So gender isn’t a binary. And?

In response to yesterday’s post I have received a lot of well-meaning messages informing me that “gender is not a binary”. This is, I assume, to disabuse me of the foolish notion that there’s only boring old male and female. I am reliably informed (as if I didn’t know it already) that there is plenty more in-between. Hence we don’t need to panic about gender itself oppressing people. There’s enough to go round! Don’t fear it, queer it! Everything is awesome! etc.

I am not convinced by this argument, not because I have any doubts about the number of gender identities currently on offer. There are loads. It’s like being in an Eastern Bloc country just after the Fall of Communism – look at the choice! No more shall we join a uniform stream of Men and Women trudging miserably out of the People Factory. We’re free at last! (Or at least we would be if it wasn’t for those pesky TERFs still clinging on to their Stalinist views on gender equality.) Gender is not a binary – it’s not! That Facebook drop-down provides all the empirical evidence we need. The trouble is, it might not be a binary, but it sure as hell is a hierarchy.

Gender is constructed with some people at the top and some at the bottom. Roughly speaking, those at the top are read as “men” and those at the bottom as “women”, which is where the muddled idea of a binary comes from. Of course it’s more complicated than that: “manly” man are ranked higher than “effeminate” men, “butch” women lower than “feminine” ones, people don’t fall neatly into either category oscillate depending on social milieu, some of Facebook’s 50 gain more social acceptance than others etc. This is all a bit crap and one of the key reasons why we shouldn’t be falling over ourselves to defend this frankly stupid system. It devalues individuals. This ought to be self-evident but to many people it isn’t.

As inhumane, hierarchical constructs go, gender is pretty clever. The problem, so many of us are led to believe, is not the hierarchy itself but the focus on extremes rather than all the diversity that can be found in the middle.

Since gender’s not a binary we can queer it! That’ll fix it!

Way-hey! Let’s get queering! To the queering-mobile forthwith! But what does that actually mean? Are you challenging gender limitations — in which case, why “queering” rather than “shitting all over” (which I much prefer)? Or are you offering a sticking plaster (one that’s coloured pink or blue, but with some transgressive green glitter on top, just to show how bloody subversive you are)?

To explain what I mean, I’ll try an analogy. Just as gender is a hierarchy, so too is wealth. There are very rich people at the top and very poor ones at the bottom, albeit with plenty of diversity in-between: people with low-paid jobs who have no debts, people with low-paid jobs who are massively in debt, people who have caring responsibilities which mean their capacity to increase their wealth is more limited than those who are equally poor but do not have the same responsibilities etc. Does this mean that we can “queer” wealth on the basis that there’s no absolute split into two camps? Can we start saying “there’s no real ’rich’ and ’poor’, just the ‘differently financed’”? I think it’s pretty obvious what would be wrong with that: it erases structural inequality, neglects to consider the basis for differentiation and shifts our understanding of privilege from “having structural, cultural and/or material advantages” to “being less different or unusual”. In this way someone who comes from a working-class background, is now super-rich yet does a low-paid job on the side, just for the hell of it, could say that they are “queering” wealth — and hence being more subversive and at risk of oppression — than someone who started life grindingly poor and remains so. It masks the inherent injustice that comes from the material reality of not having any money (because defining poverty on such “simplistic” terms is now dismissed as old-school, in much the same way that “cis womanhood” is presented as less contested and alienating than a more “subversive” version). And what’s more, if “queering” wealth gains acceptance as an inclusive, liberating cultural trend, what happens to those who still wish to question the very principles of financial inequality? They are dismissed as the bigots who wish to limit choice, despite the fact that they do not care how people earn their money or what they do with it — they’re just pointing out that if you opt for “queering” rather than challenging the very foundations of the hierarchy, you maintain a system which might vaunt choice as a principle but which, in practical terms, restricts the choices of everyone but the privileged few.

If you apply this principle to queering gender, I think it becomes clear that this version of queering is far more conservative and protective of gender-based privilege than its proponents would wish to suggest. The focus is on personal validation rather than structural change, and it’s not without an element of oppression tourism from those who are not at the bottom of the hierarchy but who seek to float above it, perceiving themselves to be above the usual rules while simultaneously condemning the majority of women to the same old shit by insisting they identify as cis. Far from challenging inequality, it maintains it. Fifty gender options on Facebook simply disguise the fact that every single one of us is being evaluated on terms which have nothing to do with our basic human worth.

This is not to say that presenting in a way that that transgresses accepted gender norms is easy. It isn’t. It leads to discrimination, threats and violence. Nevertheless, to maintain a belief in these norms – while claiming, quite rightly, that they should not apply to everyone – is deeply problematic. Queering gender cannot be considered truly challenging to the social order if you are ultimately using your supposedly unique position within the broader hierarchy as a means to reinforce said hierarchy’s existence. Whatever discrimination you suffer, your basic message is that people remain dependent on gender categorisation and hence that there are still those shit people (cis women) that patriarchy always told us were worthless. You depend on these shit people existing in order to maintain your own identity. They’re just not you, and the reason you are marginalised is presented not as a direct consequence of the gender hierarchy existing (which in fact it is) but of people demanding you choose between the shit people (cis women) and the ace people (cis men) when in fact you’re more special than that. And so you demonise feminists who are trying to create a world in which you wouldn’t have to choose — purely because a non-hierarchical world wouldn’t be one that ever offered you the chance to rise above the common masses.

The sheer incoherence of those who accuse gender critical feminists of wishing to enforce traditional gender roles is something I find mind-blowing. It betrays a real anxiety about what would happen if we didn’t have a world of gender have and have-nots. Cis women remain the refuse bin for all of those qualities no one else wants. Meanwhile those who pin their individuality to the gender flag are faced with the fact that their self-validation is so intertwined with their oppression that they are have to reject the tools with which to challenge it.

I have two sons. I let them, as far as they would like to, reject hierarchical gender stereotypes. My elder son doesn’t want to; he’s already getting the message that your basic girl is a bit crap (the pro-queering lobby might call this “femmephobia” but it’s not — it’s the same old shitty sexism). My younger son is different. He wears fuchsia nail varnish and wants to grow his hair long and have it styled like Elsa in Frozen (“before she changes into the blue dress — I don’t like it after that”). Obviously I’m very proud. Look at how transgressive my son is at only four! But clearly I’m worried that not all people are accepting of this, even from small children.  I want a world in which he can present himself in any way he chooses but I don’t see how a world obsessed with validating gender goes any way towards creating that. On the contrary, it just pushes his individuality back into a gendered context — Individuality™, the commoditised version of self expression, not unlike Real Woman™, the body acceptance equivalent. Both become a form of cultural currency and both would lose value were we ever to reach a stage where all bodies and all forms of expression were accepted. Both depend on the hierarchical value system they claim to transgress. Both depend on suffering and marginalisation as a means of proving worth. Is that truly the best we want to aim for, given that it must be possible to have all the glitter and none of the shit?


16 thoughts on “So gender isn’t a binary. And?

    1. I am just so, so tired of the same sexist conservatism masquerading as progressive thought. I don’t even think it is intentional. I think there is a genuine belief that it is subversive to maintain a gender hierarchy as long as you have a unique place within it – yet you could be the same person, presenting in the same way, without having to use the very structure that oppresses you as a foil.
      I also don’t understand why, if we are respectful of lived experience and someone says “I find this harmful”, that’s not taken on trust. You might find it harmful for the wrong reasons – you may have misunderstood – but I’m pretty sure no one involved in this debate *thinks* they want a conservative gender binary imposed on anyone. That’s the really odd thing.

      1. It has very much become a discussion of “my lived experience is more important than yours” without any sense of irony. Recognising and acknowledging people’s lived experiences doesn’t negate the fact that women’s oppressions is because of two issues: our potential for reproduction and our potential for sexuality (which is entirely exploitative). Acknowledging also requires listening to those whose experiences differ completely from your own: “I find it harmful” requires both an acknowledgement of lived experience but equally discussion of how it fits into women’s oppression.

        Gender hierarchy is harmful for everyone and our current individualistic view of gender is a direct result of Reagan & Thatcher’s neo-liberal politics. It is inherently conservative and damaging.

        1. The conservatism of it – repackaged as its opposite – I find really disturbing. Acceptance of difference becomes utterly dependent on maintaining that there is inferior class (which is meant to be liberating if that class doesn’t include you). It’s the same old sexism yet it’s suggested that as long as you don’t point it out, it doesn’t exist.
          It also strikes me that many women who claim to be non-binary do not diverge from gender norms any more than those who don’t. They have simply created a feminist revolution that is utterly personalised and individualistic while reinforcing patriarchy’s beliefs about “the common woman”.

  1. Individuality™, the commoditised version of self expression

    And the one characteristic seemingly true of all chest-thumping individuals? Grotesque conformism. This may explain why any trans folks who challenge the trans narrative get a lot of crap.

  2. I’ve been re-reading all of these posts on “cis” terminology in light of our exchange of yesterday and today, and I think what I am most struck by is the assumption you’re making (or have run into) that somehow to be understood as an individual who falls into the cissexual and/or cisgender categor(ies) — depending on who you’re talking with, I realize, the two are not always synonymous — are “shit” or “dismissed” because of their cis experience and/or cis privilege.

    Obviously, there are ALWAYS those eager to play oppression Olympics and/or the game of “my pain is more exquisite than your pain.” But it seems to me that if you’re dealing with trans* or other individuals who are using the terminology of cisgender or cissexual in that fashion, then — to paraphrase another commenter on your “Beauty and the Cis” post — you’re beef is with those individuals misuse of the term, not with the recognition of a category of people who are not-trans* (as in “do not experience gender dysphoria”).

    I think we are understanding the term and its colloquial use very differently, which is perhaps indicative not so much of our personal experience as it is the social circles we run in or have come into contact with? I don’t know for sure. But I don’t experience the qualifier “cis” to be either a) at root a pejorative term, though obviously it can be used in a hateful way, or b) some sort of statement indicting us as passive imbibers of the gender status quo (that women, as you say, are the “shit” gender, and men are the “ace” gender, and no other genders are valid). Just like there are many straight women who don’t get down with heteronormativity, there are many cis women who don’t give the gender binary bunkum the time of day, myself among them.

    But our own rejection of the gender binary, crucially, doesn’t erase a social and cultural system that situates cis and trans* people differently (and in a hierarchy where cis is privileged). Just as white folks doing anti-racist work can’t magic away a system that treats non-white folks as less-than. So while you and I have every right to articulate our discomfort (even dysphoria) with gender roles assigned to us, and the pain (physical, mental, etc.) those social expectations have caused us … I don’t think that our rejection of sexism can or should be coupled with a refusal to recognize that trans* peoples’ experience is, in the group sense, different from our experience, in the group sense … and given that trans* people (in this particular dichotomy, which interacts in complex ways with all other dichotomies) are understood as the “less-than” group, it seems important to listen to and respect their knowledge of how this particular hierarchy works, and what type of language might best articulate it.

    Which shouldn’t shut down all back-and-forth dialogue. But I keep coming back to how you’re experiencing the word itself as a violence and violation — and I wonder about who’s been using it at you in such a way, and am angry that they did so.

    1. A few (non-pomo) thoughts:

      Gender and sex are not synonymous. Gender is a social control system. Sex is a biological reproductive class.

      Cis is a prefix which means “on this side of”. It originated as a term of location. Modern usage has co-opted it to mean “aligned with” or “not opposite of”.

      A person who is cisgendered is a person who enjoys the social hierarchy, stereotypes and opportunities afforded to them within a patriarchal global domination. There is no other definition of cisgender. This is it.

      Cisgender is the person who says, “I live in a world dominated by a patriarchal system which elevates the male sex as being superior to the female sex in all manners which are beneficial to males, and I absolutely love it! I think this is the optimal social system under which our world should function. I would not be happy in any other social system.”

      Transgender is the person who says, “I absolutely love the social system which elevates the male sex as being superior to the female sex in all manners which are beneficial to males, I would not be happy in any other social system! This is the optimal social system under which our world should function. I just wish I could play the opposite role in this system. Or play a little of both roles in this system. Or play the powerful male role in this system while looking like the oppressed female role.”

      In either case, “love this system and my role in it” or “love this system but want a different role in it”, the system is loved. The system which elevates the male sex as being superior to the female sex in all manners which are beneficial to males is enshrined as the optimal system for all people in the world.

      In a world where people are capable of, and employ, critical thinking skills, only males will see the advantage of maintaining this social system, as they are the ones who benefit from it. To call a male cisgender is not a pejorative term, it’s an acknowledgement that he is a male who appreciates the power, stereotypes and opportunities which are available to him in a patriarchal society. It doesn’t make him right, it doesn’t make him worthy of his power, but it’s a realistic assessment of the benefits he gains under global male domination for simply being a male.

      Gender is a class institution – a system, structured with layer upon layer of oppressions, punishments, restrictions and entrapments. The entire complex structure has one interlocking objective – complete subjugation of females to ensure male dominance.

      Gender is not an individual opt-in/opt-out freedom of choice social elective. It is not in a perpetual state of flux depending on unique individual participations. It is the largest and oldest system of oppression in our recorded and studied history. Does it reward individual male compliant participation? Yes, it does. Men have been rewarded for centuries for their compliant participation in Patriarchy. Does it punish individual male non-compliant participation? Yes, it does. Men who rebel against patriarchy are punished with loss of opportunities, potential violence, and isolated social status. Does it actively, relentlessly oppress males? No, Patriarchy does not oppress males, it elevates and enriches males. Does it reward individual female compliant participation? No, it does not. Complicity in your own oppression is not rewarding, it is abusive. Does it punish individual female non-compliant participation? Yes it does. Honor killings, corrective rape, forced marriages, domestic violence, incest, abortion restrictions, femicide, employment inequalities and educational restrictions are but a few of the retributions visited upon females for non-compliant participation in Patriarchy.

      No individual woman can opt out of this entrenched system. We are born into it. Inter-generational trauma prevents many of us from seeing the extent of our oppression, that does not negate it’s existence.

      No woman is cisgendered.

      All males benefit under the patriarchy, whether they actively pursue the extent of their benefits or not is immaterial. Inter-generational benefits accrue to males from the moment the sex of the fetus is determined. It is the arrogance of males practicing their benefits of Patriarchy that makes them imagine they can erase women and replace them.

      The entire concept of men erasing and replacing women is violent. It violates our female humanness. It is the ultimate act of male domination and control. Erase and replace. Sex class colonization.

    2. Why is gender a ‘binary’ and not purely a hierarchy? Why is it framed at all as horizontal? Is it not a vertical construction by definition?

  3. I am not now nor ever will be CIS anything…. From the moment of my conception I have been female. If you need a qualifier…. chances are you are not what you claim to be

  4. I don’t think gender is a binary, bc that implies that everything gender is on the same playing field. it’s not. i think gender is a hierarchy, based on sex: when you are born male: you go to the top half of the hierachy, when you are born female you go to the bottom half of the hierachy.

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