The gender binary was always a story. Now we can tell ourselves a new one

There will invariably be those, both in the US and beyond, who see this move as a further threat to certain values, after all 2021 was a record-breaking year for anti-trans legislation in the US. But a growing body of research shows that, when it comes to sex and gender, in nature, there are more than two.

It is perhaps more useful then to see gender identity as a story, one made real by building power structures and administrative systems around it.

Language is almost never neutral. Its meaning is shaped by context and it is used to exercise power and control. This is clearly visible in the construction of racial identity, which unlike gender, has no biological basis. Yet, the forces of power and control — who is allowed to enjoy certain social benefits, and who is excluded from them — can be seen in the ways that both gender and race are often policed so forcefully.

“White woman” or “Black man” for example are not simply descriptors but are loaded with meaning that changes depending on where you are. As has been written about on countless occasions, in the context of the US, the former (specifically, as Professor of sociology Alison Phipps points out, “Bourgeois white women”) represent the paragon of virtue and the latter the embodiment of savagery.
If those two tropes are true — and of course to repeat them enough times is to make them real, if not true — then the extraordinary violence exacted upon Black men is justifiable as White men throughout US history have sought to protect White women from Black men. The Black woman in that context is either raging, serving, whoring or quietly resilient.
In fact, Black women, Native-American and Asian-American women will know that legally the category of “woman” had not always applied to them as they were excluded from the right to vote when suffrage became law in 1920.
And it is not just “woman” that reveals a power imbalance. A new study that analyzed 630 billion words found that even the concept of a “person” or “people” is “not gender-neutral when it comes to how we use these terms. In fact, we tend to prioritize men when referring to people in general.”

The researchers from New York University concluded that “bias at such a foundational level — our word choices — is potentially consequential.”

Language is not neutral but the simple fact remains that what isn’t counted doesn’t count. To exist on paper, in language and in stories, is to no longer be completely invisible. It is a jumping-off point from which further change can be pursued.

It would however be naive to presume that simple recognition in language is the same as full emancipation. It remains dangerous to live outside the gender binary, and as American philosopher Judith Butler noted there is a growing backlash around the world against gender-inclusive measures.

This is not simply about conservatism, Butler writes, but rather these anti-gender movements are a part of fascism: “The anti-gender movement is not a conservative position with a clear set of principles. No, as a fascist trend, it mobilizes a range of rhetorical strategies from across the political spectrum to maximize the fear of infiltration and destruction that comes from a diverse set of economic and social forces.”

Butler, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, goes on: “As a fascist trend, the anti-gender movement supports ever strengthening forms of authoritarianism. Its tactics encourage state powers to intervene in university programs, to censor art and television programming, to forbid trans people their legal rights, to ban LGBTQI people from public spaces, to undermine reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at women, children, and LGBTQI people.

The difference between sex, gender and sexuality explained

That is why it makes no sense for “gender critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people. Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.”

Even if you disagree with Butler’s conclusions, it is undeniable that there have always been people among us who do not fit into the binary. The Hijra in India, Muxes in Mexico, Sekrata in Madagascar, Bakla in Philippines, two-spirit people in many Native American tribes and many more besides.

To include people who identify as non-binary is not the end of “boys” and “girls.” Nothing is lost. Instead, much stands to be gained when people can find themselves represented not just in language but also legally. But there is still much work to be done.

Story of the week

Women protesting against the women's inequality and sexual violence on International Women's Day in Bandung, Indonesia, on March 8, 2022. (Photo by Algi Febri Sugita/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/Reuters)

Indonesia’s parliament on Tuesday passed a long-awaited bill to tackle sexual violence, aimed at providing a legal framework for victims to secure justice in a country where sexual abuse has often been regarded as a private matter.

Indonesia passes landmark sexual violence bill, overcoming conservative opposition – Reuters

Women Behaving Badly: Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1959 – present)

Then 33-year-old K'iche' Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum, speaks to a crowd, during a celebration in Guatemala City, Guatemala. (Photo by AP Photo/str/Dan Hernandez, 1992)
In 1992 when the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that it was awarding the Peace Prize to a K’iche’ Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the organization wrote that she stood out as “a vivid symbol of peace and reconciliation across ethnic, cultural and social dividing lines, in her own country, on the American continent, and in the world.”
Born into a poor rural family in Chimel, a small Mayan community in the Quiche region of Guatemala, young Rigoberta, according to the Nobel Women’s Initiative, would travel with her community organizer father “teaching rural campesinos their rights and encouraging them to organize”.
She grew up during the Guatemalan civil war which began in 1960 and lasted over 30 years, and her family’s activism came at great cost. In January 1980, her father was killed at a protest in the Spanish embassy that was violently squashed by Guatemalan police. Later that year, according to Menchú’s 1983 autobiography, ‘I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala‘, her mother and brother were also killed by security forces. She then fled into exile in Mexico.
The book became a source of controversy for Menchú, when American anthropologist David Stoll accused the activist of writing events that never happened to her. But Menchú defended her work, saying: “I’m proud of the book,” describing it as ”part of the historical memory and patrimony of Guatemala.”
In 2006, Menchú started the Nobel Women’s Initiative to promote justice and equality with five others; in 2007 and 2011 she ran for the office of President of Guatemala under the banner of the first indigenous-led political party that she founded. Today, she continues to be active in public life and international affairs, calling — in her most recent tweet — for dialogue days after Russia invaded Ukraine.

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