A Brush with Gender Binaries

There are more than two genders.

I only recently realized the importance of an open mind with regards to gender, and how vastly different individuals really are. You don’t always think of it in a small town, honestly. Our ideologies of gender roles and binaries are well-trained and seldom questioned. It’s more than the idea that girls wear pink and boys wear blue. It’s the continued belief that men look a certain way and act a certain way, and women are their opposite.

So much progress has been made for women’s rights and gender equality. The majority of us honestly believe that women are of equal value to men, and that no one should be discriminated against based on their gender. Feminism is making its mark. Sisonke Mgwebi, an architecture student and feminist, says ‘feminists are trying to level out the

Sisonke – frame shot from interview

playing field, because society has changed. In my house I grew up with a single parent, so I only saw the strong woman; that’s all I know. The strong independent woman who has all her shit together. That’s what informed me and my views on feminism.’ 

Nthupula Masipa, a gender neutral Honors student and gender studies tutor at UCT says ‘Modern feminism is exciting, because it’s got a little bit of the old in some corners, it’s got a lot of new things in other corners… I think it’s very mottled. We can do better, in some circles, but we’re doing great in other circles. What is important is that equity be attained’.

Society is more focused on equality now than in almost every civilization, ancient and recent. (You should read what the Greeks thought about women). Still, our views of sex and gender are very much the same as they were 50 years ago. We believe quite sturdily in the existence of only men and women, male and female, and that’s it.

Wikipedia describes the gender binary as ‘the classification of sex and gender into two distinct, opposite and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine… 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.’ A person’s gender can be described as the complex interrelationship between three dimensions. Body – our own experience and societal projection; identity – our internal sense of self; and expression – our own presentation, and other’s perceptions and interactions with us. For most of us, we don’t have to think about this. Everything lines up nicely, and we can just follow our feet. But it isn’t that simple for everyone.

In 2015 the Medical University of Vienna conducted a study on the neurological distinction between gender identity and biological sex. They found that a Trans woman has distinctly different brain movement than a cis man, despite having the same biological sex. That means that transgender people’s brains may be more similar to the brains of their self-identified gender than those of the gender assigned at birth. They also found that there are a wide range of gender based differences in the brain, rather than the black and white binaries we all know. When I asked them why they chose the gender pronoun ‘them’, Nthupula explained ‘I just feel that I was born not to have pronouns. I have never really felt like I could identify with she, it didn’t ever make sense. I don’t identify with he either. And so for the sake of communication, I chose a neutral one.’

Nthupula – frame shot from interview

National Geographic defines gender as ‘an amalgamation of several elements: chromosomes (those X’s and Y’s), anatomy (internal sex organs and external genitals), hormones (relative levels of testosterone and estrogen), psychology (self-defined gender identity), and culture (socially defined gender behaviors)’. There’s even a gene, the SRY gene, which may be missing or dysfunctional, leading to a girl, with XX chromosomes, to be identified as a boy at birth, or vice versa.

We all know that every human has both estrogen and testosterone, so where does the assumption come from that we function as opposites? History, of course; a time when our external bodies were all we knew of gender, and the differences there are clear as day (again, for most of us). But now we know that it’s just one little biological shift that brings about all those differences. We also know that nature veers from its common path very often.

With so much information blatantly telling us that things are not always straightforward, why does society as a whole continue to insist on gender binaries and the ‘fad’ of modern genderqueer individuals? Humans don’t like what we don’t understand. We don’t feel comfortable accepting things completely out of our experience. But we need to stop holding on tight to the idea that our life experiences are the only valid ones. Because clearly, that just doesn’t work with such a crazy, mottled, diverse species. There’s bound to be a lot of stigmatism against something so widely misunderstood and frankly, incomprehensible to many. But we can each teach ourselves, many thanks to Google, and speak about gender fluidity with actual informed opinions.

You can check out a video of my interviews here!


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