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Allison Hope Headshot

A Penis and a Dress: Why the Gender Binary Needs to Go Away

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If your genitalia don't match the gender you most identify with, the American Psychiatric Association slaps you with the weighted label "gender identity disorder." There's current dialogue around changing the label to "gender incongruence," but it still boils down to the same ignorance: Society is placing judgment on you because you don't play by the rules.

What kind of message are we continuing to send to pregnant people everywhere? We live in such a deeply gendered society that our kids have no fighting chance when it comes to freedom of gender expression. Mainstream voices continue to use the wrong dialogue to talk about those who transcend gender norms; the recent Washington Post piece "Transgender at five" is a perfect example. By using language like "gender identity problems" and "condition" to describe a child who doesn't want to dress, act, or play like a girl just because this child was born with a vagina, the piece reinforces the existing model rather than poking holes in it. Our tunnel-visioned, outmoded landscape needs a fresh, fundamental critique. We're looking at biological sex and gender in all the wrong ways.

The solution? We need to raze the binary gender system entirely.

A lofty, pie-in-the-sky goal, perhaps, but one that we're entirely capable of achieving. What purpose does aligning biological sex with societal ideas of gender norms serve, anyway? Why should someone with a penis be outfitted in blue and get toy trucks while someone with a vagina gets shuffled off to ballet class and squeezed into frilly dresses? Monitoring someone's psychosexual development might be important for health reasons, but policing their gender certainly is not. How do our constructs of "maleness" and "femaleness" contribute to a better world? They don't.

Medical treatment, such as hormone therapy and surgery to more closely match bodies with an authentic sense of self, is currently the right decision for some people, but our existing, binary gender system makes it impossible to determine whether any of those people might feel more at home in the bodies in which they were born if only we backed away from trying to assign labels and behaviors to match our genitals. It's likely that some people would not want physical alterations if we taught everyone from birth that the body you were given doesn't dictate what childhood and adult expressions and activities you can engage in. In fact, not only would life get infinitely more accepting for transgender folks, but doing away with gender labels would solve millennia-old problems like misogyny, for one. Listen closely: Can you hear the glass ceiling shattering?

Envision a society where less emphasis is placed on body parts to describe identity. Imagine a world where someone with a penis can wear dresses every day if this person desired. Gender-neutral bathrooms and department stores and professional sports become the rule rather than the exception to it. Children can choose to wear whatever they want, play with whatever toys they prefer, and "It's a baby!" replaces the gender-assigned announcement that proud parents send out. We let our children identify themselves, or not, as they grow, and do not impose gendered rules on their tiny, vulnerable, developing senses of self.

After all, the biological spectrum is much more varied than just "man" or "woman"; when you factor in hormonal, chromosomal, and physical makeup, you get all sort of natural variations of sex that could, and probably would, translate into many different genders if only we allowed for it. If we shook the very foundations of our limiting, binary-gendered society, we're likely to see a very colorful array of confident, creative, beautiful people who span the range of internal and outward gender identity and expression.

We're getting closer in Western thought to at least allowing our children to re-identify when the labels we've placed on them don't match their own self-identification, but we continue to fail at backing the conversation up to the point in time when we looked at our little embryo via ultrasound and decided whether we wanted to know the gender. Who cares what color we paint the nursery walls? We should reinvent our society so that our children can express themselves freely without the constraints of gender. Until we get rid of "male" and "female" as pillars of personhood, we will never see a solution to the discrimination waged against those who do not fit cleanly into the existing and limiting categories.