Breaking the Gender Binary

Aug 14, 2019 at 10:33 am
remake the world

Well, I went and did it. I finally added pronouns (he/him) to my social media profiles and email signatures. It took me a long time because, at age 41, I am a stegosaurus when it comes to issues of gender. At some point, probably a couple of years ago, the realization that I should be more sensitive to the changing world around me bit me on the tail, and it has taken this long for the sensation of pain to reach my walnut-sized brain. Forgive me the delay.

Nearsighted reptile that I am, it’s particularly difficult for me to see very far into the future. I am accustomed to the prehistory that’s right in front of my face. So, when I am told that “the future is female,” which I hear pretty frequently, I have no real basis to disagree. But I wonder if it’s really so.

The past is most certainly male: It’s dumb, it lies about everything, and it keeps trying to fuck us. But the future? The future is hard to see. The future has lots of letters. The future has lots of rules. The future seems to have no rules at all. The future is confusing.

Maybe, though, the future is neither male nor female. Maybe the future is one without gender at all, at least not as we are accustomed to it. Heck, maybe this is something for which humankind has been striving for millennia. Nearly half a century ago, famed mythologist and author Joseph Campbell explained: “[M]ythology suggests that behind that duality there is a singularity over which this plays like a shadow game. ... That’s why it’s absurd to speak of God as of either this sex or that sex. The divine power is antecedent to sexual separation.” Throughout history, an impressive sampling of world religions have conceptualized god as neither male nor female, as beyond any such categorization, as if that sort of thing were an unnecessary distraction.

Though non-duality is an ancient idea, there were not good ways of talking about gender that is neither exclusively male nor female for most of human history. But language has all of a sudden made a mad dash from the rear to catch up with us, and now there are a million ways of talking about it. Nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, intersex and enby, and all the others that I’ve missed on account of my own imminent extinction.

The institutions that govern our daily lives are slowly evolving, too. This year, Indiana became one of just five states in the country to allow a third gender designation (“X”) on a driver’s license. This, in essence, says “I don’t identify as male or female” but little else. Of course, the legislature pounced, but most of them have been fossils in the ground for eons, and they couldn’t quite figure out how to respond. Indeed, “What are your pronouns?” is a question Midwesterners my age have never had to ask. Many of us could not foresee a future in which we would be expected, as a matter of courtesy, to put those pronouns in our email signatures.

All this can be hard to keep up with, right? Especially if you’re a selfish piece of shit who doesn’t care about other people in the world, or are just too lazy to use Google. But even I, a terrible lizard, found most of the answers I was looking for with one or two clicks, tops. To you other dinosaurs out there: We can do this.

I also found answers by talking to other folks who don’t identify as male or female. Specifically, I asked what it means to be “nonbinary,” what’s the best way to talk about it, and how do they envision the future of gender in the Midwest? One Southern Indiana interviewee (who prefers not to be identified, so I’ll call them “X”) acknowledged, “There is a lot of debate within and outside of the Queer community of what nonbinary means.” Fallon Crowley of Louisville said, “I personally identify as nonbinary and genderfluid, meaning that my sense of my gender shifts over time — sometimes day to day. Some days I feel fully male or fully female. Most days, I feel like a mix of both. Some days, I don’t feel much like either.”

Dale, also from the Louisville area, identifies as agender. “I thought when I was 13 or 14 that I might have been trans, but eventually I realized that I just don’t feel like gender has any place in my life. When I learned what agender was it was a sigh of relief. To me being under the trans and nonbinary umbrella means being authentically and unapologetically who I am no matter how I was raised.” X agrees: “I am not a purist when it comes to identities, and I believe it’s best that every queer person is free to use whatever language they would like to best express themselves.”

This seemingly simple desire for gender freedom was expressed by everyone I talked to. “I read somewhere that traditions are just peer pressure from the dead and, honestly, that’s all that is holding many in the Midwest back from exploring and enjoying their gender,” said X. They “experience gender outside of the binary narrative of male to female, man or woman, either or and so on. For me, the gender equation is not 1 + 1 = 2 but more of an interactive artistic experience that I get to live out every day.” Dale is more direct: “I want everyone to present however they want without it being a big deal. Period.”

So what can well-meaning saurians do to show support? “The No. 1 rule is to always ask for people’s pronouns, and if you can’t, always opt for they/them,” said Dale. Crowley echoes the idea that we can all “change [our] speaking habits to be more inclusive. Instead of addressing a room as ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ try ‘Esteemed Guests.’ In informal situations, you can use ‘folks,’ ‘y’all’ or “everyone” instead of ‘guys’ or ‘ladies.’”

All this will take work, and many of us will undoubtedly make dolts of ourselves doing it. As X put it, “I mess up my own name and pronouns all the time. No one is perfect. Everyone must confront the unprogressive programming we all have downloaded over life. ... We all must listen to each other’s different stories to better understand how to make the world a better place.” In that sense, the risk of embarrassment is worth it. In fact, in 30 years or so, after everyone has figured out pronouns and clothes and bathrooms and driver’s licenses and all the rest, I would like it if this column seemed dated and quaint. After all, some of us dinosaurs want to help you synapsids take over.

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: