April 13, 2010
Outliers and the Consequences of the Gender Binary
Growing up in Connecticut, it dismayed me greatly that I had no local Major League Baseball team. Posited squarely between New York and Massachussetts, most of the people I knew were either fans of the Yankees or Red Sox. These two teams represented both the history of the league as well as the prestige of two ancient cities. Because each team played in the American League East, the rivalry grew even greater. Because there was so much attention given to these teams, it seemed that every baseball fan was forced to choose a side. In spite of this, I followed in the footsteps of my father, and dedicated myself to rooting for New York’s other baseball team, the Metropolitains. I stuck with my team but will admit it was not easy to defend them. While the Yankees and Red Sox have spent the last decade in a virtual Cold War, the Mets have become marginalized, cast aside by players and fans alike. The Sox-Yankees binary may have been arbitrary and generally inconsequential, but for a young man growing up in Connecticut the debate was very real. It was acceptable to fall on either side because there would be any number of like-minded individuals around you. It was only when you fell outside the binary that you were alone to stand against the scorn of Red Sox and Yankees fans alike .
Much of western thought exists in binary opposition. Our clock is divided into night and day. Our folklore designates good characters and bad characters. Even gender, established by arbitrary significations, becomes distinguished in terms of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. While it made sense that a majority of people in Connecticut would root for either the Yankees or Red Sox, the public perception was that it was not alright to like any of the other twenty-eight teams. In much the same way, modern opinion shuns those that fall outside of the gender binary. It is implied that to be a man is to be attracted to women, and inversely. We have also come to assume that being a man or a woman relies solely on biology. There are many cases where sexual preference as well as anatomical distinctions blur the expected social duality of the gender binary. These individuals often find, like a Mets fan in Connecticut, that they cannot explain why they don’t quite fit with the rest of the people around them .
Oftentimes, transgendered or gender-queer individuals talk about some aspect of themselves not fitting in with their perception of themselves or the world around them. Two stories, Allie Lie’s “Passing Realities”, and Stacey Montgomery’s “Twenty Passings” are examples of people in the midst of transitioning their gender. They constantly feel as if they are running against some unseen grain. As a Mets fan, I understand this pain in some way. Because these two people fall outside the gender binary, they are forced to account for their behavior, curb their behavior, or attempt to pass as either in hopes of avoiding social stigma . Only through their examples can we recognize the binary as false, deconstruct the false opposition, and in so doing find a comfortable middle ground where gender is no longer a fixed primary identity.
Stacey Montgomery’s story is comprised of twenty short episodes in her life in which she was confronted with issues of passing. Because she falls outside the gender binary, she must try to pass in many situations as either a man or a woman. If she was seen as either a man or a woman she would be able to pass easily. However, as someone who wants to be able to operate between the gendered construct—a term coined as gender-queer—she is never being true to the situation if she tries only to pass as one or the other. As a young male, for instance, she was not allowed to be a princess for Halloween, but instead was considered a space monster. Many times it is simply coming up against a set definition that is the hardest part of the gender binary. When Stacey Montgomery tells her girlfriend that she was born male, for instance, the girlfriend rejects her. Montgomery’s girlfriend says “I love you. But you’re not a woman. I’m gay, and I need to deal with that” (239). Because the gender binary is falsely associated with sexual preference, it is not just transgendered individuals who suffer, but their partners as well. Montgomery’s girlfriend was stuck attaching disjointed signifiers and significations .
Allie Lie deals with the hazards of the gender binary as well. In a similar way to Montgomery, she finds a confusion of relationship dynamics as a result of confronting herself. Her story, however, is complicated by the fact of having children. This is unique because a child can bring an innocence and tolerance to a unique situation where an adult with their opinions and experiences already molding them. Paradoxically, children also learn their values from family. Because of this, Allie walks a thin line between being true to herself and trying not to make life hard for her kids. The guilt she feels at how her children might be teased reinforces Allie’s position that she should try to conform. Though she doesn’t do it for herself, conformity for any sake remains conformity. The gender binary often times functions in this way. It is our perception of conformity in others that reinforces it in our selves. Simultaneously, when we appear to conform, we reinforce the suggestion that others should do the same. This cycle presents itself in the discourse of the story when people constantly refer to Lie as either “he” or “she”. People in discussion use both in a matter of moments. Those, like Lie, who fall outside the gender binary destabilize the most fundamental parts of language.
When we come to see that the gender binary is comprised by establishing oppositions between arbitrary items like skirts and pants—though both constructed of the same fabric —it becomes apparent that we cannot continue to let these distinctions exist. There is no model for being a man or a woman, and there is no evidence to suggest there is even a beneficial reason for creating these models . By thrusting the stories of people like Stacey Montgomery and Allie Lie to the forefront, we do more to further society than by simply talking theory. It is through understanding others, after all, that we can bring about necessary and lasting change. Once we break down reductive forms of identity, we may even find that we are not so different from anyone else to begin with.
Additional Source Material
1. Man’s blog about fashion, showing what a deconstructed wardrobe looks like, taking away gendered associations with certain apparel.
2. A scholarly site you can join that has articles pertaining to transgendered and genderqueer material.
3. A woman’s article about how the gender binary has affected her as an athlete.
4. This is a YouTube video about gender roles and the gender binary.
Lie, Allie. “Passing Realities.” GenderQueer. Ed. Clare Howell, Joan Nestle, Riki Wilchins. Alyson Publications: Los Angeles, 2002. 166-170.
Montgomery, Stacey. “Twenty Passings.” GenderQueer. Ed. Clare Howell, Joan Nestle, Riki Wilchins. Alyson Publications: Los Angeles, 2002. 238-246.