Should we ‘still’ only have two genders? The current state of the gender binary in America.

Gender Binary:

Gender Dysphoria:


Stop Asking Me When I’m Going to Really Transition


In thinking about this week’s readings, I’m using the provocative question that Anne Fausto-Sterling asks at the beginning of chapter four of her book, Sexing the Body, to think about contemporary understandings of gender, sex and sexuality in the mainstream American media. Extrapolating an idea from Fausto-Sterling’s book, that scientific understandings, research and medical practices for biological sex are shaped by social understandings of sex and gender, how might current representations and changing ideas about the binary gender system in the U.S. led to shifts in the way that we research sex and gender today?


For discussion, I am providing examples from the work of one genderqueer, gender non-binary, gender nonconforming activist, to think about how the growing acceptance, and simultaneous attempts at regulation of diverse sexualities and gender expressions, are embodied and challenged in daily life. How do people who are non-binary reside within a binary system?

The first video is simply an explanation of the gender binary, doing so by comparing binary computer systems with the notion of binary people. The idea that people are not computers, they do not fit into a Manichaean model where they have to be one thing or another is an interesting question to consider as anthropologists. How do we capture the messiness of gender and gender identities in our work, especially when doing gendered studies on groups of people who identify primarily as men or women? Do we need to create separate categories for additional genders, or should we move to recognize fluidity of gender within the accepted binaries?

Also, it tangentially brings up another point that I find interesting in Fausto-Sterling’s book, which is the role of technology, specifically increasingly accurate medical technologies for identifying the binary sex of a fetus, or for “correcting” the sex of a child to become one of the two “normal,” accepted genders. How can we think about the continuously evolving role of technology in shaping our contemporary views on sex and gender? How much does technology shape our contemporary understanding of gender identity?

The second video about gender dysphoria is a provocative comment on how understandings of gender vary, even among cisgender people. It specifically addresses how not inhabiting the “ideal” body type in our culture or having gendered behaviors that do not fit the masculine or feminine understandings of gender can cause body dysphoria in a wide variety of people. How can we use this idea of gender dysphoria as a more general phenomenon in American society, to consider elective procedures like plastic surgery, as a phenomenon of gender dysphoria? How does this reflect the ways that people think about their bodies, (such as in Scheper-Hughes’ discussion of body image 16-18), as both and a representation of their individual self, and as a social or symbolic representation of their gender identity?

Finally, I have included the last article about the process of transitioning, and the perception by others of a person who is gender non-binary and therefore has not “fully” transitioned into a binary recognizable gender or male or female. This discomfort/prejudice with people who are not quite male or not quite female is pervasive, and Fausto-Sterling addresses this as both a historical and contemporary concern, highlighting the dangers of inhabiting the space between male and female genders (110-1). The idea that people who are transgender are just transsexual people who have not yet transitioned yet to be fully male or female reflects the current state of the gender binary in America, and comes with social, physical, and legal risks of being “discovered” as not fitting within the gender binary.

As an example, consider this video The Daily Show made on Trans Panic and the legal and social persecution of trans people in the U.S.: . The targeting of trans people by the legal system essence criminalizes “being transgender.” Just inhabiting a transgender body, can be construed as criminal. How do we understand the physical and social violence inscribed on the bodies of people who cannot be easily categorized into our gender binary system?

Finally I will include some questions for further thought:

How does the gender binary function as a means of social inequality in the U.S.?

Is it possible to change social perceptions of transgender people without changing from a binary gender classification system?

How might the legal targeting of trans people, especially considering the incarceration rate, be detrimental to social perceptions and ultimately bias research on trans issues?

Can biological studies of transsexual or transgender bodies be useful for trans activism in the U.S.?

10 thoughts on “Should we ‘still’ only have two genders? The current state of the gender binary in America.”

  1. Thanks for all of the additional sources, Whitney!

    You might also want to read the Karkazis article in the E-reserves under this week’s class, if you haven’t already. It talks about gender assignment for infants born with ambiguous genitalia, and I found it to be interesting following the Fausto-Sterling chapters. It really poses the question, “should we ‘still’ have two genders” in a interesting light.

    There’s no real standard or consensus on what should lead to male gender assignment or female gender assignment among intersex babies, so decisions become biased and seemingly arbitrary, at times.

    I can’t understand why gender (re)assignment surgery is needed, at all, for otherwise healthy intersex babies. Similarly, I don’t understand the need for gender non-conforming to “pick one.”

    That said, I suppose it is possible to change social perceptions without changing the structure of the classification system. The legal definition could be made to officially reflect chromosomal “sex” (which I understand isn’t exclusively XX or XY, but it would be less of a change to the system), and thusly to not reflect gender at all. Then intersex babies could go without unnecessary surgery until they wanted to go through it (if ever), and transgender or gender queer individuals could express themselves without feeling required to ‘transition’ or go through legal battles to validate their identities.

    However, I don’t know how society’s dependence on gender conformity and gender roles would be changed to accept this gender-less legal classification. I think that could only happen over a long period of time, and maybe even then I’m being too idealistic?

  2. Whitney, thank you for the great videos and articles! I think you’ve posed several pressing, interesting points about gender conformity, gender fluidity, and the dangers, both legal and personal, of a binary gender system in the United States.

    I really loved the readings this week about embodiment, and I felt attached to the ideas about the many representations that a body might have. Specifically in regard to your questions, I think that in terms of future ethnographic research, the changing ideas (because they ARE changing, even if it is happening very slowly) about the binary gender system will concurrently necessitate a shift (or a renewed focus of) anthropological research about sex and gender.

    More specifically, I think the idea about three separate bodies, presented by Scheper-Hughes and Lock, will be especially relevant in trans-focused research. It will be important to consider the individual body-self of trans individuals, and crucial to document the lived, phenomenological experience of transgender subjects. Much like research about the individual body-self for binary male and females, research focusing on the lived experience of a gender non-conforming or transgender individual will likely provide invaluable insight about the body as a representation of a personal, lived identity.

    Further, as evidenced by the current legal climate for the trans population, the transgender body also could be studied as a social body, reflecting the ever-evolving relationships between society and culture.

    Perhaps most importantly, future research may ultimately consider the body politic of transgendered experience. The questions and media in Whitney’s post definitely pointed to the inherent social inequality created by a binary gender system, and it seems that transgendered individuals experience a new level of discrimination, on the basis that they identify in this “gray zone” as “other.” Historically, “others” have been manipulated and controlled through several different vehicles, and in today’s gender and sexuality focused climate, it seems to be the gender-fluid individuals that experience the bulk of society’s pressures.

    I realize that this post doesn’t at all answer any of your questions, but it is written in support of your query that perhaps in the near future, the changing landscape of gender identity will create more opportunities for powerful, illuminating ethnographic research. I look forward to hearing everyone else’s thoughts.

  3. Thanks for your post Whitney. It instantly reminds me of a true story I read a long time ago. Unfortunately I don’t remember the details, but it goes somehow like this: when one baby was born, some medical accident happen which led to irreversible damage done to the sexual organ. The doctors and parents decide to go through a sex-change surgery to “fix” it. So the infant was raised as a girl for years until they told her that she was born a male. After a while the teenager committed suicide, leaving a note basically saying “they” didn’t feel belonged to the body and gender role assigned to “them.” If gender is but a social construct, how can we understand this uneasiness “they” had all “their” life?

    I totally miss a lot of details in the story above. But I’d like to bring up the point that, just as pointed out in Gravlee’s (2009) piece, biology and culture entangle in a fashion much more complicated than we thought in the days when social construction approach dominated the field. The separation of gender and sex is perhaps just problematic as the separation of illness and disease. After all, gender is probably not just a performance as Butler (1990) argues in Gender Trouble.

  4. Hey Whitney, thank you for sharing your thoughts and for sharing the videos. While I agree with the “one gender queer, gender non-binary, gender non-conforming activist” that, indeed, humans are not copies of a computer coding system and that we do not function entirely in accordance with a binary model, I also think, more often than not, that we probably identify ourselves either as male or female in everyday life to simply keep a peace of mind. Psychological research has suggested that under urgent or dangerous situations, or in circumstances where we are constrained by limited mental resources, humans almost instinctively think in binary ways. I wonder, though, if it’s really possible for us to escape the dualist thinking of gender altogether in pursuit of a true pluralistic worldview that the U.S. liberals have been trying too hard to promote since the 1950s. Is the notion of gender/sex all culturally constructed? If so, how do we reconcile this almost extremist constructionist argument with the plain fact that women have the biological ability to get pregnant while men do not, or the fact that a majority of human societies had already conceptualized gender in binary terms long before the development of modern technology?
    I’m also interested in your question –“How do we capture the messiness of gender and gender identities in our work, especially when doing gendered studies on groups of people who identify primarily as men or women?”, and I’m eager to read other responses on this question. Maybe, if people do not perceive their own gender identities as messy, we should not pursue it as a research question. Or, maybe we should instead look at why these people perceive gender as a stable: What do they do in order to sustain their masculinities or femininities?

  5. Thank you for the provocative blog post this week Whitney! You ask how we can capture the “messiness” of gender and gender identities in our work. This got me thinking about how some people have divided sexual identity into four components: sex assigned at birth, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. I have seen these components illustrated in what is known as the “Genderbread man.” See here: Although this conceptualization is certainly a step forward in society’s continuous attempt to categorize and classify bodies, it does still have its problems. Namely, although the Genderbread man offers a continuum in lieu of a strict binary, this continuum is still inherently based upon the binary, with masculine at one end and feminine at the other.

    Your post also reminded me of a paper by Robert Christian entitled “You know a girl when you see one.” His work examines the experiences of surgeons who perform gender reassignment surgery. As you note, scientific understandings, research and medical practices for biological sex are shaped by social understandings of sex and gender. I think it’s compelling to think about the ways in which the surgical process itself is influenced by cultural constructions of gender. As the surgeon is cutting, they have specific culturally-informed ideas about what a male body/female body should and should not look like and the surgical procedure itself is dictated by these ideals.

  6. Thanks Whitney! Your port got me thinking about a few of the following things. Sex as a biological reality retains social value based on the appearance of external and visible genitalia present at birth. Nevertheless, chromosomal evidence which provides the most ‘scientifically’ accurate determination of a person’s sex classification can support or refute those claims. Research, new technologies, time, and activist mobilization have made us more aware that individuals may be female, male, intersexed, or hermaphroditic. Medical facilities that document these births have the ultimate authority to assign this label, however, to my knowledge there are no boxes to capture the options that exist outside the binary. Instead the medical field has pathologized nonconforming bodies as disorders of sex development and engaged in practices of surgically altering genitalia for cosmetic purposes – to realign bodies with culturally specific categories of “healthy” males or female. This has resulted in the perpetuation of traumatic experiences for individuals that find themselves outside the sex binary.

    Gender is a prescribed identity based on performance of femininity or masculinity. It is significant to examine gender as not just a private experience, because it is a profoundly political and public issue that has consequences on the lives of people which may be positive or negative. My examples are a limited and focus on my understanding of the experiences of transgendered women in the States and other places in the world.
    ♣ In 2011, Cece McDonald, a transgendered woman experienced transphobic abuse and harassment that resulted in a violent confrontation and led to her serving a 41-month sentence in a male prison despite identifying as a woman.
    ♣ In Thailand, kathoey (transwoman) thrive in the tourism and entertainment industries, particularly sex work. Although Thai society appears to celebrate this identity expression, the kathoey are not exempt from discrimination – their lifestyle is believed to be an extension of karmic transgressions in a previous life, and are pitied for this.
    ♣ In India, the hijra, are financially insecure, finding employment only in performing ceremonies or begging. The hijra are a recognized third gender and this is reflected as a category on passports.
    ♣ Indigenous communities have two-spirit individuals that are individuals that are neither man or woman but adapt both masculine and feminine powers.
    One point I’m trying to make is that this heteronormative two-gender system is not universal and a danger to people that operate outside these markers. Greater appreciation for the fluidity of gender expression/ identity and inclusiveness in the spaces that will afford these individuals acknowledgement, acceptance, and incorporation into humanity.

  7. The media was so fun and enlightening!!

    First, I want to point out how I really enjoyed the video on gender dysphoria. Before I watched the video, I had a very specific clinical notion of the term. Judith Butler in Undoing Gender discusses the paradoxes of DSM IV diagnoses of gender dysphoria. She unearths the paradox that looms behind such diagnosis for trans people: as a requirement for insurance reimbursements for surgical operations one must be diagnosed with gender dysphoria. However, this diagnosis also produces adverse effects on mental health. It creates stigma and suffering, as people are forced to come to terms with their being pathological. However, in the video, other elements of gender dysphoria are related to the audience. She (the narrator in the video) states that gender dysphoria is not produced by the person and their body, but rather by society and its expectations of what that person and body should be and how that person and body should act. She dislocates gender dysphoria from the internal psychoanalytic depths of the self to the society that forces people to feel dysphoric. I also like how she relates this to body image problems in general, not singularizing trans people as suffering from some sort of plight that rest of society is immune to.

    Second, I want to comment on your intimation of the problematic nature of gender binaries. While I am not versed too well in categorization and the politics around it, I know queer theorists are coming up with new ways to engage in categorization that breaks these traditional binaries that we live by. Emily Avera knows a lot about this.

    Third, the last video you posted about violence against trans peoples in america is really illuminating. What I love most about it is that videos like this showcase just how american society and politics do not actually carry the “progressive” pro lgbt banner they hold so high that justifies various forms of governmental and nongovernmental rhetorical and material interventions, ranging from pink washing to decrying Iranian and Egyptian intolerance toward their queer citizens.

  8. Thanks for such an interesting post to think about in terms of our readings this week, Whitney!

    The additional material you provided immediately made me think of my time in Sweden, and while I was there the government officially introduced a genderless noun to use when gender is not relevant. The creation of the new noun was not only supported by LGBT advocates, but by kindergartens (where Swedish children attend school from about 18 months to 6 years of age), where many teachers were uncomfortable assigning gender to children when it was seen as an unnecessary part of development. With that change, children in Sweden spend their time at school being classified as human, not as male or female. While gender binaries still exist in Sweden, the progressive society is much more accepting of gender fluidity, especially during developmental years.

    Interestingly enough, Swedes are much less obsessed as Americans with forms of social identity. Bathrooms are usually gender neutral, many clothing stores are gender neutral, and I experienced a much less pronounced difference between the ‘roles’ of men and women while I was there- parental leave for children if often divided between both parents, and while research has shown that women still take on more than their share of childcare, it is significantly more equal than it is in the US.

    These ideas immediately raise the question of what is it about the Swedish society that makes the idea of gender fluidity so much more easily accepted? The Csordas reading focuses on the process of embodiment of others as a reflection process- does that suggest that the focus on male an female roles in many societies, as well as the deeply ingrained personal identification of most individuals as male or female, make it that much more difficult for societies like ours to look at others and understand who they are in relation to our own sense of self?

  9. Thank you, Whitney for the post!

    Reading through the post and looking through the media in the post, I was most struck by the Daily Show Segment on the kinds of discrimination trans gendered people in the US face at both individual and institutional levels. It was interesting to me how both in the story presented about the hotel clerk calling the police and the “bathroom bill” in North Carolina, transgender people are quite literally being policed. That is their gender preference is being policed to ensure that it matches their “biology.”

    In both cases , being trans is perceived as a form of deception in which a trans person is attempting to have sex with an unwitting cis person who will not discover the biological sex of the trans person until it is too late. With the bathroom law, it is assumed that transwomen will sexually assault women or girls. And finally the transperson, by using a public bathroom based on their gender preference is forcing the public to contend with their identity.

  10. Thanks for the post, Whitney, and to all of you for engaging in this fascinating discussion.
    Since we didn’t get to dig too deeply into the issue of gender when discussing embodiment in class, I wanted to bring the conversation back to our theoretical analysis a little bit. First, I know many of you are already familiar with Judith Butler, but if you have never read it and are interested in this topic, please do make sure to look up her analysis of gender-as-performance (see especially ‘Gender Trouble’). While Butler focuses on the performativity aspect, I’ve always found gender identity to be especially fascinating if we look through the lens of embodiment, both in the phenomenological and the habitus sense. Recall our questions of whether making use of our bodies provides us with special access to the experiences of others. Trans activists often tend to assume surprisingly stable and rather traditional notions of what it means to be a woman or a man, and those who choose to physically transition feel that it is necessary to very literally embody that experience through changing their physical bodily characteristics. But this would seem to be at odds with what we have been saying in class about the unstable and constantly changing nature of subjectivity and the crucial role that intersubjectivity plays in creating that notion of self. What does it mean from this perspective to say that you have ‘always felt like a woman?’ And does changing one’s body access that experience more effectively than other forms of gender expression (such as simply choosing to wear a dress?). Many trans people clearly think that the answer is yes – which would seem to support the hypothesis we discussed in class that there is something about inhabiting the bodily experiences of an Other that provides special access that other ways of understanding do not. In this case, though, who is the Other? Who is this ‘Woman’ that a male-to-female trans person is trying to access? And how is She culturally elaborated, both consciously (women wear dresses) and pre-objectively (I ‘feel’ like a woman)?
    This is not a class on queer and gender theory, but I do think that these cases are really interesting ones with which to think through the many modes of embodiment.

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