Binary gendering can be quite harmful, not just to people who don’t fit into the gender binary, but also to our society in general.
That’s why instead of a binary “male or female” system of gender, the gender spectrum works much better — even if it’s still not quite perfect.
Too many people live between or outside of either “male” or “female” genders for the binary to really work. If we stuck with the binary, we’d be ignoring an entire group of people just because they don’t fit into society’s expectations. A spectrum is more inclusive, more realistic, and much more reflective of what gender really is — that is, simply not black and white. Instead, gender is a variety of different “colours,” and people could identify with any of them.
The problem is that binary gendering is everywhere.
Our society ingrains the concept of the binary gender system in almost everything, which is part of why accepting and understanding the spectrum can be such a challenge. It is learned so early on in our lives — as early as 18 months to 3 years — that trying to change how we see it later on, as fully grown adults, is understandably difficult.
Schools teach it every day, with a separate bathroom pass for girls and for boys, dividing groups based on two genders, and even having “boys vs girls” sports events.
The fact that bathrooms are either “women” or “men” is another issue – but slowly gender neutral bathroom are finding their place in universities and schools.
Even our language reflects the binary — “she” and “he” are our main pronouns.
So yes, it’s definitely a challenge to try and change how we see the world, and incorporate that worldview into our daily lives. The concept of non-binary genders isn’t new, but it’s new to mainstream society.
But we cannot choose to ignore the issue. There are far too many people that are directly affected by these outdated ideas to just go on in our lives, accepting the way things are because they don’t affect our individual lives.
As a cisgender woman myself, I don’t experience the discrimination that comes with being non-binary, facing the choice between a male and female washroom when I fit neither, or both.
But for goodness’ sake, I will support those who are! And I hope you will, too.
What can you do about binary gendering?
If you’re with me on this, you’re feeling like you really, really want to do something about the problematic binary gendered world we live in.
What can we do to help others see that it’s just completely not as simple as one or the other?
Well, you can start small, and then work from there.
In any discussion about privilege or discrimination, the most important thing any of us can do is listen.
Gender might not be something that people talk about that often, when it’s something like the binary or the concept of gender fluidity. But when it does come up, it’s important to keep an open mind. If you’re cisgender (meaning you identify with the gender ascribed to your biological sex) you simply don’t know what it’s like to be genderqueer.
That means you must listen. And by listening, I don’t mean that you hear what people say. I mean that you attentively listen to everything being said and think about it before you say anything.
Non-binary people simply don’t have too many spaces where they can be completely open and themselves, at least from what I understand. But they have every right to be heard, just like the rest of us.
So be inclusive. Give them that space.
I bet you’d be making a bigger difference to them than you can imagine.
2. Change your vocabulary.
Instead of saying “ladies and gentlemen,” “men and women,” or “males and females,” say all genders instead. You’re including those who identify with any gender (or none at all) and you are showing that you are aware that the binary is not a working system. This way, you make those who don’t fit the binary feel included and hopefully more comfortable, and those who might not know of the gender spectrum can learn from you. (Hopefully they ask you what you mean by all genders, and you can talk to them about it!)
You can also use words like “partner” and “significant other” instead of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” for the same purpose. You could choose to refer to your partner as your boyfriend or girlfriend, and no harm is done, but if you use a different word you are recognizing that different genders and sexual identities exist.
If you ever are unsure of someone’s gender, just ask what pronoun they prefer or use their name instead. They’ll appreciate you asking, because you’re showing that you respect different gender identities — and it’s better than making a mistake!
3. Be open to change.
Even writing this, I learned so much because of the research I did. I’m not genderqueer, so there is a lot on this topic that I don’t understand, and might never understand. I can’t speak for genderqueer people. I can just learn as much as I can and try to share what I understand.
That means that I might share ideas I think are good and right at the moment, only to discover that I’m wrong, or completely misunderstood the ideas.
For example, maybe the “spectrum” isn’t the best way of explaining gender, and I’ll find out from talking to genderqueer people why that is. Right now, that’s what I understand to be the most inclusive concept, so that’s what I’ll try to share. (In fact, this article which I linked to earlier in this post does point out why “spectrum” isn’t always the right word, though it’s better than the binary.)
But from learning more and talking to more people who identify as genderqueer, I’ll be able to better contribute to creating more accepting spaces for them. I can help them in their fight, but I have to also accept that I’m an ally — I’m there for them, so it’s not my place to tell them what’s what and what’s wrong.
So learn as much as you can, and know that if you are not genderqueer, you may find that what you believe might need to change — and that is completely okay.
4. Share what you know.
I know it seems very simple and almost like you aren’t doing anything just by talking, but you really are.
For example, if you say “all genders” and someone looks confused, you can let them know why you avoided binary language , or just ask what they are confused about. If you don’t let them know, maybe they’ll look it up, maybe they won’t… but talking about it makes sure you’re spreading the idea. It’s no harm done to talk about it, and honestly the best thing you can do is in fact to discuss it!
Keep in mind that you should always be respectful and don’t attack people for not knowing. If they’ve never heard of the gender spectrum, you can explain to them why it’s important, but don’t patronize. The binary is ingrained in our minds, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of if people don’t understand that it doesn’t actually make sense.
Even if they don’t want to accept it right away, you’ll have shared the concept — and that’s more important than you think!
What else could you do? Am I missing something? Let me know in a comment below!
This post is linked-up at: