I’m in love with someone who doesn’t fit the so-called gender binary. I’m in love with someone who has breasts and a penis, wears their hair long and occasionally sports a goatee, who prefers to be in skirts but pairs them with stompy boots. Are they simply a woman? No. Are they simply a man? No. Am I attracted to them? Absolutely.
Gender is not a binary – even though media and social perceptions reinforce it every day.
It’s very easy to not question gender. Everywhere you look you see the same two choices: male and female. Birthday cards are for boys and girls, surveys ask if you’re M or F, public bathrooms very nearly always only give you only two choices, and it’s assumed that you’re attracted either to men or to women (or that if you’re attracted to both, that you’re bisexual. Pansexual as a concept? Fuhgeddaboudit).
Why do we insist on the either-or? There’s a whole galaxy of genders, with feminine and masculine being just two choices out of many.
Let’s backtrack a bit. You’re born with certain characteristics that are regarded as sexual. These are certain physical and physiological patterns which are influenced by genetics (including chromosomes) and hormones in a variety of ways. However, Western society chooses to define ‘sex’ based simply on one’s genitalia or one’s X/Y chromosome combination. Even so, this still doesn’t create a binary, because there are male, female, and intersex (intersex makes up approximately 1% of all births).
Now gender is not the same as sex. The experiences of many SGD people is that for them gender, their personal sense of gender, and the perceptions that other people have of their gender illustrate that the whole thing is much more complicated that it’s often been assumed to be.
My gender identity is pretty simple. I was born with female sex characteristics, and I regard my gender as cis-female. While I don’t wear make-up, rarely wear heels, and never hide the hair in my armpits, I comfortably consider myself a woman. While I spend a lot of time fighting the media perception of what it is to be feminine, female fits my sense of self.
My beloved’s gender identity is more complex. Ey ascribes to the gender non-binary, being strongly drawn to both male and female characteristics in emself. But how ey and eir partners views em does not mean that the general public gets it. Often they feel the need to take obvious characteristics (like that goatee) and use it to determine the gender of the person they’re looking at. You have a beard? You must be male.
Way to be challenging, society. Who says you get to determine someone else’s gender – or their gender identity – for them? What gives you the right?
One way of combating this insistence on the binary is to use gender-neutral pronouns (ey, em, eir are the preference for my beloved) rather than him/her, he/she. And its not the easiest thing, getting the hang of them. While I regularly get it wrong and have to correct myself, I am trying. And after 30+ years of only having ‘he’ and ‘she’ to deal with, adding a ‘ey’ into the mix can take some work. It’s totally worth it, though.
In a galaxy of genders there are many, many options. I know my choice. I know eirs. Do you know yours?
Originally written for express magazine online in May 2011, after considerable discussion with and assistance from m’Lady Tethys. The article above is a slightly revised version for 2014.