Binary Thinking: No and No
There’s a post up at The Bilerico Project that attempts to respond to five misconceptions about trans people. One of the five misconceptions is:
Transgender people are just men trying to cross an artificial gender boundary that shouldn’t be there in the first place.
My personal response to that misconception would be simple: binary notions of gender will never effectively incorporate a wide variety of behaviors and ways of being that have been expressed since human beings have walked the planet. Transgender people are individuals (women, men, and those who define as neither or both) who are trying to survive an inadequate system of categorizing human beings. They are people who are forced to live under a rigid binary and are doing their best to adjust to a shitty, oppressive system, just as everyone else is forced to adjust to it. At worst, the binary hurts anyone who is unable to conform to it, and at best, it deeply limits the lives of those who can. Labels are artificial constructs that rarely—if ever—recognize and acknowledge the diversity of the natural word, including a vast spectrum of human behavior.
Part of the response at The Bilerico Project says:
These people are usually unaware of the internal anguish created by gender dysphoria, and cannot imagine a life where their minds and bodies are in conflict. Furthermore, they’re convinced that there is no difference between men and women, save for the parts and the proportions. This is easily rectified; ask them to name a few things that men do/women do that they simply do not understand. (Everyone has a half-dozen of these, easy.) [Emphasis added.]
This statement bothers me and I’m a trans woman.
I can think of a half-dozen things that men and women do that firmly fit into little pink and blue boxes that *I* don’t quite understand. Lo and behold, I still identify as a woman. I’ve certainly known my share of cis and trans people who look at standard gender expectations and think, “How odd. That’s certainly not me.”
Also, what about genderqueer people? They look at standard binary modes of gender behavior and find that there is no place for them. The above comment doesn’t address those experiences. Quite to the contrary, it ignores those experiences. I’m not willing to throw genderqueer people under the bus so that my binary-conforming ass gets civil rights and social acceptance before they do.
The core issue that lies at the center of sexism, transphobia and homophobia is the very real problem that a gender binary can never incorporate the wide diversity of ways of being that humans express. In spite of this, we cling to this system of categories and invest tons of individual and institutional resources forcing ourselves and others to conform.
Any queer person who has run up against that conformity can attest to how the system doesn’t work. It hurts people. That’s the raison d’être behind homophobia and transphobia: to hurt those who do not conform. Loving someone of the same sex/gender violates gender expectations. Consequently, people fear and hate lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. Transgender people violate gender expectations by shifting physical form and/or expressing non-conforming gender behaviors. So, people fear and hate trans people. That fear and hatred leads to social repercussions that either force people to conform or face social sanctions and violence.
Of course, this perspective doesn’t play well with mainstream folk because they are deeply invested in conforming to the norm. If you try to tell John and Jane Q America that a rigid gender binary oppresses people, they will look at you as though you are a two headed monster.
In the long run, however, this perspective makes more sense to me. The system is broken. There are many, many people whose lives do not fit into this system. It needs to be fixed. It’s going to take generations to do this, but the effort is worth it, for as long as human beings cling to rigid notions of male/female/masculine/feminine, there’s always going to be a certain amount of hatred and mistrust of anyone who defies the binary.
Even so, this notion scares people. It scares many trangender women and men because under a non-binary culture, we might exist as entirely different people. I’m OK with that. Under the current system, I’m a woman. That’s how all the the individual components of my persona interact with this social system. This is all that I know. I work with the tools I am given. What more can any perosn do? However, if we lived under a system that simply exploded the notions of male and female, feminine and masculine? I’m not sure who I would be. Not a single person living on this planet at this point in history can answer that question, either. That scares the shit out of people and that’s the whole point: change is frightening, even if it is healthy.