NON-BINARY GENDER: WHERE THE MOOD MAY TAKE YOU
By Chrissie Daz –
This is adapted from the talk I gave at the ‘Battle Of Ideas’ debate ‘What is Gender?’ in October this year.
In June this year the USA became the tenth country in the world to legally recognise, in one way or another, the existence of non-binary gendered people. This first American citizen to be legally classified as neither male nor female has now been joined by a second; and several others are currently going through the courts to establish their right to exercise this same privilege. Of the other nine countries – Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Denmark, India, Pakistan, Germany, Nepal and Canada – some have, like America, officially awarded third gender status to certain people, some have removed the need to register any gender on official documents and some have issued gender free birth certificates for intersex babies.
These changes have all taken place within the last few years and have only affected a few dozen people so far, but whether or not this trickle will soon become an avalanche, the number of people who have started to describe themselves as ‘gender non-binary’ is most definitely on the rise. Most of them may not be poised to petition the courts for legal recognition just yet, but many are quite adamant about demanding respect for their right to be addressed in accordance with their preferred gender neutral pronouns, the most common of which are – they, them and their; and while most Western Governments have not yet extended legal recognition to most non binaries; their equalities legislation is being so interpreted as to offer protection from discrimination and abuse.
Equalities legislation in this context is not primarily concerned with safeguarding the rights of all to equal treatment without regard to their characteristics, but rather it is about highlighting those characteristics and emphasising the extent to which they are either self defined or played upon as signifiers of difference. Non binary identity tends to play up the latter interpretation of equality at the expense of the former one.
The type of people who have started classifying themselves as non-binary vary a great deal, from true hermaphrodites (intersex people whose genitals, chromosomes and gonads are genuinely so ambiguous that it is very difficult to class them as either male of female) to people whose presentation is completely in line with their natal sex. Which is to say that while there would appear to be no conflict between their sex and their gender, they still claim that deep down they feel inadequately served by the two options available to them.
For some the choice to claim non-binary status is perhaps little more than the latest fashion craze – young celebrities like Myley Cyrus, Jaden Smith, Amandla Stenberg and Ruby Rose are leading a swathe of adolescents intent upon re-interpreting their youthful gender confusion as a cool and trendy posture. The gender bending of earlier generations had quite a different character. It was largely playful, and at times capable of undermining convention through ridicule and parody. Today’s trendy gender bending, by contrast, acts out a more po-faced and defensive rejection of convention. It seems to be saying ‘your norms aren’t good enough for my sensitive constitution!’
Many people who started out on the journey to being transgendered have discovered at one point or another that they feel no more confortable in their chosen gender role as they did in their original one, and have opted instead to park their sense of gender in the middle lane.
And yet another group have hit upon the gender non-binary option as a radical statement of solidarity with all the most marginalised people – the wretched of the Earth. Though just why one should have to become marginal oneself in order to empathise with others has not been explained. It smacks of slumming it; a way to show disdain for all those mindless chumps who have never been bothered to question their own gender or sexuality.
But we don’t need to closely interrogate the motives of the non-binaries themselves to realise that something much bigger is going on here; something fundamental has changed in the way in which gender is understood in the twenty first century. This is in fact the second major paradigm shift in gender thinking over the last forty years.
At the onset of the great second wave of feminism it was widely understood, (however much the problem was posed in many different ways) that the driving force in gender relations was at base an economic one. The sexual division of labour stood at the heart of the matter. Everything else, from the public/private divide, to the model characteristics of the feminine and the masculine, to the threat to decent family values posed by homosexuality was understood as deriving from this original question – who gets paid for going out to work and who stays at home to look after the children and do all the housework? For some – Shulamith Firestone for instance – the contradiction between these two types of labour seemed important enough to usurp that other class struggle (between labour and capital) as the most promising revolutionary force in society.
Within ten years this paradigm had begun to disintegrate. The bonds of domestic slavery had been severely weakened by a range of increasingly affordable technologies – family cars, refrigeration, pre-prepared food, supermarkets, disposable nappies, washing machines and a myriad other labour saving devices – and women were freed up to join the workforce. Organised women’s labour had brought about equal pay legislation. And in the area of gender, just as in labour relations more generally, the prospects of economic conditions leading to any kind of radical transformation of society was becoming, more and more, a remote prospect. It was in light of these changes that the focus on how gender should be understood switched from economic relations to interpersonal ones – most prominently bonding and sexual relations. Sexuality was not a new concern to feminism but in the earlier era it was dealt with in terms of economic dominance.
By the 1980s however, this means to an end – sexuality (and in particular male sexuality) – had come to be seen as a driving force in the antagonism that existed between men and women. For many feminists the rapacious sexual appetites of men had come to be viewed as the central problem. For many gay rights advocates the potential for unexamined homoerotic desire to destabilise heteronormative conventions screwed up both men and women psychologically and lead them to behave nihilistically toward both each other and their own kind. It was quite commonplace, in those days, to ascribe anti-gay hatred to so called internalised homophobia. The belief was that the most vehemently anti-gay sentiments were really little more than self hatred projected out into the world. Indeed this psychologisation of the problem is probably the origin of the term homophobia.
In a similar vein, male bonding patterns were talked about in terms of how they excluded women and encroached upon their ability to form organic relationships. For radical feminist thought during this era the net effect of all of this was debilitating. Women were deemed incapable of developing healthy interpersonal relationships with either sex until they had learned to evolve a female-centric subjectivity. They could best achieve this goal by sequestering themselves away from a male influence.
While the feminist concern with interpersonal relations (and in particular the toxic problem of male sexuality) is very much still with us, the wider framework in which gender was understood at an interpersonal level has now been displaced by a new and rather peculiar conception. Divorced from biology, and both macro and micro level relationships, gender has dissolved into the self. It has become an internal mood or feeling. Something which is just there and cannot really be accounted for or explained. In point of fact, all forms of identity have taken this turn over the last few years.
Race, religion, nationality and class, not to mention sexuality (which has now become in effect a subset of gender) are all understood as things which are both ephemeral and ineffable; things which, while alienating, must be clung to as a touchstone of ones very being; things which one can neither quite own, nor account for as impositions from outside.
These psychological identities lack both any autonomy in the self and any roots in wider society. And as such they feel quite fragile and in need of constant nurturing. They frame the ‘other’, as posing a threat by default: a threat that can only be defused when it confesses its own weakness and/or undeserved privilege. The ‘other’, in this context, does not imply a community imposing its commonality against a despised outsider, but a sense of being beleaguered from all sides by an uncomprehending mass of humanity.
This conception of identity is most well illuminated in those people who choose to express their mood of alienation by refusing to be bound by the binary gender system.
And yet despite being so ill-defined and ephemeral this conception of gender as mood also betrays an obsession with category. It is an obsession that cries out for both recognition and management. The more these multifarious gender categorises proliferate and fracture, the more they define themselves within ever tighter boundaries. It is as if their progenitors feel that they would float away if they were not pinned down.
The desire among gender non-conformists to co-exist within a single transgender camp sits uneasily with the desire to expound and own one’s individual gender mood. An interesting tension sets itself up between the desire to conserve some traditional gender norms and the drive to liberate oneself from them entirely, and here it is not the Christian right which is the most significant conservative force, but rather the old-style transsexuals. They are at the forefront in putting forward a biological determinist model to account for their condition and they tend to feel quite uncomfortable with the notion that the gender stereotypes, which they have worked so hard to assimilate, might be seen by others as a form of imprisonment.
Against this, a tendency for gender categories to expand exponentially has been unleashed in recent years. In 1993, Anne Fausto-Sterling kicked this process off by proposing that the binary system of sex categorisation should be expanded to include three additional sexes – ‘herms’ meaning true hermaphrodites, ‘ferms’ hermaphrodites who are biologically closer to female and ‘merms’ hermaphrodites who have more masculine characteristics. Besides using the now unfashionable term hermaphrodite (since replaced with intersex) this proposed system was, even at that time, inadequate; because it ignored transsexuals. When this second dimension of gender is factored in, given the fact that all three types of intersex might transition in either direction, we end up with eleven genders.
This of course ignores non-binaries as well as those transgendered people who like to affirm the existence of different types of trans identity. Martine Rothblatt, for instance, has proposed that gender should be understood through a colour coded system of gender shading along multiple dimensions leading to a massive expansion of gender categories. When we factor in sexuality, which is also understood these days as a personal mood rather than a sexual preference, and fluid states of gender; it becomes clear that Facebook’s 71 genders come no where near to accommodating the mammoth task of managing and authenticating this plethora of gender moods.
A number of websites including ‘non-binary.org’ and ‘prideflags.com’ have set themselves the task of enumerating and assigning flags to these ever expanding gender moods. It is not always obvious that some contributors to these sites are not taking the piss. But the fact that it has become so difficult to tell the genuine cases from the parodies is itself quite troubling.
Take these two examples and decide for yourself whether they are genuine or not. It is not an easy task:-
Aquarigender: is a gender that is perpetually changing. It is never to a specific gender identity, but sometimes there are existing labels that are close to what the gender feels like at the time. Sometimes it changes to a completely inexplicable feeling. Aquarigender is a flowing gender that changes slowly and constantly. It is not a set amount of genders that it switches between. Aquarigender is infinite. (Aquarigender can alternatively be called genderflow.) [http://nonbinary.org/wiki/Bigender]
1) A gender which you can both feel and not feel
2) A single gender that exists as if it were many genders at once
It is not merely on the lunatic fringe that this strange re-conception of gender as an internal mood is being played out. When confronted with such demands for recognition most liberal minded people respond with an instinct to nod along compassionately and not ask questions. The questioning of another’s sense of gender identity has become a no-go area; its fragility is taken as read.
This speaks reams about the inability of anyone in our society to risk any act which is not accompanied by a predictable outcome. The fear that human action could upset the natural environment is echoed in the conception of human society as a delicate eco-system populated by many vulnerable sub-species. And non-binary gender is at the forefront of this because it is so ineffable and so far divorced from the historical baggage and manifest inequality that are attached to other identities such as race. In effect the playing out of respectful behaviour in the crucible of gender identity is a social laboratory through which all relations of identity are to be approached.
It is important to understand that binary gender does not have to be understood as either a biological given or a socially constructed prison. Gender, in the traditional sense, can be both necessary and contingent, which is to say it is both rooted in meaningful relations and open to change.
The assertion of masculine or feminine behaviour does not imply the degradation of the other, they are not mutually opposed categories; they are, or they can be, completely autonomous. It is, in fact, only by asserting their occasional necessity and autonomy that they can oftentimes be transcended. In today’s climate, the attempt to liberate oneself from, expand, or dismantle traditional gender roles is to become bogged down by concepts of gender more effectively than accepting the usefulness of starting from where we are and then moving on.
1. COVER IMAGE: Vector: Decision Making Can Be Hard. By Franzidraws. See http://www.123rf.com/photo_48042784_decision-making-can-be-hard.html 48042784
2. Abstract Word Cloud for Gender Identity with Related Tags and Terms. By radiantskies. See http://www.123rf.com/profile_graphicsdunia4you’>graphicsdunia4you / 123RF Stock Photo</a> 16602406
3. Illustration of thinking concept-human head with male and female symbol. By Arvind Singh Rajput. See http://www.123rf.com/photo_23771826_illustration-of-thinking-concepthuman-head-with-male-and-female-symbol.html 23771826
4. White and Black transgender symbol tile pattern repeat background. By karenr. See : <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_karenr’>karenr / 123RF Stock Photo</a> 46984043
5. Non-Binary Identities Flag.
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[…] set of conventions and constraints on what men and women can be or do, to an interior mental state. Chrissie Daz has perceptively noted that something fundamental has changed in the way in which gender is […]
[…] set of conventions and constraints on what men and women can be or do, to an interior mental state. Chrissie Daz is right in saying that something fundamental has changed in the way in which gender is understood […]
A nicely nuanced piece with plenty of historical context and clear identification of the key issues.