The Gender Spectrum: A Detrimental Solution to the Binary Problem

03/28/2012 01:40 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2012

Whitman College has a campus that operates on a gender binary system but is also home to students that identify as something other than simply male or female. So, although most of our restrooms and dorm rooms ask us to be either one or the other, the culture of the college is changing in an attempt to accommodate a rejection of this binary -- as, of course, it should.

This attempt is currently being made by introducing the idea of a gender spectrum. Essentially, the gender spectrum (as explained and used by Whitman) places the references of 100 percent masculine and 100 percent feminine at each end of its horizontal spectrum and invites individuals to place themselves anywhere along the spectrum, allowing them to mix the two genders at a ratio with which they comfortably identify.

I initially learned about the gender spectrum within my first few days of arriving at Whitman as a freshman, at a gender workshop hosted for new students. What I didn't realize at the time, however, was that the idea of a gender spectrum not only creates its own set of problems, but can also be just as limiting and even damaging as the original binary system for some individuals in helping them find their gender identities.

This I only realized after my second round of learning about the gender spectrum in my sophomore year. During my training to become a Resident Assistant for the college, the gender spectrum was once again explained to me -- but this time, examples were used. To better illustrate what was meant by the phrase 100 percent female or feminine, it was recommended that we associated the phrase with something similar to "Paris Hilton."

Even as a gender-normative individual without an extensive knowledge of gender studies, I find it obvious that implementing a system that equates Paris Hilton with the 100 percent feminine can have detrimental consequences on young adults looking to better understand their own genders.

Having a system that functions on the use of intense stereotypes and asks people to compare themselves to them can lead to a highly misguided way of thinking about what it means for someone to feel masculine or feminine. And, if we further consider these stereotypes, the masculine celebrity counterpart to the Paris Hilton example would perhaps be a mix between Tom Brady and Donald Trump: corporately wealthy, powerful, strong, athletic. Considering the disadvantages women still face today, we should be hesitant to enforce these masculine stereotypes and attribute these types of adjectives only to males. It is unsettling that an intelligent and confident woman might need to rethink her femininity and place on the gender spectrum because she does not fit the female stereotype of being frail or weak.

This points directly to the fact that not all characteristics have a place on the gender spectrum at all. However, by using a reference such as Paris Hilton, characteristics such as blonde, vivacious, thin, etc., begin to also find their way onto the spectrum under the label of feminine. Suddenly, while brunette may not necessarily be considered masculine, it's more feminine to be blonde -- and we're back to where we started with the gender binary. The only consolation from the gender spectrum is that you have the freedom to mix stereotypes, so the aforementioned intelligent and confident woman can still exist... she just isn't 100 percent feminine.

What is even more unfortunate is that I do not think that this result is in any way intended by the gender spectrum or the communities which decide to use it. I believe that most of them realize that, while gender should not be a binary concept, it is also not a horizontal one. However, in my experience with the gender spectrum, the lesson stops there and leaves you in this horizontal mindset unless you further investigate it on your own. So while the gender spectrum is a plausible stepping stone in better understanding gender, it is in no way a final solution to helping individuals find their identities.

Communities should consider moving away from simply describing its individuals in terms of gender-stereotypical adjectives and instead continue their education and discussions of gender, while also creating actual gender-neutral spaces (starting with restrooms and dorm rooms). It is about extending an invitation to those who do not identify with the typical male and female labels and making them feel genuinely and tangibly understood and included.