Feminist Thought and Transcending the Gender Binary

A Discussion

by Rowan Thompson

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I analyze the role and influence of people identifying outside of the traditional gender binary within modern feminist discourse. Using concepts discussed in feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal book The Second Sex, I argue that the traditional gender binary is a tool with which cisgender men uphold their own supremacy and that wider acceptance of non-binary people into feminist circles will serve to challenge this power dynamic. To illustrate the value of non-binary peoples’ lived experiences to feminist philosophy, I will discuss hormonal, surgical, and social transitioning; differences in experiences depending on gender assigned at birth; and my own experience living as non-binary. It is my hope that my research and discussion will improve the reader’s understanding of non-binary identities and help to challenge the primacy of cisgender males, thereby breaking down gender essentialism and fostering a culture of acceptance for all genders.

KEYWORDS: non-binary, assigned male at birth, assigned female at birth, transition, gender binary

Since the inception of modern feminism, its leaders have made a name for themselves by breaking rules. As it rose out of aggressively patriarchal and colonialist Europe and the Americas, women fought for suffrage and rebelled against laws confining them to home and hearth. Later, with the advent of the birth-control pill, feminists rallied for women’s reproductive rights, flying in the face of ancient attitudes about women’s roles as child-bearers. Later still, feminism challenged hierarchies centering white men and sought to address the lived experiences of women of color, disabled women, and queer women. Even today, popular culture is facing a reckoning wherein men are being held accountable for sexual assault, and the common expectation that women should tolerate sexual abuse is being dismantled. However, a certain rule lies more or less unbroken by popular feminism, and even the most radical thinkers have only managed to chip away at it. The binary of man and woman originated in pre-Biblical times and mostly centered around observable biological sex, but we as a society have constructed a highly limiting set of roles hinging on this binary that does not allow room for the infinite range of human self-expression. While the concept of people identifying and living entirely outside of the gender binary is an ancient one, dualist and hierarchical thought, especially in the West, has all but erased it. Transgender people have made great strides in recent years, but those in the public eye are typically gender-conforming and fit neatly into this binary. More recently, however, societies worldwide have seen a boom in people identifying as non-binary, a broad identity encompassing genders that are neither wholly male nor female, including but not limited to genderqueer, gender fluid, and agender (Richards 2016). Much has been said about these people and their place within feminist activism.  I argue that the gender binary is a tool used by cisgender men to establish their own primacy at the expense of other genders and that, by embracing non-binary identities in all their forms, feminists can challenge and dismantle a power structure that stifles every person’s right to self-determination.

As it is understood today, to be non-binary simply means to identify as neither male nor female. This identity falls under the transgender label, though not all non-binary individuals refer to themselves as trans. It is a common mistake to equate this identity to gender non-conformity, as cisgender people can be gender-nonconforming. Furthermore, like trans people who fall within the binary, non-binary people frequently undergo hormone replacement therapy and surgery with the intent of removing their original secondary-sex characteristics rather than obtaining those of the “opposite” sex. However, unlike those who consider themselves strictly man or woman, whether cis or trans, non-binary people frequently employ intentional androgyny and the blending of gender signifiers such as fashion and makeup. To complicate matters further, not all non-binary individuals are digestibly genderless in their presentation; some align very closely in their dress and mannerisms with their assigned gender at birth. The mere existence of this identity dismantles much of what we have been taught from a very young age—that genitals determine gender and that the clothes we choose reflect it. However, cursory research shows that this binary is not the natural law that the popular paradigm says it is. Rather than assuming gender roles by sex assigned at birth, many cultures around the world have specific terms for people that fill gender-variant roles. Examples include “two-spirit,” meaning that one embodies the masculine and the feminine, which can be found in multiple Native American societies; or hijras, which in Hindu culture is a blanket term for trans and gender non-conforming individuals. Thus, the gender binary is both Western and colonialist in its application, and it effectively erases everything outside the archetypal cisgender male and what we perceive as its inverse.

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A dualist model of the mind versus the body was originally conceived by the philosopher Rene Descartes, but the feminist scholar Simone de Beauvoir further modified and expounded upon dualist concepts in her seminal work The Second Sex. De Beauvoir famously stated that, in their power as knowledge-makers, men established themselves as the Self, the Absolute, and made women the Other. However, she specifically contrasted her model with that of poles, stating “man represents both positive and the neutral,” while women are relegated to the negative, defined only in terms of their non-maleness (163). When we expand our definition of gender to include a sliding scale between male and female as well as genders that fall off that scale entirely, the cisgender man does not lose his status as the Self, but the Other only grows larger until it swallows easily over half of humanity. It then becomes difficult to deny that Selfhood does not represent the total of the human experience but is rather manufactured by unearned power and deliberate erasure of the Other. This power dynamic born out of a social construct, much like racism and colonialism, is exactly the type that feminism should concern itself with dismantling, so that we may gain a clearer image of humankind’s true nature.

As feminism seeks to liberate women from sexist oppression, few would dispute that those designated “female” by society belong within the movement and indeed have a vested interest in its success. However, while much of misogyny intertwines with sexism—that is, discrimination based on natal sex—not every person with a uterus, ovaries, and the typically corresponding anatomy identifies as female or wants to assume a “feminine” role. These two statements are not at odds with each other, as it may seem, and feminism should aim to eliminate oppression rooted in both sex assigned at birth and the roles we assume as a result of it. However, non-binary people assigned female at birth (or “AFAB,” as it is known in the trans community) often find themselves in a cruel double bind; they can either present as typical women to their comfort level and face misogyny or they can transition away from female to affirm their genders and face transphobia. While misogyny is a far broader issue than can be adequately discussed here, we can at least mitigate transphobic attitudes with discussion of what it means to transition from female to something else.

A common misconception around non-binary AFAB people is that they are simply gender non-conforming women, butch lesbians, or “tomboys.” While all these identities are perfectly valid, they do not capture the AFAB’s lack of connection to womanhood in general. Some do refer to themselves as lesbians if they are attracted to women, and they may consider “lesbian” to be both their sexuality and their gender. However, they do not think of themselves as women in the way cisgender women do, and they may transition, even to the same degree that a trans man might, without identifying as male. Common but non-permanent methods of transitioning include breast-binding, short haircuts, and face-contouring to create a more masculine appearance. (I personally employ face-contouring and binding on a daily basis.) Less commonly, double mastectomies (“top surgeries”) are performed on such individuals, and testosterone can be taken in widely varying doses to achieve as androgynous or as masculine a body and voice as one desires. All in all, this identity is a complex one with an even more complex relationship with feminism.

One might think that AFAB individuals would be wholeheartedly welcome in feminist circles regardless of identity, but some unfortunate blind spots have led to rifts between the two groups. Namely, mainstream feminism has a tendency toward cissexism, using imagery of vaginas and uteri alongside slogans about “girl power” and “sisterhood.” AFAB non-binary people also frequently find themselves tacked onto “women-only” gatherings, as if they still fundamentally count as women. As stated by Deidre Olsen for Argot Magazine, “genital-based catchphrases like “The Future Is Female,” “Viva la Vulva” and “Pussy Grabs Back” in activism only forward the interests of cisgender women” (2017). This aggressively gendered atmosphere leaves AFABs feeling alienated and shoved into an ill-fitting box for the convenience of others. Feminists have a great deal to learn from such people. Those perceived as women by wider society face immense pressure to fall in line, be “ladylike,” submit to men, and not make waves. Those who not only reject womanhood but identify and present as something neither male nor female are helping to deconstruct what it means to be either. The self-knowledge needed to forgo roles entirely and write one’s own script, especially in the face of constant societal shame, is a skill that feminism as a whole can use. To exist outside the binary in a society that expects one’s compliance and submission is a radical show of self-determination, a refusal to uphold the societal Self by playing the traditional role of the Other. By uplifting their AFAB friends, feminists can show people of all genders that their bodies and minds are theirs alone and can be molded in whatever way affirms them.

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Contrariwise, people assigned male at birth (AMAB) can be non-binary in as wide a variety of ways as those assigned female. However, in feminist circles, they occupy a much more fragile space. While the people assigned female are generally embraced by feminism, regardless of their identity, even open-minded activists may regard AMABs with some suspicion and unease. However, further education on the lives of such people is the key to easing the tensions and dispelling the confusion that contribute to this divide. Non-binary AMABs and AFABs typically feel similarly about their gender presentation; they most often want to hide or to remove secondary-sex characteristics without necessarily taking on others. However, we already conceive of androgyny as being slightly masculine, harkening back to de Beauvoir and the status of male as neutral. Someone already assigned male but who feels disconnected from manhood must reckon with this dissonance, and, in expressing their gender through traditionally feminine dress or mannerisms, they will likely be read as a transgender woman. It is perhaps for this reason that a small majority of those who identify as non-binary are AFAB, while AMAB individuals find it much harder to settle on a comfortable middle ground in their presentation. That said, many such people embrace a more masculine presentation, are highly feminine, or balance the two to their comfort level; they are no less non-binary for it. To accentuate their style, some wear makeup or jewelry as well as more overtly feminine dress such as skirts and high heels. Options for medical transition are as varied as they are for AFAB people (perhaps more so, as vaginoplasty is more possible with current medicine than phalloplasty), including any combination of estrogen treatment, breast implants, facial surgeries, and laser hair removal.

A non-binary AMAB is distinct from a trans woman and should not be referred to as such, regardless of one’s degree of transition, but both groups would, in an ideal world, be welcomed by feminist circles. The reality, unfortunately, is that feminists tend to cast a critical eye on people who lived most of their life as male entering their spaces, as trans activist Emi Koyama details in her essay “A Transfeminist Manifesto,” citing the widespread rejection of trans women by radical feminist circles (2001). To a small degree this is understandable, as AMABs do not experience oppression based on their assigned sex at birth. However, some of the basic goals of feminism, such as undoing of toxic masculinity and reducing the stigma around “feminine” clothing and mannerisms, are hard at work in the non-binary community. Wider society has a difficult time digesting the fact that anyone born male would “step down” from that place of privilege, so making oneself undefinable by gender and the power vested in maleness is a radical act. Feminism promotes the same self-confidence and willingness to push boundaries that enable non-binary AMABs to live their truth. Bringing more of them into the fold and welcoming them would signify feminism’s ability to adapt and to address its own preconceptions and to become a place from which people can draw the strength to live authentically.

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While the endgame for many non-binary people is medical transition to ease bodily dysphoria, surgery is prohibitively expensive. Thus, most rely on clothing and general personal style to express their detachment from the binary and to present in the way they feel comfortable. For example, as an obviously female non-binary person, I avoid short skirts and tight dresses and specifically choose loose-fitting, more masculine clothes. However, because the non-binary community is, almost as a rule, layered with contradictions, not everybody dresses in an entirely non-conforming manner, and it is popular to combine highly masculine and highly feminine components in a single outfit. For another personal example, I frequently accentuate very masculine outfits with nail polish and makeup, solely because I find it aesthetically pleasing. Other people may bind their breasts and wear a dress at the same time or wear both a skirt and a full beard. To further complicate the matter, some non-binary people are indistinguishable from cisgender men and women and conform more or less completely to their assigned genders. I have known such people personally, and all were equally non-binary. However, under patriarchy, such people would never have a choice in the matter, and all deviation from gendered fashion would be ruthlessly punished, as it is to varying degrees today. If feminism aims to combat gendered expectations of self-expression, feminists must un-gender clothing for themselves and learn not to assume gender based on appearance. This will take away the power of categorization and the ability of men to identify Selves and Others on sight, fostering an environment of deeper engagement with one another free of assumptions.

I do not argue lightly for dispensing with the gender binary. Not only is this particular binary ingrained in nearly every facet of our society, but human beings are heavily geared towards simplicity. As de Beauvoir put it, “Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought” (163). Dismantling this system would be radical, and, as it stands, it seems impossible. Indeed, it is rooted in a biological reality we cannot deny—that there are people with one reproductive system and people with another, people we named males and females. It is to this concept that the hardline traditionalists point when the topic of trans identity is at hand, asserting that gender is as immutable as sex. Radical feminists, ironically, take a similarly essentialist stance when discussing trans identities. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper at the University of Warwick argues that gender is entirely socially constructed to oppress women, and that “To call yourself non-binary or genderfluid while demanding that others call themselves cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of humans must stay in their boxes, because you identify as boxless” (2016.)

These arguments, however, unravel upon closer examination. For example, recent discoveries have found that chromosomes are not nearly as unambiguous as we once thought, with countless variations possible among people with the same external anatomy. In addition, as with all things in biology, external sex is not an absolute, considering intersex conditions such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia or androgen insensitivity syndrome (Jones 2018). Furthermore, the radical feminist concept of gender as a weapon used against women is harshly limiting. Gender, while complex and intimidating to explore, can be a powerful source of self-love and happiness. It stems not from genitals or a patriarchal society, but from every message about gender we retain as we grow, how we come to think about our bodies, and how we want to present ourselves to the world.

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With the advent of social media and with information constantly available at our fingertips, it should come as no surprise that people are finding gender identity to be far more complicated than in decades past. The author and philosopher Donna Haraway imagined that all types of binaries would be broken down as technology advanced and that now “the dichotomies between mind and body, nature and culture, men and women…are all in question ideologically” (347). It should come as no surprise that, as people reach out to one another and discover countless new ways of being, they also reflect upon what they learn and explore their identities without fear.

Feminism was originally, and in some cases still is, considered to stand for the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. While the sexes become more and more equal on paper, the public does not always follow; therefore, it has become important to remake feminism routinely in order to fix whatever problems present themselves. Now, as the binary between men and women blurs, it is necessary to rethink how feminism conceives gender, how gender is used to grant power, and how we as feminists can ally ourselves with those who have been Othered by a society in which the cisgender man is the Self. Even while vocal minorities protest and hold fast to their feminist theory rooted in dualism and bio-essentialism, feminism as a whole must embrace non-binary existence. Doing so will pave the way for freedom of all people to live as their fullest, most authentic selves.

Works Cited

De Beauvoir, Simone. “The Second Sex.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. Eds. Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartowski. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2013.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. Eds. Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartowski. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2013.

Jones, Tiffany. “Intersex Studies: A Systematic Review of International Health Literature.” SAGE OPEN, vol. 8, no. 2. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/2158244017745577.

Koyama, Emi. “The Transfeminist Manifesto.” Catching A Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century. Eds. Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.

Olsen, Deidre. “The Future Is Not Female – It Is Two-Spirit, Trans and Non-Binary.” Argot Magazine, Argot Magazine, 5 June 2017, www.argotmagazine.com/first-person-and-perspectives/the-future-is-not-female-it-is-two-spirit-trans-and-non-binary.

Reilly-Cooper, Rebecca. “The Idea That Gender Is a Spectrum Is a New Gender Prison.” Aeon. Ed. Nigel Warburton. Aeon, 28 June 2016, aeon.co/essays/the-idea-that-gender-is-a-spectrum-is-a-new-gender-prison.

Richards, Christina, et al. “Non-Binary or Genderqueer Genders.” International Review of Psychiatry, vol. 28, no. 1, Feb. 2016, pp. 95–102. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3109/09540261.2015.1106446.

Citation Style: MLA