Moving Past the Binary: Why We Need a Gender Revolution
Trans* people face so many problems that a cisgender person like myself will never be able to fully understand, not the least of which is simply getting a birth certificate changed to reflect one’s gender accurately. Most states require that a transman or transwoman get sex reassignment surgery in order to have their sex changed on their birth certificate, and five states don’t allow the sex assigned at birth to be changed at all. (Note: The term “trans*” is used to include a diverse range of identities. Read more here.)
This may soon no longer be the case in New Jersey. In the past, in order to get the sex on a birth certificate changed, a trans* person had to show proof of sex reassignment surgery, a costly and complicated procedure, and the choice to have the surgery is not one that every trans* person makes or can afford to make. However, last week a New Jersey state senate panel approved a bill that would eliminate the surgery requirement. Instead, it requires that a trans* person undergo “clinically appropriate treatment for the purpose of gender transition, based on contemporary medical standards, or that the person has an intersex condition.”
“Clinically appropriate treatment” could be sex reassignment, but it also includes hormone replacement therapy.
State senator Joseph Vitale explained why such a change is necessary for the well-being of trans* individuals:
“Birth certificates always have been a means of how we traditionally identify a person. In the transgender community, it doesn’t reflect who they are mentally spiritually and in every other way but physically,” Vitale said. “They don’t argue what they were then, but I am not that person now.”
This is a good step, and I’m glad we’re seeing more and more people who are willing to listen to and try to understand the experiences of people who don’t identify with the sex they were born with. Though this is necessary, it is not sufficient.
The gender binary is really messed up. Not only can this lead to lazy thinking about gender roles, but the assumption that everyone identifies as a man or woman or that biologically everyone either has XX or XY chromosomes is simply inaccurate. Even if you want to argue strictly on biological grounds — that women are XX and men are XY — there is some wiggle room.
The idea that there can and should be more than two genders to choose from isn’t new and it’s isn’t Western, as Barbara J. King points out:
I would like to make clear right at the start that breaking out of a male-female gender dichotomy isn’t some 21st century liberal-progressive agenda, as it is sometimes painted. Spending some time with this interactive map shows that fluidity in gender roles is and has been evident in societies around the world. A nonbinary perspective is neither new nor Euro-American.
The existence of third genders is noted in quite a few entries on that map. Germany recently became the first country within modern Europe to move beyond official male-female gender status. The German rationale for doing so makes sense: The parents of intersex babies shouldn’t have to force upon their child a gender identity at birth.
If you’re skeptical of the claim that only having two genders is not necessarily the norm, please take a look at that interactive map King mentions. We have needlessly boxed ourselves into male-female, man-woman, gay-straight binaries.
Breaking away from these sex, gender and sexuality assumptions isn’t just good for people who don’t identify the way most people do. It can help your average straight cis schmoe. Think about it. Why do we need to know what gender you identify as? What business is it of ours? The answers, in case you’re confused, are: we don’t and it isn’t.
I think that knowing another person’s gender or sexual orientation allows us to take a lot of mental shortcuts that really aren’t cool. It takes a lot of effort to break free from those quiet assumptions we make, but if we can manage it, we’ll find that people are complex and interesting. And who knows? Maybe, if we can get rid of the gender baggage it might start to be OK for boys to play with dolls and girls to play with trucks and for men to take paternity leave and for women to choose not to have children without being told they’ve failed the species. It seems like a small price to pay for a more just world.
Photo Credit: Liz Henry via Flickr