Language and Gender Binary

I was interested by a video clip on the Guardian page called ‘Gender Beyond the Binary’ which was a series of interviews with transgender people and it led me to think about language and the idea of how language functions in relation to the gender binary logic. The interviewees shared thoughts like –

‘I don’t identify as male or female’  – ‘I really don’t get this thing about gender difference’

‘… it makes you criticise things which are seen as normal … I knew that I wasn’t a woman but I knew that I wasn’t a man and both of those words made me uncomfortable to be put on me.’ – ‘I am gender queer and transgender’  – ‘Ok how can we expand this biological thing to the max!’

Someone said that they felt that there was a problem with language itself, that they couldn’t fit themselves into language. They talked about the idea that gender for them could be something elastic, or that you could somehow take a ‘gender neutral’ position.

That might be the case but surely gender difference can only exist in language; even if that language is to do with the body and the way it is clothed and doesn’t language itself always boil down to a binary choice? After all language first starts to become apparent in simple distinctions like whether an object is here or not – a phenomena which the infant represents by a sign – and then that sign can signify whether it is something or isn’t something and then doesn’t the complexity of language develops out of these initial bifurcations?

What seemed to emerge from the people’s speech in the video was that in spite of their denial or not wanting to be pushed into binary distinctions, their language was still binary even if they were articulating the binary explicitly in the way they dressed rather than in words. A gay man with masculine face but with feminine made up eyes. A woman wearing a man’s suite and a boyish haircut but still very soft and feminine in her skin care and a voice which was low like a man but with the softness of a woman.

But the biggie – what all these discussions about gender seem to boil down to is which toilet to use? It seems almost absurd to bring such a complicated subject about identity down to the level of toilet but that is where it so often goes… When, a few years ago, I went through my London clubbing days, I took on the identity of a cross-dressing-heterosexual-man and the selfie above represented the kind of way I used to dress up … In the clubs I would most often than not have problems when it came to having a pee – “Hey love! You’re in the wrong toilet! The Ladies is on the other side!” When I was feeling confident would totter over in my platforms to the urinal and smile over my shoulder. I was mostly defiant – I was on a mission. I was going to stand outside the norms of what I saw to be the imposed gender roles. I wanted to take a position of being ‘other and not that’ … and so it was mostly a victory when I got such a response. Sometimes I felt less sure of myself – if for instance I wanted to redo my makeup I would go into the ladies and apply mascara and eyeliner alongside other ladies at the mirror.

The title of this video was ‘Beyond THE Binary’ and folk might be wanting to go beyond THE binary of male/female but beyond the gender binary aren’t there just more and more male/female binaries?



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