• Health Equity Alliance

Breaking the Binary

by Hannah Ruhlin

The gender binary in our culture is so pervasive that it can be hard to see at times. Whether filling out a form at the doctor’s office or shopping for a child’s birthday present, we are surrounded by this dichotomy of man vs woman, male vs female, and boy vs girl.

Our culture has distinct roles and rules for what is considered masculine or feminine, and what behavior is acceptable. As we know, though, humans are a bit too messy for rigid categories. We all either know or are people who break from gender norms, whether you’re a stay-at-home dad or a woman who never has children. If there are so many different ways to be a man or a woman, then it only makes sense that there are identities beyond this gender binary.

While the idea of non binary identities may be new to many people, they date back as far as the human concept of gender. Societies across the world and across time have had, and in many cases still have, culturally-accepted non binary genders. Some cultures have even had up to five recognized distinct genders with their own gender roles within the culture.

When talking about non binary identities, it’s not uncommon for people to get caught up on the differences between gender and sex, and for good reason. They both are different, and yet are not. Typically, ‘sex’ refers to physical elements like genitalia and secondary sex characteristics, while ‘gender’ refers to an internal element of one’s identity. It’s clear, though, that the terms we use for sex, like ‘male’ and ‘female’ are heavily gendered.

It’s also important to ask ourselves why we are so curious about the sex of someone else. Do we really need to know what someone else’s genitals look like? Is it really our business whether someone is XX, XY, or another chromosomal combination? This brings us to another important point: just like how gender is experienced as a spectrum, so is sex. There are endless different ways that human sex characteristics can express themselves, and many individuals are left outside of the boxes of ‘male’ and ‘female.’ These individuals are intersex, and while there are widely varying definitions of what traits qualify, it’s estimated that approximately 2% of individuals are intersex. That may not sound like a lot, but that is the same percentage of the population that is red-haired.

I mentioned that both sex and gender are a spectrum. A great analogy for understanding this is the color spectrum. Let’s stick with some very traditional social norms and assign blue to female/woman/girl, and pink to male/man/boy. Most don’t know that prior to the early to mid 20th century, this is how these colors were gendered. If we look at the color wheel, there’s more than just pink and blue. There’s not only the purple between them, but orange, green, yellow, and all of the colors outside and in between.

Earlier, I mentioned that some societies recognize non binary genders. The United States is on its way to being one of those societies, as some states are allowing for individuals to mark their gender as non binary on their driver’s licenses. California, Oregon, New York, and Washington D.C. all allow for a third marker instead of only ‘F’ or ‘M.’ In the case of New York, this came about after an intersex woman petitioned to change the marker on her birth certificate from ‘F’ for ‘female’ to ‘I’ for ‘intersex.’ Here we can see the interconnectedness of gender and sex.

Many individuals, though, feel it would be better for legal documents to skip the sex or gender designation altogether. The argument here is that one’s gender or sex is a personal issue and not a governmental one, and that forcing individuals to either out or misgender themselves can be harmful.

Many people are overwhelmed by the increasing variety of non-binary identities out there, from bigender, someone who identifies as two genders, to agender, someone who doesn’t identify with any gender, to genderqueer, a term that intentionally evades definition and whose meaning tends to be unique to the individual. English is an ever-evolving language, and so it only makes sense that terminology will change and grow as understanding of non binary identities increases.

How do you break the binary? What is your gender?

I’m Hannah Ruhlin, happy to break the binary on a daily basis.

* Originally broadcast on WERU on 12/19/17 - https://archives.weru.org/outside-the-box/2017/12/outside-the-box-112117-2-2-2-2/