Nathan Gale is a local activist with the Scottish Transgender Alliance, who delivered a fascinating presentation on the gender binary for Skeptics on the Fringe 2014 on Tuesday, August 5. During the talk, Nathan presented us with some common misconceptions surrounding sex and gender and invited us to challenge the commonly accepted dichotomy of male and female by discussing other forms of gender of expression.
Nathan began the talk with a list of what many of us would regard as common sense regarding gender — with such simplistic statements as “women have vaginas, men have penises” — followed by quickly tearing these ideas down and presenting us the actual facts. Of importance was the distinction between “sex” and “gender”, where “sex” is concerned with a quick and superficial determination made by medical staff when a child is born via, as Nathan put it, a quick “genital swatch”, whereas “gender” refers to how an individual personally identifies, and that can and does sometimes conflict with a person’s “sex”. Indeed, Nathan pointed out that even a “quick swatch” can’t always determine whether a child has “male” or “female” genitalia, nor do we all necessarily have XX or XY chromosomes, showing that even biology itself rejects the social construct of the gender binary.
Of course, it’s common knowledge that some people are transgender, but this is usually taken to mean that somebody identifies with the opposite gender to the one they were assigned at birth, and intend on transitioning through medical or even surgical means in order to conform to societal norms regarding their gender. Nathan’s presentation demonstrated that gender expression is, in fact, more complicated than that. Some people identify as the opposite gender, but have no interest in transitioning. Some people are interested in transitioning, but not necessarily in surgery (putting the lie to the common sense wisdom that dictates that women have vaginas and men have penises). And a growing number of transgender individuals today do not identify as either gender and have no interest in conforming to either male or female gender norms.
This is problematic for a society that is as invested in the gender binary as ours. In Britain and in many other countries, only two genders are legally recognised. While this is not an insurmountable problem for those of us in the trans community who do identify as one gender or the other, since there are legal provisions for us to have our identities recognised and respected under the law, people who are agender, non-gender, gender-fluid, or as Nathan put it, unicorn, have no legal way of having their genders recognised or respected, and they are forced to pick one whenever they fill out official forms, even though neither “male” nor “female” describes the way they personally understand their gender. Moreover, Nathan argued that the gender binary doesn’t just hurt those who are gender non-conforming or even the wider trans community — rather, it hurts almost everybody, with the exception of a very small number of privileged men who are deeply invested in the idea of gender essentialism. The binary, Nathan argued, necessarily creates an “us vs. them” mentality, with one side — male — held to be superior; and it is the perceived inferiority of women and femininity under the gender binary that ultimately spawns misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in our culture. Nathan argued that we will have a greater degree of equality if we get rid of this binary — in law and culture — and accept that gender is a spectrum that people can fall anywhere along. Laws would necessarily have to change to treat everyone equally regardless of gender expression. Sexist dress codes in schools and offices would disappear. And people would not be forced to live their lives from the cradle to the grave acting in a way that is expected of their gender, because of the extremely narrow bracket that a binary system necessarily places us in. Instead, we could all explore our masculine and feminine sides without fear of stigma and social pressure to conform to someone else’s — a very small number of people’s — ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman or anything in between.
Nathan was very well received by the night’s audience and, despite delayed access to the room, had time for some good questions and answers afterwards. At least two audience members admitted to having had their eyes opened to just how complicated gender really is and, in particular, whom the binary system really benefits — which is almost nobody. A successful talk all round discussing a topic that I can only hope more and more people will become open to in the near future.