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What is Gender Beyond the Binary?

Limitless Gender

What do the terms manhood and womanhood mean when the gender binary doesn’t exist?


Let’s back up a bit. What is the gender binary? It’s the idea that there are only two distinct and opposite genders, men and women. Connected to the gender binary is the patriarchy, the idea that men are superior to women. You can’t have one gender being superior to the other gender without first agreeing that there are a limited number of genders from which to create this hierarchy. But what if gender is limitless? What if we were to look at humanity and see that there are infinite ways of being a person, expressing oneself, interacting with the world around us, and relating to our emotions? We wouldn’t be able to create a hierarchy with some genders being superior to others. 


Author Bio:

Edmund Green Langdell (they/them) is an ever becoming enby, whose work focuses on promoting human and environmental wellbeing through design and education. They work for Play Out Apparel as a Marketing Assistant. They strive to spread love and healing in the world through connection and education. They also design eco-friendly needle felted packers. They earned a BFA in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design, where they worked as a Peer Health Advocate for four years, and created and led Gender Venting, a group for transgender students.



Author Bio:

Edmund Green Langdell (they/them) is an ever becoming enby, whose work focuses on promoting human and environmental wellbeing through design and education. They work for Play Out Apparel as a Marketing Assistant. They strive to spread love and healing in the world through connection and education. They also design eco-friendly needle felted packers. They earned a BFA in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design, where they worked as a Peer Health Advocate for four years, and created and led Gender Venting, a group for transgender students.




Limitless Gender

What do the terms manhood and womanhood mean when the gender binary doesn’t exist?


Let’s back up a bit. What is the gender binary? It’s the idea that there are only two distinct and opposite genders, men and women. Connected to the gender binary is the patriarchy, the idea that men are superior to women. You can’t have one gender being superior to the other gender without first agreeing that there are a limited number of genders from which to create this hierarchy. But what if gender is limitless? What if we were to look at humanity and see that there are infinite ways of being a person, expressing oneself, interacting with the world around us, and relating to our emotions? We wouldn’t be able to create a hierarchy with some genders being superior to others. 


A Learned Binary

The way gender is traditionally understood in Western thought is this: people assume that there are only two distinct and opposite sexes, and that these sexes correlate to two distinct and opposite genders. They then add onto this assumption that every emotion, way of expressing oneself, task, personality trait, etc. belongs to one of the genders, but not the other. For example, anger is a male emotion, and compassion is a female emotion. Men have short hair, and women have long hair. 


But we all know people who don’t fit these rules. In fact, it’s rare for someone to fit all the rules perfectly, especially because different people have different ideas about what is masculine and feminine. And we also know that these ideas change over time, and vary between cultures. Many cultures acknowledge the existence of genders besides men and women, and have specific names and cultural roles for these other genders. And when we observe how gender roles are enforced, often violently, there is the question of how much of the reality of these gender roles is natural, and how much has been conditioned into people through what they learned was acceptable behavior?


And when we look to science we see that biological sex isn’t binary, that intersex people are as common as redheads, or people with green eyes. Most species have intersex variations, and half of all flowers are intersex. And there is more biological diversity within the category of “female” than exists between the categories of “male” and “female.” These categories were created by humans to make sense of the world, and the cutoff point for being labeled male or female is fairly arbitrary, and anyone who falls between these categories is labeled as “abnormal” or “disordered” as opposed to part of the natural variation of the human species. The way we label, understand, and make sense of sex and gender are ways of knowing that were created by people, exist within the minds of people, and are passed along through our collective consciousness as we learn from one another. This does not make them true. 


Men & Women without a Binary

The ideas that sex and gender are binary don’t account for the lived experiences of all people. And to uphold these ideas, countless stories and justifications have to be fabricated to explain away the natural diversity of the species. But this doesn’t mean that men and women don’t exist. It just means that sex and gender are not limited to two categories. There are people who fall within the physical, interpersonal, cultural, emotional, and expressive parameters of men and women, and feel comfortable with that label and all of the roles and assumptions that go along with it. And there are people who don’t. 


But what does this mean for the way we talk about gender? Language is a reflection of the way we think, and if we’re expanding our minds to see past the gender binary, how can our language reflect that shift? In recent years there has been an explosion of new words to talk about gender, including new gender labels, and neopronouns. As people learn to accept themselves in their full humanity, including the aspects of themselves that fall outside of the gender binary, they seek language to describe their experiences, and as the experience of being a human being is so varied, the language that makes people feel seen is also vast. 


The Quarantine Queers

An interesting shift that’s been happening during the Covid-19 pandemic is the increase in she/they and he/they pronouns. As people are socially isolating, and don’t have to perform gender in the same way that they used to before the pandemic, many folks are discovering more space and fluidity in their expression, and letting go of ideas of what it means to be masculine or feminine. Going by both she and they, or he and they pronouns is a reflection of this expansion and loosening of gender. And many folks who go by she/they or he/they pronouns still identify as cisgender. 


What does it mean to be a man or a woman while acknowledging that the gender binary doesn’t exist? That’s for each of us to discover on our own. When we see that the rules for how men and women should be don’t reflect all of what it means to be human, and that these rules change over time and are in the midst of change, there is space to explore. We can try on new ways of relating to one another, and expressing ourselves that we had always considered off limits because we now know that there’s nothing wrong with being that way. As part of this exploration, we can try on new labels or pronouns, or stick with the ones we’ve always had, knowing that whatever brings us joy and makes us feel seen, is natural. You don’t have to be trans in order to explore what gender means to you personally and how you relate to it, and to interrogate the role that gender plays in your life. 

Decoupling Masculinity from Misogyny

A place a lot of folks get stuck is exploring how to express masculinity in a way that isn’t dependent on misogyny. A good place to start is thinking about examples of men you know who you consider masculine, and who also have qualities such as empathy and supporting the rights of women and queer folks. If you don’t know any men like this personally, you could look to celebrities (such as Terry Crews), authors (such as Thomas Page McBee), or fictional characters (such as Newt Scamander). A common thread among men who express positive masculinity is self acceptance and true confidence. Knowing that who you are is okay allows you to let go of worrying that you will be perceived as feminine, which allows you to let go of misogyny. 


One of the hardest parts of this exploration is fear. It can feel dangerous to experiment with different ways of expressing ourselves, or accepting parts of ourselves we were taught to hate. We don’t want to be rejected, mocked, or experience violence, and all of these are a possibility when we begin to experiment with our expression.

Gender is an invitation... 

This experimentation doesn’t have to happen overnight, and it doesn’t have to be something you show to other people. It could be as simple as wearing a color of sweatpants when you’re alone that you love, but that others may think is an inappropriate color for you. The key here is to allow yourself to stop bullying yourself internally as a means of controlling your behavior. 


Allowing ourselves to be kind to ourselves, and letting go of the ways we so rigidly control our expression, can show us that we don’t need to follow all of the made up rules about masculinity or femininity in order to feel masculine or feminine. We don’t need to perform gender in order to be a man or a woman, or to be fully human, and worthy of respect, kindness, and love. 


There have been times in my life when I’ve experimented with femininity or masculinity, attempting to only express one, and limiting my expression of the other. All of this was a necessary learning process in discovering what makes me comfortable and brings me joy. And now, the terms masculine and feminine don’t have much meaning for me. I express myself in ways that make me happy, without having to label them as masculine or feminine. I had a wonderful conversation recently, where someone was telling me about how they were explaining my nonbinary presentation to someone else, and pointing out my beard and floral clothing. But to me, neither my beard nor my floral clothing have gender associated with them. They are just an expression of my spirit, my full humanity. 


So, what’s your experience with gender? What brings you joy? What makes you feel seen and respected? There are no wrong answers.


Sources:

To learn more:


About sex, sexuality, and gender diversity in nature:

Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature, by Joan Roughgarden


About the history of the creation of the sex and gender binaries:

Follow Alok @alokvmenon on Instagram and read their book reports


About exploring masculinity:

Amatuer: A Reckoning with Gender, Identity, and Masculinity, by Thomas Page McBee


About learning self acceptance:

How To Be You: Stop Trying to be Someone Else and Start Living Your Life, by Jeffrey Marsh


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