Let’s start with biology. In the sexual system of reproduction utilized by Humans (and many other species), there are basically two sexual traits: the ability to get pregnant, and the ability to impregnate. However, unlike conventional wisdom, this leads to four sexes, not two. The simple binary combinations are:
- female: those that can get pregnant.
- male: those that can impregnate.
- hermaphrodite: those that can both get pregnant and impregnate.
- neuter: those that can do neither.
To the best of my knowledge (please correct me if I’m mistaken), hermaphrodites are impossible in humans. This still leaves three “biological sexes,” one of which is consistently ignored (neuter) in western cultures. This selection of only two types is the binary.
Assumption: Genitalia = Sex
However, unless one has born children or had their reproductive system medically examined, it is unknown what one’s sex is. Therefore, an assumption in made based on the appearance of one’s external genitalia. Assigned to one of two types (vulva and penis) and ignoring inconvenient middle cases (ambiguous external genitalia), an assumption is made regarding reproductive abilities.
Or rather, potential reproductive abilities; this assignment is made at birth, and humans are not generally fertile at birth.
Assumption: Gender = Genitalia
In western society (due to nudity taboos), most people’s genitalia are not publicly visible. One has no concrete evidence as to what sort of “parts” most other people have. Furthermore, even if one has seen (or otherwise perceived) them, one only knows how they were at that time, not how they are now, or were previously.
So, in general, one makes an assumption about other’s genitalia based on social cues and sensory perceptions of what is readily observable. This is gender. Based on a host of factors, some with a biological basis, but most without, one is conditioned to to place nearly every aspect of human life into one of two categories: female or male. While these are the same terms as those used for sex, unless all assumptions hold, they’re not the same groupings.
Based on these cues, one makes an assumption regarding genitalia, which is then used to make an assumption regarding reproductive capacity.
Assumption: Expression = Identity
One is condition to think of oneself in the same categorical terms that one is conditioned to think of others in. Therefore, when one thinks of oneself as a gender archetype, that is one’s gender identity. One’s appearance and mannerisms may or may not reflect that identity. These are one’s gender expression.
The only way to know a person’s gender identity is to be told by them. One may be told by others, but that is hearsay. Even when explicitly told, one may be lied to for any number of reasons (often to do with safety); however, the only prudent course is to take the individual’s word at face value.
When a person’s gender identity doesn’t match that which it was assumed they’d have based on the appearance of their genitalia at birth (assigned gender), that person is transgender. If it does match, that person is cisgender.
An Ass of You and Me
In society’s defense, often these assumptions bear out. However, they also sometimes do not. When they do not, the reductionist approach is to ignore the evidence to the contrary; to insist that these aren’t assumptions at all; to double down on the flawed premise of binary categorization.
The simple, progressive, and humane approach is to acknowledge that each of these assumptions is flawed: a heuristic that only sometimes works. Realizing that the assumed categories are not absolutes, that there are more than two possibilities at each level, and that the correlations between each level are less than unity, one exercises caution and respect.
In this instance, the choice really is binary.
Appendix: Assumption: Gender = Sexuality
To be continued.
Appendix: Assumption: Phenotype = Genotype
To be continued.