A lot of us have been, actually.
For me, not necessarily because it’s in the news a lot, or because it might, somewhere down the line, connect to my writing, but because I have a lot of friends whose gender doesn’t really match their external genitalia, and in the current social climate, this causes confusion, emotional turmoil, and occasionally, real and real-life problems.
And I am trying to make sense of the binary – why do we have it? Why does someone else’s gender identity concern us? Why is this becoming such an overarching topic, and why is the “dialogue” suddenly changing?
Now there are a lot of reasons for all of that, and I am no expert for most of it, but as someone with a background in anthropology, I think some of it might lie in how human beings, down the millennia, have needed to interpret their world.
(****Please note: this applies mainly to European/North American cultures. I know that a lot of other societies dealt with this differently – especially in how they explain to children how this works. But Western culture is the driving force in the world right now, and frankly, we’re the ones who set the agenda, for good or ill, in this as with so much else.****)
Small children get very interested in “gender” and “sexual identity” almost as soon as they begin to talk – and there are good and cogent reasons for this.
At two years old, your entire life’s business is to make sense of the world you live in.
But you are two (or four, or six) and so simple explanations and definitions and categories are what you want.
So: girls and boys. Men and women. Penises and vaginas. Those are (at this stage) concrete, visual, easy to understand. At this stage of life, children feel most comfortable with easy-to-grasp words and concepts, and this is the kind of tangible evidence they can wrap their minds around.
As they grow up, though, new factors enter the mix. By the preteen years, their life’s business is not just comprehending the world around them, but figuring out how they, individually, fit into this world. The questions are not as simple, and the answers – were one to think deeply about the possibilities – are not easy ones.
By and large, an awful lot of us fall back to the binary. It’s what we know, after all.
And once again, for the majority of teens, the binary does serve them as they head into adulthood: they identify with those broad categories, and they try to find ways to fit into them.
Now, originally, this wasn’t that big a problem.
When the average life-span was under forty, and one’s collective purpose, both socially and biologically, was centred on the survival of the species and the transmission of one’s own genes, what you might personally want out of a gender identity or a sexual encounter was not merely moot – it wasn’t something any of our ancestors had unlimited time to think deeply about.
Even as we evolved socially and began to have things like leisure, there was still a strong/over-riding compulsion to increase our numbers. Warfare, among other things, made codifying sexual and gender definitions relevant – not to mention, useful for chieftains/warlords/priests/kings controlling populations and thought processes. The division of labour based on sexual apparatus was an easy way to police a lot of other patterns of behavior, and until very recently, life expectancies were still very short, overall.
People didn’t have TIME to think deeply about whether the binary served them individually.
They also rarely (if ever) had good ways to communicate with each other about their unease, if they had any, regarding their place in a tightly defined pair of categories. If they felt they didn’t fit, well, they kept it to themselves: society was still so rigidly controlled that a fairly large swathe of the population would have been severely penalized for even mentioning the problem. An even larger percentage of the population was denied the educational opportunity to gain the words they might need to discuss the issue.
Those for whom the binary did not fit suffered in silence. They married. They had children. They pretended and hid and denied.
You may have noticed that this has changed.
Life-spans have grown well past the forty-year mark, especially in Europe. Time, on an individual basis, keeps increasing. Education has been extended to larger and larger segments of the population. Communication has become widespread.
And more and more people have that time, those words, and the connectivity to pursue problems that we “didn’t used to have” – because we were like toddlers, using simplistic and easy categorizations of ourselves to avoid thinking about complicated things.
The mistake is in believing that the simple, easy-to-grasp, toddler explanation is the truth (although part of that feeling is because we were given this model as a fact so early: what we “learn” before school even starts tends to stay with us in the most visceral way).
But even the most cursory observation of history and/or nature will tell you that this is not, in fact, how any of this works.
We were always fluid. We have never been a binary.
It’s just that now, some of us are ready to take the questions on.