Destined to Disappear? Lessons from Nonbinary People on Dismantling the Gender Binary

In 1949 Simone de Beavoir published The Second Sex where she noted the following:

“And the truth is that anyone can clearly see that humanity is split into two categories of individuals with manifestly different clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, movements, interests, and occupations; these differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they are destined to disappear”

In this quote Beavoir is observing the existence of a gender binary—a society that recognizes the existence of only women and men—and she entertains the possibility that it will disappear. Is the gender binary destined to disappear? Perhaps. It’s a tough question to answer, but it’s a question that is certainly worth considering given the gender binary is a fundamental source from which gendered inequalities develop.

Nearly a decade after Beavoir published The Second Sex, a young transgender woman named Agnes approached professor of psychiatry Robert Stoller with the hope of being accepted into his gender clinic at the University of California Los Angeles. Agnes’s boyfriend had proposed to her not knowing she was a transgender woman, and so she was now in search of a relatively new medical procedure called a vaginoplasty. Agnes believed this gender confirmation surgery was a pathway to the life of a married woman that she hoped for. But Agnes first needed a recommendation before she could receive this procedure, and Stoller’s UCLA clinic was one that could provide this recommendation.

Agnes fascinated Stoller for her ability to convincingly present herself to others—or “pass”—as a woman. Of Agnes, Stoller wrote:

“The most remarkable thing…was that it was not possible for any of the observers, including those who knew her anatomic state, to identify her as anything other than a young woman.”

For Stoller, it seemed inconceivable that a person born with the genitals and chromosomes of a “normal” male could so persuasively pass as a woman. However, Stoller did not consider how Agnes was aided by a society that uses dress, speech, and mannerism to divide bodies into two recognizable categories.

In the 1960s, Harold Garfinkel, a sociologist and colleague of Stoller at the gender clinic, published a pathbreaking study from his interviews with Agnes. He argued that gender is an ongoing accomplishment—a recognition as woman or man that people seek from others in everyday life. One of Garfinkel’s key insights was that people typically define gender in binary terms. In other words, people assume there are only two genders: woman and man. It seems that Garfinkel’s studies were picking up where Simone de Beavoir’s left off.

Living in a society built around a gender binary has implications for how we think about ourselves and other people. For transgender people like Agnes who identify and seek affirmation from others as women or men, the idea that only two genders exist may help audiences see them as they see themselves. But the gender binary is even more far reaching. It shapes how we organize social institutions such as the family and the workplace via laws, infrastructure, and cultural norms. What does this mean for people who do not embrace the binary gender categories woman or man? How do nonbinary people navigate and experience this binary world?

In my recent publication, “Un/gendering Social Selves: How Nonbinary People Navigate and Experience a Binarily Gendered World” my coauthor Doug Schrock and I draw on in-depth interviews with nonbinary people to illustrate how they live authentic lives in a world that assumes they don’t exist.

Nonbinary people are individuals who do not exclusively or consistently identify as women and men. Some nonbinary people reject the idea that gender is a binary and instead define it as a spectrum of many identities that people fluidly move between and among. Other nonbinary people reject the assumption that all people must have a gender identity at all, and thus define their nonbinary existence entirely outside the realm of gender. Despite these differences, the common thread that runs among nonbinary people is that they reject the assumption that all people are and can only be women or men.

Like Agnes, my nonbinary participants sought affirmation from others for their identities. But unlike Agnes, my interviewees were not seeking affirmation for an identity that was universally recognized. During interviews, my participants described ways of dressing and speaking that, they hoped, would complicate how audiences perceived them. They did not want audiences to easily identify them as women or men. For example, some mixed “men’s” and “women’s” clothing, used hormone therapy, altered their tone of voice, cut and colored their hair, adopted less gendered names like Shay and Parker, and used pronouns like ‘they’ instead of ‘she’ or ‘he’ to evade the binary categories woman and man.

Nevertheless, the nonbinary folks I spoke with were also aware that audiences were so immersed in a binary society that it was nearly impossible for them to recognize identities beyond woman and man. Ally, a 21-year-old white nonbinary college student, described this dilemma best:

There’s no foolproof way to present as nonbinary because you can’t pass as something that people don’t recognize. The closest you can come to passing is making people unable to classify you. Indirectly, it means making people uncomfortable. But that comes with the territory.”

This problem of “passing” as something recognizable is central to many of my nonbinary interviewees’ narratives. How can people see you as nonbinary if society only recognizes two categories? This dilemma engendered numerous emotional burdens for my nonbinary interviewees, including anxiety about having to navigate binary spaces like restrooms, fear of violence, and exhaustion and frustration with constantly correcting people who misgender them as women or men.

Despite these emotional burdens, my interviewees also discussed emotional benefits of living openly as nonbinary. For example, they felt their identities supplied them with a sense of authenticity. They also described taking pride in using their identities and expression to, at times, challenge the gender binary. Many interviewees had conversations about their nonbinary identities, which created opportunities to complicate how other people understood gender.

Although living as nonbinary sometimes involved actively disrupting the gender binary, there were also times and situations when my interviewees conformed to the binary. Jade, a 21-year-old white college student said they don’t discuss being nonbinary with their parents because it’s too emotionally draining, and they just don’t understand. Matti, a 19-year-old Latinx student said they typically conceal their nonbinary identity and defer to binary categories like “he” and “man” during hookups to avoid complicating the situation or creating awkward interactions. Other interviewees described trying to pass as men or women in binarily gendered spaces, like public bathrooms, to avoid harassment or violence.

When Agnes approached Robert Stoller in 1958, she was in search of a life as a “normal” woman. She wanted to feel comfortable in her body and she wanted acceptance from others. My nonbinary interviewees desire the same outcomes—they want to live as “normal” people. But their journeys are markedly different from Agnes’s.

Considering how we can improve our society to be more inclusive of nonbinary people, we must think big. We must transform our society to one that is beyond a gender binary. But is that possible?

I to return to the initial question that I posed. Is the gender binary “destined to disappear”? After speaking with my nonbinary participants, I can give you my answer: Only if we are willing to make it disappear.

Based on the experiences that my nonbinary participants shared with me, I believe that there are concrete actions we can take that will begin to challenge the gender binary and loosen the grasp that it holds over us all. To start, we can remove the gender binary from our generic language, laws, and infrastructure. We can build nongendered restrooms that all people can feel comfortable using. We can stop using “he” or “man” as a generic way of describing all people and instead use “they,” unless discussing a person who does identify with binary gendered nouns and pronouns. We can also put a stop to gender policing, including for boys/men girls/women, and work to end male violence.

Finally, and most importantly, we can look to the activists and scholars who came before us. Although they did not always get it right, we should not dismiss the tools they gave us to study and critique gender inequality. Their critiques and interventions surrounding gendered language, violence, structures, and binaries arguably is key to liberation, regardless of if or how one is gendered.

Harry  Barbee

Harry Barbee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology. Harry’s co-authored paper was published in Sociological Forum.

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