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


Lauren Berrizbeitia

And why is it so important to get people into these boxes anyway? Let people show us who they are in all the ways we all show others who we are and stop obsessing about whether they're in the binary gender box. Humans have always been on a continuum of what we call masculine and feminine, and sometimes we are a motley mix. Why not enjoy these differences, let people tell us what pronouns they want us to use, and relax?

James Campbell
James Campbell4 years ago

Jacob R. “It's simple - you have a ding dong, you're male. You have a cookie, you're female”.

Actually, it is not that simple. Some children are born with a penis, yet internally, they have mullerian structures (uterus, fallopian tubes & ovaries). Some children present externally as female and yet tests show that they have undescended testes.

“You don't get to choose what "equipment" you have - you're born with it”

EXACTLY my point. Birth anatomy is not a choice, neither is gender identity.

James Campbell
James Campbell4 years ago

Dianne T. “Genetically we are male or female according to the chromosomes we have. There are a few medical exceptions to this...”

I treat intersex children and the facts are that our physical sex is not always determined by our chromosomes alone. Neither is our gender identity. Most humans have 46 chromosomes, two of which are either XY or XX. However, some males are XX and some females are XY. Others may have XXY or XXYY etc. The prevalence of intersex conditions (calculated from data drawn from western birth records) is 1:200 and those who present with ambiguous genitalia at birth occur 1:2000. Most intersex people identify as either male or female, but many do not Identify with either label.

D C.
D C4 years ago


Leslea Herber
Leslea Herber4 years ago

Julie W., "cisgender" refers to those people who are not trans. In short, women born with all the traditional bits who are comfortable being women, and men born with all their traditional parts who are comfortable being men.

John B.
John B4 years ago

Thanks Mindy for the article and relevant links. Kudo to NJ and State Senator Joseph Vitale. As the article states "this is a good start".

Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F4 years ago


Julie W.
Julie W4 years ago

What is 'cisgender'? Never heard of the expression.

ScoTT Senate
ScoTT S4 years ago

There are "primitive" tribes that recognize up to 5 genders. But we "civilized" people have to squeeze everyone into either one small box or the other. To do so is to deny people outside the boxes a form of identity. Look up the meaning of the native american term 2-spirited, for they are revered, shamans, tribe leaders.

j A4 years ago

long overdue--should be required education by high school