We all have a gender. We all think we understand it.
We probably don’t.
Once you scratch beneath the surface, everything we think we know – that there are only two genders, that gender is linked to biological sex and that it’s completely fixed – falls apart pretty quickly.
The rise in conversations about non-binary genders highlights that how we see gender now will have to change in the future.
At its most basic level, gender is your sense of self related to masculinity and femininity.
It includes a gender identity – how you describe yourself as male, female, or something else. It also includes a gender expression – how you show it off such as through your hair and clothing.
It’s already important to think about gender but, as the lines become more blurred, we need to start asking whether the concept is going to stick around for much longer.
In the future, we will have to redefine what it means to be male and female.
As Michel Foucault described in the History of Sexuality, the reach of gendered norms is bigger than we often realise. It is built into the fabric of our everyday lives from the architecture of our buildings to our relationships.
This gendering is based on the idea that only two genders exist.
Society has changed dramatically and the slow recognition of non-binary identities could well be the first step towards a better, less rigid world.
That doesn’t mean we are all going to become non-binary.
A lot of people do happily find their sense of self in binary gender, either male or female, and see no part of themselves being repressed.
However, recognising non-binary people will let everyone express their identities without restriction.
It’s increasingly common to have pronouns displayed on Twitter profiles or email signatures and celebrities including Ruby Rose and Sam Smith have spoken out recently about their non-binary identities.
Both Rose and Smith have said that binary genders don’t fit them but that doesn’t mean we need to ask whether gender fits anyone.
There is a shared, often intangible, experience of womanhood or manhood. This is not based on biology or even gendered socialisation but on a cultural understanding of what a woman or man is.
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Happily, the boundaries of what fits into ‘female’ and ‘male’ have become quite wide-ranging – with butch women and feminine men existing – but that has been a long struggle.
Everyone’s relationship with their gender is unique, we simply have limited ways of expressing that. How one person defines female will be different from their neighbour, but that doesn’t mean both people aren’t female.
As a society, we’ve recognised that not all women are traditionally feminine and not all men are hyper-masculine.
Departing from outdated gender roles doesn’t mean you’re automatically non-binary, just like having one mushroom burger doesn’t make you a life-long vegetarian.
However, as non-binary identities are only now slowly being discussed in the mainstream, we’re going to see more people realising a binary category doesn’t fit them.
In the future, we might find that existing gender categories don’t fit many people at all, but to identify as something, you need to know that it’s a possibility.
That’s why queer people talk about representation – not only does it show us that we aren’t alone but it gives us the option to exist.
Defining certain physical attributes, clothing or careers as ‘male’ or ‘female’ hurts everyone but it is an issue that can be solved by recognising non-binary people and expanding how we think about society.
Gendered norms still act as the script for many of our daily interactions.
It’s almost second nature to see a stranger and label them as a man or woman based only on their appearance, despite gender being an internal identity.
If we accept that there are more than two genders and that gender isn’t fixed, looking at strangers on the street and assuming their identity will become a thing of the past.
In future, we will need to redefine all genders not as something that can be perceived but as something that requires disclosure.
One of the oldest debates surrounding gender is that of nature vs nurture.
Although gender is innate, but not biological, it is unquestionably shaped by society.
What do some of the gender identities represent?
Cisgender: A person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.
Non-binary: A gender or sexual identity that is not defined in terms of traditional binary oppositions such as male and female or homosexual and heterosexual.
Gender-fluid: A person who does not identify themselves as having a fixed gender.
Genderqueer: A person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders.
Transgender: A person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.
Agender: a person who does not identify themselves as having a particular gender.
This is not an exhaustive list but includes some of the most commonly discussed identities (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)
When we talk about gender, many people default to talking about biological sex, but even that it’s a little more complicated than people think.
‘Labelling someone a man or a woman is a social decision,’ Anne Fausto Sterling writes in Sexing the Body.
‘We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our beliefs about gender – not science – can define our sex.’
Women are going to have varying levels of hormones, sexual characteristics and potentially even different chromosomes, but this doesn’t affect their innate gender.
The difference between oestrogen and testosterone is one of assumption, rather than reality.
It can have an impact on your gender expression and how you are perceived by others, but the idea that gender is determined exclusively by biology is simply wrong.
Going forward, we will have to completely sever the ties between sex and gender if we recognise more genders, eradicating sex-based assumptions.
After all, under the current understanding of gender, there’s no way of having non-binary biology.
There is an undeniable cultural pressure on keeping gender a distinct binary but this hasn’t always been the case.
The famous adage that blue is for boys and pink is for girls, for example, was only fixed as recently as the 1940s.
From gender reveal parties based on the grainy ultrasound of your child’s genitals to long into adulthood, we uphold gender binaries through cultural pressure.
This means we have the power to dismantle gender or at the very least be more open to all its nuances by accepting non-binary identities as simply another piece of the gender puzzle.
Gender’s role as a cultural fixture is unlikely to become redundant any time soon but recognising non-binary people and identities will have a seismic impact on the very fabric of society.
The more we know, the more we’re likely to explore gender and see it as more than a fixed concept.
Gender, it seems, is here to stay.
But don’t be surprised when more and more people begin to break the binary.
The Future Of Everything
This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.
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