By David T. Valentin
Image from Adobe Stock
With gender expression (gender expressions outside of the binary specifically) coming into public discourse within the last few years or so, the internet, as it always is, is abuzz with different branches of different thoughts and ideas. But within these back and forths, occasionally a few ideas tend to fall out of discussion.
While I was scrolling through some news on my laptop, I found an opinion piece published on PinkNews by Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin titled “What do non-binary people really need? The dismantling of all binaries, for good.”
And while Prishita’s piece was informative in understanding and even wrestling with a few ideas on how gender can be used as a tool to maintain power, there was one part which stood out to me. They write, “I prefer to dream of a world where gender is not weaponized against me, but rather celebrated as an aspect of my multi-faceted being. A world where gender is not a chore, but rather a celebration; where the status quo is not one where we must fight daily simply to be included, but rather one where the diversity of the human existence is woven into the fabric of society.”
They go on to explain Judith Butler, an American philosopher and gender theorist whose work influenced the fields of third-wave feminism, queer theory, and literary theory. Specifically, Prishita brings up Butler’s idea of gender being a performance, that no person is any gender until they “perform” gendered acts.
It is within Prishita’s paragraph and their discussion of Butler where the heart of their piece really lies, and in Prishita’s concluding sentences where they write, “The trans, non-binary, and intersex community that exists… challenge each other to be our best selves – our most authentic selves – we look at the world around us and we challenge it, too. Refusing to abide by society’s restrictive rules, we exist in a safe space entirely of our own creation. And we maintain it together, and for one another, with no questions, no hesitation, and no expectation.”
Through gender expression entering into the public discourse there seems to be two important thoughts that seem to have fallen off the thought-wagon and, on its way down, left every bit of its nuance.
The first idea seems to be viewing nonbinary as a third gender – a gender that somehow exists within the two binaries of male and female; that nonbinary people tether the line of a performance as both male and a female, but never exactly both.
The issue with viewing nonbinary as a third gender existing within the middle of male and female is that it regulates nonbinary identity as an aesthetic rather than an expression of the thought and mind; That nonbinary is simply someone who performs with the aesthetics of both male and female, masculine and feminine, through their outward appearance.
But nonbinary, as much of it is an outward performance, is also a deep dive into how you perceive the world around you and how you perceive yourself. It is an exploration to redefine things that are usually gendered as just simply being; that these things do not exist for the masculine or the feminine but because they simply just are.
That’s not to say nonbinary people are falling into some elaborate trap back into the binary of gender, nor am I saying it’s impossible for them to present themselves in the way they mentally see themselves. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Because of the false idea that nonbinary people exist within the middle of male and female, masculine and feminine, from people who are not nonbinary, who still view the world through a gendered prism, a nonbinary individual will never be perceived as the way they see themselves.
And for a moment it may seem as though there’s no way to “perform” in the way that nonbinary individuals see themselves, but there is an answer which Prishita proposes in their piece and it is in their mixed conclusion that I don’t agree, which brings me to the second misconception that I feel even some nonbinary people seem to get wrong or simply ignore.
Throughout Prishita’s piece is language riddled in the idea of gender abolition, the idea that we must eliminate the binary as a whole which will lead to a world where people can express their gender however they please – but understanding that no one is gendered until they “perform a gendered act” (which is not something I disagree with).
It is not within the simple idea of “eliminating gender” that nonbinary, nonconforming people, and trans people will be viewed in the way they mentally see themselves; the idea to tell people we should simply do away with all gendered aspects within our lives in order to create a world where pieces of clothing, personalities, and certain mannerisms simply are.
In fact, what gender abolitionist seem to ignore when they tout the idea of abolishing gender entirely is Trans folk who fight for their right to perform gender within a binary. Trans folk who do wish to be viewed by others as male or female because that’s the way they see themselves mentally. And then sometimes the idea of gender abolition leads to a very hurtful conclusion, for people to turn around and tell people who do wish to perform within the binary that they are constricted and that if they just dug a little deeper into why they wish to perform within the binary that they are “oppressed.”
But I find that to be the opposite of the fun of gender exploration, or at least what I believe to be the true importance of gender expression; to see how you and all your intersecting identities play into systems of power and the ways in which gender is used as an oppressive tool, to then deconstruct those unhealthy relations and perceptions and then form healthier relationships with gender defined by the individual as an expression of the self.
In other words, to feel as though you need to eliminate gender binaries entirely is a missed conversation on creating healthier ways in which we relate and define femininity and masculinity.
Then, I would say the goal is to allow masculinity and femininity to define your performance and the way in which you perceive yourself mentally in the present moment, rather than using masculinity and femininity as tools to pigeonhole people neatly into two slots and then define people within those two binaries, as we have done for centuries.
In the end, I believe the goal is to remove those modes of oppression to allow people to use the binary, and any other gender expression, to simply do that – to express the ways in which they are feeling without feeling as though that label and the way in which it has been defined in the past needs to cookie cut them into that label permanently.
By opening up the floor to the idea that gender performance as an exploration of how you redefine masculinity and femininity and everything in between and beyond, maybe then we can finally have a long overdue conversation on how men can more healthily define masculinity. Because the truth is much of masculinity as we know it is not a performance of the self, but a performance for other men – to prove to other men that you are “manly enough.”
Therefore, gender exploration should not just be abolishing gender as some people like to believe, but it should also be a redefining of gender. And so It is within the liberation and elimination of judgment, questions and expectations (which Prishita beautifully puts into words) that we will find the path of healing to perform our gender identity in whichever way we choose, even if it is within the binary, which will then allow people to more fully exist within the gender performance of their choosing.
The goal is not to force people into a nonbinary identity, but simply to explore their identity, question their gender identity and the way it intersects with others. If people come to the conclusion they might identify as something different and new, great. But if they come to the same conclusion, the same gender identity they started their exploration, that’s fine too.