I thought it was cool. The girls in my class thought it was “gross” that I liked to play in the pond and catch frogs on the weekends. My mom used to get so angry, she’d come outside and embarrass me in front of everyone, yelling at me, calling me a “young lady” and telling me to come inside, “this instant!” I never wore pink flowered dresses or braided my hair, heck I hardly brushed my hair. I wore baggy JNCO Jeans and a large oversized Fox Racing sweatshirt everyday. I didn’t tie or Velcro my shoes like the other girls my age. I wore the “boys” Vans, where you tucked the laces underneath the sole; they were more comfortable. My mom constantly wanted to put curlers in my hair and get me some clothes that “fit me.” My clothes fit, they just weren’t tight shirts and jeans that squeezed the life out of me. I never cared what anyone thought. My two best friends called me their “girl/boy friend.” I fit in, I was just one of them.

Then we grew up. The constant staring and questioning finally got to me. Brandon and Buck got tired of being made fun of for having a “girlfriend.” They got tired of hearing the song, “Katie and Brandon (or Buck) sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” I don’t blame them. Somewhere along the lines I changed from the “girl/boy” to a “real girl.” I started to care what people thought of me. I went on diets-eating nothing but salad, and today I wear the tight designer brand jeans I vowed I would never wear. I conformed. I let society’s opinion, the gender binary, change me.
Language agrees with whatever is “common” or “shared” among a speech community. “Gender is a language, a system of meanings and symbols, along with the rules, privileges, and punishments,” (Wilchins 35). Thus gender is only acceptable by common and shared societal norms, or the gender binary: male and female. The gender binary is the social identity we associate with one’s biological sex, male or female. It’s binary in a sense that there are two and only two genders, and these two genders line up exactly with the two biological sexes. A person is either male or female. Not a mix and not something different. The gender binary serves as an unachievable “goal” to societal beings; it’s destructive and crippling, and it steals little by little pieces of who we are.

The problem and quite ironic thing about this gender binary is that not one person can 100% completely fall into one of its categories; male or female. We all as individuals, have aspects that fit into both categories. Don’t you? Maybe you liked to play football when you were a kid, just like me. Maybe you liked to play dress up or Barbies or even play house with your sister, well maybe you did, until society told you “no more.” Society sort of “brainwashes us” into thinking there are only two gender categories and that you must pick one, and the right one-the one that corresponds with your sex. If you don’t, you’re weird, you’re pointed at, people are uncomfortable around you and let’s be honest, what person, likes knowing that others are uncomfortable around them? Society persecutes us until we conform. It makes us into gendered robots. “There is not a single word for people who don’t fit gender norms that is positive, affirming or complimentary. There isn’t even a word that is neutral,” (Wilchins 38). Society reinforces the binary gender in this way; either we ignore it, we pretend it doesn’t exist or we ridicule it. We point and stare, we freeze up, we become uncomfortable with the unknown, the hidden, the truth that society doesn’t allow us to see. Persecution occurs when difference, or reality, is made evident and this persecution causes us all to conform. Rikki Wilchins says it like this, “Gender conformity is made possible through a sense of permanent visibility, a strong consciousness of shame before others, a rock solid belief in what our bodies mean and that meaning’s utter transparency, and the continuous dance of gender that attaches the binary meaning to every facet of our waking lives”, (Wilchins 69). Society presses on us a strong consciousness of shame when we are different, but isn’t the point of being a “unique, human individual” being different? Society values and strives for difference. We as a culture emphasize the goodness of freedom and the ability to “be unique,” but when it comes to something as fundamental or basic as gender, difference is somehow absurd, almost repulsive.

There are few who challenge this gender binary. They are individuals who are not comfortable conforming to societal standards without reason, they strive to comfortable in their own skin. These individuals are transgendered. Transgendered individuals resist being placed into one of two gender categories. They resist the societal label that is awarded to them the moment they are born.
Mr. Barb Greve author of “Courage From Necessity” is transgendered. Barb, with the sex of a female struggled, with the female gender and asked friends and family to start using a masculine pronoun when referencing him. He recognized that society would not be okay with it, that people would become judgmental, uncomfortable, unsettled with Barb’s decision, but Barb wasn’t willing to let other people’s feelings affect his life, “I need to be honest about my whole self and am not willing to put part of me aside to make others feel comfortable,” (Greve 247). He wasn’t trying to upset anyone, or “rebel” in anyway. Greve simply wanted to be a whole person. He needed to embrace both the male side of himself and the female side of himself; he knew that he didn’t need the “acceptance” of society, but the “acceptance” only of himself. “My journey is not about transitioning into one of the two acceptable genders. It is not about making a political statement. My journey is about becoming a whole person. It is about being the best person I can be, (Greve 249).

How can we expect others to accept us, if we can’t accept ourselves? We’re all striving to be whole, just as Barb, but this binary gender makes it impossible. We can’t be the best individuals we can be by conforming to societal standards, by changing the way we talk, the way we act, and the things we wear. Slowly our true identity will disappear. That is, if society gives us a chance to develop our own, true, identity. Our gender is socialized; we are taught to behave according to our gender, at such early ages, that the chance to develop a unique, identity outside of societal shaping is almost impossible.
Without societal “shaping”, we’re all a little bit transgendered. We are all unique individuals. Not one of us is 100% male or 100% female, but the gender binary forces us to choose, it forces us to conform. When we don’t conform the gender binary forces us to see that we’re different and different in this case isn’t a good thing. The gender binary keeps us feeling self conscious about our differences. It forces us out of our uniqueness and into a pattern, a pattern that society creates. The gender binary steals our identities without us even knowing it.

I used to play tackle football for fun. I used to wear ripped jeans and oversized, baggy t-shirts because they were comfortable. I wore the same pair of shoes every single day, not because they were fashionable, but because I liked them. I used to eat pizza and have root beer burping contests at lunch. Today, I walk around in uncomfortable $200 “Seven for all mankind” jeans. I apply chemicals called “make up” to my face. I lay, bored and over heated, in a tanning bed that will probably give me cancer someday. I pay for a gym membership and I have to convince myself to run, inside, on a machine that after a deathly 20 minutes, will tell me how many calories I burned. Why in the world did I let the gender binary pull apart the person I used to be?

Additional Resources

Dr. Phil on Transgender Identity Disorder

Transgender Warrior

Transgender Support Site

National Center for Transgender Equality

Works Cited

Greve, Mr. Barb. Courage From Necessity GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. Alyson Books, 2002. 194-200. Print.

Wilchins, Riki. Queer Theory. Gender Theory. Alyson Books, 2004. Print.

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