As Miley Cyrus, Ruby Rose, Angel Haze, Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and other individuals in and out of the limelight discuss gender identity and expression, I have been examining the assumptions underlying my music blog, WHERE MY GIRLS AT? “The intention of featuring female musicians comes from a place of celebration and empowerment… and an awareness of sexism in the music industry. When I feature a musician on my site, I am assuming their gender identity based on how they look publicly, not necessarily how they define themselves personally.” Maybe as WMGA showcases what I define as female musicians based on their physical appearance, WMGA continues to perpetuate the gender binary… “What in the world is the gender binary?” It’s the classification of sex and gender into two forms- masculine, male, man and feminine, female, woman. Upon realization that this is one type of gender system, I initiated an internal inquiry of my own assumptions and understanding around gender and sexuality. With my curiosity heightened, I decided to delve into research literature, popular media, grassroots activism, and personal accounts of what it means to identify outside of our gender-binary, heteronormative culture.
In many but not all cultures, we are assigned a biological sex based on the presentation of our chromosomes, hormones, and sexual organs at birth. The combination of these characteristics determines whether an individual’s biological sex is assigned female or male at birth. In the case of children who are born intersex, biological sex is often assigned through surgery. The lack of informed consent here is obvious and these surgeries have documented harmful effects.
The conversation narrows and ends here for many- if you have a penis, you are a boy and if you have a vagina, you are a girl. However, by assuming this, we omit the existence and reality of thousands, perhaps millions of people who are intersex. As one delves into the variety of intersex conditions and circumstances, it becomes apparent that the illusion of two biological sexes is a gross simplification of the human experience- and, it is not nature that determines biological sex and gender but rather, humans do.
“The first question we usually ask new parents is: Is it a boy or a girl? There is a great answer to that one going around: We don’t know; it hasn’t told us yet. Personally, I think no question containing “either/or” deserves a serious answer, and that includes the question of gender.” –Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw: One Men, Women, and the Rest of Us
Once, I asked one of my Kindergarten students, “Did your mom have a little boy or little girl?” She looked at me, unreservedly baffled, shook her head, and said, “She had a little baby.”
The cultural logic continues that gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation are associated with our genitals. If you have a penis, you are a man, and you have sex with women and if you have a vagina, you are a woman, and you have sex with men. Physical biology, gender identity and expression, as well as sexual orientation are understood by default to be fixed from birth and aligned- you are born either male or female; you are reared to conform to the gender expression typical of your biological sex; you are attracted to and engage intimately and sexually with the opposite sex.
These cultural truths are disproved by the existence of biological anomalies and gender roles and expectations outside of the gender binary. For example, a third biological sex, termed guevedoche (roughly translated as “testicles at 12”) or machiembra (“male-female”) is recognized in the Dominican Republic. The kathoeys or “ladyboys” of Thailand are born male but “have a female heart.” They are often referred to as sao praphet song or a second type of woman. Thailand is currently in the process of re-writing its constitution and it has been proposed Thailand will legally recognize a third gender. In India, Australia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany, New Zealand, and Nepal people are already able to identify as a third gender on official documents. Additional examples of people transcending the sex and gender binary include the 3 sexes and 5 genders recognized by the Bugi of Indonesia, the hijras of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the dilbaas and nadleehis in the Navajo tradition, the muxes of Mexico, and the “manly-hearted women” among the North Piegan.
“People changed lots of other personal things all the time. They dyed their hair and dieted themselves to near death. They took steroids to build muscles and got breast implants and nose jobs so they’d resemble their favorite movie stars. They changed names and majors and jobs and husbands and wives. They changed religions and political parties. They moved across the country or the world — even changed nationalities. Why was gender the one sacred thing we weren’t supposed to change? Who made that rule?” –Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish
Going against culturally constructed gender roles and expectations is often met with the assumption that these people must be “struggling” “lost” “confused” or “having issues.” Resistance from an individual’s family, friends, culture, religion, government, and society is the norm. This resistance can look like rejection, bullying, mistreatment, abuse, harassment, discrimination, and violence. Unfortunately, aggressive, violent, and fatal responses are common.
Individuals and institutions often project their own discomfort and fear on people who disrupt the status quo- this reaction is to be expected since the tendency of any system, including a cultural system with a variety of rules and norms, is to self-correct in the face of any deviation from it’s original state. I would argue that any personal feeling of “struggle” with gender and/or sexual identity is likely caused by how others respond to people who identify outside the gender binary. If other people came from a place of acceptance and celebration versus disgust and pathology the response of identifying outside of the gender binary would not look like it does today.
“She figured out that she was such a mess not because she was trans, but because being trans is so stigmatized. If you could leave civilization for a year, live life in an abandoned shopping mall out in the desert giving yourself injections of estrogen, working on your voice, figuring out how to dress yourself all over again and meditating eight hours a day on gendered socialization, and then get bottom surgery as a reward, it would be pretty easy to transition.” –Imogen Binnie, Nevada
Historically, in many cultures, gender and sexuality are understood to be fixed and constant- there is a distinct divide between male and female. Cultural constructions of biology, gender, and sexuality are rooted in our innate tendency to divide and categorize. We separate and define people based on distinctive characteristics- sex, age, gender, race, class, religion, nationality, etc. We create these boundaries and categories to organize our relationships and interactions with the world.
Our brains evolved this way, to distinguish and catalogue, so we have the ability to quickly recognize the vital difference between benign objects, prey, and predators. We instinctually navigate the world assessing risks and threats- questioning who is one of us and who is one of them. Our brains use shortcuts to determine this, and it needs to- we do not have the capacity, time, or energy to analyze all the aspects in each person, event, and situation we encounter in even one day. Stereotypes and rules of thumb help us classify things according to a few features and then we respond to them without thinking. Without these features, in a life or death situation, we would be frozen, cataloging and calibrating- as the time for action disappeared. However, there are no absolute generalizations- there are always exceptions. Thus, our protective heuristics can also lead us astray- they are the birthplace of automatic assumptions, hidden biases, and prejudice.
Instead of pigeon-holing people, let’s recognize and honor, human experience as much more complex and diverse than the constraining, stereotypical boxes we put ourselves and others into. Quoting Emma Watson, “It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.” Shifting our understanding of gender from categorical to viewing gender on a spectrum involves thinking about gender as fluid instead of fixed. The assumption behind a spectrum is that we are free to move along the spectrum as we experiment with what we like, what feels good, and what feels right to us.
“Gender fluidity is not really feeling like you’re at one end of the spectrum or the other. For the most part, I definitely don’t identify as any gender. I’m not a guy; I don’t really feel like a woman, but obviously I was born one. So, I’m somewhere in the middle, which – in my perfect imagination – is like having the best of both sexes. I have a lot of characteristics that would normally be present in a guy and then less that would be present in a woman. But then sometimes I’ll put on a skirt – like today.” –Ruby Rose.
We all have different pulls, propensities, individual interests, passions, and desires. However, the irony and complexity of this reality is that at our core, the majority of us desire the same things. We are all similar, but we all vary.
“We hope that some will see that your identity is not defined by socially introduced categorizations. Once we can see categories as being arbitrary and meaningless, some may realize that we all share very similar fears and emotions and the same worries and feelings determine our existence. We actually share the same human experience despite what we look like, who we love, or how we love.” –Bernd Ott, All The People
Celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Ruby Rose, and Caitlyn Jenner hold a certain amount of privilege and protection when they open up about their gender identities. They all have received praise and criticism for their authenticity. Sadly, many people often minimize, pathologize, and negate the existence and experience of people who identify outside the gender binary. For example, Gender Dysphoria is still classified as a mental disorder in the DSM 5.
Being cisgender (i.e., someone whose gender corresponds to their assigned sex at birth) comes with its privileges. Many of us do not recognize this, but in the words of Rosa Luxembourg- “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” Unfortunately, only the brave ones truly realize how short and strong the chains of gender and sexuality are when they attempt to go beyond cultural rules and expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman.
“The takeaway is that only you know who you were born to be, and you need to be free to be that person.” –Ruby Rose.
Copyright © 2015 Mariana Prutton. All rights reserved.