Human beings, with life spans a short as they are, claim there are many constants in life. They have a hard time conceptualizing the thought that people with completely different world views came before, and will come after, them. As such, society believes that abstract concepts such as gender are consistently structured. In fact, the study of sex, gender, and sexuality have fluctuated for a long time and are not as static as often perceived. Although some may argue sex is inherent when someone is born, in reality there are people in society that are born with androgynous genitals or chromosomes that do not match up with their sex. Many also argue that gender can only ever be male or female, in correlation to a person’s sex. However, because sex is not always set, there must be room in the gender structure for those who fit neither of those categories. As a result of inadequate education about these ideas, many people are not aware that sex and gender are much more fluid than society dictates. There is a need for change in the way the general public approaches these topics that accommodates those who are outside of the gender dichotomy. If nonbinary people are to be accommodated, space must be made to honor these individual’s identities. In responses to these arguments, I propose a solution that includes redefining gendered social constructs such as language, encouraging diversity through education and law change, and making space for nonbinary people to be included.
Definitions and History
There are a lot of confusing and complicated terms to discuss when studying gender, sexuality, and sex identity. It becomes especially convoluted when the terms to examine these concepts have only been around for the past century. In order to break down this argument, I am going to address the history and definitions involved in it. First, I will address the terminology behind sex and gender, the binary, and what being outside of the binary means. I will talk through the history of each of these movements, why they are important, and why they make a case for creating room for the nonbinary community. Nonbinary people need a space to be human in their lives, and I will fully explain why it is so essential that society encourage nonbinary people in building that sphere.
There is an expansive history of differentiating sexual characteristics, but most of the major change in this field of study came about in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For a long time, English did not have words that properly classified the separate experiences of sex, gender, and sexuality. They were all lumped together into one big entity, causing a lot of confusion when attempting to describe revolutionary acts within queer communities. In fact, “the shift away from conceptualizing transgender persons as homosexuals, bisexuals, or heterosexuals with the fetish to dress as members of a different sex began in 1910 with the publication of The Transvestite by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld” (Capuzza et al. 171). The terms about physical body characteristics had not yet been separated from sexuality, and there was still a long way to go before distinctions were made between someone’s sex and gender as different qualities. These discussions were brand new, and the English language was playing catch up with modern vernacular. The study of sex and gender has come a long way since the early days of its history, but there is still a lot of mystery surrounding these ideas due to the lack of appropriate words to adapt these ideas in the English language.
As more forays into the depths of sex, gender, and sexuality were begun, there came a sudden need to start terming and defining the experiences of those exploring these fields. First came the separation of sex from sexuality. As explained, “sex refers to a set of biological attributes and is primarily associated with physical and physiological features, including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy” (Frohard‐Dourlent Hélène et al.). Although sex can easily be confused with gender, sex typically refers to discussions about physical anatomy or outward sexual characteristics. Sex and gender are two completely separate qualities. It is imperative to make this distinction because a majority of arguments center on sex when the actual topic at hand discusses of gender identity. Typically, sex identity is defined as binary, or having only two results. English commonly names these two options either male or female. One might state that sexual identity is inherent and cannot be changed due to being determined at birth. In truth, just like many other aspects of nature, sex is not a simple division line.
Although easy to assume that science has come up with a perfect way to measure the human body and determine sex, that is far from the truth. Actually, the measurement of genitalia, typically considered an easy way to tell birth sex, is completely arbitrary. Children can be born with more than one gender-specific sexual characteristic, such as both a penis and a uterus. Children can also not outwardly express more than one sex but may at the same time have different chromosomes than their assigned sexual identity. In fact, “‘the birth of a child with ambiguous genitalia constitutes a social emergency’” (Feder 1). As the child is not part of the norm, but ‘intersex,’ they break down social barriers. There is not much exposure of intersex identities, and many doctors were not trained to deal with the ambiguity of nature in such a way. This fact alone is surprising because the latest statistics show that an intersex baby is born every one in two thousand births (How Common Is Intersex? | Intersex Society of North America). Although a small percentage, it is still common enough that doctors and the public should be aware of intersex people’s existence and address it in a healthy way. Instead, doctors tend to make gendered decisions for their young patients.
Despite their oath to ‘do no harm,’ doctors can be blinded by societal expectations and rules about sex and gender. This can cause them to alter the bodies of their patients so that they conform to their inconsistent standards. Many believe that this ‘normalization’ surgery creates a way for intersex people to live a normal life, but in fact it can leave lasting scars on both that person’s body as well as psyche. Horrifyingly, without the consent of the patients, “over the last sixty to seventy years, physicians have recommended and performed genital surgery and gonadectomy and prescribed hormone replacement specifically to normalize the bodies of infants, older children, and young adults with atypical sex” (Feder 2). Because of the intense societal pressures of binary gender and sex, individual identities are being wiped out of existence. The sex of some individuals is already being changed to fit the binary of their community, so there cannot be an argument that sex cannot be changed and is instead inherent. It is necessary to recognize that if society already participates in this manipulation of sex, then individuals should advocate that these procedures are done with the full knowledge and consent of the participant. Medical education needs to be changed so that identities outside of the binary, whether that be in sex or gender, are accepted and treated with the respect they deserve as individuals.
As the times began to change, so did the terms that were used. When the term gender separated from sex, there came a need for more specification into the types of gender labels. The term ‘Transvestite,’ meant to indicate change in sex, changed to the current term ‘transgender’ or ‘trans’ for short. As this term began to appear in the popular vernacular, trans was defined as “people whose gender identity differed from the sex they were assigned at birth as well as ‘those who cross over, cut across, move between or otherwise queer socially constructed sex/gender boundaries’” (Capuzza et al. 173). This transition was specifically made to indicate an acknowledgement of someone’s gender identity changing, and not their physical sex. Trans was a term originally meant to follow the Latin definition: different gendered. Other terms such as cisgendered (same gendered) also came into use as the trans community expanded the vocabulary they used to describe themselves and other people. As the definition of transgender evolved, it began to gain more and more identities under its umbrella, eventually including nonbinary identities as well.
Another early struggle of the transgender community was emphasizing the difference between presentation of gender and sexuality. They began to emphasize the presentation of their chosen gender in a traditional way in order to ‘pass’ as that identity. As articulated, “the body has become a site of spatial orientation and a medium of communication with others. It is in these spaces that gender is performed and the construction of identity is facilitated and re-shaped” (Saugata Bhaduri, and Indrani Mukherjee, Springer 104). Transgender people saw themselves as performing gender for the public in order to validate their personal experience. They struggled with the idea of gender as a performance of a social structure, even though they knew that the only way they could be recognized as valid was through this way of presentation. There were no laws or rules to help transgender people identity uniquely, only vague boundaries set by society. Education and laws are slowing starting to catch up with the needs of the trans community, but there is still a long way to go. People do not need to be one extreme to be recognized as human beings, and it is critical for the law to protect those who do not want to be a stereotype of a gender. It is also crucial that there is education about transgender identities so that room can be made for gender and sex to be further discussed in communities.
This struggle began to define the transgender community as time went on. There were many trans members questioning why they performed gender in a specific way if it was for other people and not for their own comfort. As they soon recognized, “the masculine, or instrumental, scale reliably predicts only self-assertive, dominant behaviors and that the feminine, or expressive, scale reliably predicts only other-oriented, relational behaviors” (Eagly and Wood 725). Trans people felt they had to fit into one of these two binaries to truly be the gender they were. If they fulfilled the stereotype of a group, then they could claim that they were a part of that group. The repetitive action of living their lives in these stereotypes validated their identities, even though the actions themselves had no meaning. However, there also rose a recognition that since gender binaries were societally constructed, gender itself could not be a true measurement. This recognition began the exploration of terminology and identification as a way to provide greater individuality to personal experience, and also to better codify within society the multiplicity of the gendered struggle. All human experiences, including gender, are more complicated than just black and white, or male and female. There is multiplicity in people as well as their experiences. It is essential to acknowledge the labels that people give themselves, as they are only trying to further communicate their experience as a fellow human being.
As previously discussed, it is unfair to characterize the human experience of gender as a simple binary with no move between or within the concept. Even if there were only masculine and feminine presentations, the degree of those two concepts is fluid and mailable. As such, room must be made for those who identity outside of the binary, whether that be in gender, sex, or both. For example, “androgynous persons are flexible because they are able to move between feminine and masculine modes, depending on situational appropriateness. Gender-typed persons, she further argued, are more narrowly masculine or feminine in their behavior” (Eagly and Wood 726). Although androgyny is not currently acceptable in Western society to the same degree as those within the gender binary, their ability to take on certain traits of both the masculine and feminine is unique and vital. Without the exploration of gender and sex made by those inside of the queer community, the definitions of masculine and feminine would not exist in the same way today. By challenging society’s preconceptions of gender norms, androgynous and nonbinary people break down the subtle differences between the masculine and feminine. It is imperative that nonbinary people continue to be recognized for their identities and their actions to question gender’s strict rules.
Even if genders outside of the binary have not existed in the English vernacular for a long amount of time, that does not mean that these identities did not exist before the words used to describe them. In fact, “non-binary identities have indeed existed in different forms for decades and even centuries” (Frohard‐Dourlent Hélène et al. 3). It does not make sense to argue that identities outside of the binary do not exist when they have been acknowledged in different cultures around the world for an extensive amount of time. Instead of balking at the idea of genders outside of the binary, it is necessary to recognize them and to support people who identify with that term. By including nonbinary people in the discussion on gender and identity, Western perceptions of gender and sex can be more comprehensive. Although uncomfortable to recognize people who identify differently than one’s self, it is vital to allow those people the freedom to identify themselves how they choose. Understanding one’s gender is a personal decision an individual makes, and it is critical to acknowledge that person’s humanity and respect their identity, even if one does not agree with the politics.
In Practice Solutions
It can be intimidating to learn how to understand different points of view and include them in discussions, especially if their ideas run counter to traditionally held beliefs. However, if nonbinary people are included in the discussions of gender as queer and non-queer communities move forward, the decisions made about terminology and definitions will inherently be more inclusive. The point of including nonbinary identities in this discussion is to make a space for nonbinary people where there has previously been none. If there are people who have nonbinary identities, it is crucial that society recognize that they are still human beings who deserve respect and a place in their communities to be heard. At the moment, nonbinary people do not have a sphere in society, but this can change by altering the way society makes room for nonbinary people. Space needs to be constructed in a symbolic, representational, and physical way.
One of the first proposals of this paper suggests that language become more inclusive of nonbinary identities. As previously discussed, language has not been inclusive of nonbinary identities for a long time, however as queer communities push to include nonbinary identities, more gender-neutral terms become accepted into the modern vernacular. Unfortunately, “the limits of the English language may coerce individuals to employ binary gender terms in order to linguistically construct their non-binary genders” (Savoia 22). English is a complicated language, and, despite borrowing from dialects all around the world, it struggles with gender neutral pronouns such as the singular ‘they.’ However, if an individual wants to be more inclusive of all identities, one way in which that can be done is through the use of singular ‘they’ when more typically ‘he or she’ would be said. This change is meant to make space for nonbinary people in a symbolic and also representational way. By using the pronoun ‘they,’ people can indicate that they are an ally for nonbinary people and will support them and their true identity. Furthermore, this change in language usage helps increase representation for gender neutral language in the English language, something sorely needed. This is a simple way to be inclusive in language usage, without making a drastic change to typical vocabulary. There is still a long way to go in changing how English is used to describe nonbinary identities, but this is an easy first step society can implement during this transition.
Another way to be inclusive of nonbinary identities is to advocate for diverse education and more inclusivity of nonbinary people. Not surprisingly, when people become more educated about others in the queer community, they tend to become more understanding and inclusive of those communities. In fact, “there is increasing evidence that positive discussion of LGBT people and issues helps build safer school environments, decreasing the educational, mental, and physical harms that LGBT students experience” (Slater 4). The more people who are educated that queer people are still human individuals, the more people who will be supportive of queer communities. It is easy to fear that which one does not understand, but difficult to hate an individual for their identity if properly understood. Increasing awareness and representation of nonbinary identities is vital in order for the community to reclaim room to grow and thrive. This also aids nonbinary people because it encourages others to physically recognize and acknowledge nonbinary people as human beings and protect them from potential harm and abuse. With increased representation and physical support, the nonbinary community can have space to be themselves.
An additional way to make space for nonbinary people is to advocate for inclusive healthcare. Typically, this is done by law changes that incorporate inclusive policy requirements for sexual education in schools and nondiscrimination statements in medical settings. Another way this can be achieved is by including education about nonbinary identities in medical schools so that medical practitioners can be inclusive in their practice. In fact, “improving access to inclusive health-care for non-binary people, and non-binary youth in particular, is part of creating a more equitable healthcare system” (Frohard‐Dourlent Hélène et al. 1). Nonbinary people can sometimes have needs specific to their gender identity, such as wanting surgery to correct their gendered appearance or hormones to better conform to the image they want to present to the outside world. It is important to be inclusive in policy so that not only those who prove they meet certain characteristics such as gender dysphoria receive the proper care they deserve.
Another way to include nonbinary people is to advocate for inclusive sex education. Because nonbinary people may not have education that suits their gender identity or sex identity, they may be unaware of how to participate in safe and consensual sex with partners. It is essential that nonbinary people have a space and are represented in education, especially in sexual education. In addition, “LGBT youth experience more negative sexual‐health outcomes than their heterosexual peers, [and] they would especially benefit from effective and inclusive sex education” (Slater 3). If nonbinary people are included in sex education, the information students are told about sex will be more accurate and more helpful for those who are nonbinary or are participating in a relationship with a nonbinary partner. Physically, making a space for nonbinary people is vital as there is a large potential that some students are nonbinary or will have a nonbinary partner. If that is the case, it is critical that representation of nonbinary people increases so that they are included in future discussions.
A final consideration when building space for nonbinary people must address the bathroom debates. In recent years there have been many discussions within and without of the political field of whether or not to allow trans people to visit the bathroom of their choice in public. Although trans-people use a gender-neutral bathroom in their homes their entire lives, many public bathrooms are assigned a gender. Because of this, “the Williams Institute reports that 70 percent of transgender people surveyed have been denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms” (Erickson-Schroth and Jacobs). Bathrooms have traditionally been a way to discriminate against minorities by creating arbitrary boundaries and separations around a public service that is necessarily used by all people. In this case, people argue that transgender people do not deserve to use the bathroom of their gender identity but must use the bathroom of their gender/sex assigned at birth. As previously explained, the issue of assigning certain genders to bathrooms become problematic when considering those who are trans, and especially those who are nonbinary.
One easy way to arrange space for nonbinary people in bathrooms is to de-gender public bathrooms. Urinals could easily have walls installed between them, preventing awkwardness and further facilitating a gender-neutral presentation of restroom facilities. If this were to happen, signs designating gender on bathrooms could then be removed. If a person wanted to use a urinal they could simply use one without having to share their private information on their gender or sex identity. This simple solution is an easy way for nonbinary people to be included within the normalized gender binary, while also dissolving the transgender bathroom debate. An individual could choose whichever bathroom is more appropriate for their genitalia and chose that to use or even switch out bathrooms depending on mood or presentation. The solution creates a physical sphere for nonbinary people by taking out the divides normally binding nonbinary people. Furthermore, these changes represent a symbolic alteration in support of the trans, and nonbinary community. In reality, not assigning gender to bathrooms is a much more efficient way of constructing facilities, while also making space for those who identify outside of the binary. The fear associated with the bathroom debate focuses more on the fear of trans people and people outside of the binary, but it is necessary to create room for trans and nonbinary people, no matter political affiliation.
In conclusion, in order to include nonbinary people in a wholistic way, I suggested that society make a move to redefine gendered language, educate about gender identities outside of the binary, and make spaces for nonbinary people through actions such as law changes. As discussed, gender and sex are more fluid than traditional education claims, and it is important to be educated about identities outside of the binary. Because those identities exist, it is also imperative to take a step forward and build support for those who do identity outside of the binary. As society becomes increasingly more inclusive of different people, needs for inclusion of those people in discussions of community will increase. Society is enrichened by those who are outside of the norm, and communities should make an effort to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary within themselves.
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