Childhood Binaries

Yesterday, I stumbled upon a rather dark and artsy film that explores what it’s like to be socialized as a boy. I found it to be disturbing, familiar, angering, and saddening. After I finished watching it, I was reminded of why I decided at 17 that I was completely done with being male and would never identify as a man.

The film is called The Smell of Burning Ants. You can watch it on YouTube in three parts:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

There is also a rather interesting study guide that accompanies the film.

I’m aware that not all boys go through this kind of training. Thankfully, not all communities raise their children in this way. Nevertheless, enough do, and I believe that it’s incredibly damaging  to the children who endure this, to those who are close to them, and to society as a whole.

When we subject our children to these rigid templates of being—boys and girls alike—we limit them in ways we can not fully fathom.

For me, the damage was quite palpable.  I did not experience a full range of emotions until I gave up identifying as male. This is not hyperbole.  It is a sad, stark truth.

When one’s perceptions of self shift, strange things can happen.  Letting go of one gender identity and embracing another is a largely uncharted experience, imbued with many unexpected changes.  During my early twenties, a scant few years after relinquishing my identity as male,  it was as though my life shifted from black and white to color. I felt emotions that I didn’t know I had. I felt my emotions descend to piercing depths and I felt them to soar to dazzling heights. I was able to feel a level of connection with people that I didn’t know was possible. It was both strange and welcome.

Many trans women relate similar experiences and they often connect these experiences with taking hormones. I don’t doubt that a sudden shift in body chemistry can make emotions do unusual things—at least until one’s body adjusts to the change. After all, a strong cup of coffee (yum!) can do that as well.  When my emotions began to deepen, however, I hadn’t taken a single tablet of estrogen. Not a one. This change happened several years before I embarked upon my own medical transition. All I had done was shift my assumptions about who I was. I stopped seeing myself as a boy. Instead, I decided that I would see myself as a woman, regardless of the body I inhabited. With that shift in self-perception, I was able to let go of some terrible emotional baggage that came with being raised as a boy.  I was able to shed emotional walls of concrete and steel, whose existence I was only marginally aware of.

I believe there is far more to this than an unfortunate quirk of gendered biology.  I believe that in many communities, we raise our children in ways that stunt them: girls, boys, everyone. We inadvertently lead our children into a rigidly dualistic way of being, forever stuck on one side of a pink and blue binary.  As a culture, many of us believe that we live in a society that has moved beyond sexism and yet, we raise our children in ways that still reflect a strictly regimented way of dividing human beings by sex and gender.

But hey, that’s what we grew up with, right? It worked for most and so it is best for our children.  It builds character.  It teaches children the proper way to conduct themselves as male and female beings.  It prepares children for the world.

Is this really true?

When young minds are just learning to organize the world into patterns of understanding, binaries can be quite enticing. It is the simplest form of organization available. Either, or. White and black. Good and bad. Male and female. God and Satan. Friend or enemy.  Countryman and foreigner.  Masculine and feminine. Normal and abnormal.   I am like you. I am not like you.

Some adjust to this way of seeing themselves, the world, and it’s people. Some do not. Some never find a comfortable space in these dualities of being.  Some find themselves on the undesirable side of these binaries.  What happens then?  What do we do with children who do not fit?  What do we teach our children about the less favored side of these binaries?

If we are honest about the complexity of the world, we realize that no one entirely fits within the boundaries of such simplistic forms of understanding.  Given that few people truly fit into these binaries, is this really the best way for our children to learn about themselves and the world?  Is it really best to teach our children that the world ultimately breaks down into desirable and undesirable positions on a series of binaries?

Aren’t many of our prejudices based upon thinking of the world in terms of rigid categories?  How often do people carry a simplistic understanding of the world into adulthood?  Who stands to suffer from these prejudices?  Who stands to gain?

I dream of time when we gently guide our children into young adulthood, seeing the world in full spectrum color, rather than faded sepia tones of tattered black and white.  Yes, I know.  This seems like crazed, woolly-minded idealism, right?  Speaking as one of the people whose childhood was warped by the current system, and speaking as someone who occupies the “undesirable” position within several binaries, I can assure you that change is warranted… and now is a lot better than later.

Does that make sense?  Or am I deluded?  Ah yes… another binary.  😉

Movie Credits: I  found The Smell of Burning Ants via a link in a comment by KD at Sociological Images.


~ by timberwraith on February 14, 2010.

3 Responses to “Childhood Binaries”

  1. Richard O’Brien commented on this- (here: )
    “All my life, I’ve been fighting never belonging, never being male or female, and it got to the stage where I couldn’t deal with it any longer. To feel you don’t belong . . . to feel insane . . . to feel perverted and disgusting . . . you go f***ing nuts. If society allowed you to grow up feeling it was normal to be what you are, there wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t think the term ‘transvestite’ or ‘transsexual’ would exist: you’d just be another human being.”

    Raising people in the binary might work 90-99% of the time, and I guess that’s why they do it, but on the people it doesn’t work with it’s really damaging. I really wish there was more room for people who don’t fit in.

  2. Hi there. Thanks for visiting my humble lil’ blog. 🙂

    If gender expression were allowed to range as freely as possible, I too suspect that terms such as cross dresser, genderqueer, bigender, etc. might very well fade into meaninglessness. It would be strange if they didn’t for their definitions only have meaning within the context of a socially enforced gender binary. However, I doubt that transsexuals would disappear. In many individuals, transsexuality has much more to do with a desire to shift one’s physical sex rather than one’s gender expression. There are, after all, trans women who identify as butch/masculine and trans men who identify as femme/feminine. If feeling more comfortable with their expected gender expression is the sole motivator behind one’s desire to shift sex, why would these particular people be motivated to transition?

    I suspect that if the gender binary dissolved or at the very least, restrictions on gender roles severely loosened, even more people would be tempted to modify their bodies in some way. As long as we remain a sexually dimorphic species, there will always be a subset of human beings who will express a desire to experience life as the other sex—or even a combination of both—especially as medical technologies improve.

    Given the existence of sexism and its reliance upon an enforced gender binary, I’m not sure that raising people in a binary is nearly as successful as people think it is. I think that human beings are very adaptable creatures, and as such, can survive the most limiting of social systems without self-destructing. Even so, I am not convinced that this is the best system possible—especially given the violence I have witnessed as being so intertwined in dualistic gender roles.

  3. I definitely agree that transsexuals in the sense of “people who medically/surgically modify their body to match who they are” wouldn’t disappear. A chunk of my issue is bodily dysphoria- even if I had no problems being seen as who I am, was accurately gendered, etc 100% of the time I’d still need to transition. Body dysphoria gets ignored by transgendered people a lot, but it definitely is there. But the term itself might fall out of use, or at least lose it’s stigma (I’d hope). I mean, we don’t really have a term for people who get plastic surgery or tattoos or whatever else to get a body they’re more comfortable in. Transitioning from XtY is a bit bigger than a nose job, but if we don’t have the idea of”the gender roles are finite and uncrossable!” then it hopefully wouldn’t be as big a deal.

    It would be interesting to see what would happen. For people who don’t have much of an issue with their body, being able to be seen as whot hey are without transitioning would be enough. I also know quite a few non-binaries who were essentially forced to transition all the way by their therapists to be able to get the treatment they need, and that wouldn’t happen so often. So in that sense it might decrease, but more people would be willing to say that they are who they are and that they want a body to match.
    We’d also be getting people who transition in new ways. I already know someone who transitioned MtNeutrois and a few people who would transition if they could to ‘hermaphrodite’ (a mix of both, still not sure how I feel about the term).
    I heard of a woman who got a breast reduction because she wasn’t comfortable with large breasts, even though society expects women to want the largest non-crippling rack available. I’m sure there are men who want feminine features as well. Only right now it isn’t socially acceptable for women to want ‘masculine’ features or men to want ‘feminine’ features.

    I really do wish there was more information on children not raised in an enforced binary role. Right now people are screeching ‘child abuse’ when anyone lets a boy so much as look at a pink shirt, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the damage comes more from people treating them like freaks, and otherwise they’re actually quite well-adjusted.

    I still don’t understand why people cling to the binary so much other than that it’s comfortable, but I’m not really in a place to understand it.

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