Looking Beyond The Binary

Looking Beyond The Binary

Like the overwhelming majority of people I was immersed from my earliest days in a world divided into two. It is so pervasive that it doesn’t seem at all strange; most people never have cause to even think about it.

In the blue corner we have everything male. Boys, men, anything electronic or mechanical, big or loud. Football. Beer.

And in the pink corner we have the supposed polar opposite, female. Soft, delicate, dainty, quiet. Embroidered cushions and flowers. Ballet. Prosecco.

Take a moment to think about how much of the world is seen in terms of masculine or feminine. It’s even ingrained in many languages such as Spanish, French, German, Russian.

Who do you see when you imagine people in various jobs? Flight attendant, nurse, engineer, bricklayer, plumber, mechanic, secretary, truck driver. Are the examples you think of primarily male or female?

How about when you see a person at the mall or in the street? Do you find yourself automatically thinking of them as she or he? Making an unconscious decision about their gender simply based on a quick glance, a fleeting impression?

It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture and society that it’s hard not to. And when somebody doesn’t seem to fit into either category we can find ourselves wondering, “Are they…?” Does that make you uncomfortable? How would you address them?

Good news: there’s a solution. It’s not easy because you have to make an effort and learn to see things differently. But you can teach yourself to look at people without the need to put them in a box labeled M or F.

Go on, try it. Watch the TV, scroll through Facebook, whatever, and deliberately keep an open mind about the gender of everyone you see there. Avoid “he” and “she” in your thoughts; use the neutral “they” by default.

After a while you find that it becomes easier, the conscious effort becomes an unconscious reflex. And you discover something unexpected: you still see aspects that suggest male or female, but your overall impression is a blend of the two. You see both simultaneously!

And it strikes you that the whole dyadic division is an illusion, a pernicious lie.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

Judging A Book By Its Cover

I’m lucky, I guess. When I am out and about I usually get gendered correctly. Shop staff call me madam, a dad called “Mind out for that lady” to his young children who were running about as I walked past, colleagues at work use the correct pronouns to refer to me. I still feel happy when I hear it although the degree of pleasure has diminished as it has become my normal experience.

I realize this experience is not typical for a trans woman. A big factor in my favor is that I don’t pay much attention to people around me: I have no idea if people are looking at me and rarely will I notice if they are talking about me. It’s a facet of my autism; I’ve never been particularly aware of other people unless I’m interacting with them and I can hardly begin to guess at how they perceive me. So I don’t think about it.

Many accounts from trans women that I’ve heard or read describe a catalog of negative reactions from people. Uncomfortable staring, misgendering, verbal and physical abuse. What causes such prejudice and hatred? It’s a fact that nobody is born with these feelings of hostility towards others: they are learned from parents, family, educators, peers and the media.

I’ve heard people in bars discuss whether another person there is male or female. Establishing gender, putting that person into one of two boxes seems important to them. It’s as if they can’t conceive of a world where everyone’s a unique person in their own right. They have to impose this binary on everyone they encounter. It’s that deeply ingrained. People who don’t obviously fit either category stand out: non-gender conforming individuals are viewed as dangerously other.

But where is the danger? I’ve encountered a handful of people — almost exclusively cis men — who felt somehow threatened by my existence as a trans person and I’m struggling to understand their reaction. I genuinely cannot fathom how anybody could see me as frightening (even without my makeup!). Is it insecurity on their part? Are they so firmly invested in the binary myth that they feel their own identity is inseparable from it?

Certainly their reaction can be shockingly visceral. It’s akin to confronting and challenging a deeply-held belief: the strength of their feeling is equivalent to how they might respond to, say, desecration of a Bible. In their cisgender, heterosexual world view there exist two distinct genders and there is no overlap between them. Anybody who doesn’t fit into either category, who disturbs this comfortable fiction, is a dangerous freak.

What might happen if we break down the doors of their perception and force them to confront reality? How could they cope with people in all their nuanced variety? They’d have to make more effort in their thoughts, no longer able to rely on simple stereotypes of male and female. No longer able to make snap judgments based on how a person looks, judging the book by its cover.

I do suspect that they fear losing their feeling of certainty about their own identity. They identify so strongly with a cultural model of man or woman that anything which blurs the lines between them causes them to question who they are. The security of their self-image is a house built on sand and the tide is coming in. Every encounter with somebody like me who doesn’t fit the model is another wave washing away the foundations of their belief.

In their irrational fear they attack, desperately struggling to maintain the integrity of their delusion. By subjecting us to ridicule or hatred they seek to diminish our importance, remove our influence over them. They have been conditioned so strongly to believe we are inferior that any suggestion they might share something in common with us makes them feel self-loathing. The very idea of somebody stepping outside one of their gender boxes raises questions they are ill-equipped to handle.

I don’t need people like that in my life. I have people who accept me and other gender variant people, and that works for me. As Strother Martin’s character says in Cool Hand Luke, “Some men you just can’t reach.” Well, I don’t waste my effort on them because I know who I am and that doesn’t depend on approval or even recognition by others. All the affirmative reactions I experience are effects of my identity, not its cause. This book is defined by its contents, not its cover.