The Grip of Toxic Binarism
Although the science defining sex and gender has come a long way, we still struggle in Westernised societies to accept anything outside of a gender-binary system. Looking back, transgenderism and gender fluidity is an essential part of human history and has existed in several cultures long before strict binarism was thrust upon them. However, as several societies began to be Westernised, our rich gender spectrum fell under the feet of colonial oppression.
Binarism was already a concept deeply ingrained into the religiously charged European colonial movement, imposing their social dualisms of the time into many indigenous cultures. A notable example being the Americas where prior to colonisation many cultures expressed gender diversity across the continents. For instance, before these social and religious views were enforced, several Native American cultures had their own customs, words and practices for gender fluidity. But, upon the settlers’ arrival were branded as sodomites, criminalised and oppressed out of the zeitgeist via re-education & assimilation.
“For those relegated to non-being and condemned to invisibility, to even appear is a violent act - because it is violent to the structures of the ‘world’ and because it will inevitably be treated as such.” - George Ciccariello-Maher
This binarism has been allowed to toxify over time. A leftover of corralling billions into ideas and social behaviours expected of them, with the shortcomings we see today as a product of that historic influence. So cisnormalised is modern society that any mention otherwise is received as offensive or simply dismissed.
Even though we know sex and gender are two different things, trans people feeling uncomfortable in their own skin are still subject to attack when they finally get the chance to become their authentic self. This results in trans women being held to a higher standard; having to strive to look ‘passable’ to blend in to cisnormative standards, as if they have to convince society that they too are women. We still see attacks on trans women who may appear more ‘masculine’ or don't adhere to patriarchal beauty standards, as if they won't be accepted as women until they look like ‘women’. A society that only accepts trans people who aren’t ‘noticeably trans’ is not progressive, as that just means their safety in part comes down to how successfully they blend in when scrutinized against these standards.
And it’s not to say anyone’s personal idea of beauty shouldn’t be pursued, or that any guilt should be felt by enjoying/emulating an aesthetic parallel to this. No, the true guilt lies in the failure to accept those who don’t wish to subscribe to it and feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their own skin because of that choice.
There’s a sociological paradox at play here too. The aforementioned effect defines the problems of hyper-visibility on the interpersonal level, but so too are trans people subject to hyper-invisibility on the national. Usually by being forgotten, even directly attacked, through legislation or having the anthropological significance omitted from schools. Even legislation with trans rights in mind can end up being tactless and alienating, such as the UK Gender Recognition Act (now thankfully under reform). That is to say, a balance needs to be struck where trans folk can just be; without disproportionate scrutiny or having their history, struggle & story ignored.
“...Saying ‘Laverne Cox isn’t really a woman’... but here I am, and I know who I am, and I think it’s so important that the misconceptions that trans people aren’t really who we say we are, that sort of point of view influences public policy in negative ways, influences the way people think about us and treat us.” - Laverne Cox.
As we continue to deconstruct strictly binary constructs, it’s also worth noting that discrimination against trans women is really just another way to punish all women, trans included, who don't conform to these societal gender norms. Therefore, a shift in social perspective closer to the complex actuality of sex and gender would benefit us all.
Article by Thomas Phillips