No one who knows me should be surprised to hear that I’m violently against the gender binary. That is, the idea that only two genders exist, female and male. Since I have a gender identity that doesn’t fit into either of those boxes myself, I’ve been oppressed by this system my whole life and continue to be today. My personal security number and, thus, every single of my legal documents do not reflect my identity, I often have to use dressing rooms or public bathrooms that are not meant for me, and in 99 % of cases strangers who meet me will assume that I’m something I’m not. If I choose to look up from my own bellybutton (every now and again one has to, after all), I can see that this system is also hurting the rest of society, including those who do have a binary gender identity. The gender binary dictates not just that only men and women exist, but also that there are specific ways to be one or the other, and that people of one gender are good at some things and people of the other are good at other things. Have you, for example, noticed how there are rarely changing tables for babies in men’s bathrooms? Or how women are paid lower salaries than men doing the same jobs of the same quality? So count me in for destroying the gender binary, preferably as quickly as possible – please and thank you. As I said, no one should be surprised.
But I did surprise myself when I suddenly realized I was facing another enemy. An enemy that I had taken part in creating and even promoting and praising. Creative as I am, I’ve decided to call this enemy the gender tertiary.
As the name suggests, the gender tertiary is the idea that three genders exist: Male, female, and other. In a world operating according to this system, one’s social security number (at least in Denmark) would end in an odd number if one’s a man, an even number if one’s a woman, and, for example, 0 or an X or something similar if one belongs to the last category. People would hopefully have a better and broader understanding of the fact that someone can “act like a woman” and still be a man, and of course everyone would receive equal pay for equal work. This all sounds great – it’s the kind of world I might fantasize about living in. So why am I suddenly calling this system the enemy?
You see, as the name ‘gender tertiary’ also suggests, this system is actually very similar to the gender binary, and I’ll go as far as to claim that they are cut from the same piece.
Notice, first of all, the names of the three categories of gender, male, female and “other”. We still have the two, primary genders, and anything that doesn’t fit those will be squished into a leftover label. We are defined as “the others”, the exception. This problem isn’t one I’ve made up to fit my own, invented world order, because it’s present out in the real world. Our society is, thankfully, on its way to solve some of the issues the gender binary causes. For example, the governments of Australia and Germany (among others) have recognized a third option. But here we see the problem surfacing in phrases such as “’indeterminate’ gender” and “non-specific”. If one is not a man or a woman, one is something uncertain third thing.
The real world is different. I know many people identifying as neither male nor female, and very few of them identify as the same gender as each other. Some are genderless, some feel they’re in between male and female, others somewhere completely different, some have a bit of this and that, others describe it as being one thing on the outside/in some situations/on Sundays, and another thing inside/at other times/on Tuesdays. Personally, the best way for me to describe my gender identity is by saying that if ‘girl’ is red and ‘boy’ is blue, my gender is orange.
The previous paragraph was the hardest in this entire essay for me to write, because our language doesn’t provide me with the words I need to describe this gender diversity – not at all. I have only the words “male” and “female” and their derivations to define gender, including those that differ from those two options. Even the words “androgynous”, “nonbinary”, and “genderqueer”, which I usually use to describe my identity, all have some sort of connection to the two binary genders. Respectively, they’re a mixture, something not belonging to those two specifically, and something “different” or “queer”. And this is a problem, because it makes it impossible not to define us as “the others”.
What should we do instead? Perhaps we need a gender quartary, quintary, octonary, n-airy? Probably not – it’s presumably impossible to create a complete system encompassing all possible gender identities.
Perhaps our way of thinking about gender is fundamentally flawed – more flawed than we’ve already established, I mean. Genders are not categories or boxes for people to be put into, but rather something completely unique to the individual person. Perhaps no two genders are the same – even in the case of those who identify inside the binary. I refuse to believe that all women perceive their genders as the same – as the same shade of red.
This would not be the same as saying that the categories should be off-limits. It shouldn’t be the case that one person gets to claim a specific gender identity, and I promise I won’t be insulted if someone comes up to me, saying, “hey, my gender is orange, too.” But it would be beneficial to consider the categories less important. Throw away the idea that people’s genders should be present in their social security numbers. Stop placing all the tight fitting shirts in flimsy, transparent fabric on one side of the store, and all the box shaped t-shirts on the other. Let people change and pee wherever they want, and let go of the fear of someone seeing a body that’s different from their own (every penis-haver doesn’t look the same, either, you know). Let people define their own genders, and believe them when they announce the result – and don’t judge them accordingly.
In short: Let’s get rid of the rigid gender systems.