Our Evolving Multi-Gender Society

09/10/2013 06:20 pm ET | Updated 6 days ago
  • Dana Beyer Executive Director, Gender Rights Maryland

Last week the well-respected Urban Institute published a study on technology, teen dating violence and cyberbullying. The numbers were pretty horrifying, and they were worse for LGBTQ youth, both as victims and perpetrators. As I was looking through the documentation to study how the research was structured, I noticed something very interesting about the intake forms.

The first question was, "What is your gender? Male. Female. Transgender/gender-queer." The fourth question was, "Of the following, which do you primarily identify as? Heterosexual/straight. Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Questioning. Queer. Other."

This is a very rational, modern presentation, following on what we've learned about the independence of the two human attributes -- gender identity and sexual orientation -- and the primacy of gender identity over sexual orientation as a biological and social phenomenon. Putting aside polyamory, you need to know who you and you partner are before you can categorize the dyad in relationship terms.

This is also, in its way, a classical presentation, because most official forms ask for your sex after they ask for your name. The only difference here is that "sex" is replaced by "gender," which means the same for legal purposes. But looking a little more closely, there has been, as a result of the deliberate attempt to include trans persons, the resulting creation of a third gender.

This would not be out of place in many global cultures, including early Native American/Canadian "two-spirit" ("berdache") traditions, the Fa'afafine of Polynesia, and the hijras of the Indian subcontinent. Today Australia, New Zealand, Nepal and Germany are four nations that allow a category of indeterminate sex for birth certificates.

The globalization of our understanding of trans culture has influenced our actions here in the U.S. Often we are asked how we can make medical intake documents more welcoming, to indicate a culturally competent office that would attract LGBT folks. So over the years we've encouraged a number of changes, including replacing "husband/wife" with "spouse," "mother" and "father" with "parent 1" and "parent 2," and adding a line or box to be filled in next to the two basic sexes should someone want to choose another option or explicate a bit on the choice made.

This survey, though, takes gender to the next level. My initial reaction upon seeing the question was that I would choose "female" and leave it at that, unless I was given room to expound. Given the choice between "female" and "trans," I would choose "female." I have always thought of myself as a woman who happens to be trans. I had a medical condition that caused me to be assigned male at birth, a condition I have now repaired, so I am simply female. I have not thought of myself as a third sex or gender.

So if presented with this survey, I would choose "female" and then move on, but in so doing I would be skewing the results because my lived experience is not that of a cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) woman. And the authors are requesting data to help create a picture of LGBT life, a community of which I'm a part. Becoming more sensitive has paradoxically made it more difficult for me to contribute honestly and in a manner faithful to my personal experience. I would expect this would be the case for many others as well, and that creates serious limitation for the data analysis.

But on a more fundamental level, the question remains: Are there more than two genders in our society? If not, should there be? If there are, are we who don't fit cleanly into the original two boxes obligated to choose the new alternative, or can we stake out other paths and manage just, say, with a footnote? Ultimately I think the latter is the preferable goal for an affirming society, but until we evolve to that point, there are practical considerations for today.

I have recently advised that when asking about sex/gender, the choices should be the original binary, with a third box or line left blank. If one wanted to not check "male" or "female" and write something in on the third, that person would have the option to do so. Such a structure is simple, welcoming, accurate, and allows for some creativity, particularly at a time when the nomenclature is changing so rapidly. I noted in the Urban Institute survey that they include "queer" and "questioning" but not "pansexual," a term coming into vogue to mean open to men and women both cis and transgender. Someone identifying as pansexual would check "other."

For surveys such as this one, I would have the same three categories for gender, but also choices in a subcategory to delve into greater detail about gender. Those categories might include "transgender," "cisgender," "transsexual," "genderqueer," etc. Most who identify as such still identify primarily as "male" or "female," so they are truly subcategories. For those who do not identify in the binary, the main question about gender provides that third option.

These are exciting times for some, scary ones for many, as the freedom to self-determine is allowing a myriad of identities to arise. My personal belief is that the binary will survive and be strengthened as the borders of the two main categories become softened and the codes that determine qualification are loosened. We don't have legal definitions for "male" and "female," so people are experimenting and creating lived definitions of the categories in an evolutionary manner. Diversity is a natural biological phenomenon, and while human society seems to have problems with diversity, nature does not. The human realm of nature should take better note of that.