Jos Truitt

Outside the Gender Boxes: A Political Theory of Gender

Filed By Jos Truitt | August 08, 2011 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: binary, political theory of gender, queer theory, transgender

Box.jpgI'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.

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Gender deconstructionism is a position I often encounter in people who identify as agender, and for whom having "gender boxes" makes no sense.

Seeing your thoughtful essay on the subject from what seems to be a different point of view.

In my personal weltenschaung as an individual who was not properly assigned as male when I was born (and not fitting completely into the female box, either, though that's where I best fit), I have figured that both sex and gender are arbitrary constructs, which is why I usually refer to "sex" as "sex assignment."

While there still might be legitimate reasons for having "boxes," there are a lot of gendered assumptions that should be discarded, and in part, due to the work of the women's movement since the 1830's there has been some improvement in the "woman" box, at least in most western societies.

If I were to chronicle the improvements in one area alone (marriage), we've come a long way from marriage being the common-law legal construct in which "the two become one, and that one is the husband."

In New York (where I practice) it started in 1836, with Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton petitioning the state legislature for the first Married Women's Property Act (dealing with inheritance) - which took 12 years to pass, not until 1848. It took another 12 years to cover wages.

Eventually, the laws relating the the once-separate-and-very-different bundles of rights and responsibilities for husbands and wives, became gender-neutral. When the state legislature finally eliminated the gender/sex based distinctions in the handling of divorce property settlements with the passage of the "equitable distribution law" it became possible to consider making the connubium (the right to marry) gender neutral as well, and this is exactly what happened when the legislature passed the Marriage Equality Act in June of this year.

We have the nearly accidental inclusion of women in the Civil RIghts Act of 1964 - the amendment to include women was offered by a souther segregationist congressman, who hoped that this amendment would cause the whole bill to die, since he expected his norther liberal colleagues to be just as patriarchist as he was. But with the help of the handful of women in Congress at the time, the bill was passed *with* women included - women who had been told they had to wait when the post-Civil War constitutional amendments were rolled out.

We never did get the ERA, and that was because of the same sort of "bathroom scare tactic" that has is currently being used to continue the oppression of trans people.

So, what legitimate reason might we have for having those sex/gender boxes? Well, as long as they're not strictly enforced, they allow the cissexual heterosexual people to find each other, pair off and reproduce. It might be marginally more difficult if everyone wore the same uniform and had the same haircut (I am thinking olive drab Mao suits as an example). But the straight cissexual people would still likely as not find each other.

Is it cultural? If it is, maybe what the "men" box needs is a little bit of the expansion that the "woman" box has enjoyed. (That wouldn't make me fit in with the men, but having been forced from infancy to have the kind of "outsider-looking-in" experience that Norah Vincent tried to have with her reseach for ehr book Self Made Man, I can certify that the "men" box in Western American society needs a bit of expansion.

Are there any biological reasons for the boxes? Most of the things I have seen don't take into account the wide diversity in human beings. While there are a lot of traits that are bimodal, with women tending to cluster around one of the modes, and men around the other, there are always numerous outliers - women who can do something stereotypically "masculine" better than most men, and men who can do something stereotypically "feminine" better than most women.

There are a number of stereotypical cultural assumptions that are completely bogus. While there may be a biological root for the stereotypical man to have a better sense of spatial coordination that the stereotypical woman, and perhaps more men than women have an affinity for reading road maps, I've discovered that the stereotype is mostly cultural. In my work (while I was pre-transition, too), I have taken young women, many of whom protested at first that they couldn't possibly interpret survey maps, and draw metes and bounds descriptions, and I have taught them what they need to know after having to raise their consciousnesses a bit about how whatever it was that they thought they knew about themselves, it is pure cultural bologna, and that I *knew* they could do the work. And they did well.

Even if we still have boxes, we need more people to undersatnd that the boxes should not be limitations, but to a large part only at best encompass stereotypes that have only a statistical root, and at worst are rooted in unfortunate cultural assumptions.

The majority of people will still find comfort in the boxes. I have read many stories of disappointment in women my age who, having been liberated from cultural assumptions in the 1970's, and who tried to provide gender-neutral playthings for their children, discovered that their sons would make imaginary toy guns out of sticks, and their daughters still preferred purple ponies to tonka trucks. But then I read about the woman who wrote the book about her princess boy. And I realized that we need those boxes exploded as enforcable cultural assumptions.

Anyway, I have rambled on long enough. My perspective from having been stuck in the wrong box until I got brave enough to move to the right one, may be somewhat different from that of someone whose perception has always been from within a box they might not even see is there. (There is a reason for consciousness-raising, even today, and men need it, too).

The way I see it, gender deconstruction is totally valid as long as it's talking about dismantling the social imposition of binary gender roles. But far too many gender deconstructionists fail to understand the difference between gender role and gender identity, conclude that gender is entirely a social construct, and then start pulling oppressive shit like declaring that medical treatment for trans people is "unnecessary".

I completely agree that gender shouldn't be summarized at a line...but sometimes it can be quite a challenge to explain why the gender binary doesn't work for everyone as one is trying to explain how they identify as one part of that spectrum. I liked this piece though.


Renee Thomas | August 8, 2011 10:25 PM

With respect to Desiree's comment . . . I think her critique conceptually holds together if one understands transition not primarily as the the adoption of a constructed gender role but rather as the realization of a kind of ontological completeness wherein the mind and the body agree and cease warring with each other. After that, pick whatever gender role pleases you now that your sense of bodily integrity is complete, whole and intact.

Transition is the process of medical treatment necessary to make one's physical body compatible with their gender identity. Gender role and gender expression have nothing to do with it.


Perhaps its too many late nights studying this in dry and occasionally musty books and journals, but the way you describe it is already the way that I see things.

I'm not a fan of linear progressions. Linear progressions are too neat, too oversimplified, and don't study outliers enough, which are important to gain understanding of a subject as a whole (well, scientifically speaking).

I much prefer working in dimensional spaces with three or more axes. Although, honestly, four is about my limit, on a personal scale, without the aid of graphical interfaces.

In a dimensional space, rotation allows new insights, new concepts, to come to light. Perhaps it is due to my fondness for 3D modeling, but what you describe also matches the current knowledge base -- some of which I'm in agreement with, and some of which I arrived at separately from the mainline.

So for me, I see all of this as "nothing new" -- but, unfortunately, its a wholly separate construct from the practical function of gender, and that's the issue that needs to be addressed (or at least start to be addressed, as this is a massive thing that's going to take a great deal of time to change).

incidentally, glad to see you've got an additional outlet, and thrilled it is this one. But I'm biased.

To the points raised by Desiree, there are some things I have to assert.

1. Gender is entirely a social construct.
2. Gender identity is the identity of an individual developed around that construct.
3. Gender identity is not the same as gender role, and gender role is not the same as gender expression. Three distinct concepts. And none of them are used colloquially entirely accurately in most situations.
4. You need to include mention of sex identity. It takes the multiplicity of concepts to fully understand the complex relationship they have, especially to things such as sexual orientation and sexual identity (which is, again, separate from sex identity).
5. Transition is significantly more than merely the medical treatment, and it does, in fact, involve both role and expression.

For those of us, a line doesn't work very well. However, it is a tool that works well when you talk with people who need to have a simple explanation. Remember, "K.I.S.S," Keep It Simple _____."

I have been in front of so many university classes I cannot even count. I came up with four lines. Biological Sex, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Sexual Attraction. I didn't use "Sexual Orientation" because with trans people, that becomes nothing more than a label that changes once they transition, for most. I liked women as a guy and I still do. I didn't change who I found attractive, but my sexual orientation label changed.

College students are very smart, and understand this rather well. One trans man came up to me after one class and suggested the lines should be a sphere. I saw it easily, but I don't know if non-trans people would.

I have my standard trans 101 lecture that is based on expanding the binary in a way that cis folks can easily grasp.

The categories are *very* similar to yours, Monica. One thing, though, I do not use "Biological Sex." I use "Sex Assignment" instead, since the binary itself is a social construct even if it is based on majority biological differences. Biological sex for trans individuals is never really the initially-assigned sex - the sex assigned based on a medical professional's observation of external genitalia works just fine for cis folks, but not for trans and not for some other intersex folks.

the other thing is the order - I use

Gender Identity, Sex Assignment, Gender Expression Sexual Orientation (though expressed in an "attracted-to" form, pretty much as you do)

Using "sex assignment" makes it clear that biology is not just genitals. It is not just the gross shape of chromosomes. It involves more complex genetic and ontological developments, which in trans and intersex individuals can eb seen because the result is not correct based on the usual assumptions.

This is why I prefer the formulations WBT and MBT, or T2F and T2M, over the more traditional M2F/MTF or F2M/FTM (or worse, the radfem M2T and F2T, which is birth-genital-essentialist).

I also take the either/or of traditional cissexual heterosexual assumptions Male-identified male man attracted-to-women, and female-identified female woman attracted to men - and expand things to either/or/both/neither - while calling on participants to help provide appropriate terminology to fit.

I always make sure I point out that "bi" anything tends to be least understood. and the "a-" folks are usually the most invisible. Reverse "polarizations" can be mor easily accepted by cis folks, which makes trans individuals and L&G individuals easier to deal with than bisexual or bigender folks, the latter two groups getting the most flak from the reverse-polarized groups. (we can see that as the ultimate basis for trans-separatism, if we get beyond surgery, just as gay and lesbian folks ogern tend to view bi folks with suspicion and anger.)

The metaphor of "a box" seems loaded to me; why postulate that a given self image is "a box?" Why not think of it as a certain set of wings? Which is to say, a point of power, from which we can create our lives - hopefully lives that will feel good.

Of course, the box image comes from the social practice of expecting people to be certain ways according to certain ways of looking at bodies.

If I escape from one set of expectations (“box”) and choose another, does that have to be seen as putting myself in “another box?” Here I am imagining a movement from constriction to liberation; but liberation still takes up a location, or establishes a position.

The whole universe seems to be a sort of box. Space (we imagine) is an effect of energy, and gravities bend it back upon itself, so that we can’t leave the “box” of the universe. Is this a bummer, or is it the condition that enables us to exist? Doesn’t creativity always occur within negotiable bounds?

Non-negotiable bounds are a norm in our world, yet it’s important to realize that many people find satisfaction and power inside them, and aren’t stressed enough to challenge them. Of course if they are really satisfied by those bounds they’ll feel no need to impose them on others. In this case, we can imagine the norms to be negotiable, but likely.

This realm of thought leaves me suspecting that it’s both inevitable and beautiful that gender will flourish around certain likely centers or positions. Isn’t it possible that without these locations we would have no traction at all? Without the up and down provided by gravity, would it be possible to juggle?

In this sense I am seeking a way around the presupposition that rejecting the gender binary is “better” or “more radical.” Having to view myself as “genderqueer” feels like gender dysphoria to me, though I recognize that for others the binary “zones” (as opposed to “points”) may be dysphoric.

Thanks for laying out so simply the reason why we are all in this struggle together, whether we admit it or not. Looking at it from the perspective of who has access to power shines a bright light on why so many G's and L's resist identifying with the T's: because by doing so we lose a big chunk of that access. We are all trans.

Thanks for laying out so simply the reason why we are all in this struggle together, whether we admit it or not. Looking at it from the perspective of who has access to power shines a bright light on why so many G's and L's resist identifying with the T's: because by doing so we lose a big chunk of that access. We are all trans.

Britney Austin | August 10, 2011 1:16 AM

Interesting commentary. I'll try to offer some of my own thoughts as well. First, people really shouldn't be forced to do anything. This is supposed to be a free country where people have the right to live their own lives and be themselves. Sadly, the reality is a bit different. I can understand certain boxes to certain degrees such as employers who require uniforms that differentiate the sexes but if those restrictions don't apply to the job they really don't need to be there as far as I'm concerned.

I don't recall ever seeing or attending any of these "trans 101 trainings" that you speak of. But I'm under the impression that a lot of the "education" is not 100% accurate. I don't think it all has to be that complicated either. As far as I'm concerned, sex is male or female whereas gender is masculine or feminine. So if somebody wants to draw a line between male and female then anything between would be an intersex condition. I may get some heat for this but I personally think that transsexual conditions are also intersex conditions. Pre-transition an MTF TS would be neurologically female with the anatomy and hormones of the male sex. Sadly the current technology to fix this isn't perfect though and thus post-transiton the male anatomy and male hormones are gone but female hormones have to be manually added with medication and no female reproductive system is yet available although the rest of the anatomy can pretty much be corrected.

Gender as far as I'm concerned is an extension of one's sex. A lot of it is social, cultural, and behavioral but some of it is physiological as well (i.e. not learned behavior). This is the area where our culture is often quite oppressive. People decide that men are to act appropriately masculine and women are to act appropriately feminine yet a lot of this is culturally defined and not based in any measurable reality. Examples include that women are not to be interested in (or thought capable of) auto mechanics or that men should not be interested in (or thought capable of) figure skating. And more stupid stuff like that.

And I agree that society is often especially oppressive of what it considers gender variant expression (the line drawn between masculine and feminine) where certain individuals simply do not subscribe to these societal expectations. There is no reason the sex binary should be deconstructed (males/females) but there does need to be a substantial improvement over the way our society respects the rights of males and females to express their gender.

I did notice the article here used the term "trans people" but it didn't seem very well defined to me. I want to clarify that there is a difference between people expressing their gender in a way that is not common for their sex (who may identify themselves as transgender for instance) and those who are born into the wrong physical sex and change their bodies to correct that defect. In the latter case, it isn't solely a gender issue but a physical sex condition as well.

Instead of linear systems, perhaps venn diagrams might work. There is a lot that different types of people have in common and also a lot that are distinct.