Lesbian. Transexual. Homosexual. Intersex. Genderqueer. Drag King. These terms used to categorize individuals inevitably lead to judgments, misunderstandings and stereotypes on the part of the people that have never struggled with their identities before. For some, gender and sex have never even been topics to question. Gender and sex are more like facts that just simply are what they are. You are a boy, so act like one. You are a girl, so act like one. These types of people typically feel comfortable with the black and white gender binary and uncomfortable or confused when someone else does not quite fit the standard definitions of gender binary suitable labels.
The “gender binary” is a system both created and enforced by society making masculine behavior the only acceptable behavior for males and feminine the only acceptable behavior for females. Though “sex” and “gender” are often used interchangeably in our daily lives, these words carry two very distinct meanings. A person’s sex is their physical biological identity, testes or ovaries; male or female. Genders are the behaviors, personality traits, and roles in society prescribed to each of the sexes. For instance, males are the aggressive, opinionated bread winners while females are the passive, maternal housewives. It is a social belief that male bodied individuals should express the masculine gender, just as female bodies should express the feminine gender. The gender binary is built on this assumption that one’s sex should determine one’s gender and therefore one’s gender expression should directly be decided by an individual’s sex.
But what about individuals whose gender doesn’t exactly match their assigned sex? Our English language lacks the presence, let alone acceptance and toleration, of words that can be used to describe one’s gender, sex, and gender expression. Lack of vocabulary and misused vocabulary relating to gender and sex in the English language cause discomfort within our society and alienate individuals that aren’t heterosexual males or females . With a broadened span of new, acceptable words, and an increased awareness of the true meaning of terms, many pressures could be relieved from intersex individuals, transsexuals, transgender people, and anyone else living outside of the gender binary.
Imagine for just a moment a time in your life when you have felt like you didn’t belong. Then picture that instance expanded into all facets of your life, complicating your day to day activities (even the simple ones like deciding which restroom to use), and the constant bombardment of questions surrounding the very thing isolating you in the first place. Imagine if every morning when you woke up you had to mentally and physically prepare yourself for a day that likely would include some combination of strange looks, alienation, mental abuse and physical abuse. This surely would have the power to wear down any individual.
For the bassist, godparent, transgender, home brewer, Mr. Barb Greve, the constraints of the gender binary’s vocabulary were felt when it came to his name and his gender identification (Greve 247). He elaborates on his struggles with gender and sexual identities in his personal narrative entitled, “Courage from Necessity.” Barb’s birth certificate claims he is female; however Barb knew from a young age that he was both sexually attracted to girls and identified with males in terms of gender roles (Greve 248).
Words are often misused, attached to very negative emotions, and even used completely unnecessarily as insults. As a middle schooler, other girls would call Barb a lesbian. This was an unfamiliar term to her and was thrown her direction with far from positive connotations. The term lesbian was used in this case as an insult and a tool for isolation for the clique oriented pre-teen girls. The girls used this term because Mr. Barb was masculine and society automatically assumes that masculine women are butch lesbians. The word’s true meaning wasn’t necessarily understood by the girls that referred to Barb as a lesbian, but rather the girls had the misconception that being lesbian or expressing masculine traits as a female was bad, wrong and embarrassing. Barb referenced a dictionary after school one day to find that lesbians are quite simply “women who love women,” and are attracted emotionally and sexually to women (Greve 248). In today’s society the term lesbian is used as a derogatory term with powerfully negative connotations, often used as an “accusation” to generate scandal and to force people to either “defend their straightness” or acknowledge their homosexuality publicly (Stein). This illustrates the binary in one sense, you are either straight or you are gay. Barb seemingly found a term that accurately described her sexuality.
However, there was a problem with this term. Could Barb possibly be an identified lesbian, even while “looking to the men in my (her) life to be my (her) role models?” (Greve 249). This seems to defy the definition of lesbian if Barb anatomically is female, feels like a man in terms of gender roles, and is sexually attracted to women. So does this technically mean that she is transgender, straight man? Is Barb somewhere in between a man and a woman? Or is Barb a butch lesbian? Who gets to decide this? Teenage years are full of identity questioning for most people, but just imagine having to search relentlessly for words that might not even exist to describe your gender and your sexual orientation on top of all other struggles. Many people use the binary system as a comfortable and easy way to group others and themselves, not knowing or caring about those for whom the decision between man and woman doesn’t come so easily.
For Barb, her decision to break the gender barrier didn’t originally have a name, making her feel even more isolated and alone with her gender struggles. Barb reflects, “As a child I never heard the word transgender. No one ever told me it was OK to identify as something other than male or female” (Greve 249). What else does society allow you to be when there are only two recognized options? This is shown by the facts that we have male and female bathrooms, “m” and “f” boxes to check on drivers’ licenses, birth certificates and standardized tests, even male and female sections of stores showing us how to dress according to our sexes. Barb eventually found solace with expressing her gender and sexuality despite the lack of words by creating and embracing her own mixture of both masculine and feminine words, like her name for instance. Instead of Miss Barbara Greve, Barb goes by Mr. Barb Greve and identifies as a transgender guy (Greve 249). He refuses to sacrifice experiences from either gender and chooses to live simply how she feels and what makes her happy and most comfortable.
As an adult, Barb Greve also made the formal pronoun switch from “she” to “he” by asking people to use the masculine pronoun when referring to him. He claims that, “my decision to use masculine pronouns in reference to me comes from a feeling of need. I need to be honest about my whole self and am not willing to put a part of me aside to make others feel comfortable” (Greve 247) . His ability to put his own self comfort over the comfort of others was something that took him years to do, but is something that many individuals have done daily since childhood without even giving it much thought. For instance, little Sally who thrives in the feminine side of the gender binary has never had to think about or be aware of her femininity making others uncomfortable.
Other individuals who don’t feel like masculine or feminine pronouns are accurate representations of themselves chose to use one of the gender neutral hybrid pronouns “hir” or “Zie” (Park). These pronouns are becoming more and more widely used in the transgender and transsexual communities, but are yet to be acknowledged in mainstream society. Pauline Park, a blogger for the “Big Queer Blog,” even goes as far as saying, “the expectation, I suppose, is that once American society has overthrown the oppression of 'he' vs. 'she,' the Utopia of gender liberation will be achieved” (Park). The deconstruction of the ‘he’ vs. ‘she’ binary also will allow for other options besides just “he” and “she.” Traditional gender roles associated with male and female sexes will not just disappear into thin air, but they can be expanded to where male bodied people will be free to take on either feminine or masculine gender roles and vice versa for female bodies. Gender pronouns are loaded words that carry more weight than most people will ever realize. For some individuals, being man or a woman, or a he or she works, but shouldn’t those who don’t fit within any of those categories still have the right to live happily under their chosen labels? And to love who they please just as men or women do?
There is a solution to this issue. If society can just resist the primal urge to sort and categorize everyone into such a narrow possible spectrum of identities and relentlessly bind sex to gender, our world could exist with much less hatred and preconceived notions. Instead our world could be filled with an endless amount of happy and free souls, loving who they love and living in the genders that feel comfortable to them. Education is the necessary reform and has the potential to reduce phobias of anything against the traditional gender norms. If the secrecy and taboo of defying prescribed roles were minimized or eliminated, everyone could feel free and comfortable to live lives that suit their preferred gender. If we came to the understanding that the sex of one’s body doesn’t have to correspond with one’s gender identity or gender expression, then Mr. Barb and all other people with similar struggles would have much more freedom to live their lives more comfortably. With the option to live outside the gender binary’s prescribed gender roles, would come the expansion of the English vocabulary to include words that currently don’t even exist or are forbidden to be spoken to help people express their genders, sexes and sexual orientations more accurately and with less restrictions.
Greve, Barb. "Courage From Necessity." Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, Riki Wilchins. GENDERqUEER. New York: Alyson Publications, 2002. 247-252.
Park, Pauline. S/he's Not Heavy, Zie's My Non-Gendered Sibling: Why Gender-Neutral Pronouns Don't Work for Me. 6 December 2006. 1 March 2010 <http://www.bigqueer.com/index.php?/archives/196-Shes-Not-Heavy,-Zies-My-Non-Gendered-Sibling-Why-Gender-Neutral-Pronouns-Dont-Work-for-Me.html>.
Stein, Natalie. Sapphic Salon: The Lesbian Low-Blow. 22 December 2009. 2 March 2010 <http://bitchmagazine.org/post/sapphic-salon-the-lesbian-low-blow>.