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End Binary Sex Categories

rae's picture

What would life be like if we had more options? Some diversity in terms of gender and sexuality is understood. Gender is, in many ways, just a social construct, so expanding the concept of gender outside of the gender binary seems relatively possible. If humans created it, they should be capable of changing it, right? And a multiplicity of genders logically leads to a multiplicity of sexualities: It seems silly to say that sexuality is limited to women or men who are interested in either women, men, or both women and men, when we recognize that gender is not limited merely to women and men.

What about our bodies? Beyond biological sex and the complications that intersex people cause for the concept of binary sex-categories, what sort of options should we have when it comes to our physical bodies?

There are ways in which people can physically transition from male to female or female to male. “MtFs may undergo orchiectomy, vaginoplasty, tracheal shave, facial feminization (including brow lift, chin reconstruction, rhinoplasty, scalp advancement, face-lift, etc.), electrolysis and laser resurfacing, voice surgery (crico thyroid approximation, or CTA), breast enhancement, and hair implants. FtMs may have chest reconstruction or double mastectomy, phalloplasty or metoidioplasty (types of bottom surgery), hysterectomy, salpingectomy/oophorectomy (removal of fallopian tubes and ovaries, usually if there are concerns about cancer), and possibly hair transplants" (Girshick 82-83). Often, these methods require some form of medical approval--treatment for a diagnosed gender identity disorder and meeting extensive standards of care, or as treatment for cancer.

There are fewer ways for people to change their bodies, in ways that reflect a change in how society perceives one’s sex or gender, without resorting to some form of medical diagnosis. Why should this be so? There are many ways that people can change their bodies, physically, that don’t relate directly to sex. People can get tattoos, piercings, all sorts of cosmetic surgery (as long as it doesn’t blur any sort of gender lines). They can lose weight, gain weight, dye their hair, cut their hair, put on muscle, tan their skin--this doesn’t bother society. It’s not idea of changing our physical appearance that is the issue; there’s some deeper problem society has with the idea of people changing their bodies in such a way as to lessen the sharp contrast between male and female bodies. Why? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to change our bodies as we choose?

In an essay called “Disorderly Fashion,” a “boy-dyke” called Wally Baird writes about being a lesbian who takes testosterone, although she does not want to be a man. She has found “one of the few physicians who sees no problem with administering hormones to anyone who wants them, so long as each patient is monitored” (Nestle et al 262). There is a difference between sex and gender, as Baird shows. To me, this is an example of how things could be if people were given more agency about their bodies.  

I realize that there are limitations to what we can physically do with our bodies. I realize that surgeries are generally permanent, often prohibitively expensive, and don’t always lead to the desired results. But just imagine, what would it be like if we weren’t constrained by the physical limitations of our bodies? I propose a thought experiment regarding our physical bodies. Imagine we could magically change our bodies just because we wanted to. Imagine we could switch sexes on command, or we could change parts of our bodies just by wishing it so. Imagine our physical bodies told no messages. What would it be like if our bodies were blank slates? What would it be like if our bodies didn’t mark us as male or female or something else until we decided what we wanted to be? What if we could change--some days be female, some days be male, some days be a little of both, or maybe neither at all? With those thoughts in mind, how can we apply those ideas to this world? There should be some way in which that mindset, at least, can forward a vision of a freer society in which less importance will be placed on a strict sexual binary and hopefully, fewer people will feel restrained by their own bodies.

What if sex and gender were not automatically assumed to go together? A person with distinct curves around chest and hips would not be assumed to be a woman; a person with a flat chest or a prominent Adam’s apple would not be immediately marked a man. What if our society allowed for more fluidity in terms of biological sex categories? There are many components of the categorization of sex, including “chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, external morphologic sex, internal morphologic sex, hormonal patterns, phenotype, assigned sex, and self-identified sex” (Greenberg 51-52). “For most individuals, these factors are all congruent” (Greenberg 52). However, for other people, some of those factors are at odds with others, whether it is because they are intersex, or because they are transsexual or transgender, or for some other reason.
Furthermore, when it comes to “self-identified sex” (Greenberg 51-52), what does that really mean? Currently, there are only considered to be two options: male and female--what would it be called for people who wanted only part of their bodies to be male and part to be female? Why is a person’s body so rigidly policed? I want it to change. Why must our bodies be all or nothing--either you’re female, or you’re male? There is little understanding of the idea of wanting a little of each--or maybe it’s wanting neither at all. I wish we could explore, experiment, see what’s right for us individually. I realize that we can’t experiment with our bodies (deeper voice, higher voice, more curves, fewer curves) in the same way that we can with, say, clothing. But there seems to be such a nearly insurmountable obstacle to even attempting to question the rigidity of this binary--female and male--and whether this is really the way it needs to be. There is room--a little room, maybe, if you’re in the right place--for people who want to make a clean switch from one societally recognized sex to the other; there should be room to blur the lines, to step outside of that binary.  

Works Cited
Baird, Wally. “Disorderly Fashion.” GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Ed. Nestle, Joan, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002. 260-262.
This essay provides a concrete example of a person who uses hormones to change her body to fit how she wants it to look. It is separate from her gender identity, and it is separate from any form of medical diagnosis that would require hormone therapy as treatment.  

Girshick, Lori B. Transgender Voices: Beyond Women and Men. University Press of New England: Hanover, 2008.
This book provides examples of the ways in which surgeries can cause a body basically change sexes. It shows that there is not one single surgery that will turn a male into a female, or vice versa; there are numerous ways in which to change one’s body.  

Greenberg, Julie A. “The Roads Less Traveled: The Problem with Binary Sex Categories.” Transgender Rights. Ed. Currah, Paisley, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 51-71.
This article shows the many ways that sex categories can be constructed. Although it sometimes appears that there is a single thing that determines whether a person is male or female, Greenberg lists a variety of ways that sex could be determined.



Terrible2s's picture

End Binary Sex Categories


Your title sounds like something I'd paint on a sign and protest with. I like it! Basically, you've articulated many of my ideas and thoughts that I've had throughout the semester. Mostly you've taken what I've thought about and  given me the answers. However, I don't understand what your exact idea is? What will you be talking about in your paper? ARe you writing a paper? How do you plan to solve these problems.

Overall I think what you've done so far is very well articulated. Good job!