Down with the binary

Thinking Outside the Binary

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Throughout my past 10 columns, I’ve largely painted my mom as a very conservative woman who pushes the gender binary onto me whenever she gets the chance. Whether it be by telling me I need to marry a man or implying my relationship mimics one that is heterosexual, she hasn’t been the most accepting of my gender nonconformity.

But in her own way, she’s also taught me a lot.

I remember overhearing my mother argue with her ex-boyfriend. He told her to stop being “loud and obnoxious” and to “act like a lady.” It was a way of trying to dismiss her feelings as an overreaction to his terrible behavior and I’ll never forget my mother’s response. She yelled back at him at the top of her lungs as he walked down the driveway, “I ain’t no lady, you know I ain’t no lady.”

She said this because she knew she didn’t follow many traditional roles of femininity: She didn’t get married before she had children and she had to work to raise me and my siblings. In the hierarchy of womanhood, she wouldn’t be classified as a “proper woman.”

People like my mother may claim to be proponents of the gender binary, but unbeknownst to them, they have been breaking gender roles their whole lives. My mom tells me stories of being a kid who hated skirts and preferred riding bikes and playing outside with the boys. These actions have been labeled as masculine, and if my mother wanted to do those “masculine” things, hegemonic femininity wouldn’t see her as a real girl. 

We have all been fed this narrative. It’s the narrative that says there is only one type of woman, and that all who are assigned female at birth must attempt to fit this type by following a set of gender roles.

Even though my mom hasn’t lived up to this ideal, she continues to push them onto me. But I’ve come to learn that she does this because that’s what she was taught. She thinks that she is a poor single mother because she didn’t follow the “proper” path.

But there are a handful of reasons why my mom is where she is today. She is a woman of color, she didn’t come from wealth and her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Her struggle with money and being a single mother runs a lot deeper than her not following the “correct” path of womanhood. 

The gender binary is a tool of oppression that can convince people of color that because they didn’t follow gender roles, they are poor, mistreated and othered. But it’s not their fault. Even if they had followed these roles, they would still have to struggle to succeed because the cards have been stacked against them since the beginning.

I learned that the gender binary acts as a tool of oppression before I had the proper terms to describe it. I witnessed my mom standing up to men for treating her badly and heard her tell my grandmother that she deserved respect despite having children out of wedlock. Watching her reject the binary in her own way — despite simultaneously telling me I needed to follow it in order to live a happy life — helped me reject the binary as well. 

Some may misinterpret what it means to dismantle the gender binary. I am not saying that we should get rid of the genders of men and women entirely. This would be counterproductive. Trans women and trans men have fought for the ability to be visible and have faced horrible discrimination simply because they didn’t fit the hegemonic definitions of masculinity or femininity women and men are “supposed” to live up to. So saying women and men don’t exist would be just as harmful as saying only men and women exist. 

Rather than saying there are no genders or there are only two genders, I believe a step in the direction of ending gender oppression would be to recognize that there are millions, billions, trillions of genders! Why is that? Because each of us has our own distinct gender expression and is made up of an array of feminine and masculine characteristics. There is no one definition of a man or a woman.

Discovering I was nonbinary was a long journey through which I discovered that even within myself I have a spectrum of gender expressions. I’ve talked about going from masculine presenting to feminine presenting, and why being nonbinary isn’t a third strictly androgynous gender. Restraining myself to just one form of gender expression felt harmful and I’ve seen how it’s been harmful to my mom as well.

We must realize that there are masculine women and feminine men, just as there are masculine and feminine nonbinary people. 

To say there are only two genders is a lie. My mom tried to teach me about the gender binary in hopes that I would conform to it and follow a path that was different from hers. Even though it may not be the path she had in mind, I definitely am going down a different path. 

I don’t want to carry on the tradition of the gender binary. I want to analyze it, question it and reject it altogether, all the while encouraging others to do the same. If more people realize that none of us fit a perfect mold, I truly believe we will all be less restricted by gender roles and harmful stereotypes.

I will not abide by the gender binary and if I have children I will teach them something radically different from what I was taught.

Elaina Guerrero writes the Wednesday column on the confines of the gender binary. Contact them at [email protected]