The other day I was watching an interview Ellen conducted with Asia Kate Dillon, who plays a character identified as gender non-binary in a TV show called “Billions.” Ellen and Asia discussed how Asia and the show's character both identify and what it means to be gender non-binary.
I thought Asia’s explanation of the difference between gender and sex was perfect: gender is how a person identifies, and biological sex is what’s between their legs. It’s a simplistic explanation of a very complex issue, but I thought it was a good starting place for a conversation.
Ellen brought something else up that I think is important for the general public to understand. Just because you may identify as lesbian, gay, or queer, it doesn’t necessarily mean you understand what gender non-binary or gender non-conforming means or how to wrap your head around those concepts. It’s an important conversation to have and to start thinking about.
So, let's begin.
Understanding gender identities
Wikipedia defines Gender binary as, “the classification of sex and gender into two distinct, opposite and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine. Gender binary is one general type of a gender system. Gender binary is one of the core principles of genderism; it describes a social boundary that discourages people from crossing or mixing gender roles, and from identifying with more than two forms of gender expression.”
Wikipedia defines: "Genderqueer (GQ), also termed gender non-binary, as a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity.
Genderqueer people may identify as one or more of the following: having an overlap of, or indefinite lines between, gender identity;
having two or more genders (being bigender, trigender, or pangender);
having no gender (being agender, nongendered, genderless, genderfree or neutrois);
moving between genders or having a fluctuating gender identity (genderfluid);
or being third gender or other-gendered, a category which includes those who do not place a name to their gender."
My job sometimes has me going into classrooms with students from Kindergarten to high school. I may go into a class to discuss important topics like racism or bullying. But, sometimes, kids will be curious and ask me questions like, “are you a boy or a girl?”
The reason this happens is because I am gender non-conforming, which means that I was assigned female at birth and I identify as female; however, I have short hair, and I wear pants and button-up shirts and sometimes a nice v-neck sweater. The way my identity is presented in my daily life goes against the typical idea of how women should look and act in society. I do not adhere to traditional gender roles, and I don’t believe that I am either masculine or feminine in my demeanor or personality. I’m just Vangie.
On the upside, it’s a great teaching opportunity with the kiddos because there is always a student in the class that may be struggling with their own gender identity or who may have a friend or family member whose gender identity does not match with traditional expectations.
Children are hungry for the truth and for answers to their questions. And they have a lot of questions. They also seek a different narrative, a different story from what they hear on a daily basis that may not speak to them because the educational system is a place that reinforces traditional gender roles.
What's the big deal about gender identities and bathroom bills?
Gender identity, gender roles, and how we see each other's gender affects our daily lives, even where we go to the bathroom. Just consider what current bathroom bills are being introduced when it comes to students using restrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity. These bills are being introduced presumably because the public is concerned about the safety of women and girls in public restrooms, but people who do not ascribe to traditional gender roles are in much greater danger of being harassed, assaulted, and even murdered because of which bathroom they want to use.
Most of these bills focus on public schools, which is where young people start to figure out who they are and how they fit in. It is well known that implicit and explicit biases in school which can create achievement gaps for kids of color, lead to bullying or harassment of LGBTQ+ students, and limit the dreams of girls (individuals who self-identify as female) to be in leadership roles, STEM, and captains of industry. But these biases also have a profound effect on children whose gender identity and expression do not conform to society's norms.
Some folks believe female-identified individuals coming out as gender non-binary or non-conforming somehow throws people who identify as women under the bus because it's denying femaleness and femininity, reinforcing the ideology that being female-identified is less than desirable and under-valued.
However, I believe this is not true. Asia said in the interview with Ellen that it is possible to be both female and non-binary. What does Asia mean by that? It's that one can be still biologically female without self-identify as either masculine or feminine OR planning on transitioning from female to male. Asia is also dating a cis-male (a male who identifies with his biologically assigned sex).
Gender, sex, and sexuality are three different things, as is pointed out by our Genderbread person. Yet, it is still common to conflate the three and believe that all three are interdependent on each other, when they are actually separate and distinct things.
For me, personally, I self-identify as female and was assigned female at birth; however I would be fine going by gender neutral pronouns and answer to both madam and sir. I would prefer we get rid of those provincial titles and labels all together. I believe they are suffocating and oppressive for both women and men.
Challenges for society to re-imagine gender identities
The notions of gender and gender identity are complex, and we can spend whole semesters discussing this topic. It's discriminatory to use a person's gender and gender identity to limit access to public accommodations or services. It is also harmful in how both girls and boys see themselves in the world because traditional gender roles limit a person's ability to express themselves emotionally, mentally, physically, and authentically. If we feel an urgent need to reinforce certain feminine or masculine characteristics to fit in or be accepted, it does not promote gender equity. What it does is perpetuate rape culture, the objectification of women and girls, and hypermasculinity of boys and men. It has also fostered an environment that has made it dangerous for trans women to navigate our society, particularly if they are also women of color.
Re-imagining what gender and gender identity are and mean to everyday people is vitally important to creating gender equity. How we get there will most likely be a slow, laborious, and confusing journey. But we need to get there. We need to get there for the health and wellness of our society, and we need to get there for girls, and boys, and for everyone in between.
Dastauir, Alisa. (April 28, 2016). The imaginary predator in America’s Transgender Bathroom War. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/04/28/transgender-bathroom-bills-discrimination/32594395/
Gender Spectrum. (2016). Understanding Gender. Retrieved from https://www.genderspectrum.org/quick-links/understanding-gender/
Hubell, Justin. (February 18, 2016). Let’s Be Clear – My Gender Identity Is Harmless. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/02/my-gender-identity-harmless/?utm_content=buffer88280&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer
Killerman, Sam. (March 16, 2015). The Genderbread person version 3.3. Retrieved from http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/#sthash.6TgMpoKx.dpbs
Lambda Legal. (2017). FAQ: Answers to Some Common Questions About Equal Access to Public Restrooms. Retrieved from http://www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/article/trans-restroom-faq
Mock, Janet. (January 21, 2017). Janet Mock calls for 'intersectional and inclusive' movement. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/national/janet-mock-calls-for-intersectional-and-inclusive-movement/2017/01/21/99d888b2-dffd-11e6-8902-610fe486791c_video.html
Richardson, Bradford. (February 23, 2017). Trump’s order gives a boost to bathroom bills in 12 states. Retrieved from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/feb/23/bathroom-bills-in-12-states-boosted-by-donald-trum/