Punishing Ambiguous Gender

You are standing in a gym. Surrounded by a group of people, the teacher announces, “Ok boys and girls, please split up and go to your locker rooms”. The boys and girls begin filing into their assigned gender restrictive rooms, leaving you in the middle of the floor, not knowing where to go. What do you do? You look like a boy, but you are a biological girl. You look at your baggy jeans and pull them up over your boxer shorts. This kind of attire bars you from the girl’s room. You self-consciously hug your chest feeling the bumps that bar you from the boys room. Both of the meeting rooms do not have space for people like you, because you are neither a boy nor a girl. You are left by yourself, uncomfortable alone in the gym unrecognized by a stunted system of categorization, that only allows for two gender options girl or boy. You are transgender.

Terminology is key to understanding what the gender binary is and the problems associated with it. To help with this discussion a few terms are explained below. The gender binary is a classification of gender that splits gender into two mutually exclusive categories. These two categories are masculine and feminine. This can present a problem because when you are born a biological male or female there is only one gender role you are allowed to follow. When you are a male you are allowed to be masculine and any deviation from masculine behavior is defined as feminine and makes you less of a man, which is a bad thing. The same thing goes for women. When you blend gender roles it makes you less of a man or women. Also when you are raised only knowing two gender roles and listening to ads, television show, and reading books that present only two genders, being confronted with something in between is threatening. Especially if you have ever struggled to live up to the standard of your own gender, seeing someone deviating the role that you have worked so hard to fill and enforce could make someone very angry.

Growing up in a society with limited gender and sex terminology can make it tricky to understand the terms associated with people who have deviant gender identities. Gender identities are characterized by our gendered behavior (fixing a car is a male behavior, wearing lipstick is a female behavior), as opposed to our biological identities which are characterized by our sex. One of the terms already mentioned is transgender. Someone who identifies as transgendered has a gender identity and an assigned sex that do not match up. Being transgender seems like an ambiguous classification because it is quite ambiguous. There is no implication of sexual orientation or of what your preferred pronoun would be (“Transgender”), and no one recipe of gender mixing that people adhere too. This term basically means that a transgendered person’s identity does “not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender roles, but combines or moves between these” (“Transgender”).

Transgender is also easily confused with the term transsexual. Being a transsexual means that you don’t feel that your biological sex matches the sex that you identify with (“Transexual”). A transsexual might feel like they were a girl born in a boy’s body. Transsexuals are very interesting in terms of where they fall in the sex binary. While they have defiantly struggled with their identity, they do identify as a male or a female, falling into one of the categories defined by the sex binary. Sexual operations can be preformed to move them from one end of the sex binary to the other. Whether it be from male to female, or female to male, transsexuals feel that they are either a man or a women. Their preferred sex matches their gender identity.

It is hard to imagine what it would feel like to fall outside the gender binary. Not only would it be hard to get strange looks every time you left your house, but being subject to our disciplinary society’s threats of physical violence just for looking different would also be a constant part of your everyday life. Mollie Biewald presents some situations that she has encountered as a transgendered teen in her story “World’s Youngest”. Some of the situations are awkward, some are funny, but some situations she recalls detail how being herself threatened her safety only because she fell outside the gender binary. Mollie is an example of someone who falls outside of the gender binary and as a result is not generally recognized or understood by society. Because of the restrictive quality of the gender binary when transgender people don’t fit into a category they are targeted as social deviants and punished for their non-conformation.

One night when Mollie was 14, she was on the subway in New York City she noticed that she was one of the last people in the car. Already feeling vulnerable she caught a man, much bigger than she was, looking intensely at her. Because Mollie was dressed in boy’s clothing and sporting a masculine haircut, the man was not able to identify her as a girl or a boy. Because he couldn’t fit her into his idea of what a man or women should be he stopped viewing her as a person and instead targeted her as a deviant. The man approached and cornered Mollie, who recalls being so scared she though she was going to throw up. He demanded to know “Are you a man or a lady?” (Biewald 121). She was able to escape when she bolted off the train as the car doors closed and didn’t look back when she heard the man screaming at her from inside the car.

This kind of behavior is a great example of what happens when people don’t have an understanding of gender wider than the binary. This stunted definition threatened the safety of a 14 year old girl just because she looked different. Mollie would not have been an intimidating physical presence on the train but her gender was ambiguous so she didn’t clearly fit into the gender binary. This ambiguity is what triggered the man to punish her for not fitting into one of the two gender categories that he understood. Because she was neither a man nor a women she ceased to be a person who required humanitarian treatment. Physically intimidating a total stranger for looking different seems like a gross overreaction for not dressing/acting appropriately.

Another experience that shows Mollie being subject to societal punishment is when she falls outside the gender binary by requesting a barber at a barbershop to cut her hair off. She remembers that about thirty men and no women sat around in the shop watching as she entered and requested a haircut. After pausing to make sure cutting all her hair off was what she really wanted the barber agreed, but for a price. As he cut her hair Mollie recalls how the barber was “pressing himself up against my shoulder in a way no barber should, and I wanted to scream, and run out of there, but I’m frozen” (Biewald 123).

The barber’s behavior was another example of someone physically threatening Mollie for looking different. Mollie became frozen in fear because she knew that she was making the people around her uneasy which lessened her bargaining power in this situation because the situation was un-stabilized by her rebellion from the gender binary. Once again, a rebel of society defined by the gender binary, Biewald is being punished by the barber. The barber is trying to assert her feminity and his masculinity by pushing himself up against her. He is trying to dominate her in this situation in order to put her into a category. Sexualizing the situation as a man will make her the girl. This is his way cutting her hair, but punishing her for her request and for falling outside of the binary. Biewald is sickened by this, but she knows that she can’t do anything about it because this display of assaulting behavior could quickly escalate, especially in an environment where she is already surrounded by men who are presumably of the same temperament and might push the boundaries of making her feel more like a girl.

It is hard to imagine feeling threatened everyday because of the way you look and dress. Choosing to be yourself should never have negative repercussions, especially when those repercussions threaten violence and assault. Unless we create a space for transgender people between the poles of the gender binary then transgendered people will continue to live in a hostile environment where they fail to make it into a categorization and are targeted as deviants. People are threatened by things they do not understand. So, to get rid of this misunderstanding, the gender binary needs to be deconstructed to include the whole spectrum of people who fall in between the two poles of the binary. This deconstruction would not only allow for transgender people to have a recognizable space in society, but would also allow everyone to express themselves more freely without the pressures of having to be recognized as being a man or women with their actions and attire. Transgendered people would not longer be targets of violence and there would be less pressure to conform to people’s notion of feminine and masculine stereotypes.

Additional Readings

Transgender Stories
Transgender News
365 Gay

Works Cited

Works Cited

Biewald, Mollie. “World’s Youngest.” Genderqueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Ed1. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, Riki Wilchins. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 2002. 120-124. Print

“Transgender.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 4 April 2010. Web. 12 April 2010

“Transsexual.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 April 2010. Web. 12 April 2010

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