I’m conducting a survey of bi-gender people to help learn about and spread the word about what it means to be bi-gender. If you haven’t read about it elsewhere on this site, “bi-gender” (also written “bigender”) means having two genders, often but not always male or female, and experiencing them at the same time or at different times.
In other words, some bi-gender people experience their gender as a combination of two, others experience them separately, and still others sometimes do one and sometimes the other. That’s the topic of one of the questions in the survey.
For anyone who has read my book, you’ll know that I’m in that small green section, people who pretty much go back and forth between two genders without really ever finding themselves in the middle. As it turns out, that’s unusual among my survey sample: most people sometimes or always experience both genders at the same time.
The one response under “other” was from someone who wasn’t sure if the question meant to ask about gender identity or gender expression. My intention was closer to gender identity, though I meant gender identity in terms of how it feels at different times rather than in terms of how we define ourselves overall. Of course, I can’t say whether other respondents got this intention from the way I phrased the question.
There are other terms that can encompass the idea of being two genders at once: “genderqueer,” sometimes “genderfluid,” and just plain “nonbinary,” for example, could all potenitally cover it. Yet I don’t think it makes sense to try to insist that the term “bi-gender” not include people who might also be described in other ways, even if it were possible to make that change. First, “bi-gender” emphasizes the duality of our genders, which for some of us is a central point. Second, while for some of us, our gender experience may be consistent over many years, for others the experience of being bi-gender can change over time: gender proportions can shift, and the way we experience our genders can change as well. Not expecting the term “bi-gender” to give a specific account of exactly how we feel and present our genders leaves latitude for a range of gender experiences. There’s no point getting out of the gender binary box only to be trapped in another box of expectations.
My sample size is still small, although it’s growing. As of this writing, there are 18 respondents, which seems small unless you consider how difficult to find we bi-gender people currently are! I’ll post more results from the survey in posts going forward.
Having been assigned male at birth, and having taken several decades to come around to getting my gender identity correct, there was never a point at which I read Teen Vogue–well, until today, when I was pointed to this useful article, “4 Things You Should Stop Saying to Nonbinary People.”
This is actually worth reading whether you’re learning about nonbinary people or are nonbinary (or “enby,” a word I learned very recently and love) yourself, even if only for the affirmation. This clear and useful little article gets to the heart of these problematic statements:
In June of 2016, an Oregon judge ruled that Jamie Shupe, a 52-year-old Army veteran, could legally change their gender to “nonbinary” in the eyes of that state. This seems to have been the first time in the U.S. that a person gained legal status as neither male nor female, which is a little astonishing, considering we’ve always been here–though I admit, for a long time nobody considered our gender identities might be legitimate (least of all, oftentimes, nonbinary people ourselves).
Since then, the motor vehicle departments of Oregon, the District of Columbia, and California have all added a nonbinary option, X, on driver’s licenses, and Ontario, Washington state, and Vermont are now considering doing the same.
One thing that surprises me in all this is that for the most part, this welcome change isn’t based on new laws. California passed a bill to recognize a third gender option, but everywhere else I mentioned, it’s the department of motor vehicles getting things done. Apparently, there being no law that driver’s licenses have to say “male” or “female,” adding a third option isn’t a legal issue: it’s just administrative.
Even as a person who’s only partly out, I would love to see this option available in my state. The idea of having a license that doesn’t require me to say I’m something I’m not (or at least something I’m not a large proportion of the time) is hugely appealing, and I imagine preparing for my new photo by making my face look as androgynous as possible, hopefully leaving anyone who ends up needing to check my ID with no need to be confused or figure anything out.
But then, the bigger issue for me is the name. Even if I can get ID that is more or less accurate in terms of gender and that never presents a jarring contrast between my presentation in life and my presentation in my photo, I still need to be able to refer to myself somehow. Yet it’s already possible to get a legal name change, so all the tools are there.
What about you? Does anyone else out there have or want a non-binary designation on your license or passport?
I went to a Christmas celebration the other day where a woman was in attendance who was serving as a gender police volunteer. I should mention that I showed up in male mode and that I was out to less than half the people there, so I was basically presenting as a cis male. That said, I do have long hair and two pierced ears and an awfully pretty jawline–but I also have a bit of a fierce personality, and apparently this volunteer police officer was just going for the easy targets. Ironically, she spent her time teasing cis males when there was a bi-gender person just a few feet away.
She was at it literally when I walked in the door. My nephew, a recent college graduate who to the best of my knowledge is cisgender and straight, with short hair, a beard, and a suitably masculine job but also a soft voice and a quiet demeanor, was looking at somebody’s Christmas town setup: you know, the miniature buildings and little Victorian-looking people and skating rinks and things that people with more patience and table space than I have put up. He may have been actually doing moving something in it around, but as far as I noticed, he was just looking. The gender police volunteer, meanwhile, was teasing him: “Are you playing with dolls now?” she said. “Do you like to play with dolls?” This went on for several minutes.
Later she took it up with a relative about my age, who was there with his wife and daughter. Another relative had given him a scarf for Christmas, and it was the kind that starts as an enormous square, not the universally-male-approved kind that’s more of a long strip of fabric. This was in a male-approved dark blue color with a plaid pattern, yet the volunteer, as my relative was still opening the package and was just realizing it was a scarf, asked him if he liked his new dress.
Several times on any normal day I find myself thinking “Ugh, maybe I shouldn’t be bi-gender–it’s so difficult.” And yes, it’s time-consuming and inconvenient, but first, obviously, it isn’t something I get to choose, and second, what’s really difficult about it isn’t how I present myself (although that’s also difficult), but instead having to gear up mentally for what I imagine other people are thinking.
I know that’s buying trouble. Why worry about what other people might be thinking when you can just deal with how they actually act? But the mental chatter that those of us who cross gender lines have to deal with is an epic recording of thousands of voices of gender police volunteers like the one at that party from throughout our lives, not to mention television, movies, books, games, coworkers, clothing stores, laws, songs, commercials … I’d love to switch it off, permanently and completely, but it’s burned into my brain from non-stop reinforcement. Even if I were able to start from a clean slate, I’d get fresh daily doses of it from every direction.
Here’s the kicker about the volunteer at Christmas: she’s not only a lesbian, but she was wearing a vest and tie that were clearly designed for men. She gender policed while partly cross-dressed.
But then, I feel certain she has been repeatedly harassed by the gender police herself, just for the other version of the crime: being “too masculine,” being romantically drawn to women, not staying in her assigned place and being a sex object for cis het men, and so on. This is a person who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, the most conformist period in American history, as far as I can tell.
Unfortunately, I think she may deal with her own internalized voices in a less than ideal way, being kicked by someone and turning around to kick someone else in return to shore up her sense of worth. (Helpful hint: passing on the pain doesn’t really work.)
I feel sure she doesn’t realize she’s doing it. I suspect that in her mind she’s being fun and entertaining and simultaneously engaging in a joke with people she has shown every evidence of genuinely liking. I can judge her for not being more self-reflective or more aware of the harm she’s doing, but there’s probably not a lot of point in that. I mean, I’m not writing this post because I think a lot of gender police will read it and change their ways. I’m writing it for all of us who have been persecuted by the gender police–cis and trans and bi-gender, straight and queer and undeclared. I can’t tell you it doesn’t matter, and I can’t shut those recordings up or make the volunteers stand down, but I can at least tell you that you’re not alone, that you’re beautiful for who you actually are and not for who someone thinks you should be, and that the gender police are profoundly and permanently wrong. When you hear them, don’t forget that what you’re hearing are fear and ignorance: they’re not truth, they’re not helpful, and their handcuffs only work on you if you let them.
I’ll be moving into a new home soon, the first I’ve ever had that will be solely mine. Since the last time I moved, years ago, I’ve come to understand my gender much better, and to be less worried about passing as fully male all the time. True, I’m not about to go out in boy form wearing pink sweaters, but I thinking, tentatively, that I want to try to actually decorate my new home, and when I do that I want it to reflect both my genders, to feel like a real home to both my male and female selves rather than just like more camouflage.
I’m late finding it, but an article in the March 27th issue of Time Magazine, “Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’: The Changing Meaning of Gender and Sexuality” (also available online at http://time.com/magazine/us/4703292/march-27th-2017-vol-189-no-11-u-s/ ) offers research and individual accounts on the changing understanding of gender and sexuality. They don’t mention bi-gender people (but then, hardly anyone does), though they do make note of one person who identifies as gender fluid and describes a bi-gender-like experience of life. They also pretty much ignore non-binary people older than their mid-twenties. Still, it’s a well-written and informative article that answers some questions about how widespread non-binary genders and sexual preferences are, how younger people tend to regard them, and how they’re changing in our culture: well worth a read.
Transitioning to a different gender or genders is hard. If you’ve done it, you probably feel the same way I do when you hear someone claiming that being transgender is a choice.
Who would ever choose to go through all this?
That’s why it feels kind of threatening to hear about people detransitioning–that is, becoming transgender and then becoming not transgender. Doesn’t that imply that they chose to be transgender, and then chose again? Or that being transgender is fake?
Spoiler alert for the rest of this post: no, it doesn’t mean either of those things. But it does point out a big problem for any of us who identify as transgender, or at least something important we need to figure out: how do we tell the difference between a different gender identity and something else?
There’s a terrific article on detransitioning on The Stranger: “The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’t“, and in it we can see at least three possible situations in which people detransition or go through “desistance” (when a person–usually a young person–hasn’t transitioned yet and decides to go back to their birth sex instance).
Situation one is where a person receives so much negativity about their gender that they start feeling repulsed by it. That’s what happened to “Jackie,” who was born female and was always fairly butch, but was scorned for being that way and battered with mysogny. By contrast with that experience, being male felt like a relief … but Jackie eventually realized that even though being male felt better in some ways, it was really that she needed to accept herself as a woman. That was her particular circumstance.
“Ryan” had a similar experience from the other direction, being bullied and belittled as a young boy and finding refuge in the idea of being female. He transitioned to female, but this never addressed the internal problems, and eventually he detransitioned as well as he could back to male.
Both Jackie and Ryan seem to have mistaken bad feelings that had come to live inside them with dysphoria about their gender. This brings us to that big problem or thing we need to figure out if we’re transgender: are the feelings we’re following based on an experience of internally being another gender or genders, or are they about something else? In some cases, especially if those feelings are strongly negative and harsh toward ourselves, maybe they don’t have to do with gender identity at all. In other cases, based on the experience of the huge majority of people who transition and feel much more themselves, they really do.
On to situation two: instead of being fooled about your own gender identity based on bad feelings, you could be fooled by good feelings or by identifying with peers. There’s a very high percentage figure that has been offered that supposedly reflects how many kids who identify as another gender when young later come to identify with their birth sex. That figure may or may not be accurate, but what seems clear is that a lot of trans kids become cis* adults. In some cases, based on how transgenderism in kids can seem to spread, becoming trans might often come from feeling a closeness to or admiration for someone in your peer group. I mean, if some kid you know comes out as trans and becomes really famous in school, seems to be much happier, and is accepted by almost everyone (or even if they just stand out as unique and you feel like there’s nothing unique about you), the idea of doing that same thing and standing out yourself can be really appealing. If you become really drawn to it and end up fooling yourself, who can tell you that you aren’t actually transgender? Nobody, that’s who, though there are good therapists who can help you figure yourself out.
That’s the big problem with gender identity. We can’t know exactly how any other person feels, and the way different people feel can be hugely different, so how can we know what it feels like to be male, or to be female, or to be both, or neither? We have to trust our own best instincts and question ourselves carefully: there’s no other way. That’s why a good therapist is so important to this process (and a bad therapist, or even a well-meaning but confused therapist, can cause so many problems). A good therapist can help a person know themself better.
I mentioned three situations, but the third may or may not be real. Maybe some people’s genders actually change during the courses of their lives. Maybe, even completely ignoring the physical side of things, it’s possible to be one gender for a time and then become another. This may be ironic coming from someone who you could meet as a woman one day and as a man the next, but I’m skeptical, or at least cautious, that fundamental gender identity can change. Being bi-gender means that you shift from one gender identity or the other, or hold a balance between the two, but in a larger sense your gender has the same composition over time. If you’re bi-gender, both your genders are always with you: it’s just that you may not embody or experience both of them at once all the time.
At the same time, I probably shouldn’t be too skeptical. It’s easier to imagine that every trans person has always been trans, even if that person doesn’t start feeling trans until well into adulthood, as some trans people do, but this isn’t really known, and if it’s even possible to come to a conclusion about it, we won’t come to anything definite soon.
This idea of changing gender identity over time pertains to bi-gender people in an unusual way, because it sometimes happens that a person identifies as bi-gender as a waystation to being “traditional” trans–but I’ll take that up in another post.
*In case you’re not familiar with the term, “cis” is short for “cisgender,” which means “identifying with your sex assigned at birth.” It’s more or less the opposite of “trans”.