On the gender binary

I wonder sometimes whether I’m the only trans person not obsessed with the gender binary. Yes, I know. If we could overthrow this oppressive structure we’ll destroy the patriarchy and all our problems will be solved. While it is comforting to think we have one diabolical enemy, fighting it is tantamount to tilting at windmills. It might be more prudent to regard it as something we need to live with, like a stubborn case of eczema.


To understand why, we need to define what we’re talking about. Here’s the wikipedia definition, which I think is fairly uncontroversial. “Gender binary (also known as gender binarism, binarism, or genderism) is the classification of gender into two distinct, opposite forms of masculine and feminine, whether by social system or cultural belief.” You can see how this causes us problems, but the “social system or cultural belief” part also explains why it is so persistent. The gender binary is not a government that can be toppled. Social systems and cultural beliefs are not things that will be altered in your lifetime.

Maybe they don’t need to be. Maybe by fighting for our rights and being who we are, we are creating a space in which our reality can co-exist with the gender binary, something along the lines of the indigenous people’s Two Spirit traditions, for example. When people are allowed to live outside the gender binary, the grip it has on society is necessarily loosened. It permits those who grow up in it to opt out of it if they choose. It would still not, however, cause it to collapse.

Let’s be honest. Cisgender, heterosexual folks invest a lot of time and energy in being men and women. Traditional gender roles are constantly being reinforced through the media, religion, education, and politics. Indeed, the personalities of many men and women, and consequently their genders, roughly align with their sex. They enjoy the game of male and female, or they think they do. We may think gender reveal parties are stupid, but who are we to ruin their fun?

More seriously, gender roles evolved through time and many of them are highly misogynistic. That has of necessity created woman as a political category. It’s ironic that to fight against a social system in which they have been marginalized, women need to organize under the gender binary. It’s a frustrating, complex and ubiquitous force that overlays everything we do.

There is no simple strategy that will bring down the gender binary. In that sense, it’s pointless to rail against it. It is useful, however, to remind people of its shortcomings. There will always be refugees fleeing from its oppressive restrictions. That we’re living in a time when that is increasingly possible means our perseverance and small victories have made an impact. It may be appear impregnable, but trans and gender diverse people have shown that the gender binary is not beyond reform.