Whether a person is male, female, or intersex, doesn’t have to determine the way they feel inside — their gender identity. For most people, their sex and gender identities are in alignment and they feel fine with the gender role they perform, and that is great.
Still, there’s a growing number of people who don’t feel represented in the gender binary system and they identify as gender non-binary. This term can be a label for an identity in itself, but it’s also an umbrella term for various non-binary identities. These include — but are probably not limited to — Agender, Bigender, Genderfluid, Genderqueer, and Third Gender. For many, identifying as non-binary means freedom from the (always changing) expectations the come with gender roles.
It’s important not to confuse intersex or gender non-binary with transgendered, which means a person’s gender identity is the opposite of their biological sex. Compared to cisgendered in which a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex. However, that’s a whole topic on its own, which we’ll surely address in the near future.
Do alternatives exist?
Are there other ways of structuring gender within a society? Indeed, there are examples of native tribes around the world that use(d) different categories of gender identities. Most notably is the gender system of the indigenous people of North-America. They recognized five distinct gender identities; Female, Male, Two-Spirit Female, Two-Spirit Male, and Transgendered.* Bear in mind, these are rough translations, as each tribe had their specific terms for the various identities. **
*Robinson, M. (2019). Two-Spirit Identity in a Time of Gender Fluidity. Journal of Homosexuality. **Jacobs, S.; Thomas, W.; Lang, S. (Eds.): Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality, page 4. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
The Two-Spirit culture has been irradiated by the Europeans upon arrival, and it has been forcefully bent into the Western binary system. Luckily, this suppressed knowledge is slowly resurfacing into the mainstream consciousness and they are reclaiming their traditional terms. We can learn a lot from this multi-gendered framework.
Two-Spirited Gendered Native Americans
Why just two genders?
So, why do we have constructed our social life around the binary system instead of other gender systems? In all honesty, there is no clear answer. The functionalist perspective claims in order for society to function we need a division of labor. One way to divide this is on the basis of gender.*** Some argue that this has causes oppression of one gender over the other — men over women. In that sense, oppression might not be the cause of gender but is the reason behind it. In the end, we have to ask ourselves if the binary system has done more harm than good. That answers to that question may vary per person.
*** Levitt, H.M., 2019. Applications of a Functionalist Theory of Gender: A Response to Reflections and Research Agenda. Vol. 43(3). Psychology of Women Quarterly.
Why this movement is important
It’s clear the construction of gender has a profound impact on basically all dimensions of a society. From personal traits to aesthetics, to relationship roles and work relations, to the division of public spaces and to bureaucracy. Therefore, dismantling the binary perspective on gender doesn’t involve just those who identify as being outside of it. No, it inevitably involves everybody. For this restructuring of society, we need a bit of imagination and a lot of compassion and understanding.
In the end, it’s about acknowledging a wider range of experiences. It’s about looking at life through the lens of a spectrum instead of boxes with fixed boundaries. We can’t force people back into boxes, nor can we force them out of them. Suppressing identities causes friction in the mind, that energy has to come up and often it does in violence or endless forms of physical and mental self-harm. In the end, it’s unhealthy for society as a whole.
If a person has an experience, whether it’s something profound as an identity, or something temporary as an emotion, it’s here in our collective existence. Imagine if you feel very sad and someone tells you, “no sadness doesn’t exist, there is no such thing.” You’d be thinking, “well, whatever it’s called, it exists, because I feel it.” Simply denying or suppressing the experiences people have won’t make them go away. Just because you can’t see the moon when it’s behind the earth doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
A brave new world
We have to recognize that there are many people who automatically respond with fear of things they don’t understand (yet). There is only one way forward — open communication. To create an inclusive society in which everybody feels they have the unconditional freedom to express themselves in any way that feels natural, we need to let all voices be heard. Even those who oppose us. Regardless of our identities, we’ll all encounter opposition and resistance at some point in our lives.
Today most people acknowledge the existence of sexual identities outside of the heteronormative binary sexuality. Albeit they’re (still) not universally and unconditionally accepted, we should look proudly back at the steps already taken and aim for more. More acceptance, more inclusiveness, and more unconditional love.