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Gender: It's More Complicated Than You Think

Updated on September 1, 2017

Simplifying the Complication

Genderqueer: adjective - gen·der·queer \ˈjen-dər-ˌkwir\ : of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female. For many people, gender has never really been a question of who you are - society typically sees it as a statement; something that should be classified as ‘this-or-that’, and it causes no confusion. It makes enforced gender roles nice and simple, right?

That's unfortunately not the reality of things.

The Outliers

There is a minority of the population that can't simply fit into strict categories like everyone else can - thus, the term ‘genderqueer’ was put to use. One of the most common misconceptions, however, is regarding gender itself. Gender is not as black and white as it is originally perceived to be; instead, it's a wide spectrum of extremes and outliers. ‘Genderqueer’ is the term that tends to blur the lines between what makes the masculine and feminine separate: it's what allows the ‘gray area’ that is ambiguous gender identity to express themselves how they believe themselves to be. Many people, however, in fact do not realize how complicated gender as a concept really is.

The Four Spectrums

The gender spectrum is not quite what it’s made out to be - instead, it's split into four main categories: biological gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity (Killermann). For example, a genderqueer individual may be born with female genitalia, be attracted to other girls, dress in a masculine fashion, but identify as non-binary. Another term that appears on the gender spectrum is ‘genderfluid’ - in other words, a person whom goes back and forth between certain gender identities.

Gender Fluidity

Surprisingly enough, there is far from a total lack of representation for these individuals internationally, despite society’s apparent lack of global awareness. Australian actress Ruby Rose, upon being asked to describe her experience with defying societal norms and gender roles, produced a short film about what it means to skate between the lines of ‘male’ and ‘female’ (Officialrubyrose). She explains what ‘gender fluidity’ means in an interview with Lindsay Miller; “For me it was that I was born looking one way (which was with long blonde hair and blue eyes) and when I went to school I was very much a tomboy, and then I got picked on, so I reversed back into trying to be what everyone wanted me to be,” Rose explained, detailing her earlier years in a school environment, “so I had long blonde hair and I would wear some dresses and heels (...) and it just didn't feel right - I mean, it looked fine, no one sort of thought it was weird, it just didn't feel right for me. And as I got a little more mature and started to really embrace these other feelings I was having - which was that I really just wanted to play football, and I just wanted to hang out with the boys: I just wanted to cut my hair, play with Ninja Turtles and not Barbies - I found this self confidence and solace in really embracing who I think that I was meant to be.” (PopSugarTV). Ruby Rose is but one example of how someone might settle into a more comfortable identity for themselves, regardless of the difficulties that accompany those trials. But how does the “gender binary” play into these in-between identities?

The short answer: it doesn't, not necessarily.

The Gender Binary

The term “gender binary” refers to what a person may know as the ‘black and white’ of the gender spectrum. Femininity and masculinity also play a big role in this - but for the most part, the gender binary is made up by the male and female gender identities. Those that fit in the gender binary are called “cisgender” individuals, because their gender matches their sexual orientation. Due of its general simplicity, it should be easy to categorize everyone in the gender binary, right?

Affected, Not Determined

Well, that’s where you'd be wrong.

The problem is, when the main four spectrums are taken into consideration, applying them to the gender binary doesn't work out; not in the more practical sense. “Gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are independent of one another (i.e., they are not connected). People's sexual orientation doesn't determine their gender expression. And their gender expression isn't determined by their gender identity. And their gender identity isn't determined by their biological sex. (...) Those things certainly affect one another (i.e., they’re related to one-another) but they do not determine one another.” (Killermann). The gender binary leaves no room for the in-betweens and outliers that make up the genderqueer population - thus why the term “non-binary” was coined, to offer an umbrella term for genderqueers that did not fit in the gender binary - but how do non-binary people deal with enforced gender roles, exactly?

The Real Issue

The truth is that the difficulty gender roles create is often problematic - to the point in which a genderqueer person is required to go by the either-or label that society presents to the majority. In most cases, genderqueer individuals are required to go along with what is structured as a ‘male versus female’ sort of choice, which is typically denoted by their biological gender. A popular example is the classic predicament of bathrooms, which are globally segregated based off of gender, though transgender awareness is gradually turning the issue on its head. Many schools are beginning to offer unisex bathrooms as an accommodation, a small step forward in advocating for transgender rights, though many other issues need to be sorted in regards to the faculty and the student body. Children are not always raised with individuality in mind, but rather with societal expectations and uniformity to gender being the driving force all the way into adolescence. Western culture especially enforces this, in which children are to grow up in a clearly defined sense of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’, with no in-between. There are various communities in other countries, however, that embrace a ‘third-gender’ amongst the boys and girls. Polynesian cultures, especially in locations like Samoa, are just a small example of countries that would be considered supportive of a third-gender role. “Vassey and his colleagues have found that the mothers and maternal grandmothers of fa’afafine (third-gender males raised as females) have more babies than the mothers and grandmothers of straight Samoan men,” Henig states, explaining perhaps a reason why these ‘third-genders’ are more genetically viable in accordance to reproduction (Henig). Treatment in social spaces and workplaces, however, creates an entirely new issue.

Coming Out

When dealing with issues of gender identity, the idea of coming out to peers and family can be an extremely scary process - social environments such as school and the workplace are perhaps even worse, considering the majority of people spend most of their day in at least one of these locations - and one bad reaction can either make or break how a person gets treated by everybody else. It’s no surprise that there’s a rather sizeable correlation between physical, verbal, and emotional assault in relation to being transgender or non-binary. According to a survey conducted in 2008 by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), “[a] staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%)” (Grant et al.). Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that cisgender individuals have certain privileges in regards to avoiding these types of slander and discrimination. However, there are instances of variance in the discrimination of genderqueers versus transgender individuals: “genderqueer individuals faced unique patterns of gender identity-based discrimination and violence. In some settings, genderqueer people experienced higher rates of physical assault and police harassment than their transgender counterparts in the survey. In other cases, they experienced similar or lesser impacts of discrimination. For instance, genderqueer people were less likely to have been fired from a job due to bias” (Harrison et al.). Many people would argue that conditions like gender dysphoria lack a certain scientific authenticity, and this often results in many people that debate whether the condition actually exists in validity. This is mostly due to the fact that the majority of cisgender individuals grow up without a sense of incongruence with their biological gender.

Why Neutrality is Difficult

Maintaining gender neutrality has, more or less, always been proven time and time again to be difficult. “Biology has a habit of declaring itself eventually,” author Robin Marantz Henig explains, as obstacles such as puberty and “secondary sex characteristics” can create major problems for either those that are transitioning into a different gender, or those that intend to stay somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum (Henig). Furthermore, while puberty blocks do exist, the amount of testing done on them is minimal at best, and thus their safety cannot be fully guaranteed. There are many people that take these suppressants, despite the plausible risks the blockers might entail. It’s theoretically safe for someone to stop taking puberty blocks and continue through puberty as intended if they decide they do not want to transition, or they can start taking cross-hormonal treatment, should they decide to completely transition (Henig). This often manifests in the form of shots, the most common being testosterone and estrogen, depending on the transition. Gender neutrality itself may be, in a sense, temporary - however, that doesn’t mean that the population of ambiguous identities (or even agender people, whom do not associate themselves with a gender) should be marginalized in favor of a definite gender, either.

Fighting the Status Quo

Gender, in the conventional sense, has never really been easy to define, most especially in the eyes of those that identify in the midst of the spectrum. There’s still a significant level of ignorance in regard to the minority that are genderqueer or transgender, and the gender roles that remain heavily enforced are substantial proof of that - ignorance is the very reason that this oppression even exists in the first place. It isn’t hard to see why, either - if we’re told that we are meant to act this way or that way, because our gender denotes it practically since birth - why should we have a reason to lift the societal expectations that have long since shaped how we behave as people? Gender roles aren't only harmful to those that are trying to break free from gender stereotypes - they also force non-binary individuals to conform to one gender or another, with no in-between. Because you’re born as a boy, you’re taught to like sports, be assertive, and play with action figures - because you’re born as a girl, you’re taught to look pretty, be delicate, and play with Barbies - but that philosophy is changing because of the spectrum. Whether that change is a good or a bad thing truly remains to be seen; whether it’s a step forward or backward remains a mystery at the moment because we are the ones that are supposed to make that decision for ourselves. We have always collectively feared the unknown - change is foreign, it’s frightening. But change also brings a new perspective to light, so that we may view prevalent issues through new angles and bias. Gender is but one problem we have yet to solve, but a fix to the issue is hidden within plain sight - we just have to be the generation to find it. Then, perhaps we can make progress to become a more open-minded society that not only accepts change, but also makes an effort to understand our own differences between one another.

Works Cited

Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. "Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey." The Task Force. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 May 2017.
Harrison, Jack, Jaime Grant, and Jody L. Herman. "Beyond Male and Female: Creativity, Risks, and Resilience Among Genderqueer People in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey." Huffington Post. N.p., 14 May 2012. Web. 17 May 2017.
Henig, Robin Marantz. "How Science Is Helping Us Understand Gender." National Geographic. N.p., Jan. 2017. Web. 15 May 2017.
Killermann, Sam. "Breaking through the binary: Gender explained using continuums." It's Pronounced Metrosexual. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2017.
Officialrubyrose. “Break Free - Ruby Rose.” YouTube. YouTube, 14 July 2014. Web. 15 May 2017.
PopSugarTV. “Ruby Rose Talks Breaking Free From Gender Expectations.” YouTube. YouTube, 08 July 2015. Web. 15 May 2017.


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