Free me from gender binaries

A couple of days ago I posted on my facebook wall that I hate being assigned to the category of a woman. One facebook friend referred me to a plastic surgeon she knows, writing that he could “help me become re-assigned to the other category”. Another posted: “Then, what category would you want to be assigned to?”, implying again the male category.

Despite the fact that scholars from various scientific disciplines have challenged the notion that the human race is divided into two complementary, opposite sexes (see Lacquer and Fausto-Sterling, for example), most people continue to stick to a binary idea of gender and deny the existence of biological, social and cultural gender varieties or continuums.  Gender or sex is a very complex phenomenon which depends on a correspondence of at least a number of levels: hormonal , genetic, anatomical , the appearance of external genitals and psychological and subjective identities. There are many instances in which this correspondence does not exist (for example, queer identity, XXX females or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome). A recent study found that most “gender normative” individuals do not identify solely or even mostly with their assigned gender. Just recently, a female friend from martial art class asked me whether I think that she has too much testosterone because she likes to fight.

Whenever I point this out in a conversation, I’m told that these examples are mistakes of nature, or, when I’m talking to an extremely liberal person, that these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Imagine that we would recognize only extremely tall or extremely short individuals. Everyone in the middle would have to correct themselves by some medical procedure. Or that we would have accepted the existence of only brown and green eyed individuals. The rest would need to wear contact lenses.

I propose that instead of talking about gender in a binary way, we would talk about gender continuums, or genres (This is the suggestion of French philosopher Luce Irigary).

What will we (as a society) gain from using this terminology?

We will be able to recognize and accommodate persons with physical attributes that are now (under the gender binary) labeled as belonging to the opposite gender- such as males with gynocosmetics, or women with certain patterns of facial and of body hair.

We will be able to accommodate intersex and other persons with ambiguous sexual/gendered features.

We will allow people to express and develop traits that were hitherto associated with the opposite sex (men would be able to be tender and women could be physically aggressive).

Sex based segregation systems, for example, in ultra-orthodox Jewish  communities (see this for one aspect of gender based segregation of ultra Orthodox Jews) or occupational segregation (crowding women into low paying jobs and in charge of emotional labor, for example) , will be undermined and harder to maintain.

Compulsory heterosexuality would become largely meaningless, if we don’t limit our identities or our partners’ identities to an either/or sexual identity.

What will we lose by abandoning gender binary?

We will lose most of our known cultural mediation mechanisms of organizing relationships between men and women, and people in general in our society. We would have to conceive, imagine and cultivate new modes of connection and communication. A lot of hard work. Glancing over the history of most known (patriarchal) societies, I would say that this would be a good thing.

And this  is a very useful link: Judith Butler explains the idea of gender performativity in three minutes.


Why are we afraid of women competing with men in sports?

Lindsey Vonn, one of the most successful skiers the United States has ever produced, requested the opportunity to compete against men at the prestigious Lake Louise competition. The International Ski Federation rejected her request because “one gender is not entitled to participate in the races of the other.” If men are biologically stronger and faster than women, why is there a need to shelter them from competition with women? Skiing is not a contact sport – one races against the clock and the slope.

Professor Mark Stoddart from Memorial University of Newfoundland argues that skiing is charged with gender associations, as risk-taking and speed are associated with masculinity, whereas caution and control are interpreted as “feminine”.

This is hardly surprising: the belief that there are inborn, permanent and biological differences between genders is the foundation of social order, not only in relation to sports but also to sexuality, parenting, work and combat.

In this context, the gendered and sexual identities of women who excel in “masculine” professions often come under scrutiny. Just last year, it was decided that South-African middle-distance runner, Caster Semenya, must undergo a “gender verification test” before she can participate in the World Championship competition, a test which she eventually passed successfully.

Nonetheless, in marathons and golfing, women have already been permitted to compete against men, following legal action. This has not just changed the lives of women who practice these sports, but also these sports’ gender biases and masculine codes, and gradually, our society in general.

There are many ways to create gender-equitable sports contests, yet still match equivalent competitors, such as introducing an “open weight” category, and adding another gender-open competition, alongside the separate ones. These changes are a necessary and positive adaptation and manifestation of women’s gain in physical and social capital.