Can We Put an End to the Gender Binary?

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com December 03 2011 9:50 AM ET

A college professor is asked by a female-bodied student after class to use gender-neutral pronouns when referring to “hir.” A student assigned male at birth takes advantage of the ability to have one’s preferred name, rather than one’s legal name, on the institution’s online directory in order to change a male given name to a culturally female one. And another female-bodied student contacts the campus LGBT resource center to inquire about the process for having “top surgery”— that is, the removal of female breasts to have a traditionally male chest — covered by the college’s health insurance policy.

These examples are situations that we encounter regularly as college administrators and educators and that are borne out by the findings of our new book, The Lives of Transgender People. Based upon a survey and interviews with several thousand trans-masculine, trans-feminine, and gender-nonconforming people in the United States, the book shows in unprecedented depth the tremendous gender fluidity that exists today, especially among young people. For example, when asked to name their gender identities, the participants provided more than 100 different responses, including a number of individuals who said that there was no easy way to identify their gender. Some of these respondents resorted to percentages to describe their identities (such as one third male, one third female, and one third transgender) while others said simply, “I am me.”

Because of society’s failure to recognize the multiplicity of gender possibilities, transgender and gender-nonconforming people must face discrimination daily. Language is just one form this discrimination takes. Transgender people feel their existence is being erased when bathrooms are labeled for “women” and “men” and forms ask the person to mark either “M” or “F.” They are left isolated by groups and social spaces that are for “women” or “men” only. And worst of all, they become targets for verbal and physical assault and even murder for not conforming to gender norms.

According to the International Trans Murder Monitoring Project, more than 220 individuals around the world, most of whom are trans women of color, are known to have been killed in the past 12 months because of their perceived gender identity or expression. Many more individuals are undoubtedly murdered without their deaths being categorized as anti-trans hate crimes.

Our research demonstrates the need for a complete overhaul of how society treats gender. On a practical level, we should have single-user gender-inclusive rest rooms, rather than men’s and women’s bathrooms, and instead of forcing people to choose between “M” and “F” on forms, we should just ask “gender: __________ [fill in the blank].” In many instances, gender does not need to be requested at all — just as we no longer require that someone’s race be specified on most documents.

On a more fundamental level, the diversity of gender identities and expressions necessitates entirely new ways of thinking and talking about gender. Referring to male-appearing individuals as “Mr.” and ‘sir” and female-appearing individuals as “Ms.” and “ma’am” leaves out a growing number of people who consider themselves to be neither, as well as offends the “Mr.’s” who identify as “Ms.’s” and vice versa. An even larger issue is the use of gendered pronouns and the obliviousness of most people to the fact that there are alternatives — typically “hir” for “her/him” and “ze” for “she/he.”

As part of challenging the dismissal and invisibility of women a couple decades ago, feminists successfully contested the use of what linguists call a generic masculine. Instead of referring to “mankind,” for example, people learned to say “humankind” and to replace “chairman” with “chairperson” or simply “chair.” The same sort of learning now needs to occur to remove the remaining gender assumptions in our language and culture. Society cannot be reduced to black and white people, Jewish and Christian people, or lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, and heterosexuals; nor can it be limited to women and men.