All posts by Whitney M Arey

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.?