I've been thinking a lot lately - OK, all the time - about how gender works. I'm interested in gender not just as identity categories but as a way of organizing the world, of determining access to power and resources. Because it's crucial to understand links between identity and privilege so we can change them.
The way we typically talk about the gender spectrum doesn't tell the whole story for me. In Trans 101 trainings we'll draw a straight line with male at one end and female on the other. Often this is accompanied by a sexual orientation spectrum and a presentation spectrum with masculine and feminine as the ends.
First of all, I don't buy the notion that all of human gender diversity can be placed on a line between male and female. I think we're barely learning how to think and talk about gender beyond the binary in this particular moment, but I certainly don't think everyone who lives outside the male/female binary is somewhere on an androgyny spectrum between those two poles.
More importantly, a straight line doesn't communicate what I usually want to talk about in regards to gender - how it actually functions in the world. It's a visualization that's missing an axis for power.
Here's how I see gender right now, as far as its relation to power and oppression. There's a small box labeled "acceptable man." In this box are all the people who are living up to social expectations of what a man should be. This box is stacked on top of another box - "acceptable woman." The second box is slightly bigger - there's a little more room to move around. But it's also got a hierarchical relationship to the first box - it's where the people who don't fit in the man box are supposed to go. This isn't where everyone who identifies as a man or woman fits, just the people who are passing the agreed upon rules at any given time.
Neither of these boxes are very solid - people can fall out at any time. A small change in presentation - how you wear your hair or the color of your clothes or how you hold you wrists - can get you kicked out. Actions can impact people's perception of your gender, like who you sleep with or if you hold the door open for someone else. Gender intersects with other categories like race, class, and geography to impact how we're perceived and treated by others. And shifting cultural constructs of gender can change what's considered acceptable.
Outside these two boxes is everyone who doesn't fit. We don't even belong in the box patriarchy's set aside for people to be oppressed based on gender, the "acceptable woman" one. We're the gender rebels who refuse to conform. Trans people who've been excluded even if our own identities do actually fit within "man" or "woman." Femme boys and butch dykes. People who are pushed out because of intersections with race, ability, weight...
So many people don't meet the very narrow definitions being used by our culture of what's acceptable behavior, dress, etc. for both categories. As a result we're kept from accessing power and resources to varying degrees. Trans people are seen as breaking the rules of gender in such an extreme way that we lose our humanity in some people's eyes, lose our rights to work, shelter, and freedom from violence. I think the impulse to keep marriage rights from gay people comes from the same place - homophobia's a fear of breaking with the rules of gender, which dictate who you're supposed to be sexually attracted to.
Most of us fail to conform to the compulsory gender binary, the forcing of all people into the boxes "man" and "woman," at some point. Trans people often know especially well what it means to be forced into a box you can't fit, but anyone who's ever been policed for their gender presentation knows what this exclusion is like.
Oh hey, tons of us are being totally screwed over! Not exactly the happiest topic. But I like looking at the way so many people are excluded by the compulsory gender binary because it suggests a place for solidarity. We all have the potential to fail to fit the binary at any time. I see this as a place we can unite, where we can recognize the similarities between our experiences and work against gender oppression in solidarity or in ways that will benefit all of us. If everyone could hold the memory of some gendered bullying in middle school or being told they had to change their presentation for a job I think we'd see a lot more understanding of the experiences of those who are most marginalized based on gender.
This suggests a politics to me. We need to work against the construction of two essential gender boxes, the forcing of everyone into one or the other, and against the linking of power and resources to these boxes. We need to work for the liberation of people who have failed to conform. This is one underlying question I ask about a political cause or campaign - does it work to undo the forcing of all people into two limiting gender boxes? Does it undo the relationship between gender and power? If so it's probably something I want to work on.
There's a flip side to being excluded from the binary - those boxes are prisons that limit people's activity, their ability to be themselves in a way that makes them happy. Pressure to conform is something we all have to struggle with to some degree - obviously it's easier for some people than others. But the people outside the boxes are having all the fun, doing gender on our own terms, living in ways that feel right for us. We've really got to change this system, because right now we're linking getting oppressed with doing your own identity honestly (and hopefully fabulously). Which is bull.