F**k Gender, I'm Tired
By Petra Shotwell (she/they) | Illustrated by Yi Jong (she/they)
Note: Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.
I truly think my mind exists in a utopian reality. Sometimes I genuinely forget that the world doesn’t consist only of queer people. Sometimes I forget that people wholeheartedly, fervidly, and rather questionably believe in the gender binary. I quite like that place in my mind; it’s a much more comfortable, happy environment to reside in. We all wear whatever sequin, plaid, or (gawd forbid) camo we’d like, we behave the way we are instinctively inclined to behave, and we love whoever it is that gives us the twisty tummies and tingles. Serenity. We got it.
Then I’m brought abruptly back to reality: the children's clothing aisles in The Warehouse are still distinctly blue and pink (flowers on one side and Spider-Man on the other); an old person compliments my short haircut (“not many ladies can pull that off, well done dear!”); nurses misgender my partner, even though he just had top surgery and they’re literally changing the bandages on his non-tittied, designer-nippled, boy chest. It’s rough here in the real world.
And guess what? We’re all in this one together. This isn’t just an issue for theydies and gentlethems – it's not just for us queer folk. Even (and perhaps especially) your bog-standard, fish-holding, steakand3vege, hegemonic man is harmed by the gender binary. Dear reader, if you aren’t already aware, the gender binary is a nightmare for us all.
Masculinity and femininity are pretty complex to unpack, but what is most relevant here is how, particularly in western society, masculinity and femininity are so closely tied to gender. In the queer world, the gender binary is a known and obvious problem, and most of us quite like to steer clear of it.
It’s incredibly common to spill outside the lines of your gendered box, or simply chuck your box out entirely. In the rest of society (that is, the straight world), it tends to be rather shocking when someone is less/more stereotypically masculine/feminine than what is deemed appropriate based on their gender. Despite their sexuality or identity, those people will be questioned and, subconsciously (or sometimes quite outwardly and aggressively) deemed as ‘other.’ The truth is, we all exist somewhere on a spectrum, and we all have a big, sexy melting pot of masculine and feminine traits.
For example, I am a woman, and (while this shit can’t actually be quantified) I’d put myself at around 65% feminine and 35% masculine. Luke (he/him), the token straight, cisgender man of this study, describes his masculinity as something that regularly fluctuates depending on a variety of external elements, but it usually looks like this: masculine_____|____________feminine. Gabe (he/him) is a transgender man who describes himself as ‘a very camp man’. Zach (he/him), a cisgender, gay man, puts himself at around 60:40, explaining that he's mostly perceived as a feminine man, however he still aligns himself primarily as masculine. Kelly (she/her), like yours truly, identifies as a mostly-woman pansexual, and describes her position on the masculinity-femininity spectrum as ‘anywhere and everywhere, depending on the day.’
We all do gender differently, but the point is: we all do gender. Our masculinities and femininities come out and shine at different times depending on our feelings and surroundings. The issue with the gender binary is that it tricks us into thinking that that's not okay. Kelly describes the binary as a constant reminder that everything in life needs to align with one of those two extremes, and while sometimes there’s room for people to exist in the middle, it doesn’t allow for any flexibility. In her view, the binary is harmful because it forces us to choose:
“being multifaceted, ever-changing humans should be an option available to everyone.” In a similar notion, Gabe expresses that people from all walks of life deserve, and have the capacity, to be whoever they are, but that they are limited by normative gender roles.
Gender roles are an intrinsic element of this conversation. The binary itself is perpetuated through the everyday normalisation of gender roles – today, we may think we’ve got it all figured out, but still we’re impressed when women are tradies, and there’s still shock when men choose to be stay-at-home dads. Gender roles, expectations, and stereotypes surround us constantly; we can’t escape them. One of the communities most affected is, in fact, cisgender men. Women may have constant unattainable beauty standards to live up to, along with an abundance of other traumatic bullshit, but men have the monstrosity that is the ‘be a real man’ dilemma. Gabe discusses this issue in depth, focusing on the rigid restrictions to self-expression which teach men what is expected of them. “Don’t sit like this, don’t talk like this, don’t hug your friends, don’t eat this, don’t enjoy this” – men are expected to tick so many boxes in order to reach ‘real man’ status, and the results of that are toxic masculinity, horrendous rates of male suicide, and my own preconceived ‘fish-holding man’ judgement.
Kelly also touches on this, many men throughout the generations haven't been in an environment where they feel safe discussing their disconnection from their assigned gender, or their comfort in spilling outside the box of their expected masculinity. Gender fluidity exists within these social circles, but it isn’t discussed because it’s still a subject which doesn’t quite fit into the conversations of blokes. If, however, we did a little magical transportation into my utopian brain world, this wouldn’t be an issue. No gender = no criteria for how well we are doing gender = no unattainable standard of manhood or womanhood = everyone gets to just exist in their natural fluidity and contentment.
As much as the gender binary is a harmful construct which I’d like to light aflame or dismantle with my bare hands, there are ways in which it has proven to be a helpful tool. For example, Luke likes to think of the gender binary as more of a masculinity/ femininity spectrum. He describes this spectrum as something which has been both really helpful, as well as a hindrance, in his own journey in understanding his masculinity and who he is “at the moment”.
‘At the moment’ has a nice ring to it. See, at this moment, I’m feeling genderless entirely. Tomorrow, however, my womanhood might completely overflow my gender box. The point is, masculinity, femininity, and by extension, gender, are points on a spectrum, and each of us are placed on that spectrum and are moving constantly.
Similarly, Gabe illustrates the usefulness of the gender binary in learning how to comfortably navigate the world as a transgender man. He says that having the language of ‘trans’ and ‘man’ have helped him to identify himself and describe his experience to others. “The dream would be to eradicate it all”, he says, “but that’s not the reality of the world we live in.” If the binary was eradicated, Gabe wouldn’t have had to come out, or transition into manhood – he simply would have existed as he was, without the obstacle of being assigned a specific category at birth. However, because of the gender binary and the persistence of gender roles, that was his experience. For Gabe and many other transgender people, the gender binary simultaneously causes their dysphoria, and is their only means to describe who they really are.
While Gabe has the tools to describe who he is (a man), society still enforces its unyielding restrictions. “I want to be socially perceived as a man, but as a queer man,” he says, “but because I don’t pass very well, I don’t feel free to dress and act as flamboyantly as I’d like, for fear of being misgendered.” It’s a scary gender paradox. Society has given Gabe the tools to express himself as the man that he is, but he still isn’t allowed (by society) to be anything other than what a man is supposed to be. Gabe is a man, campy attire and behaviour included. But the gender binary tells him that the only way to ‘pass’ is to conform. It’s a never-ending, paradoxical game of restricted self-expression – what an absolute socially constructed fuck-up.
While the binary can be a useful tool, we only need that tool because of the binary. I know that’s confusing.
Makes sense though, right? To that I say: dismantle the binary! Destroy the patriarchy! Be queer, do crimes!
Just kidding, don’t do crimes. Do, however, rethink your existence a little bit. Are you who you are because that’s just you? Or is it because you’ve been told that’s how you should be? None of us can really answer that question, it’s just food for thought.
Every single one of us would be better off without the toxicity of the gender binary. It’s certainly most important for those whose gender is entirely different to the one they were given at birth, but it’s a much bigger issue than that. The binary forces us each into rigid, prescriptive, and, quite frankly, boring categories. While I can’t foresee a world without gender any time soon, I can see society moving a little bit further away from the stereotypes – we all might have to just put in some extra mahi.
Ponder this: if the gender binary didn’t exist, if we all just had whatever genitals we have and no one used them to rigidly categorise us, who would you be? I imagine that just like in my brain utopia, clothes would be for everyone, words would be for everyone, everyone would do whatever job they wanted without it being a big deal. We wouldn’t be split by gender anymore. We wouldn’t be labelled as cisgender, transgender, nonbinary (etc.); we wouldn’t be categorised as masculine of feminine – and if we were, it wouldn’t be judged based on our genitalia. We would all just be. Imagine.
Next time you meet someone new, ask what their pronouns are (regardless of what they look like, or how you perceive their behaviour); next time you see a person wearing a pretty skirt, compliment it (don’t check first whether you think that person should be wearing it); next time you go shopping, look in all the sections, not just the one that was made for you; next time you’re invited to a gender reveal party, smile, wave, tell them to rename it as a ‘genital reveal party’, then tell them to get fucked.
Come along, defy space, time and reality with me and enter my brain utopia. Maybe we can bring a little bit of it back to the real world with us