The Public Humanist

Disciplining Androgyny: A Brief History of Binary Gender

Intersex bodies photographed

We are witnessing the mainstream arrival of transgender, genderqueer, and other gender diverse people. Along with this surge in awareness have come questions from so many who want help understanding new terms, new ways of thinking about gender, and much more. But, to understand society’s newfound recognition, we must ask, what is gender (identity)?

Most of us are usually taught that we have a continuous and clear sense of our internal gendered self as either male or female that coheres in early childhood. While many people may experience this, many others do not. Gender is a category of personhood that common knowledge tells us is innate and connected to biology (anatomy, hormones, chromosomes, etc.). Some, however, distinguish between gender and sex, claiming that sex has to do strictly with biology and gender with socialization or individual identity.

The way we use the term gender (identity) is relatively new and dates back to the mid-1900s. Confronted with the failure of the medical establishment to develop meaningful guidelines for deciding how to surgically or hormonally alter the bodies of intersex infants (those born with configurations of primary and secondary sex characteristics that cannot be categorized as either male or female), a couple of medical professionals decided to rely on people’s preferred gender role, which later came to be referred to more broadly as gender identity. The way we use the term gender (identity) stems from how medical professionals treated persons with non-binary bodies, and this concept was then extended and theorized based on those whose pleasures, characteristics, affects, and thoughts could similarly not be used as grounds for placement within the clear bounds of binary gender.

It was believed that it was easier to change androgynous people to fit dominant standards of humanity than it would be to change dominant standards of humanity to include androgyny.

After the idea of a stable gender identity became more widely accepted among physicians, alongside the technological advancements in aesthetic surgery and endocrinology, more people began to strategically make use of this narrative in order to pursue medical gender self-determination. People choose to medically transition for a number of reasons: to externally affirm an internal feeling of gender, to achieve increased safety in public because of a history of violence against androgynous people, to seriously experiment with new ways of being, to personally and politically resist gender norms, and much more.

Gender and sex are two separate things, correct? Many are now parroting the trope “Gender is social, sex is biological,” taking complex, abstracted concepts that are inextricably linked in historical thought and parsing them out based on current – and much debated – cultural distinctions between mind/body, nurture/nature, and more. As I briefly outlined above, our use of the word gender is relatively new and was distinguished from the term sex not long ago. All this happened in the theoretical and medical milieu of European and United States male professionals who worked to coerce intersex bodies into passing as binary sexed bodies for the purposes of inserting them into a strictly heterosexual role. It was believed that it was easier to change androgynous people to fit dominant standards of humanity than it would be to change dominant standards of humanity to include androgyny.

New  York City recently protected 31 gender identities from discrimination. The names of these identities are listed here.

New York City recently protected 31 gender identities from discrimination. The names of these identities are listed here. Click to enlarge.

These ideas of the two sexes as distinct opposites are also historically and culturally particular. Across time, many different cultures have had their own ideas of how the sexes related; some saw men, women, third, and fourth genders existing across a “one-sex continuum” or in specific roles while others have seen the sexes as blended and each containing features of masculinity and femininity while still others have seen the sexes as mutually necessary and complementary. At this point in time, many see men and women as complete opposites and that these differences are based in biology, despite other scientific narratives that portray human men and women as the most genetically proximate creatures to one another on the entire planet. There is also new research that shows that the notion of “male brains” and “female brains” creates a false divide, and that no single brain is fully male or female, but that everyone’s mind has a diversity of functions and features, making each person cognitively androgynous to one degree or another.

Confronting ambiguity, hybridity, and androgyny with hospitality is not our strong suit; culturally, many in the Euro-American West are made incredibility uncomfortable when operating outside of binary and hierarchical frameworks. I can see that when people are confronted with androgyny or gender ambiguity, all the unconscious messages of gender flood into our conscious thought as we struggle to acknowledge just how immensely our perceptions of gender shape our thoughts and interactions with another person. Additionally, because gender is lived in social and relational settings, how we interact with others based on assumptions of gender also shapes how we see ourselves. Policing gender ambiguity in others is also about policing gender ambiguity in ourselves.

With this understanding, I must state that I firmly believe that people ought to have the right to gender self-determination. I also believe just as firmly that we should question the very terms of that self-determination, not to limit people’s options, but rather, to expand them. This self-determination may appear as a desire to access medical transition, to socially transition genders, to change one’s clothing and affect, to engage in study and reflection, to resist relational expectations in day-to-day interactions, or it may not even be recognizable to others at all.

It is my sincere hope that the questions and thoughts offered here can come closer to the fore of our increased awareness of gender diversity and self-determination. I say this as someone whose life has been immensely shaped by gendered expectations and my resistance to them; it can be challenging to discuss because these issues are charged and because many people have had to struggle through much adversity just to be able to stake a claim to a sense-of-self that will be recognized and respected. It is with this in mind that I ask that we all make space to delve a bit deeper into these questions, so that practices of being and becoming do not have to be so constricted or policed by those who benefit the most from norms and expectations of binary gender and sex.


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