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Outside the Borders of the Binary

Columns | October 10, 2017

What does it mean to be outside the boundaries of normative gender categories? By normative, I mean masculine and feminine and how these structure the way we dress and act, but also dictate whom we are attracted to, what we find to be attractive, and the limits that we place on desire.

Desire is a phenomenon that’s quite difficult to talk about, let alone explain. For instance, when I first came out as gay in high school, I thought I had figured it all out. I was a man who was attracted to men; it was as simple as that. I had never found comfort in the hetero lifestyles my friends lived, and realized that I didn’t fit into this picture-perfect straight identity. So I came out as the only other option that I had been exposed to: gay.

But the reality is, even the category “gay” is so limiting in describing who we can and cannot desire, and who should and should not desire us. Beyond simply describing the sex of people we’re attracted to, gay and straight simultaneously work to uphold the gender binary. In our society, there are very specific ideals of what gay people should look like and what straight people should look like. Both are structured around societal gender categories. If you’re a gay man, you’re expected to be more feminine. If you’re a lesbian woman, you’re expected to be more masculine.

In challenging heteronormativity, we have simply essentialized more categories of identity, and in doing so have further embedded the gender binary. While I thought that identifying as gay would uproot all limits placed on my identity, I soon realized that it further reified an image of whom I was expected to be.

I started thinking more about the limits that sexuality places on our gender identity and realized that I was falling back into a rhythm of performing something that I wasn’t.

This is when I came to the greatest revelation in my life thus far: THE GENDER BINARY IS NOT REAL. In acknowledging this one fact, I realized that I could be whoever I wanted to be. I no longer had to perform hetero-masculinity and pretend to be a tough guy. I was free from being labeled the GBF (gay best friend) and the subsequent expectations of sassy femininity placed on gay men. Without trying to fit into a binary, I could be me for once.

Now I wish I could say that finding comfort in a non-binary identity made everything much easier. In many ways, it made navigating my thoughts and relationships much more meaningful. But at the same time, it muddled my conception of sexuality and changed the way that I was read and desired by other people.

This might not make too much sense quite yet—changing desirability just based on the way that I dress? So let’s look at an example of a location of desirability monitoring and the confusion that it places on non-binary people: Tinder. Some might think that Tinder is a super simple app; you simply choose your gender, the gender of people that you are attracted to, and then swipe until you get a match. For non-binary folx, trust me when I say Tinder is a nightmare.

When you’re setting up your personal info, the first question pertains to gender. You have three options: Man, Woman, or you can type in the “other” box whatever gender identity you want. But the catch is the following question: “Include me in searches for: Men or Women.” This pretty much tells you that you can be whatever gender you want to be! But also, are you a man or a woman? Whatever you choose here becomes the category of gender that you show up in on someone else’s feed. Your gender is once again essentialized even though you have the option to “opt out” of the binary.

If I say I’m a man, gay men expect a man, but I present femme, so most of them simply ignore the fact that we matched. If I say I’m a woman, straight men expect a female and are disgusted by the fact that a person with a dick showed up on their feed. So eventually I end up getting reported so many times for lying about my gender that my Tinder account is suspended and I am left to find non-binary folx on my own!

This is only one site of the perpetuation of the gender binary, but believe me, it’s all around us! It’s about time we begin pointing out the embedded gender binary and challenge it so that people can grow to be whomever they want despite society’s limited expectations. All I can say is F#@k Gender! I just want to be a human!