Monday, September 6, 2010

What Comes After The Gender Binary

My post about washroom signs has been hit at Sociological Images. 407 comments; traffic to their website doubled on Friday; and it's being translated into French. Yay!

The comments are a mix of thoughtful discussion and privileged "you're reading too much into this... blah-blah-blah." There was one comment that I especially want to address because it contains a sentiment that I frequently see expressed. And it speaks to an interesting difference between how feminists/LGBT activists/allies and social conservatives understand gender.

In the comments someone going by "SP" wrote:
So male/female binaries are unacceptable. Ok. ... 
Why is this idea that the two sexes are biologically different so offensive to most sociologists? If there were a biological advantage to NOT being sexually dimorphic then that’s how we would have evolved, but we didn’t.
Males and females of our species are different. There’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, I think our biological and neurological differences are what make us more interesting as a species. Why is it necessary to obliterate every difference between genders?  ...

So, SP flipped from talking about sex, to talking about gender. But I'm going to proceed on the assumption that zie is concerned with the preservation of gender difference, since that's usually the case for such comments.

And there's a couple of things about the comment that I could address, like the fact that sociologists are not primarily concerned with biology. Or that the overarching trend in studies looking for innate sex difference has been the finding that people of different sexes are the same in nearly every respect with the possible exception of aggression (depending on how aggression is defined and measured).

What I want to talk about here, though, is the notion that gender differences "make us more interesting"; and that breaking down the gender binary will result in a loss of variety.

This is not the first time that I've seen somebody think that when I talk about eliminating the gender binary that I envision a world of uniform androgyny.

What the elimination of the gender binary means to me is that people can be as masculine or feminine as they like. But the performance of masculinity or femininity is not compulsory depending on sex. Being masculine in some respects would not put femininity out of bounds for you, and vice-versa. Gender could be played with, freely, without social sanction.

That is, there would be more variety in gender expression, not less. Instead of black and white, we would have a rainbow, not a homogenous mass of grey.

On one hand, it's puzzling to me that one could look a situation of compulsory gender performance, where individuals are forced into one of two gender expressions, without even being given a choice, and say: "That's variety. That captures the full, glorious spectrum of human identities."

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. Masculinity and femininity are defined in opposition to one another. If you blur the distinction, then all you're left are arbitrarily categorized human characteristics; and masculinity and femininity are moot concepts.

Still, that doesn't mean that all the men will be forced to be effete, and all the women will be forced to be butch. Which is what some people seem to think. And still doesn't make sense.


  1. Just a nice story about signs and restrooms : in Metz (France), the director of the Frac Lorrraine (a contemporary art center) is known to be a feminist. So most people understand this like she's choosing more women artists (which is kind of true). She's not the only one, I don't know if this is relevant, whatever.
    But where I think she is a warrior is that she had to struggle with the architects to keep the two restrooms doors without gender sign. I guess this is the only place in the world where I didn't have to choose the door with a skirt. I just saw this in restrooms for very young children so far.

  2. The essence of this post, Elimination of Gender Binary, to me is what I have believed since I was a child watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The songs, words of inspiration and encouragement to "Be who you want to be." And then further that to "Be who you are, not what others want you to be."

    That said, I identify Bi-Sexual, Bi-Gendered, and Transgender. So does that mean I am Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual AND Transgender?

  3. Re: GéMiquelot. "I guess this is the only place in the world where I didn't have to choose the door with a skirt. "

    Come on, don't tell me you have gendered toilets at home, or never been to a bar with only one toilet !

  4. Actually yes – but I was talking about places where you have an option between at least two doors :)

  5. I always struggle when even talking about a person's characteristics and using the terms masculine and feminine. Because these are words I grew up with and how I understand certain expressions to be categorized. When I think of specific traits I have, putting them under masculine or feminine labels helps me to define what they are and why they are there in accordance with the larger understanding in my society.

    But I always have a nagging feeling, like, "but these aren't masculine or feminine traits; they're just traits." And I feel bad for using those terms or thinking of words within the concepts of male and female. Yet my brain cannot tease these traits from their gender connotations. I feel like I would have to have grown up in a world where that's how it was for me to be able to begin to comprehend expressions as non-gendered even though on a very basic, logical level, I can understand that they are non-gendered.

    I dunno if that made any sense. :P

  6. No, that makes sense. Context matters; history matters.


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